When a newly-adopted baby/toddler joins the family, both parents and child face a period of adjustment, as new parents get used to the new role of parenting, and the baby adjusts to his or her new home and family. Both parents and children have different experiences than families formed through birth. Pregnant moms get months to slowly prepare for parenthood, and lots of social support. It is harder for adoptive parents, because the wait can be long, and the arrival of the child quite abrupt. Society does not have the same expectations of the new parents, or the new child, as they do for a mom coming home from the hospital with her new child, and others do not make the same allowances, or offer the same support.
Helping your new baby adjust to home and family
It is important to understand that the process of adoption and the removal from an orphanage or foster home to an entirely different home in another country is a huge change for a baby, and it can be quite traumatic. Try to see the world from your baby's point of view, and be sensitive to her or his personality and preferences, and his or her cues, signs of distress, overstimulation, anxiety, exhaustion etc.
Be aware that your baby may be still grieving. Babies do grieve the loss of those who cared for them, sometimes for weeks and months. Some babies withdraw emotionally, or cry inconsolably for the first few days. This grief often emerges once they are more settled in their new home.
The baby has not only been separated from those to whom she had formed an attachment, but from a familiar and predictable environment. Babies are very sensitive to the sights, sounds, smells and feel of an environment: the smell of their care-giver, the smell and texture of her clothing, the type of bottle and formula, and how they receive their food, the feel of a diaper and their clothing, the hardness of their crib mattress, the weight of their covering, the amount of light in the room, the language and background noise they hear. The very limited world orphanage or foster home was familiar, predictable and stable. Suddenly, they are trust into the arms of strangers who are totally different from their familiar caregivers, and whisked through an alarming series of new and strange environments, from the hotel room, the busy streets, the official buildings to the plane ride home. Babies are often overwhelmed and exhausted by this barrage of new and often scary experiences. Your home is just the last of these scary new environments, where he or she is placed in yet another new crib, in yet another strange room, in a place that smells, sounds, and feels different from anything he or she has ever experienced. Babies have jet lag: their days and nights are mixed up. Many babies fall apart when they are safely home, as the cumulative stresses overwhelm them. Many parents report that their babies' sleep patterns are disrupted, that they wake and cry at night, and that they fuss and cry a great deal. Parents can become exhausted, frustrated and discouraged.
Here are some hints on helping your baby to adjust to his or her new home and family.
1. Ease the trauma of transition as far as possible . In some countries, you can visit your baby in the orphanage several times before taking him or her away, but in others, the baby is abruptly taken and handed over to the parent's care. The total sensory impact of this sudden removal from familiar sights, smells, sounds and textures is often traumatic. Anything you can do to provide continuity can help. Ask about your new baby's routines, likes and dislikes. Some parents have been able to send a receiving blanket or soft toy beforehand to the orphanage with their own body scent on it (sleep with it under your nightwear) so their baby recognizes them by smell. Even if washed on return, it will then have the familiar smell of the orphanage to comfort the baby. Before you meet your baby, eat in an ethnic restaurant, so your breath and clothing may smell more familiar to him or her. (Though the nurses in the orphanage may smell mostly of disinfectant!) When you receive your new baby, leave the original clothing on for the first few hours if possible, keep at least one piece of clothing if permitted (take new clothes to exchange) and keep it, unwashed, in the crib for a few days. Keep your baby on the formula and foods given in the orphanage for at least a few days, and make the transition to new formula gradual. Take tapes of local music home to play at home, to ease the transition there.
2. Minimize your child's exposure to anyone outside the family for the first few weeks . Let no one else hold the baby except the parents, even at the airport on your triumphant arrival home!! Isolate yourselves with your new child at home for the first week or two, with as few visitors as possible. Do not let visitors hold your baby. If family members want to help, ask them to bring meals, do shopping and errands, or clean the house. If challenged, say the social worker or doctor advised this early isolation.
3. Recreate the baby's routine . An unvarying and predictable daily routine will help your baby feel more safe and secure. Staying at home with the baby helps create this routine. Keep everything quiet and low-key for a few weeks - no welcome home parties, or other excitement.
4. Focus on building attachment in these early weeks at home.
- Mom should do as much of the baby care as possible, to establish the primary bond.
- She should hold and interact with the baby when feeding him or her. Do not allow your baby to bottle-feed by holding the bottle alone. This is a key bonding activity, where the mother should be offering the food and maintaining eye contact. When the baby is eating solids, the mother should always feed him or her herself. Do not encourage early independence in self-feeding. Hold your baby on your lap if possible, with eye contact. If the baby must be in a high chair, keep him or her very close to you, between parents if possible, and touch your baby often, use lots of eye contact and conversation. If your child insists on self-feeding, play interactive, reciprocal feeding games - you put a Cheerio in her mouth, she puts one in your mouth.
- Lots of physical contact is very important. Mom should hold and carry the baby as much as possible. Cuddle, caress, stroke and rock. Gentle wrestling and tickling are fine if not over-stimulating. Cuddling your baby with eye contact while rocking her or him in a rocking chair is very beneficial. Use a baby sling or cloth carrier (Snuggly, Baby Bjorn etc) to carry her or him facing inwards against your body, wear your baby all day while you go about household tasks, or out shopping or walking.
- Engage in frequent playful interaction with your baby. Do not leave your baby to entertain herself or himself for long periods. All of the traditional baby games' are great: pat-a-cake, blowing raspberries, peek-a-boo, counting rhymes with fingers and toes (this little piggie) riding the parent's leg, rolling a ball back and forth, imitating the baby's sounds, etc. Play together with baby toys.
- Newly-adopted babies should be responded to when they cry in the night. Leaving a baby to cry is not appropriate for newly-adopted children. Mom should stay with the baby as she or he falls asleep, rocking, singing, caressing, etc. Parents should comfort the baby whenever he or she cries in the night. Many babies adjust better when they sleep in the parents' room, either in their own crib near the parents' bed, or with the parents in the Family Bed (if you choose this option, be sure to follow all safety recommendations to ensure the baby does not suffocate on or under soft bedding, get lodged between the bed and the wall, or adjacent furniture, or get suffocated accidentally by parents) Others, including your pediatrician, may advise you to teach the older baby to sleep by herself or himself, by letting him or her cry it out. Only when a child seems securely attached, should parents begin to encourage their baby to learn to sleep through the night alone. Be sure to eliminate medical causes if your baby's sleep is restless and frequently interrupted by waking and crying: intestinal parasites, ear infections and lactose intolerance are possible causes of poor sleeping.
Adjusting to parenting the adopted child
1. Prepare as much as you can beforehand, so you know that you can anticipate when your baby comes home. Find out what behaviors are typical for babies in this period of adjustment, and what expectations are realistic. Read books about adoption, attend any seminars on adoptive parenting, talk to other parents about their experiences at support group meetings. Be sure to learn about how adoption will change family life, especially about post-adoption depression, and the ways you can help to minimize or prevent it.
2. You will have jet lag if you travel to get your child, and you can expect to feel exhausted if your baby does not sleep through the night, and has her days and nights mixed up. Get your support system in place before you return; arrange with family, friends or commercial services to come home to a house that is clean and tidy, and well-stocked with food, so you can recover from jet lag. Enlist help with laundry, meals, errands, babysitting older children, or taking them on outings, etc.
3. Take time for yourself, your spouse, and your other children. You need to take care of yourself. Make sure you eat nutritious food, get some exercise, and some recreation. Don't neglect your marriage. Arrange for a babysitter and go out with your spouse for an evening. Your other children are having to adjust to the new child too. Give them some one-on-one time, and take your older child out for an outing, just the two of you.
4. Get help from your support network when you feel stressed. If you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and depressed, or are feeling frustrated or worried about your child's behavior, talk it over with another adoptive parent you know and trust. Those who have not adopted may not be as sympathetic as parents who have been through it. Don't hesitate to call your social worker about problems, and don't pretend everything is fine when there are problems. She will be able to reassure you that your experiences and feelings are normal, and give you helpful advice.
Jessica Gerard is an adoptive mom and an advocate for adoption, attachment, and cultural awareness. She is the President of the support group International Adoptive Families and is active in the Voices of Adoption Community. Read more of Jessica Gerard's Articles.