Some parents bond immediately with their baby the first time they meet their son or daughter. It seems as if the family they’ve established was always meant to be. But for others it takes a little longer. Don’t fret too much if the first time you meet your baby, both you and your child feel more bewildered than besotted. As with any relationship, it takes time and commitment to establish a deep, solid connection.
The longer you’re there to provide consistent, loving care, the more your child will realize that you’re in this for the long haul and that he or she is safe and secure. With time and consistent effort, you both will become more confident and comfortable with each other and in the way you interact.
The same activities can foster the attachment process for both biological and adoptive parents: holding your baby or child close, cuddling, feeding, laughing, serenading, playing games, going through the daily activities of living.
Allow time for adjustment
Parents who adopt have sometimes waited so very long for a baby or child that they cannot wait to smother the child with love and attention. Depending on your child’s age, he or she may have just been separated from everything that was familiar and needs time to warm up to you and take in a new environment.
Holding children close is important because it helps them get accustomed to your scent, to hear your heartbeat and to feel your body warmth. But pay attention to their signals. Some children prefer to be held more than others do.
In general, the best way to nurture a healthy attachment to children is by observing closely what they need and determining how best to make them feel supported, safe and loved in any situation. This may call for different strategies in young infants compared with older children.
Older children are more likely to have difficulties with attachment, and parents of these children may wish to connect with specialists in post-adoption services either through their adoption agency or through their medical provider.
Talk, sing and read to your child
These activities allow the child to get used to the sound of your voice. This is especially important for children who come from another country because it helps them get acquainted with the natural rhythms of a new language.
Respond to your child’s needs
Be quick to find out why your child is crying. Tending promptly to children in the first few months won’t spoil them but will provide reassurance and comfort. Eventually, adopted children will become more secure in their roles in the family and less clingy or demanding. In fact, this is common advice for every parent.
Also keep in mind that your child may not yet signal his or her discomfort. Children who have spent time in an institution or have been neglected may internalize feelings of abandonment and insecurity by withdrawing from others and failing to make their needs known. Keeping a quiet eye on your child and maintaining a regular schedule for meals, naps and bedtime will help promote health and provide a sense of security and well-being.
Learn about your child
Inquire about the child’s environment and routine before he or she enters your family so that you can help smooth the transition. For instance:
- A child who shared a crib or a mat with other children or family members may be frightened at night in a room alone. You may want to bring the child into your bedroom and keep a crib in your room for a while until he or she gets used to the new environment and has had time to adjust. After a while, the child likely will establish more independence and be able to sleep separately. You might also consider giving a child older than age 1 a soft blanket or stuffed animal. Having a loved object to hang on to while everything seems to be in transition may help foster a sense of security.
- A child who was carried everywhere on the back of a caregiver, as is the custom in some countries, may feel right at home if you put him or her in a back carrier. Even a child who isn’t used to it may enjoy the security of being carried close to you in a front or back baby carrier.
- A child who is used to falling asleep with the room light on may be extremely attached to that simple routine. Be sensitive to any routines that seem important to your child, and allow some time before gradually trying to change habits.
- A child may experience sensory overload with a nursery full of toys, unable to decide what to play with first. Introduce one toy at a time, as the child is ready.
Identify your child’s developmental stage
On joining your family, your child’s developmental stage can affect how he or she interacts with you. For instance, in the first four months, babies cry mostly when they need something and they’ll bond most easily with the person who responds to their cries. Later, they begin learning cause and effect and may cry just to see what happens. This behavior could frustrate parents meeting their child for the first time at this stage. At around nine months, separation anxiety can be very intense for a child who’s been attached to another caregiver.
You’ll find that some of your child’s behavior is indicative of the developmental phase he or she is in rather than of his or her personality. If you’re adopting a child who’s 6 months or older, keep in mind that he or she may have already learned certain cultural behaviors. For instance, a child from a country where passivity is encouraged may appear unresponsive. If you’re adopting a child of 12 months or older, it may take more time and understanding to get acquainted and develop mutual trust.
You may find reassurance in reading about parenting, connecting with other adoptive families, talking to someone from the adoption agency, your child’s health care provider, or a counselor familiar with the adoption process, and in doing what you can to help your child feel loved, secure and wanted. Eventually, the majority of children make great gains in their social and behavioral skills, a testament to the resilience of human nature.
Take care of yourself
It’s tempting to let everything else fall by the wayside — including yourself — when focusing on your newest family member. But becoming worn down and stressed out isn’t helpful to anyone and may in fact undermine the attachment process.
For any new parent, it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed when faced with the intense demands of parenting. Accept help from family members and friends with housecleaning and other chores, spend some time on your own, get some exercise (even if it is just a walk around the block), and eat regular, healthy meals. If you take care of yourself, you’ll be better equipped to care for your new son or daughter and your family.
Get help when needed
All children are individuals with definite likes, dislikes and personality traits. Some adjust quickly and respond with joy to their new families, but others might have a longer and more difficult adjustment period.
Many families benefit from talking to an outside party who has seen and talked to other adoptive families, and can help them work through the necessary steps to achieve mental and emotional wellness and to bond as a family.
If you’re feeling discouraged or lost, or if your child exhibits behavior problems or doesn’t seem to be building a relationship with you, seek professional help. Your child’s health care provider, adoption agency, a social worker or mental health professional may be able to help you understand and resolve the challenges you’re facing.