Attachment in Adoption

The most recent Blog Buzz question is about attachment in adoption. I am going to talk about infant adoption, because attachment with an older child is a whole different ballgame that warrants its own discussion.

I often hear people sharing ideas for attachment with their newly adopted infant, as if there needs to be some level of extra effort with there are no biological ties. I would argue that idea. Having been down both roads, I really don't think there is a "blood relation" bond that changes when a baby has been birthed instead of placed. That being said, some adoptive mothers will struggle with attaching to their baby, just as some bio mothers will struggle with the same thing.

There are many reasons a mother could have a tough time attaching, but I think the biggest reason has nothing to do with the child, or adopting, and everything to do with OUR OWN STUFF. As a therapist, I believe that our ability to attach to a child is directly related to the attachment (or lack thereof) in our own family of origin. This stuff really bubbles up when we are faced with the task of bonding with a child. The trouble for adoptive moms is that we often feel profound guilt if attachment is not effortless, and may even question the adoptive match itself, rather than looking inward.

The good news is that attachment is a two-way street. A mother growing through her own indifference or ambivalence can still foster the bonds of baby-to-mother attachment. If you find yourself struggling with attachment, here are some ideas:

  • don't panic. it takes time. you will get there.
  • fake it till you make it. do the things you know you need to do for your baby, and the feelings will follow
  • it's not about you. it's not a bad match. focus on the baby
  • don't feel guilty. that only makes it worse.
  • seek help. if things don't resolve, get into therapy.
When we adopted Jafta, he was six months old, so we missed some of the critical infancy bonding moments. Forunately, my own attachment to him was pretty immediate. I had some normal moments of ambivalence, like many moms. For the most part I was head-over-heels from the minute I laid eyes on him. But I knew we had some catching up to do to make sure the feeling was mutual, and get him well attached to us. Here are some of the things we tried:

  1. We took our cues from breastfeeding as we gave him his bottle. I held him close, in a nursing position, and used the opportunity to gaze into his eyes.
  2. We did skin-to-skin time, where we just held him, naked, against our bare skin.
  3. Each night we put Mark's t-shirt from the day into the crib with Jafta
  4. We let him keep his transitional object, even though it was the rattiest, dirtiest blanket we'd seen. We waited to wash it until we felt like he was ready. Then, we always held the transitional object against us, so that when he cuddled it for comfort, he was also cuddling into us.
  5. We played games that promote eye contact. Some classic examples are peek-a-boo and pattycake.
There are two things that I wish we had done, but didn't. The first is that I wish we had responded to his cries more. We had been indoctrinated with the idea of letting a child "cry it out". I regret that deeply, especially with a child who had been neglected. Babywise may work for some parents, but it is NOT for children who have had any kind of neglect.

We also didn't do a lot of babywearing. I think this is a great way to bond with a baby or toddler, because it gets them close and comfy. I had a babyhawk carrier with my second child, and wish I knew about this when we adopted our first.

I would encourage anyone struggling with attachment in adoption to go easy on yourself. There has usually been a long journey to your child, and there has usually been some pain involved. We may feel like, as adoptive parents, we have to be exuberant and overjoyed at every moment with this child we have longed for. Sometimes, we have to give ourselves permission to just be a mom: sometimes tired, sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes scared, and alway imperfect, but just who our child needs us to be.


  1. It has been interesting to listen to some of the research Nancy Thomas has presented. I, also, used to just assume that there really wasn't trauma when it comes to infant adoption at birth.

    Yet, when I stopped for just a moment to think about it (after being presented with information to the contrary) ... science has told us that babies in the womb can hear up to 12 feet away from their mother. So, they spend months surrounded by their birth mother's heartbeat, voice and life. There is a rhythm to it (even if it's damaging).

    Take a newborn, and pull them away from the only voice and heartbeat that they know ... the only rhythm of life that they know ... the only surroundings of sounds that they know ... it's extremely traumatic.

    I had a "duh!" moment. Why had I not even considered that before?!? Now I know why our agency was so anal about deliberate bonding in the domestic infant program.

    Learn something new every day!

    And, as a mom to older children entering my home, bonding on my end has taken much longer than adopting our youngest as a 7 month old. Granted, the RAD puts a cramp on it already. However, patience is a wonderful thing. It comes. I had to allow myself to be okay with the fact that I bonded faster to one of my children, than the other. They've also started to show bonding and healing toward us in different ways.

    We can be kick-butt moms - even without the warm fuzzies! :)

  2. Yes, there is definitely a growing theory about the "primal wound" of adoption. We've heard the same thing from Beyond Consequences, and I respect so much of what they say, but for some reason that theory didn't resonate with me. Maybe I've been too intrenched by my psych studies and the Bowlby idea that attachment at the infant level is indiscriminate and transferable. I do believe that trauma can occur during pregnancy, and that a mother's stress can affect the baby. But at the newborn state, there is no object permenancy, so I think that a transfer in caregiver within the first few weeks of life is not traumatic as long as the child has consistent love and affection.

    But Christine, you are challenging my thinking a bit and I am going to look into this more!

  3. this is a great post.

  4. bummer... I left a bil ol' long comment here a few days ago, but I think I had some trouble with the openID sign0in and my comment didn't take.

    At any rate, I appreciated your "hang in there" sentiments - and usually I hate that kind of thing, especially in a drawn-out and difficult adoption scenario. In most cases "hang in there" feels a little trite. But in the process of attachment, it seems that a lot of pressure placed on ourselves would only heighten anxiety which certainly can't help much in the attachment process.

    We've had a loooong road with our adoption. We were ultimately put in a position to find a temporary (and very loving) home for our daughter and let her bond with other people (something we spent a good six months or more away from home and out of country trying to avoid). Attachment and bonding have been something that that I worry a lot about, that I anticipate will be a difficult process for our girl. Thanks for a little reassurance that patience, love and time will help us make it (or at lease help us fake it until we do). :)

  5. Don't post this...this is just for you. I love reading this stuff that you write because it helps me to understand you a little more and understand what you were going through maybe when you first got Jafta. I'm sad that I didn't have all of this insight or you didn't have much of a venue at the time to be able to express it. I'm so thankful now and honestly I'm just so proud of you. I love the way you write about this stuff. I love how you bring in your psych background and truly know what you're talking about . Maybe it's prideful, but I think to myself, "that's my friend." I respect and admire you so much and love to see how God is using all of your pains and heartbreak to enlighten, encourage and educate others. Why am I crying right now?

  6. Hi Kristen,

    I just wanted you to know that I have been reading your blog and I love it!!! You are a great writer and you have great thoughts. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Stephanie Schubert(Now Matheny :))

  7. Great post.

    I have no strong theories or ideas on this, just my own experience. For me both of my children have bonded easily and quickly.

    My first child and I bonded immediately. He was birthed by me and I nursed him and the attachment was instant.

    My second child was born by his first mom and I was holding him within 2.5 hours of his birth. I'm extremely blessed to be able to say that I was there so soon after his birth. I was not able to stay with him over night in hospital, but we were there in our little rocking chairs as soon as visiting hours started to when they kicked us out at night. :)

    Now we are in the process of adopting two children from Haiti and these attachment thoughts are much more on the forefront of my mind. In fact I just started a book last night about attachment with adoption. (i started too late at night to remember the title right now!)

    I have been to visit my kids twice now and will be back at the end of Sept for another visit. Each time I feel closer to them. I am completely in love with them already. my heart is attached to them. I pray and fast for them. I yearn for them. I think I'm safe to say that my feelings are there. theirs? Probably not so much right now. They are safe. They are VERY well taken care of. They are VERY loved. Hopefully all of those positive things in their life will help when they transition to our home.

    Thanks for this post. It has my mind a thinking!


  8. This was a great post, we are hoping to adopt a little guy who is 11 months from the foster care system.

    We actually did baby wise with our daughter(bio) and I have been struggling for quite some time about it regarding adoptions. I agree that it may not be the best thing to do.

    I love the baby carrying idea!



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