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.