As the parent of a child who has problems with sleep, my heart goes out to you. Sleep problems are one of the biggest hurdles an adoptive family faces in the course of becoming parents, whether yours arrives as a newborn or a school-age child. The process of forming a normal sleep schedule can affect everyone in the first weeks and months, but you will eventually find a sleep rhythm that works for your family — and catch up on your sleep, too!
Transitioning to Sleep
Adoption sleep problems often stem from a child’s adjustment into her home. Learn as much as you can about your child’s sleep routines prior to joining your family. Newborns may have spent their first days rooming with biological mothers in the hospital. Children from an orphanage may have slept on a bamboo mat or in a crib, alone or with other children, or may have been swaddled at bedtime. What about room temperature, lighting, noise level, feeding times? Learning about these early on will help you to make adjustments at home — and ensure that your child feels safe and secure. If your child used to take a bottle to bed, you may need to continue this habit, planning to wean her as she starts sleeping better.
Engage a child’s five senses to help with sleep transition. It may help for your child to go to bed with an article of your clothing or your pillowcase, so she can smell you and be comforted as she falls asleep. Playing soft music, or a sound machine with sounds of the ocean or rainfall, may also help. Have a small family picture laminated, and let your child hold this as she falls asleep. Or let her have a favorite toy or blanket to cuddle with.
Children thrive on routine. Establish bedtime rituals, so that your child will know what’s coming and can unwind as bedtime approaches. Your family’s bedtime routine may include a bath, stories, and cuddle time.
Some children quickly adapt to sleeping in their own room, alone or when you are in a nearby bed or on the floor. Others become hysterical at the sight of a crib. Flexibility is the key to survival during the first weeks and months home. Don’t panic if your child wants to be in your room, in a portable crib, on the floor, or in your bed. Such sleeping arrangements are short-lived. Your child won’t need to sleep with you until she is a teen!
Nighttime waking comes in several forms. The child might just want to check in to see that you are still there. Perhaps she fell asleep in your arms, and is now alone in a cold, hard crib. When this happens, reassurance can help.
What about the child who wakes up repeatedly? During the initial adjustment period, never allow the child to scream it out, regardless of her age. Your primary task is to demonstrate to your child that you will meet her needs consistently. As a caregiver comforts a child over and over again, the child trusts that caregiver and builds an attachment that will last a lifetime. If you have a spouse or partner, take turns to avoid overload, or get up to comfort the child together. Don’t let the child become trusting of only one parent. (Do not send the child to relatives or friends so that you can get a good night’s sleep. This will only interfere with attachment.)
Remember, most children need lots of physical comfort in the first months home. After the child shows signs of bonding with his new parents, most families have success with a variation of a sleep method, known as “progressive waiting” or “controlled crying.” The parent reassures the child, but keeps her presence in the room as limited as the child can tolerate, until the child can sleep on her own.
Medications may be a last resort for children whose anxiety has been heightened by sleepless nights. The most commonly used are diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and melatonin. Consult your pediatrician before using such medications.