Ask AF: Bonding with a Newborn

The AF guide to feeding, sleeping, and bonding with a newborn adoptee.

Q: My baby will already be two days old when I bring her home. Should I be concerned about bonding?

A: I hear from many domestic adopters who, like you, worry that missing out on pregnancy or their newborn’s first few days might impede attachment. You needn’t. Newborns have very basic needs—to be fed, to be kept warm and dry, to get enough sleep, and to have close contact with those who care for them.

They form attachments to the caregivers who meet these needs. As long as you consistently fulfill them, she’ll develop the trust that leads to long-term attachment.

Feeding

Most newborns placed for adoption are fed formula from the time they’re born, so it’s unlikely that you’ll have to wean your infant from breast milk. Ask your pediatrician about formula options. Even if your child is fed a different formula for her first days in the hospital, there shouldn’t be a problem with switching her after you bring her home.

It is sometimes possible for women who haven’t given birth to produce breast milk through the use of hormone supplements and breast pumping, and it’s becoming more common for adoptive moms to try to breastfeed. It will take time to build up milk production, however, so start early if you attempt this. Whether you breastfeed or bottle-feed, you can facilitate attachment by holding your child close during mealtimes. Make eye contact, and talk or sing to her softly, as you feed her.

Avoid feeding your baby with the TV on or amid other loud background noise. Your goal is to associate feeding with feelings of comfort, as this will encourage attachment.

Sleeping

In addition to eating, much of a newborn’s day is spent sleeping. Your baby should sleep on a firm mattress, and be laid down on her back to limit the risk of crib death, known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Many doctors advise against co-sleeping with newborns, but you can stay close to your infant by putting her to sleep in a bassinet at the bedside, or even in her car seat on the bedroom floor. This allows you to comfort her instantly when she cries, and lets the baby sense your presence by hearing your breathing as you sleep.

Bonding

Hold your infant as often as possible. Baby carriers or slings are wonderful ways to keep her close to you throughout the day. She’ll be able to feel your body heat, hear your heartbeat, and become familiar with your scent. Choose a carrier that’s designed for a newborn, so that she won’t be held in a position that compromises her breathing.

Children who were prenatally exposed to alcohol or harmful substances may resist being held. Such a child may arch his back, or avoid eye contact, making the give-and-take of feeding and cuddling a challenge. If your child resists holding or stiffens in your arms, you should realize that this isn’t a reflection of your parenting skills. Persevere in bonding by encouraging contact on your child’s terms. Try lying with her on a blanket and lightly stroking her head, tummy, or legs.

Although you will want to show off your new family member, hold back for now. Short visits from friends and family are OK, but defer prolonged visits and trips for several weeks.  If out-of-town relatives arrive, you certainly can’t send them home after half an hour. But you can gently shoo them out of the room and encourage them to pitch in with household chores while you spend time alone with your infant. During the first weeks, don’t let anyone but you and your spouse feed the baby, or otherwise tend to her needs.

As you complete the cycle of attachment, meeting each of your infant’s needs over and over again, she will soon learn that she can depend on you—now and for the long haul.

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