An Age-by-Age Guide to Bonding

Bonding is a necessary step in the adoption process — no matter how old your child is when he or she comes home. Read this age-by-age guide to learn how to promote attachment and security.

Playing with your child is a key component of our guide to bonding

Bonding with Your Baby

Newborns who were exposed to drugs in the womb may suffer withdrawal. They may wake often during the night, require prolonged feeding, and be irritable and easily distracted. It is tough to bond with a baby who won’t sleep or eat and can’t be soothed. If you are adopting a drug-exposed child, ask a nurse or social worker to teach you comforting techniques. And don’t worry: These symptoms may persist through the first year of life, with absolutely no long-term implications.

  1. Appeal to your baby’s senses. Hold off washing the outfit he came home in, and keep it near him in the crib. Newborns can be comforted by a familiar aroma.
  2. Avoid excessive eye contact. A newborn will let you know when it’s too much — he’ll look away, close his eyes, or fuss.
  3. Speak quietly and move with gentle motion. Most infants will startle at sudden movement. Leave the room as little as possible. If you can, stay in the hotel room, rest, and hold your baby or rock or croon to her — these early moments of bonding are priceless. Try to avoid distracting visitors, noise, or commotion.
  4. Snuggle up. Hold your infant as much as possible, to facilitate bonding. A baby cannot be spoiled by too much holding time. Consider a baby sling or a front carrier.
  5. Talk to your child as you perform nurturing actions, like cuddling and feeding.
  6. Respond to your child’s cries immediately.
  7. Playfully imitate your child; let him know he’s the center of the universe. Play peek-a-boo!
  8. Stay with your child and comfort her through crying and screaming.

Bonding with Your Toddler

Toddlerhood is a particularly difficult stage for a child to be moved to a new home. He’s had time to build attachment to a caregiver, and now his greatest fear — losing that person — has come true. His cognitive and language abilities are not developed enough to understand adoption easily. Children adopted at this age may cling to the new parent for fear of losing that person.

  1. Stick to a consistent schedule when you first come home, and introduce change gradually.
  2. Use humor. Laughter can defuse a standoff and relax a tense toddler.
  3. Don’t worry about spoiling her with too much attention. Your child needs to trust that you’ll be there to get comfortable in a new home.
  4. Don’t take tantrums or oppositional behaviors personally.
  5. Keep your expectations flexible. Remember that a toddler or preschooler adopted from an orphanage may be emotionally much younger than his or her actual age.

Bonding With an Older Child

When older children are adopted, they are not just getting new parents and a new home. The “new” list includes new friends, new school, new teachers, new rules, new books, new procedures — and maybe even a new language. And they are experiencing all this newness under the shadow, most likely, of some level of grief for what they have lost.

At the first meeting, an older child may be shy and reserved, happy and excited, or nervous and boisterous. For the next weeks or months, it’s common for families to have a “honeymoon” phase, during which the child stays on his best behavior. Then, as family members become more comfortable with each other, a child may begin to test his new parents’ limits, to see how much he can get away with. Sometimes there are bouts of grief, confusion, or even rage over the child’s new circumstances.

Parents may be surprised to see how deeply a child can grieve his losses. An institution, whether it was good or bad, may have been the only home a child has known. He may miss familiar routines and people, especially foster parents and friends. Though rough patches are usually brief, adjustment problems are sometimes severe enough to warrant professional help. Generally, however, grief is a positive sign. It means that a child formed strong attachments in her home country or foster home — and is emotionally equipped to form attachments again.

  1. Children arriving from other cultures — including other cultures within the U.S. — need time to adapt to your family’s habits and rhythms. Preserving some element of a child’s previous life can smooth the transition. Find out what  you can about the schedule at the child’s orphanage or foster home, and see if you can duplicate some of it.
  2. Don’t underestimate the significance of dietary changes. Smell and taste are evocative senses, and a child who is stressed takes comfort in familiar foods. Though some children eat new foods willingly, don’t expect a child to enthusiastically sit down to a meal of hot dogs and apple pie right off the bat. Cooking a child’s favorite foods, or making weekly visits to a restaurant that serves his home cuisine, can ease his transition.
  3. Give your child the childhood she never had. Immediately meeting any need will not spoil a child who never knew the joy of a nurtured infancy.
  4. Have fun with your new child. Play, swim, and eat together, so you establish some happy family memories as quickly as possible.
  5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Choose your battles wisely. If a child is grieving over the loss of familiar people and surroundings, don’t make an issue out of tooth brushing or mismatched clothes.
  6. Have family meetings. Discuss what everyone in the family is doing, what strengths the children have, and how they can use them.
  7. Have a new family portrait made early on.

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