Archive for the 'Attachment' Category

Understanding the Science of Child Neglect

Time Magazine has an excellent article this month about the physical and psychological effects of childhood abuse and neglect. While most people know intuitively that being abused or neglected as a child puts the child at risk for psychological and behavioral problems, many don’t realize that the effects are actually have biological origins and have been proven by studies in both monkeys and humans.

Severe, chronic stress is bad for the health of both children and adults, but children are especially susceptible to long-term damage because in very early childhood (from birth to about age 3) the human brain develops faster than at any other time in life. When children are exposed to chronic, severe stress, they have elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has been linked to both physical and mental illnesses throughout life. I wrote about this in this post in March 2011, but it continues to amaze me that a child’s environment has such a huge impact on his or her later health and development.

The article also references the groundbreaking research of Harry Harlow regarding the importance of attachment (read: love!) and the studies on the effect of neglect on children in Romanian orphanages. The Romanian study showed that children who were placed in foster care rather than an orphanage developed normally, including having, better attentional skills and a 9-point higher IQ on average, compared with children sent to Romania’s famously stark orphanages. Follow-up studies found that the children raised in the orphanage were more than twice as likely to develop mental illness, compared with the foster-care group. Perhaps most chillingly, more than half of the orphanage group was diagnosed with at least one mental illness.

While these studies are absolutely heartbreaking to read, they were revolutionary in changing the way orphaned and abandoned children are cared for in the United States and many other countries. Make no mistake: seemingly warm and squishy concepts like love, trust, cuddling, soothing, and providing a secure and interesting environment are scientifically proven to be not just important, but crucial to normal child development. If you think the work you do as a parent is not important, science begs to differ.

All this is not to say that if you have adopted a child who was abused or neglected earlier in life, that all is lost. The research simply highlights the importance of getting help for abused and neglected children as early as possible. Parents of children with a history of trauma should educate themselves fully about how to help their child at home (The Adoptive and Foster Parent Guide by Carol Lozier is an excellent resource), and the help of an experienced therapist is also highly recommended. Some children may need medications such as antidepressants to help reverse the chemical changes caused by early childhood trauma. Support is available, and the sooner it gets to the children who need it, the better.

To read the Time article, click here.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Book Review: The Adoptive and Foster Parent Guide

As someone who works with adoptive and foster families, it has always astonished and frustrated me that there wasn’t a good resource for these families for dealing with their children’s issues of trauma and loss at home. It would have to be professionally written and evidence-based, but also accessible and easy for busy parents to read. I’m thrilled that now such a resource exists in Carol Lozier’s new book, The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide.

You may remember Carol from this interview that I did with her in 2010. She is a clinical social worker (MSW, LCSW) with over 20 years’ experience working with children and families, with a focus on adoption and foster care issues. Carol obviously knows the value of a good therapist in working with children who have experienced trauma, but she also realized that 99 percent of the issues that families struggle with arise at home, not in the therapist’s office. Parents need tools that they can use at home, in the moment, when behaviors related to trauma and loss arise. This book provides them with exactly those tools.

The book is organized “magazine style,” making it easy to dip in at any point in the book and learn what you need to know if you don’t have time to read it cover to cover. It teaches parents how to distinguish normal bumps in the road of childhood from issues related to past trauma. It goes over the psychology of attachment in terms that are easy to understand. Most importantly, it gives parents strategies that they can use immediately and every day with their children to open up the lines of communication and help heal the emotional scars of trauma and loss. While there are many books that teach parents to make children feel secure and talk about adoption in a respectful way, Lozier gives parents the tools of a therapist to get to the heart of the matter and help heal the wounds of the past. The scripts, exercises, games, and tips in the book fill the need that so many adoptive and foster parents express when they lament, “sometimes I just don’t know what to do.” Speaking of parents who feel overwhelmed, Lozier also includes a chapter on self-care for parents and caregivers, providing an important reminder that we can’t care for children if we don’t first care for ourselves.

The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide fills a need in the adoption community, and I believe it will change many adoptive and foster families for the better.

The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide is available at the Forever Families website.

Got a book for me to read? Check out my book review policy.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Do Babies Remember Separation?

Many adoptive parents have heard some version of the following remark, be it from a friend, family member, or a stranger in the grocery store. “You are so lucky to have adopted your baby so young,” people say, “that way she won’t remember her birth mother or being adopted.”

Although it may be true that very young babies don’t “remember” their birth mothers or early experiences in the same way that you and I remember things, child-development experts and experienced adoptive parents know that babies do experience loss, grief, and sometimes even depression during the transition period of adoption. Knowing this in advance gives adoptive parents the confidence of knowing that it’s nothing they’re doing wrong, as well as the tools to deal with it in a way that is healing for parent and child alike.

If you think about it, a newborn baby is a highly sensitive Mom Detector. Having spent nine months in the womb, the baby is intimately familiar with the voice, scent, and rhythms of his birth mother. When the baby emerges from the womb, he can see poorly, but his sense of smell is acute, and he responds best to the scent of his birth mother’s body and breast milk. His hearing is not fully developed, but studies show he responds to his mother’s voice from hearing it in utero. He cannot see well, but sees best at a distance of about 8 to 12 inches — not coincidentally about the distance to his mother’s face when he is in her arms. With all systems primed to detect the birth mother, it’s a wonder that anyone would think a baby wouldn’t notice a change in caregivers. In his well-known article “Helping Infants Cope With Change” (Early Child Development and Care, January 1974), child psychologist Dr. Justin Call notes that babies between one and three months of age are most likely to be highly distressed by a change in environment and caregivers.

We also know that babies are highly attuned to how quickly their needs are met. Studies show that babies whose cries and other cues for help are answered promptly are more securely attached to their caregivers, and show it by fussing less and eating and sleeping better. Conversely, babies whose needs are not met or are met very slowly become fussy, withdrawn, and in severe cases develop attachment disorders, learning problems, and more frequent illness.

If your new baby is showing symptoms of grief and loss, such as fussing inconsolably, poor eating, poor sleep, etc., it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong! Below are a few tips to help ease this difficult transition time for both of you.

Meet your child’s needs as promptly as you can. Adopted or not, all babies are highly attuned to how quickly their needs are met by their caregivers. When babies learn that their signals for help are answered quickly, they develop trust and security. Far from “spoiling” the child by answering his cries too promptly, parents who rush to meet their babies’ needs are creating a sense of security that actually makes the baby less fussy. Most babies show signs that they need something (a bottle, a diaper change, a warmer outfit, or just a cuddle) before they begin crying, by exhibiting little cues like squirming and making pre-crying sounds. Consider keeping your baby in the same room with you for at least the first few months so you can catch on to these pre-crying cues and meet your baby’s needs as soon as possible.

Try to mimic your baby’s prior surroundings. Since we know that babies are very sensitive to changes in environment, it makes sense to try to make your home as close to your baby’s previous environment as possible. A comfort object such as a crib sheet, blanket, or stuffed animal can be a big help (note that for newborns, items in the crib are considered a no-no because of the risk of suffocation. Use the comfort object outside the crib or choose a safe item that smells like prior surroundings, such as a fitted sheet). Especially if your baby was with her birth mother, an orphanage, or other caregiver for long enough to have a routine, try to copy that routine as closely as possible in your home.

Develop a consistent routine of your own. If your baby did not have a consistent routine before coming home with you (or if you don’t know what his routine was), there is no time like the present to start one. Bedtime rituals are especially important. Try starting at the same time every night and doing the same routine (for example a bedtime story, a favorite song, then bed) consistently night after night. Routines and rituals help make babies and small children feel secure.

Try attachment parenting. Attachment parenting is term coined by Dr. William Sears for a style of parenting that emphasizes togetherness and learning and responding to your baby’s cues quickly. It includes sleeping close to your baby, wearing your baby frequently in a sling or other baby carrier, using nurturing touch (such as having skin-to-skin contact during feedings and cuddle time, and baby massage) and learning your baby’s “language” of cues to her needs. Attachment parenting is an especially wonderful style for adoptive parents, whose children are especially vulnerable to insecurity. Remember: You can’t spoil a baby with too much love.

Don’t take “no” for an answer. Newly-adopted babies often cry inconsolably, flail and strain against being held closely, refuse to eat, and are difficult to soothe. It’s easy for the exhausted new parent to feel that the baby does not want them and to give up and put the baby down. Don’t. Remember that babies have extremely limited ways of telling us when something feels amiss. They sense that something has changed drastically, but they don’t understand what is going on and can’t do anything about it. The worst thing you can do for attachment is to give up. The best you can do is to remember that it is not personal and to persevere. Keep holding that screaming, resisting baby close to your heart. Soothe her, rock her, sing to her. Trade shifts with your partner if possible so that you can have a physical and emotional break. But above all, don’t take “no” for an answer from your baby. With patience and perseverance, he will learn to trust that you will be there to consistently meet his needs, always.

Don’t take it personally. Some adoptive parents who have pined for years for a baby to love feel dismayed when the newborn they’ve dreamed of seems to reject them. The red-faced, screaming newborn with her back arched away from their embrace is not quite what these parents had in mind! However, your baby is not rejecting you, but simply responding with instinctive panic to a big change in what she sees, hears, and smells around her. When you think about babies as highly-attuned Mom Detectors as described above, it makes a lot of sense. This is not because they are rejecting you – babies are nowhere near developed enough to have such a thought. They are simply panicking at the thought that they might not get their needs met. Prove them wrong, by all means, but don’t take it personally.

Seek out support. All new parents need support, and adoptive parents have special challenges that make that support even more important. Join an adoptive-parent support group or make friends with other adoptive parents, be it in your area or online. Knowing that others have been through these difficult, sleep-deprived first weeks can make all the difference.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

First Impressions: Meeting Your Adopted Baby for the First Time

As I prepared to write this article, I Googled “adoption first meeting” to see what other resources were out there for adoptive parents preparing to meet their infants for the first time. I found some blog posts and articles about meeting the birth mother for the first time, meeting with the agency for the first time, but very little about meeting the central figure in every adoption: the child. What little there was did not begin to address the needs of a baby meeting a new caregiver. Welcome. Here you will find some practical advice on meeting your infant for the first time. I will blog soon on first meetings with older children, which are quite different.

While it is tempting to presume that babies don’t know what is going on around them or the difference between one caregiver and another, this is simply not the case. For a baby, who cannot survive without consistent care, the caregiver is the most important person in the world, and the baby’s every little system is acutely attuned to that person. Further, babies rely entirely on their senses, especially smell, touch, and sound, to tell them what is going on. Even a very small baby will know of a change in caregiver, and even a very small baby will grieve that loss. For this reason, many adoptive parents are unpleasantly surprised when what they had fantasized as a calm and idyllic first meeting with their baby turns out to be less than peaceful as the infant screams, thrashes, wriggles, and turns red in the face.

First of all, don’t take it personally. This is a normal response to a disruption in your baby’s pattern of care, and it doesn’t mean that she won’t love you. Stay calm, stay focused on your baby, and try these seven tips.

1. Create a calming environment. A quiet room, dim lights, a comfortable temperature, and not very many people are the ideal environment for a tiny person who is already feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated. Talk to your baby in quiet tones. If he doesn’t seem to tolerate being held very well, try putting him in the center of the bed and lying next to him. If he will tolerate being held, walk slowly or rock him slowly. A womblike environment (warm, rocking, dim, and quiet) will help your baby calm down.
2. Follow your baby’s nose. Studies show that the sense of smell is the most developed sense in infants. If you can arrange to get familiar objects, such as a stuffed animal or a blanket or sheet, from the previous caregiver, this will help your baby feel more secure.
3. Learn what “normal” means to your baby. Before you meet your baby for the first time, ask the previous caregivers lots of questions about what his or her life was like on a daily basis. Did he sleep in a crib by himself or next to other kids? What was her bedtime and nap schedule? Was the nursery quiet or was there some ambient noise? The more you know about your child’s life before you met, the easier it is to recreate that environment in order to ease the transition.
4. Make it an exclusive event. The fewer people are present during those first hours with your baby, the better. Ideally, only you and your partner (if you have one) should be present. Being cooed over by numerous strangers and passed from lap to lap will further disorient and upset your child. Although it may be hard to keep grandma away during these first moments, explain that it really is best for the baby.
5. No paparazzi. Although it is tempting to take a lot of photographs and videotape of your first moments with your baby, it is much more important that you be fully present and focused on her. Above all, avoid flash photography, which is sure to upset your child and disrupt your first moments together. One good way to record this time is to set up a tripod with a video camera and leave it to do the recording while you do the more important job of parenting.
6. No wardrobe or grooming changes needed. Unless your baby is uncomfortable in the clothes he is wearing when you first meet him, don’t bother to change his clothing. Also, baths involve too many stimuli — a change in temperature, wet, noise, and unfamiliar surroundings. Further, as mentioned above, babies’ sense of smell is the most acute of the senses, so smelling her own familiar scent and the scent of her clothes may be soothing. Save wardrobe changes and baths for later. For now, just let things be and get to know each other.
7. Be kind to yourself. Every new parent, whether they have adopted or given birth to their children, feel lost at sea with their new babies. It’s an old line but true: Babies don’t come with instruction manuals. Be forgiving with yourself when you don’t know all the answers – no one does. Don’t feel guilty if you need to call a friend or relative to relieve you so you can sleep. Taking good care of yourself will give you the energy you need to take care of your baby.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Kangaroo Care Helps Babies Thrive

kangaroo care helps babies thrive
Most adoptive parents don’t need much encouragement to spend a lot of time cuddling with their babies—after all, it’s what they’ve been waiting for and dreaming about for months, if not years! What you may not know is that holding your baby close doesn’t only feel good, it also serves an important biological purpose. Many pediatricians with expertise in adoption are now recommending that adoptive parents practice “kangaroo care” with their new babies.

Scientists first began studying kangaroo care when they discovered that premature babies who spent a lot of time being held, skin-to-skin, next to their mothers had significantly higher survival rates. Studies show that being held this way helps to regulate the baby’s heart rate, body temperature, and breathing, and that babies who spend a few hours being held skin-to-skin sleep better, gain weight more quickly, and cry less than babies who are not cuddled in this way. Parents also report that they get benefits from “kangaroo care” as well: Increased feelings of confidence and bonding with their babies.

Although the studies were mostly of premature babies, the benefits for adopted babies are obvious. Most adopted babies experience stress from the change of caregivers, and studies show that high levels of stress can inhibit healthy development. Holding the baby, particularly skin-to-skin, helps reduce this stress and regulate his or her heart rate and breathing. Kangaroo care also promotes bonding, which can help ease the disconnected feelings some adoptive parents feel during the first months with their adopted babies.

So how do you do kangaroo care? It couldn’t be simpler. Try to spend an hour or two a day holding your baby against your bare skin. Many parents find that feeding time and bedtime are the most convenient times to practice kangaroo care. Dress the baby in just a diaper, and cover his or her back with a blanket for warmth. Make sure that you have a comfortable place to sit, with everything you might need to reach (like a glass of water or a book) within easy reach. Remove any jewelry that could scratch. It’s also beneficial to hold your baby as much as possible throughout the day, even when it can’t be skin-to-skin. Many companies sell baby slings and carriers that allow you to carry your baby throughout the day.
If you’d like to share your experience with kangaroo care or ask a question about this article, please feel free to comment or e-mail me at evaughan at

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Five Tips for Fostering Strong Attachment

There’s a lot of buzz in child-rearing books about attachment, and for good reason. Many reliable scientific studies show that children who are securely attached to their caregivers are healthier, more confident, and more likely to form healthy relationships later in life. The darker side of this is that similar studies show that children who are severely neglected or abused early in life can have psychological and emotional problems that follow them into later life.

What does this mean for adoptive parents? There are many excellent books on attachment for adoptive parents. Here are five tips for forming strong bonds with your adopted child.

1. Remember that it’s not too late. When you read about attachment in infants, it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that a child who didn’t attach in the first few months of life never will. Not so, say scientists. Although early infancy is a key period of attachment, there are many ways that adoptive parents of older children can make up for lost time. Ask your pediatrician for referrals to attachment specialists or check out these resources.

2. Be patient with your child – and yourself. In addition to worrying that their child does not appear attached to them, many parents feel ashamed or frightened because they do not feel the strong bond to their adopted child that they expected to feel. Don’t worry. It’s normal for the attachment process to take time. It’s normal to have mixed emotions as you and your child get to know each other. In fact, it’s normal even for biological parents to have these mixed feelings as they meet their new babies for the first time after birth.

3.Reach out. It’s helpful to read books, ask experts, and see therapists about attaching to your adopted child, but the most important resource may be other parents. Talking to other adoptive parents about their experiences is crucial to get tips, share challenges, and see that you’re not the only one to have struggled with the attachment process.

4. For Infants: Ignore advice not to “spoil” your baby. A generation or two ago, the conventional wisdom was that babies should be fed on a schedule, allowed to “cry it out” at nighttime, and generally not overly coddled. Thanks to technology that actually lets us see how the brain develops, we now know that responding to babies’ cries for attention promptly and lovingly actually helps them to develop healthy minds and bodies. Feed your baby when he is hungry, and respond promptly to his nighttime cries in the beginning (evidence shows that babies can’t benefit from “sleep training” until about five months old, and it may be later for adopted children). It’s impossible to “spoil” a baby with too much attention and cuddling. This is great news to most adoptive parents, who enjoy nothing more than to spend hours rocking, cuddling, gazing at, and singing to their babies. Your instincts are good here – these activities are the very best for your baby’s development and attachment.

5. For school-age kids: Consistency and creativity. Although older children may act tough sometimes, inside they are a lot like babies, watching for clues that you can be counted on. Establishing a routine in your child’s day and sticking to it will help her to feel more secure. Doing activities together like taking a martial arts, swimming, or yoga class is also great idea. Seeing that you like to spend time with her and that you can be counted on to show up consistently every week is a winning combination for your adopted child. Forming an attachment bond with an older child may also require a variety of approaches as you get to know each other. If your child rejects your hugs, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t need physical affection, but she may need it in a different way. Try reading a book close together, doing a puzzle, dancing, giving back rubs, styling or cutting their hair, and other ways of giving positive touch.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

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