Baby/toddler adoption: beginning well

I’m hard at work on my latest book proposal. It’s one I’ve been wanting to write for awhile –a book about adoption!  I’ll be sharing about our adoption journey. But I also plan to include stories from other adoptive families. So I’m planning on asking for feedback from time to time to get a broader viewpoint from which to share.

My questions today are about initial adjustment for babies and toddlers who arrived home before 24 months of age.

1.) What went well during your baby’s first weeks and months home?
2.) What was hardest for you? For your child?
3.) What do you think was most helpful in settling your baby in? What did you feel best/most sure about in those early months?
4.) What would you do differently if you had it to do over?

Be sure to include how old your child was at homecoming.  If you’re game to share your infant adoption experience, answer in comments below,  or write to me at mary.owlhaven (at) You can write in paragraphs in story format, or you can simply answer the questions one by one as I presented them.

One last note:  I really, really want to hear the truth. If your experience was great, awesome.  But don’t be afraid to tell the hard parts of your story. Sometimes adoptive moms feel almost contractually obligated to make the journey look like all sunshine. I don’t think we do folks any favors by doing that.  Do I want to encourage adoptive families and folks considering adoption?  Without a doubt.  But I believe we can share honestly while still lifting up and encouraging other moms on the same journey.

I’m eager to hear from you.

First day with Julianna


  1. Mary, so glad you’ll be writing this book! And I appreciate your thoughts about “keeping it real”. Our 3 girls were adopted at 12 mos old and under – I will take some time to answer your questions when I have a moment to think… 🙂

  2. We have adopted 3 children in the toddler stage…One son came home at 3, another at 18 months, and another at one year.

    1.) What went well during your baby’s first weeks and months home?

    -We kept our little guys close to us in the early months. They slept with us or in our room. We wore them when we could and fed them their bottles and rocked them several times a day. We kept outside activities and visitors to a minimum and really focused on taking the time to set a pattern of attachment and teaching our little guys who Mama and Daddy were.

    2.) What was hardest for you? For your child?

    The hardest for us (the parents) was the physical exhaustion. Having adopted older children and toddlers we like to say that adopting little ones in physically exhausting and older ones is emotionally exhausting.

    I think the hardest thing for the children was the vastness and newness of everything. Two of our toddlers were mobile and had no concept of danger. They were like newborns who had legs. Everything was fair game to be touched, tasted, and explored with us trailing behind and saying “No you may not eat the dog biscuits, climb in the oven, or stand on the table and parachute off of it..”

    3.) What do you think was most helpful in settling your baby in?

    I think being there with them and setting up a consistent routine with us being primary caregivers was the most helpful and comforting thing to them.

    What did you feel best/most sure about in those early months?

    Honestly, I don’t know that I felt during that time that I was doing anything well. The house was strewn with toys, dinner was thrown together, and trying to get a shower in most days took more planning than a General and an invading army. I was nervous that I was doing something wrong and that the little ones were not going to love us or bond to us and was pretty much a hot mess emotionally.

    4.) What would you do differently if you had it to do over?

    I would like to think I would worry less about so many of the externals and simplify dinners, housework, outside activities and just enjoy the time with the little ones. I would like to think I would just focus on the little one and enjoy each moment because they all pass to quickly and not put so much pressure on if the child was bonded at that moment and just enjoy the process of bonding and getting to know one another.

  3. We adopted two babies domestically straight from the hospital. Those situations were in my mind no different than birthing a child and going home to reality! No problems. Was an easy transition.

    Now, we also have adopted internationally. We brought our daughter home at 13 months. Let me answer your questions based on our international situation.

    1.we had a great time with our 13 month old daughter in the first weeks. Just a peaceful time getting to know each other.

    2. The hardest thing for our child was getting used to sleeping! We tried having her in our bed but we could not sleep. We believe in attachment parenting to a degree but we can’t be good parents on no sleep. Plus, our other kids slept in their own cribs as babies and ultimately now as 5 and 8 year olds. We had her sleep in our room near our bed an gradually transitioned her to her crib in her room with us on the floor for a bit.

    The hardest thing for us besides the sleep was wondering what she was thinking/ feeling. For example, our other kids never needed surgery but if they had we would have known that they would have been solid in knowing we would be there after. While our daughter needed surgery and I was scared of causing her trauma by handing her over to nurses. Same thing with church nursery- our other kids I felt might be slightly sad or anxious but in a normal way. I worried I was stirring up abandonment issues if I did a normal step like leaving her in church nursery.

    There is no real way to know what each individual child might need when you bring them home. I ink prepare and educate yourself but also expect rough spots, no sleep. Have easy meals, simplified schedule, just chill out!

  4. Why only focus on infant adoptions?

  5. We adopted our son internationally, and he was 5 months old when he came home. He was our first child, and I stayed at home during the day, so the transition was pretty smooth. It took a week for him to adjust to sleeping on USA time, and he was a peaceful baby who rarely cried.
    Because we didn’t educate ourselves well enough about attachment, we didn’t spend enough time letting him settle in. We just went about our lives, working, visiting friends and relatives, etc. He stayed with several different people since my husband and I often both had to work evenings. Because he didn’t fuss much for the first

  6. I agree with the last comment…I wish you would focus at least part if your time on older child adoption since you have rich experience in that area as well. We adopted internationally at 13 mos and almost 4 years. I remember being so happy as a parent that I missed many of the cues that our children were not happy with all this sudden change in their lives. Many of our pictures show thrilled, excited parents with children bearing looks of bewilderment and trauma on their faces. I hope I showed tenderness and sympathy to these little souls whose whole lives had been turned upside down! As a parent, the hardest thing to deal with initially was the lack if sleep. After that, it was difficult to deal with children that were developmentally so behind their age, particularly the child who was adopted close to 4. Sadly, both our adopted children bear scars from their sojourn in an orphanage. Post-institutional behavior was quite significant and challenging to deal with, particularly in our 4 year old. The first year with both of them was similar in level of adjustment for the family as it would be to bring home newborn baby. While the issues were different, the amount of effort was the same. I hope I don’t sound too negative as they have turned into wonderful little girls but that first year was a challenge but also an exciting adventure.

    • For sure I will be writing– and asking you all– about older-child adoption!! 🙂 Given my current outline, I’m guessing I’ll actually be saying *more* about kids past infancy than I will about babies.

  7. (continued…) 6 or 7 months, we thought he was okay. We parented him like he was a healthy birth child. I considered myself a confident, capable parent with a nicely adjusted baby. But around 15 months he started to change, with more fussing, crying, and general distress. By 18 months he was screaming at many things, and he became more and more defiant. He pulled away and swatted when we tried to be affectionate, and he seemed angry but we didn’t know why. It was not until he was 4 that we realized what was going on, and we began studying attachment disorder and doing intense attachment parenting. It took several years for him to progress to the affectionate, compassionate child he is now.
    I regret not having invested more time in understanding attachment issues. It would have saved all of us a lot of pain, frustration and heartache.
    My advice to adoptive parents now is, study attachment, and watch for signs that your baby is struggling. A quiet, serious baby is not necessarily happy. And a defiant, angry toddler is not necessarily a strong-willed child.

  8. We adopted domestically, and met our daughter when she was 36 hours old, so we didn’t have many of the issues faced by folks meeting their children when they were a bit older, or from a different country. We drove 26 hours straight to get to our daughter, and yes, it definitely WAS a different part of the country…but still the same country, language and general customs.

    That being said, our daughter was exposed to drugs in Utero and went through an extensive withdrawal process in the hospital. We had no legal rights at that time, but, we were the only parents present from that time on. We were not able to have a room in the hospital, and since they were renovating at the time, shared a procedure room (glass windows all around, no privacy) with a 36-week-old premie and her family… with no bed for the parent, only a recliner for 17 days. My husband and I took shifts, one going back for a few hours of rest at the hotel, while they other stayed with and bonded, skin-to-skin, and did everything we could to help our daughter through her withdrawal.

    There’s much I could write and would be happy to share if you would find it helpful… About our experience with the hospital and the agency out-of-state…About drug withdrawal, long stays out-of-state stuck waiting for redone fingerprints, about Native American adoptions, adoptive breast-feeding, semi-open adoption, other medical issues, additional biological siblings, and more. Let me know if you’d like to know more about our experience.

  9. Jenn Harvey says:

    We adopted twin boys domestically. We brought them home from the hospital at 3 days old.

    1.) What went well during your baby’s first weeks and months home?
    Since we brought them home right from the hospital, we didn’t notice any adjustment in relation to adoption. They were very content and slept and ate well.
    People from our church brought us meals for the first 5 weeks. What a life-saver! I think we may have starved if it hadn’t been for them. We had absolutely no time to go shopping or to make meals for ourselves. Even if we had a few minutes to throw something together, we were too tired to do it. Having meals brought to us was definitely a help. I had to swallow my pride and ask for the help, but I’m so glad I did. I don’t know what we would have done without it.

    2.) What was hardest for you? For your child?
    The hardest thing for me was dealing with the emotions I was feeling in regards to their first mom. I knew this is what she had chosen for them, that she had chosen us to be their parents, but I had a hard time being ok with taking someone else’s children. It didn’t feel right. I had such sorrow for her and what she must have been going through at the time. I felt like I should be excited and rejoicing, but I was feeling really sad for her.

    3.) What do you think was most helpful in settling your baby in? What did you feel best/most sure about in those early months?
    I had a lot of experience with babies and young children as a nanny. I knew how to care for an infant (or two! I nannied twins from infant to kindergarten.). I believe that made things easier in general. Bringing a baby home is exhausting. No matter how “good” the baby is, it is a lot of work and you get tired. Knowing how to care for them before having that reality hit made things less overwhelming, I think.

    4.) What would you do differently if you had it to do over?
    I would ask for a lot more help. I was afraid of taking advantage of people or becoming a burden, so I did a lot on my own that I should have had help doing. I would make sure to have a stronger support system in place. I would connect with more adoptive moms and talk with them about what things I was going through, both before and after the placement. My friends and family that had no experience with adoption were willing to listen, but they didn’t “get it”. I couldn’t explain to them all the things I was feeling and why.

  10. I was united with my daughter (int’l) when she was just over 8 months old;she is now 2 1/2. The hardest part of my journey came before I brought her home. Four and a half years of waiting caused great anxiety–questioning if I was doing the right thing, do I risk going another route, and was I getting too old? The best thing I did during that time was to read and prepare. It gave me a sense of confidence that not only was I aware of issues, but that I had formulated some plans should we encounter issues like food, sleep, attachment, comments from others. Answering questions for myself like, am I comfortable with co sleeping should we need to do that? Am I able to extend my time out of work if I felt we needed more time? Am I aware of my breaking point and will I be able to ask for help? I specifically and seriously asked friends what they were able and willing to do to help. I asked them pointed questions because I wanted them to think about the reality of what I needed.

    At this point my daughter has not had food, sleep, attachment or any other adoption related issues. I feel extraordinarily fortunate, yet I have not eased up on being observant and mindful just because things are going well. As someone said above, completely “fine” could be a precursor to something missed. Again, the knowledge of what might come to be is empowering and calming and will put me in a calmer, less reactive place when taking on the new challenge.

    For me, I believe the best thing I’ve done is to be with my daughter, really be with her, in her shoes, watching through her eyes and creating an environment with that in mind. We eat together, play together, tumble on the floor, show her that she can make me laugh and smile, talk to each other at the same height. Even if she’s in the other room I keep a sixth sense in tune with what she is doing and engage her in conversation about it, listen for odd noises (or no noise!).

    What I haven’t said yet is that I’m a single mom and this is my only daughter. What I worried about not being able to give her in a father or other siblings, I am able to give her my undivided attention and time.I believe this has been part of our positive experience. It is also the most pleasant surprise. I knew there had to be advantages to being a single mom,but I didn’t think about the potential value of individual and mindful attention.

    Another component that has truely benefitted both of us is her day care environment.It’s a family-based day care. The caretaker and I are on the same page about many parenting styles, so the consistency between homes has to add to my daughter’s sense of security.

    A couple things have been a challenge, like the logistics of– in essence– a one-car family! Who has an extra car seat laying around!? Another is what I call the “plop factor.” Perhaps more commonly known as being a couch potato, I find it difficult to accept that I might be too tired to do chores or hobbies at night after I put my daughter to sleep. Plopping on the couch might be a reasonable reaction to a long day, but I am seeing it as wasted time. Somewhere there is a happy medium that I’m still trying to discover.

    Being patient and flexible with yourself and your child is my best advice.
    I’m happy to share more too.

  11. I was wondering about the topic of adoption a baby who has been exposed to drugs. Would that something you would be interested in? I have adopted 5 children and several of them had withdrawls.

    • Amanda, Yes, I’d love to hear what helps drug-exposed babies transition better, and what’s most challenging about it too.

  12. Maya came home at 17 months. Juliet came home at 11 months and Elizabeth came home at 9 months.

    1.) What went well during your baby’s first weeks and months home?
    Maya and Juliet both had a honeymood period of a month or so. Maya loved being worn in Daddy’s hiking backpack. We used singing to reach her a lot of times. Singing the same song at bed, bath, and to calm. With Juliet we knew more about baby wearing, and she was worn a lot. It REALLY helps calm her, and she started attaching when she started being worn often. Elizabeth is a happy easy girl. (thank you Lord!) She needed little ‘special’ treatment. She enjoys being worn and being around us. I am a stay at home mom and our baby sitters are friends and family, but even so thats pretty rare. It makes a huge different to our kids to know either mommy or daddy will probably be home.
    2.) What was hardest for you? For your child?
    Maya grieved for hours a day for several months. That was awful. I went from having no children to have a secial needs toddler and it was really hard. Pure freedom to being a mom in just a few weeks! Maya was uncomfortable and not sure what was going on and if she should trust us. It was easier with juliet because I was used to having a child already. Much more confident in my ability to mother her. However she has a fierce temper and dearly loves to scream which is hard for me. (ear plugs) With Elizabeth the hardest thing was how much harder it is for me to go anywhere with the kids. One 3 year old is very portable. A 3 year old and a babyworn 16 month old is again pretty portable. However two toddling babies ages 20 months, 13 months, and a 3 year old is not very portable. We have to stay home a lot more.
    3.) What do you think was most helpful in settling your baby in? What did you feel best/most sure about in those early months?
    Baby wearing by far! I WISH we had known more with maya, she would have loved it. We also use songs to help wtih attachment. Elizabeth is able to sleep with us in the side car but Juliet and Maya were not able to. (fostercare) Thankfully Elizabeth needs it more because she’s the only one with night terrors. We use bottles long past what the world wants. I cant tell you how many doctors say 12 months and done with a bottle. NOPE. Formula, maybe. But a bottle? Till atleast 2. (I couldn’t breastfeed Maya and Juliet and I was too afraid to being in my milk for Elizabeth. We’ve lost too many kids)
    4.) What would you do differently if you had it to do over?
    Baby wear from the start. Not be so hard on myself as a new mom. Its okay if everything isn’t perfect. The kid isn’t sobbing because her new mom is awful. She’s crying because of pain I didn’t cause, and can not fix.

  13. Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy says:

    1)I was really the most happy that the wait was over. It seemed that I was ready to begin the rest of en my life.

    2) not much went well after the first few weeks. It was a brand new experience. I was totally out of my comfort zone and had no one else who could relate to me or who had a experienced a similar journey. There were a lot of tears, but mostly at night, when no one could here.

    3) I was most sure that my son was happy. I felt he had a better future ahead of him.

    4) if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have. I should have just accepted life as it came. I shouldn’t have tried to play God. I shouldn’t have believed those who said it was “best”. I should have believed in myself.

    Surprised by my answers? I bet they are pretty different coming from a birthmother.

    • Jenn Harvey says:

      Claudia, thank you for sharing. It’s good for us to hear your perspective. Our children’s first moms are always a part of our lives even if some have never had the blessing to meet her. Again, thank you for your words.

    • Claudia,

      I’m sorry for your pain.

      The more I am involved with adoption the more I realize how painfully imperfect it is. I was so innocent– ok, clueless– when we first thought to adopt. We fancied ourselves to be problem-solvers. And maybe we were to a certain degree. Several of our kids had birthmoms who died. In several other cases we don’t know the story. Probably the mothers didn’t have enough choices, enough resources. They’d stepped out of the picture by the time we arrived. But I will never, never forget the sacrifice made by the women who gave our children life and then made as good a choice as they believed they could given their circumstances. I hope they feel peace somehow.

      I am guessing my words to you are at best ineffective. But I could not pretend not to hear you. These kids are completely and utterly precious to us. I’m sorry their first families are missing it. I’m also sorry I have no super-glue, no magic fix for a system that needs much improvement. But I thank you for adding to my knowledge by sharing your perspective.

  14. I gave birth to our oldest son who is about to turn 4, and then we adopted our youngest son, who is now 17 months. I was at the hospital when he was born and he came strait home with us.
    What went well – he was with us from the moment he was born, and the hospital graciously gave us a room so he could “room in” with me during the days following his birth. He was born full term and heathy, and we had a lot of opportunity to spend time with his birth parents and their friends and family at the hospital, which was good for everyone involved.
    What was hardest – Not that there is ever a normal adoption senario, but we truly went from my husband and I sitting down and talking one evening about how we were ready to take the step to look into adoption/sign up for our local foster parent class to having our son 15 days later. It was so fast, and so overwhelming that even though we had our son from the second he was born and I did everything I could think of to promote bonding, I did not connect with him for many months. I often felt like I was babysitting rather than parenting in those early months and I worried I had made a tragic mistake in estimating my power to love. Everyone would ask if it was love at first sight, just like you always hear, and it wasn’t – and it scared me. But what happened over those months was slow progression of what is now a fierce motherly love for my youngest that is no different than the love I have for my oldest. I think for me, the period of time spent in anticipation of a baby, be it during a pregnancy or while waiting for a placement is an important time of emotional preparation. With the quickness of our adoption, I just needed time to catch up.
    what helped – My husbands faith in me, and his belief that all I needed was time. He would remind me that even with our older son, my connection was not instantaneous and took a few weeks. He encouraged me to be patient with myself.
    what would I do differently – We did not have the time to choose our adoption attorney carefully and ended up having to fire the first and start over. I don’t think, under the time constraints we were dealing with that we could have done anything differently, but it would have been nice:)

  15. Stephanie says:

    1.) What went well during your baby’s first weeks and months home?
    Our older children welcomed him with open arms. We didn’t experience jealousy issues at all.

    2.) What was hardest for you? For your child?
    I wasn’t prepared for the anger I’d feel as I watched him withdraw from drug exposure. 🙁 Now I am much more compassionate about his birthmother’s struggles but I’m not in the moment with a struggling newborn anymore either.

    3.) What do you think was most helpful in settling your baby in? What did you feel best/most sure about in those early months?
    In the early months, I wore him in a sling and we really worked on bonding well. He did not attend church nursery/daycare, etc. He stayed with us. We bonded well. 🙂

    4.) What would you do differently if you had it to do over?
    I probably would have asked for more prayers about his birth circumstances. We kept his drug exposure status closely guarded. We could have used the prayer.

  16. 1) What went well?
    Our daughter came home on her first birthday. She had been cared for in a pretty good orphanage — the children were held while fed bottles, for example — so her transition was really helped by having a pretty good institutional experience. She did very well by day with bonding, eating, and dropped her institutional self-soothing behavior within a month (she would repeatedly kick one foot on the mattress to fall asleep).

    2) What was hardest for you? For your child?
    Sleep was the hardest thing for us — she did LOTS of night waking, and we were exhausted but determined to help her know that we would be there for her in the night. Also, the after-school hours were rough!! I had to carry her (she HATED any and all baby carriers but wanted to be close to me always), help my kindergartener and first grader with homework, make dinner, and then do bedtimes. Those hours from 3:30 to 7:00 p.m. were really rough for about 3 months. For her . . . that’s hard to say. I often wonder what she thought of these two pale-faced people who looked strange, sounded strange, smelled strange, and then had to fly on an airplane and get used to a new house and routine. She is 5 1/2 now, and is well-attached and doing fine developmentally. One of the hardest things for me was the pressure I felt to do everything “right” to ensure good attachment and not screw her up emotionally for the rest of her life. I really second-guessed myself about all kinds of things after doing all the required adoption education. It was good to know about all the potential issues, but it kind of terrified me during decision-making about sleep issues, feeding her, etc.

    3)What do you think was most helpful in settling your toddler in? What did you feel best/most sure about in those months? We kept her world very small for the first few months, and stuck to routine as often as possible. We also had friends deliver meals every other night for about 3 weeks, which let us get over jet lag and start functioning a little better! Those meals were a Godsend also for the adult contact — I wasn’t getting out much while cocooning with my toddler, and I missed seeing friends. Because of the aforementioned second-guessing, I felt sure about almost nothing! But I was sure that my heart was bursting with love for this little person God had entrusted to us — and I always wished there was some way that I could communicate with her first mother to let her know that her daughter was loved and healthy, or show her pictures or something.

    4) What would you do differently if you had it to do over?
    I would spend less time worrying about the worst-case bonding/attachment stuff I’d read about — I would trust myself to recongize problems if they appeared, but not be paralyzed by the long-term ramifications of every tiny decision. (I noticed that our adoption agency has changed their book list since our first adoption — maybe they had feedback from other petrified parents like me!)

  17. My daughter came home to me from Ethiopia at 9-10 months old. She had no problems, remarkably, and I kept waiting for them. Immediate attachment to me, all medical reports from Ethiopia indicated problems our pediatrician didn’t see, and she slept great from the beginning. (Now, at age 4.5, sleep is a little harder.) a few weeks after coming home, there was some pretty intense food anxieties. She couldn’t sit in her high chair and wait for me to have food ready for me, she couldn’t even wait for me to cook food, so she had an “appetizer” at every meal while I prepared dinner. And after she finished her bottle she would panic that there was no ore, so I had some kind of dessert ready next to me. That lasted a few weeks, but her daycare teacher never noticed anything like it.

    For me, as silly as it sounds, the biggest problem was arm pain. She was heavy!! Only 16 pounds, but when you’re not used to carrying that weight constantly it hurts! I woke up after her second day home with horrible pain, crying. If I had to do it again, I would have worked up from a five pound weight a few weeks before she came home.

    Like other people mentioned, I read a lt of parenting books during the wait. Following the advice particularly meant for newborns (The Baby Whisperere’s eat-activity-play-time for yourself was a favorite) really helped us. I knew how to diaper, feed, and bathe a baby, but reading how to care for a brand new baby helped me ease into our first few days as a family.

    And it’s worth noting – we didn’t stay close to home at all. Dinner in a diner the first day home, shopping the next day, a visit to the mall Santa by the end of the next week. I read her cues, tried to see what she could take, saw if she looked to me for guidance and reassurance (she did so almost immediately, even before we left the airport when she was escorted to the US).

    Good luck with your proposal”


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