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Thursday, 25 February 2021
Myths Print
Myth: Babies Bond at the Airport

Babies who have experienced the trauma of losing a birth mother and subsequent caregivers are in "survival mode." Some cry, already expressing their deep feelings of grief. Others appear happy, a façade that cannot continue on a long-term basis, resulting in this early time often being called the "honeymoon phase." On reflection, one of the most disturbing things about a happy child who reaches for his new family is the complete lack of inhibition. After all, these people are complete strangers. When he happily volunteers to go home with them, he is betraying the fact that he has no stranger anxiety. A child who happily walks out of the airport with one family would be just as happy to leave with another family. As much as adoptive parents would like it to be true, babies do not bond at the airport.

I remember being thankful that he looked so happy. Before he was even out of the carrier, I reached for him and he smiled and laughed and was just the happiest little baby I had ever seen. In the background I heard voices commenting on just how happy my son looked. Voices from complete strangers, our greeter, and the two friends who cried as they captured what felt like the most perfect moment of my life. Even after we came home from the airport, our son was still happier than any baby I had ever seen. He smiled, laughed, and gave wonderful hugs. He gently stroked our faces, appearing so happy to be home with his forever family. But before long, and it was all so gradual, the honeymoon was over. And the happy baby was not always so happy. Life with our son became more and more difficult. The more we learned, the more I wished for one thing. I wished he had screamed bloody murder at the airport. (a. 6mo, FC)

My baby reached his arms out to me at the airport and grinned. For the first six months he was home he was the picture of happiness, convincing me that we'd bonded at the airport. Now, 2.5 years and a lot of therapy later, I know that babies do not bond at the airport. (a. 5.5mo, FC)

Myth: Babies Bond with Foster Families and Easily "Transfer Attachment" to Their Forever Families

It is naïve to say that a baby can simply transfer attachment from one person to another. They need to go through the attachment process, long and difficult for many.

The child has not only experienced the traumatic loss of his birth mother (remember, to him, he and the birth mother were one, so losing his birth mother is akin to experiencing a life and death situation), but he has likely experienced one or more additional placements, all confirming what he learned at birth: the world is not a safe place and he must control it in order to feel safe.

Many attachment professionals explain that the emotional age is set back to zero months when a child is placed with a new family. The child often will go through a grieving process first and will struggle with trusting someone new. Many mothers claim that their baby "attached" in the first days or weeks home. People mistake a child who is scared and clinging to the new caregiver or happy and smiling (in a honeymoon attempt to get along) as "attached". This is not a healthy and secure attachment. The attachment process is different for every child, and it does take a lot of time, nurturing, consistency and a form of parenting that promotes attachment. Love alone is not enough.

Note: Consider, also, that many babies are unable to fully attach to their foster parents. They may have nothing to "transfer." The loss of the birth mother may have been so traumatic as to prevent a good attachment right from the start. Or the child may have been moved so many times as to prevent a healthy attachment with anyone.

Myth: Attachment issues are immediately evident.

Attachment issues are not always immediately evident. Many children have a "honeymoon period" in which they appear to be happy and adjusting well. This can last days, weeks, or even months.

For the first six months in our home, my son appeared to be easy going, content, and most of all, happy. After the first 10 days, sleep issues improved. He played with his siblings, preferred me to everyone else, and slept comfortably alone in his crib at nap and night. At the six-month post placement meeting with our social worker, I remember thinking what a waste of time it was to be filling out all the questions. He had bonded with me from day one. Nothing had changed. He laughed and giggled throughout all our placement meetings.

Within weeks of this final postplacment visit, subtle changes began to occur. He abruptly refused to eat the cereal he'd been happily eating for months. He seemed melancholy. On his baby calendar I wrote, "No sickness or teeth symptoms, but not usual happy self." About this time, he learned that he could grind his teeth together. I worried about it, yet nothing deterred the behavior. But the most overwhelming symptom was the whining. It would commence first thing in the morning and continue throughout the day.

About a month after his moodiness started, we welcomed visitors from across the country. A friend from college had brought her three girls to stay with us for several weeks. We celebrated his first birthday and open season on little girls began. If one of the girls tried to get too close--to pick him up or give him a hug--the little grinders came out and he would bite them. The biting became more and more frequent, especially whenever he was mad, which was becoming a regular occurrence. If he attempted to bite someone and missed, he would bite whatever was close: another person, a couch, a refrigerator handle, his own hand…anything! If biting didn't work, he would scream and try to scratch or claw the nearest person.

We went to a Mexican restaurant and he leaned back against the waitress and sighed, snuggling into her. We'd never seen anything like it and were shocked when he did it over and over. Although he'd been using baby sign language for months, he suddenly refused to sign, preferring to whine, cry, and point to things.

Yet, after weeks of whining, things would suddenly seem better. My happy boy would return. By this time, I figured that the moody periods must be teething or growing pains or any number of other toddler troubles. We were in a happy mode when we went for a well-baby check. I told the pediatrician, "I'm probably going to call you to complain about the whines. If I do, just tell me, 'This too shall pass.'" The doctor laughed and my son bounced happily around the room, thrilled to be able to perform for the doctor and nurse.

Yet after nine months home, I was convinced that my son was the moodiest child I'd ever seen. Some days he smiled and giggled, loving everybody and everything. But more often than not, he was whiney, impatient, and would get mad or frustrated easily. He'd try to pick up four balls at once. When he couldn't hang onto all of them, he'd fall to the ground, screaming. If he got really mad, he'd look for someone to bite; if no one was close, he'd bite himself or pull his own hair.

Throughout this time, I'd mention his behavior to friends who'd say, "He's just strong-willed," or "All kids bite. It's just a phase. He'll get over it."

At Thanksgiving, I got a 24 hour bug. My husband did most of the childcare for a couple days. And the sleeping problems began. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he would wake from nightmares with blood-curdling screams. Sometimes he cried out from the depths of his sleep, never waking, in the grips of a night terror.

Yet he still had many happy days. I knew toddlers could bite, scream, and have tantrums. My own biological daughter had suffered through a period of night terrors. I knew that nightmares were just a routine part of any childhood. Everyone continued to reassure me that all his behaviors were absolutely normal for a toddler. And, who could blame them? In public, he was often charming. He turned to us for comfort. He showed an obvious preference for his parents. Or, at least one of his parents…

During Christmas break, I had a second bout of 24 hour flu. My husband again did most of the childcare for a couple of days. When he returned to work in January, my son clung to Daddy's legs, screaming and crying. He refused to come to me…his mommy…the person who had cared for him 24/7 since he came home a year before…the person whom he showed obvious preference for at his 6-month post placement visit. What had gone wrong? (a.5.5mo, FC)

In a similar manner, PTSD issues may present themselves quite a while after the child arrives home. One adoptive mom reports that her daughter's issues did not begin to surface until she'd been home about 18 months. (a. 7mo, OR)

FAQ: What's "normal" adjustment/grieving vs. an attachment problem?

Many children go through an adjustment/grieving period soon after arriving home. Over time, these issues may increase or decrease in intensity. In addition, some issues may be replaced by other issues. Whatever the case, attachment parenting techniques can be beneficial for any child…and certainly won't hurt. Because professional attachment treatment is most effective when started early, we recommend that adoptive parents consult with an attachment professional, similar to the way children are brought to the doctor for a well-baby check. This is especially important if symptoms continue past the first couple of months or if new symptoms appear.

In our case, our son grieved a little bit but maybe he did more and we just didn't see it?? He seemed happy go lucky and was a good eater and sleeper. He cried the 2nd and 4th days home a little and we just held him through it. After that he seemed fine--smiled, laughed, etc… I wish we took more videotape of him to go back and see how he really was. We really didn't see anything alarming until around 10-11 months old (he had been home 5 months by then). I think the adjustment period went okay on the outside--he was flexible, slept through the night, took good naps, and was a good eater. Everyone said how quickly he adjusted to us! Then after 10 months old, the strange tantrums started, he whined all day, cried, slept on and off, naps were inconsistent, he became a picky eater, and had slow imitative speech. That is when my mommy alarms started going off.

Personally, I would advise someone to start off with all of the attachment techniques. Why take a chance? The kids may seem adjusted but on the inside are still detached. I don't know if you can always see it in every kid up front. Some come off the plane detached and in full grieving mode. Others, like our son, are subtler at first. I am SURE he showed signs in the beginning, but they were so subtle that my mommy radar didn't pick it up--MOSTLY because I wasn't aware of what to look for! I was trained to look for weight gain, good poops and clean plates/empty bottles. NOT eye contact, snuggling, touch, etc. (a. 6mo, FC)

He seemed to "adjust" fine but it was all a HUGE act...as he continued to perform his happy boy act for us (honeymoon period) he clearly was not attaching and was pushing me further and further away...little by little… until we were in this ugly place that I swore we had no hope of getting out of. (a. 6mo, FC)

Our daughter definitely had 6 months of some intense grieving. After that we had a few weeks of "happy, normal," then the attachment symptoms began. I know she needed to work through her grief, but I still wish I'd known more about attachment and practiced active attachment parenting from day one. (a. 10.5mo, FC)

We saw few, if any, symptoms for the first 6 months. Although I could not have prevented an attachment problem, I could have done things from the beginning that would have made things easier in the long run. We began serious attachment parenting only after we began therapy around age 2. Co-sleeping, wearing the baby, etc… are all things we could have easily done earlier if we'd been educated about the importance. (a. 5.5mo, FC)

Adjustment vs. Attachment

How do parents know whether they are seeing normal adjustment or attachment problems? An adoptive mom shares her story.

Attachment always trumps adjustment. Indeed, our children have an adjustment period, and they need to grieve. But, if I'm only considering adjustment, I might "be there" for her, but not push things too hard; I might "respect her grief" and "give her space". This is what I did with child #1, and I'm now convinced (hindsight being 20/20) that it was the absolute wrong thing to do. So I did things very differently with child #2. She showed me every night of our first weeks together that I was most certainly NOT the right mommy. But, wrong mommy or right mommy, what she needed to learn most is that THIS mommy will never ever leave her. EVER! She moved away from me, I pursued. She batted my hand, I reached for her again. She pushed me, I moved closer. She raged, I held her tight. And, I think we're seeing some really positive results. We have a long, long, long way to go with our attachment, but I see things in child #2 after 2 months that I'm still not seeing in child #1 after 3 years. Child #2 is able to derive a sense of calm from my touch--my hand on her chest or head chases away a nightmare. Being held in my arms allows her to settle when she's in "frantic" mode. She can "draw calm" from me. Child #1 can't. (Child #1 a. 10.5mo, FC; Child #2 a. 22mo, OR)

Myth: Babies with attachment disorders look like they don't like their parents.

Although some children with attachment impairment show avoidant behavior, others do just the opposite. They may glue themselves to mom, never wanting to be without her. Some cry when mom leaves the room, or get up to chase after her. This anxiety may sound cute for a small child--hence the name, "Velcro Baby,"--but it quickly loses it's appeal as the child gets older and still feels the need to be next to mom, 24/7.

One family learned that their son had an attachment problem when he turned 7. Since the age of 2, they had worked weekly with doctors, occupational therapists and other professionals who had given them diagnoses including: ADD, OCD, SID, and motor and verbal dyspraxia. Even after all that, the parents knew that they still hadn't found the root cause of the behavior and that something more was wrong. No professional looked at the possibility of an attachment problem because he chose to be within 6" of his mom, all day, every day. Now, after only a few months of attachment therapy, he is able to begin normal, healthy separation and is improving in the other areas as well. His mom reports, "The light at the end of the tunnel is becoming visible! PRAISE THE LORD!!!" (a. 10 mo, OR)
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