Recently I watched STUCK, a documentary by the Both Ends Burning campaign that highlights the crisis that international adoption is facing, due in part to the Hague Adoption Convention. The film showcases several orphanages and their young residents, who are languishing with little care while American families fight to adopt them. Because of a low worker-to-child ratio, these babies and toddlers receive little to no one-on-one attention and as a result suffer serious brain damage and will, in time, have difficulty bonding with their caregivers. Couples who adopt from these orphanages are warned about the work that they will have to do to repair the damage wrought by these conditions. It’s possible to help a child catch up developmentally and go on to form healthy and secure attachments with loved ones, but it takes time and dedicated investment.
I’m an adoptive parent myself, and watching the movie broke my heart. As I wiped away tears, I felt such gratitude that my son had not had to endure such living conditions and didn’t have any struggles bonding with my husband and me. Since we adopted an infant domestically, I had always figured we wouldn’t have to worry about bonding with our baby. Our son went from his birth mother’s womb to a loving foster mom’s arms (not to mention the eager arms of the foster mom’s four kids!) to our embrace. He never lacked in focused, individual attention.
But a few weeks ago, as part of the training requirement for our second adoption, my husband and I attended a class called “Enhancing Bonding and Attachment.” I must admit, I didn’t expect to learn much. I assumed we’d be told how to create a secure attachment with an older child who had suffered neglect prior to adoption, information that wouldn’t apply to us as adoptive parents of an infant. I was wrong. What I learned shocked me, but it also and encouraged me.
The shocking (for me) part: neglect is not the sole cause of brain trauma. Seems like a duh statement when I write it out like that. I know the hypothalamus can sustain damage in utero as well, but I had always assumed that as long as the birth mother wasn’t a victim of abuse or didn’t use drugs or alcohol, her baby wouldn’t suffer any ill effects and attachment wouldn’t be an issue. I was wrong. Any stressful situation a birth mother experiences can be detrimental to her baby. And unexpectedly becoming pregnant can certainly qualify as stressful—even for a mother who is in a secure relationship. A woman facing an unplanned pregnancy without a committed partner and/or financial security will have plenty of cortisol pumping through her body—even without the added factors of physical or drug abuse—and those high levels of stress hormone will negatively affect the baby’s brain.
The encouraging part: most adoptive parents do the work needed to repair any damage caused by a birth mother’s stress without even thinking about it. The fix for babies harmed by pre-natal anxiety? Cuddling. Lots of eye contact. Constant verbal reassurances of love. Bouncing for comfort. Even the simple act of feeding! As a baby’s needs are met, she feels loved, which builds attachment. Phew! We did that without even being told. But it was important for me to hear this foundation of connection spelled out. Even if I did squeeze my little munchkin instinctively and kiss his soft cheeks enough to chap them, I appreciate learning how those simple actions aid in his development. And when I’m next at the bottle feeding stage and am feeling a little bored, I’ll remind myself how important this time of closeness is for my little one.