Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bonding and Attachment For Real (Sleep)

The problem about blogging an introduction to a series is that then you have to actually write the series some day!

In case you missed the into. you can read it here, but to summarize this series on bonding and attachment is not meant to be taken as expert advice or a prescription for how you should do things with your adopted child, there are some true experts out there with work I highly recommend you study before and after adopting a child.  This series is just my attempt to throw out there into the lake of adoption stories, our experience.

So, here it is,

Part 1: Sleep 

Sleep is a hot topic in adoption books and training. There's all kinds of stuff about why sleep may be a hard issue for an adopted child. To get really basic, the children often have trouble with sleep because they do not feel safe yet in their new environment and to go to sleep is to put yourself in a very vulnerable position.

Totally understandable.

I was prepared to rock this new child as long as she needed, co-sleep if she wanted, respond to her cries quickly at all hours of the night to build trust that I was there for her.

But, what I wasn't prepared for was the actuality of a child who didn't want to sleep and fought it like the devil.

The week we were in Ethiopia with our new 3 year old daughter, we had to lock the door to our guesthouse room before getting out pajamas or anything else that would clue our daughter into the fact that bedtime was coming because she'd run out of the room otherwise.  The first few nights it took several minutes to get past the mad and get to a point where she'd let me hold her.  But she would, eventually let me walk around the room carrying her, then she'd get tired and lay her head on my shoulder, and finally fall asleep in my arms and transfer easily into the bed where she slept with my husband and me.  If at any point during the walking her around the room process before she fell asleep, I tried to sit down with her, she'd begin screaming and stand up in my lap, attempting to pull me up with her!  So carry her around some more I did, even when my arms got very tired.

Once we got home, Little Girl had keen radar to when we might be trying to get her to go to sleep and although she wanted us to hold her most of the daytime, once it was bedtime she just wanted to run around and did not want us carrying her or rocking her.

So, here was my issue.  I knew she needed sleep.  I've parented 3 other 3 year old children and know that their behavior gets worse when they haven't had enough sleep.  I could observe Little Girl's behavior become more hyper and reved up the more tired she got, and knew I needed to help her calm down and rest.  

But how?  

She didn't want to be rocked or held.  If I put her in the bed and laid next to her she fought to get out of the bed.  I certainly wasn't going to shut her in a room to "cry it out" alone. 

I actually entertained the idea of just letting Little Girl do what she wanted, which was play with toys in the playroom and just wait until she tuckered out on her own, then I'd put her to bed.  But this completely child-led parenting technique didn't feel right either.  

I scoured the multitude of adoption and attachment books I had trying to find practical help about just what exactly I should do!  I did not find anything specific, just general things about creating a calm environment and being understanding about why sleep is an issue -- Um, okay, got those things, but she's still not asleep!!!

What I ended up doing felt very wrong at the time, but looking back it was the best decision and led to me being more bonded with my daughter.

I decided she had two choices.  Rock with me in the rocking chair or stay in her bed.  Neither scenario was I going to leave her side.

Here's how it played out:

After the bedtime routine of bath, lotion, jammies, book, soft music, I'd pick her up and sit with her in the rocking chair.  She'd cry and fight to get down to the point that I really couldn't hold her.  So I'd say, "Okay, you don't want to be rocked, then you need to be in your bed."  And I'd lay her down in her bed and stand right next to the bed.  She would freak out about being put in bed and immediately stand up reaching out her arms for me to pick her up.

I would immediately pick her up and go back to the rocking chair to rock her.  She'd cry and fight to get down.  I'd remind her of the choices, "Rock or Bed" and we'd repeat the whole scenario several times over until Little Girl would finally relax against me and let me rock her to sleep.

This went on for a week or two (funny how quickly you forget, kinda like childbirth!) but each night we'd have fewer iterations and it would take less time for her to give in, and then she got where she wouldn't fight the rocking at all!

So, that's where we are now.  Happily rocking for 10 to 20 minutes before she falls asleep with no fighting at all.  (That 10 to 20 minutes of rocking turns into 90 to 120 minutes of rocking if Little Girl takes a nap of even just a few minutes during the day, but my reluctantly giving up naptime, which I feel sure is the only way I survived my other children being 3 years old, is a whole 'nother post!)

She sleeps about half the night in her bed in the room she shares with her 6 year old sister and at some point in the middle of the night each night she wakes up and I let her sleep the rest of the night in bed with my husband and me.  

We didn't co-sleep at all with our 3 biological children (maybe just a couple times when they were really sick), so this is new for us and I have to say, selfishly, I'm not a big fan!  I am actually surprised with myself for feeling this way after waiting so long for this little girl to come home, but after holding her much of the day I just want to sleep without her hanging on my neck or pushing her little feet into my back.  But, I know she needs the extra closeness and we're making up for lost time, critical snuggles she may not have gotten as an infant!  So, I do it, knowing it's best for her, knowing that someday she'll grow up and I'll miss these nights.  But, I also shamelessly scooch her closer to my husband's side of the bed throughout the night!

A few ending thoughts:

We played music while in Ethiopia to get our daughter to sleep easier and have continued it at home at bedtime, the same music. 

So guess what?  I'm still listening to Christmas music every night when I rock her!!!

My advice to anyone going after us on the journey -- pick some timeless music!

And last, I have no idea why it took me a few weeks to think of this.  But, to help my daughter calm more easily at bedtime, I now cover her up with a blanket when I rock her.   Kind of like swaddling a newborn, only the 3 year old version, where the blanket's just tucked around her whole body, with her head sticking out.  I can almost instantly feel her body relax when I cover her with a soft blanket. 

I am sharing our sleep story with the hope that our experience might just help one other family while they're in the trenches of parenting a newly adopted child.  I know in those moments where Little Girl was screaming and I kept thinking, "I'm making her miserable.    This child has been through so much, shouldn't I just do everything I can to keep her happy?  She doesn't want to be rocked!  I'm forcing my child to let me rock her, how crazy is that?!"  it would have been a blessing to see the other side, to know this was okay, that other families had been through this, that it would get better.

I'm thankful for all the progress we've already seen with our new little girl when it's really only been a couple months, for all the ways God is healing her! 

Find more Thankful Thursday here.


  1. oh i love to sleep. if only i can have more time to sleep... =)

  2. What a wonderful story that I am sure will help many. Our little girl wasn't adopted but we still had serious bedtime issues. Then one night I let her stay up. The other kids were in bed. I told her she had to stay in her dad comfy lounge chair. She sat there wiggling around with a smile. Hubby went to bed and I prepared to go to bed. I told her good night and then she said, "When's it going to start?" I said, "What's going to start?" She said, "When does the party start?" I was so puzzled. I said, "no party is starting, I'm going to bed now". We said her prayers (stories had been read earlier with the other kids). I told her again, "Now sit in the chair (I gave her a blanket)." She looked so disappointed as I wondered off to bed. Then she said, "I'll go to bed now". I was so relieved because I didn't know if I could just leave her in the room alone at night. So, I went with her to her room and tucked her in. That was the end of it. All those months and she had it in her mind a party began? I have no idea how she got that idea... Still a puzzle to this day.

  3. Oh I so feel you on the fighting sleep thing. Amani did it on his little 15-month-old level, too. I'm glad you offered some concrete advice 'cause I had the same problems - reading everything and no actual ideas on what to do!
    We do the same thing... bedtime routine, rocking, rocking, rocking (to the same CD now for the past 5 months! ha ha!). Our little man will go to bed for me now, but not Daddy! Baby steps though, right?

  4. I have two adopted children. My six year old now sleeps fine by herself, but we have a 16 month old that still needs rocking, music, bottle, etc. And then wakes up and like to be held in the middle of the night too. Praying he will be more content in the middle of the night soon. He sleeps with us, but still wants to be held, not just cuddled.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. I think it is great that you are sharing what works for you. As you said, there are many books out there that help with parenting (adoptive or biological children), but most of them are theory. Not every child is the same; what works for one does not mean it works for another.

    Thank you for sharing your grateful heart with us.


I'd love to hear what you think!