Promoting Attachment through the Senses

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Babies under a year old are highly sensory beings. Because their primary intellectual task during the first few months of their lives involves learning to use all of their senses and developing motor skills, each of a baby's senses is finely tuned and he is acutely aware of any and all changes. His environment is defined by all of his senses--how things look, how things taste, how things smell, how things feel, how things sound--and through his experience of a familiar and predictable routine. While it's always best for children to experience a stable and secure environment from the moment of their birth, this is often not possible for babies who will be adopted. For children who must move from an environment in which they already feel secure, then, transferring attachment to a new parent will be enhanced by efforts to maintain as many familiar sensory elements as possible.

All of Chapter 3 ("We Have Lift Off") of my book Launching a Baby's Adoption (February, 1997, Perspectives Press) offers readers suggestions for addressing ways to incorporate the familiar into a newly-arrived baby's routine and into his sensory experiences. The book offers practical strategies for helping your child find his new environment familiar to his sense of sight, his sense of taste, his sense of smell, his sense touch, his sense of sound. But Chapter 3 of Launching a Baby's Adoption is far too long for posting here. We'll need to limit your "taste" of the book, then, to just two of your baby's senses. I've chosen to share with you some suggestions involving the senses of smell and touch.

Families adopting internationally and the professionals working with them seemed to acknowledge that change can affect even babies' attachments much earlier than have those working with domestic infant adoption. Magazines such as Adoptive Families and Adoption Today have through the years featured articles on the adjustment difficulties common to children arriving from India, from Asia, from South America. The symptoms discussed were the symptoms of grieving, as these children dealt with the loss of the familiar--familiar caretakers, familiar food, familiar sounds, familiar smells, familiar voices and language, familiar culture--and were forced to make a transitional adaptation. In a powerful example of David Kirk's Shared Fate theory in action, it has been those adopters who were, by virtue of the obvious in their family, unable to reject or deny difference and instead were forced to acknowledge it, who have led the way in dealing with this important adoption-related issue.

Being asked to maintain the familiar for the baby's sake is sometimes a difficult thing for new adopters to hear. In claiming for themselves the role of parent, new adopters had expected that as parents it would be their role and their unquestioned right to make decisions that new parents make about nursery decor and layette, about feeding, about a comfort cycle, about family routine, etc. Now being asked to "adapt" to a parenting style and routines already established by birthparents or foster parents or group home workers may remind adopters once again that their family's beginnings are different from the beginnings of families built by birth. They may balk at feeling out of control once more and vow to do things their own way despite suggestions from others.

Promoting attachment, however, lends itself to a whole style of parenting which fits right in with my strong view, expressed throughout Launching a Baby's Adoption, that adoptions must be baby-centered. Parents promote intimacy by responding to the baby's cues rather than imposing their own will upon Baby. The pediatrician and author William Sears, M.D., actually calls this style "attachment parenting." Dr. Sears writes for the general population of parents, and not only is his focus not adoption, but some of the things he writes may not feel particularly sensitive to adoption. On the other hand, I agree with Sears, who believes that this "tuning in" approach to parenting carries over into closer relationships between parent and child that will lead those children themselves to become better parents.

The older your baby is at placement with you, the more significant transition issues may be for him. Please try to recognize your resistance to being told how to parent as a left over loss-of-control issue and attempt to be flexible here. Over the long haul, your willingness to compromise during transition, to allow your child's experiences to lead you as his parent, and to gradually introduce your child to the new sensory experiences and routines which reflect your own preferences may result in fewer adoption-connected problems or differences later.

Some of the suggestions I share for sensory attachment are pro-active. They are things you can do to try to put your "personal stamp" on the environment in which Baby will spend his time before he comes to your home. Parents whose children will continue to live in an orphanage or in foster care in another country after they've already been "assigned" may find some of these tips useful, as may those whose children will move temporarily after birth to a domestic foster home and those whose children will need to spend time in a neonatal nursery. You may be able to send ahead some items that can help your child adapt to his family-to-be. Blankets, toys, pictures and posters, cassette tapes (nothing of heirloom quality or which would have irreplaceable family significance.) Even if this adoption does not come to be, what will you have lost by providing these inexpensive items? Other suggestions are re-active. These are some ways that you can adapt and retrofit your home's environment to include some of the familiar comforts of the place in which your baby lived before he came home to you.

A baby's sense of smell is stimulated by a variety of odors in his environment. Every habitat, every workplace has an odor that is it's own. When you go back to your parents' home today, do you not notice upon entering that it "smells like home"? When you open your partner's closet, do you not smell him or her there? When you enter your workplace do you notice a familiar odor comprised of the product of that workplace (paints, toners, fabrics, papers, chemicals, the carpeting, the smoking or non-smoking and more.) Your favorite restaurant is permeated by, among other things, the cooking smells associated with the spices and other foods that draw you back there again and again. What distinctive odors are a part of your home--your baby's new home?

Observe or ask about your baby's previous environments. What colognes, soaps, powders, deodorants, detergents, fabric softeners, cleaning products, and cooking odors were a normal part of Baby's first environment? Might you and your partner use some of those earlier-known scents for a while in order to give your baby a sense of the familiar? Did incense scent the room? Use candles in your home. Sheets and blankets washed with the same detergent or tumbled with the same fabric softener strips as those used by a foster mom can make a new bed seem more like home. If you will be traveling to another country, you may wish to purchase local soaps or detergents to take home with you.

Whenever possible, ask to take home with you actual blankets or clothing with which the baby may be familiar. Frequently those adopting internationally will find that the foster parents caring lovingly for their Baby are so poor that they are hesitant about allowing the adopting parents to keep anything. Mary Hopkins-Best, in her new Toddler Adoption: The Weaver's Craft (Perspectives Press, May, 1997) suggests planning ahead for this eventuality. Most foster parents and nursery supervisors are more than willing to trade old for new, she suggests.

Research seems to indicate that newborn babies quickly come to identify their birthmothers by smell--both through the phenomes generated by their bodies and the unique fragrance of their breast milk. If your adoption is an open one and your child's birthmother will have cared for him for a time, you may wish to ask your baby's birthmother to give you a tee shirt she has worn which you can wear (without washing her smell out of it) for several days at home as your baby gets used to you. If your child has spent several weeks with a single foster caregiver, you might make the same request of that person.

Therapist and open adoption expert Sharon Roszia observes for both parents and professionals that supporting and encouraging these kinds of interlinks in transitioning between birth and adoptive (or foster and adoptive) families can offer benefits to the adults, as well as the child, diminishing any possible feeling that one is "taking something away from" or "beholden to" the other and helping each feel that together they are a "team" working on behalf of a baby they both love.

Your baby's sense of touch quickly helps him respond to the shape of a trusted caretaker's body, the touch of her fingers, her rough or gentle handling, to a manner of being carried and cuddled (arms, backpack, frontpack, sling, rocking chair, hammock, etc.), to the softness of a particular mattress or the firmness of a sleeping mat, to the texture of clothing and bedcoverings, or to the shape and firmness of a particular latex nipple or pacifier.

In some situations you may be able to send blankets and clothes, a supply of a particular brand of nursers and nipples to be used for the baby who will be yours. In other cases you may be called upon to adapt to the textures your baby has grown used to. Though you can't change your body shape, understanding that a baby may be missing the soft shape of his plump foster mother as he struggles to get comfortable against your flatter and more athletic frame will help you understand to what he's working to adapt.

Unfortunately in most international adoptions and with the domestic adoptions of a great many babies who are not newborns you are likely to find that agencies or institutions remain uninformed about the value of information about sensory expenses and transitional aids and processes and will not be willing to cooperate with your requests about transitional preparation. (We can always hope that within a few years Launching a Baby's Adoption will have changed all that.) Some don't want to offend orphanage workers or foster parents. You may even find some professionals apparently afraid of and resistant to your questions about the details of your baby's sensory and experiential life before adoption. If this is the case, all is far from lost! As parents your willingness to reach out for help if needed and, even more so, to be flexible and adaptable as you search for what seems to "feel" right between you and your baby is perhaps the most important element in building your attachment to one another. Where to turn? Why to a parent support group, of course, and its hundreds of families who have already "been there."

Credits: Patricia Irwin Johnston, MS

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