by Mina Bacigalupi
You have been waiting for this moment for months. You have been examined, studied, notarized, and authenticated. You stayed up until 3:00 AM packing and re-packing every possible item a new baby would need, fitting it into one bag, weighing less than 44 pounds. You squeezed yourself into a hard seat with minimal leg room for 14 hours and 6000 miles. You have eaten just enough foreign food to feel slightly queasy and wonder why you packed the Pepto-Bismol at the bottom of your bag.
She was abruptly awakened two hours earlier than usual. She was scrubbed in a chilly bath, dressed in starchy unfamiliar clothes and loaded on a bus with other crying babies. The dusty, six-hour journey has left her parched and thirsty. She knows by the excited chatter of her caretakers that something dramatic is going on.
Finally, the moment arrives. The hotel room door opens, your baby is lovingly placed in your arms and you begin your new life together. You melt and instantly transform into a nurturing being, totally in awe and in love with the infant before you. She looks at you, cooing and babbling, with eyes that can only say “Where have you been all my life?” It’s Probably Not Going to Happen!
More likely, your child will thrash, cry, and perform every maneuver to wriggle away from you. More likely, you will feel uncomfortable, nervous, totally inept and out of control. After a sleepless night, you find yourself questioning, “What on earth have I done?”
Even small babies will show signs of grief during this transition time. Parting from loving, familiar caregivers is difficult and traumatic. New people, new sounds and new smells can be frightening. Some babies will be irritable and cry. Some may totally “shut down” and be very quiet, withdrawn and unwilling to interact. Temporary relapses in development are common and a child that was walking and talking may refuse to do so for a day or two or perhaps, even a week or more.
Many parents have unrealistic expectations of the first few hours or night together. While it might not be the fairy tale of your dreams, there are a few things that you can do to make the transition a little smoother.
Provide a quiet environment. Dimly light the room and speak in a quiet low voice. Place her on her back in the middle of the bed. Then lie down beside her and gently talk to her as you get acquainted. In a matter of a few hours, your daughter’s world has been turned upside down. Imagine that she has a severe headache. Then try to accommodate an environment that will be soothing for her.
Don’t change her clothes. Loosen them, tuck a diaper underneath, and adjust the layers to make her comfortable. Dress her slightly warmer than what is comfortable for you. Remember the orphanage probably did not have the comforts of heating and air-conditioning that your hotel room does.
Resist the urge to bathe her. Baths in the orphanage were probably chilly, infrequent experiences. The sense of smell is much more powerful than once believed. With all the other changes going on, the scent on her clothes may be a familiar comfort.
Hold the flashes. Take a couple photos of the first special moments, then wait until the next day to bombard her with bright flashes. Change to a higher speed film and turn off the flash. Or set up your video camera on a table-top tripod to record those first hours without intervention from you.
Offer her food and formula, but don’t fret if she doesn’t eat right away. Hopefully, her caretakers have shared with you what she is accustomed to eating. If she is not interested, don’t try to force feed her. Refusal to eat may be a part of her grieving process. She will come around.
Minimize tactile stimulation. A baby that has had minimal physical contact can easily be over stimulated by loving parents. Touch is important, but use gentle firm touch. Stroking, patting, and rubbing may be too much for right now. Don’t jiggle. To comfort a crying baby many people will hold the baby up to their shoulder and gently start to bounce. As the crying continues the bouncing increases at a frantic pace, resulting in a vigorous dance that is hardly soothing. Gentle rocking and swaying while being held securely will be most comforting.
Reduce visual stimulation. When newborn babies have seen enough they turn their heads away so as not to become over stimulated. Often a crying baby can be comforted by being held securely on a shoulder facing a blank wall. Your baby has probably seen more in the travels from the orphanage than she has in her whole lifetime. Now is not the time for mobiles and brightly-colored toys. The most important thing for her to look at is your face. If she turns away, respect her wishes and rest for a while. She will look back soon and learn to love your face.
Allow comforting behaviors. Thumb-sucking, rocking, and self-stimulation are ways in which your baby has learned to comfort herself. These will help her feel better in this stressful situation.
At bedtime, try to re-create an environment that she is used to. If she is from a foster home she most likely slept in a family bed with her foster parents or siblings. A baby from an orphanage may be most comfortable lying on her back in a crib. Both places were probably very dark and quiet.
Don’t be alarmed if you don’t fall instantly in love with your baby. Bonding is a reciprocal process that doesn’t happen overnight. There is nothing wrong if you don’t feel anything right away. Relax and give it time.
Don’t fret if your baby prefers one parent over the other. This is a frequent occurrence. Your baby probably finds it easier to get acquainted with one parent at a time. Before long she will respond warmly to both of you.
Relax and take care of yourself. Remember to eat and drink plenty of fluids. Take turns with your partner so both of you are getting some rest. If the crying is too much, ask someone in your travel group to give you a break.
Remember that birthparents don’t know everything either. You will soon be an expert on your baby, how to fulfill her wants and needs, and how to comfort her when she is distressed. Soon you both will know- You are the best thing that ever happened to her.
Copyright 2005 Adoption Mosaic. This article may be reprinted or copied only with expressed, written permission of the author.