April is here and the focus at No Hands But Ours is attachment, so I thought I’d share our experience with attachment and what has worked for us. Because, having 12 children (8 children adopted from China in the last 10 years), we have lots of experience with attachment. Successes and failures, and everything in between.
As a mom of a large, relatively conspicuous brood, I get a lot of questions. One question I’m asked frequently is how we manage so many little ones, specifically, how we are able to foster attachment considering the size of our family and how quickly our family has grown from 4 kids to 12.
I do have some thoughts on this. So many I could sit over coffee with you and talk longer than you would want to listen. But if I could only share one suggestion – make one recommendation – to a mama wanting to know what has worked best for us over the last 10 years, it would be no contest.
Co-sleeping is king.
I’m a information-seeker by nature. So, years ago (many years ago) when I was a brand new mama, I read all the books and did all the research. And, based on what the experts said, I co-slept with several of my bio kiddos. Short term, I loved it. I was nursing, which equals sleep-deprived, and co-sleeping seemed to be just the ticket. But long term, not so much. In fact, by co-sleeping, I felt like I actually created sleep issues for my kids. (For one of mine it was years before he could sleep through the night without waking at least a few times.) Pregnant with my last biological child I swore I would never co-sleep, but instead put him in a little bassinet and then transitioned him to his crib. He grew into an excellent sleeper and I was pretty sure co-sleeping was for crazy people.
Then, three years later, we grew our family through adoption. And I did all the research again. Except parenting bio kids and parenting adopted kids is so not the same. And in 2004 there wasn’t nearly as much effective adoptive-parenting information out there. For us, it wasn’t a well-mapped road. It was more of a run-out-of-gas, get-lost-and-turn-around kind of road. Lots of mistakes. Lots of things we wish we could do over. But one thing we did right (despite the fact that at the time we had no idea of it’s significance or the blessings it would reap) and that was choosing to co-sleep with our newly adopted kiddos.
Now? We wouldn’t do it any other way.
Here are five reasons why.
1. It’s good for them.
• The physical closeness has been a balm to the soul of our kiddos through adoption. Some of them have suffered neglect and lacked any physical contact. And some of them have been loved well and that closeness is something they’ve come to know and cherish. Either way, co-sleeping works to satisfy that need for contact in a big way.
• Your little one needs physical contact and closeness to foster and encourage bonding. Getting to know you, your smell, your peculiarities during those hours you’re insulated from the rest of the world goes a long way in encouraging the process of not only becoming a family, but feeling like a family. Think of a newborn and how much time that baby’s mama is carrying, rocking, patting and toting it. Well, your newly adopted child is just as needy, they just don’t look like it on the outside. Co-sleeping goes a long way in promoting that closeness without wearing out your biceps.
• During those first few days, weeks and months after coming home from China, your child is feeling completely overwhelmed and insecure (whether they act like it or not). Sleep is something that probably won’t come easily for them, and understandably so. I know if my husband is away, or even worse if I’m away without him, I sleep terribly. I wake up at every sound and then falling back to sleep can be impossible. This is how it has been for our kids when they come home from China, times 100. They’ve lost everything that is familiar to them. Sleep is elusive and good sleep is almost impossible. Co-sleeping has helped us immensely in encouraging a good night’s sleep for our kiddos – they wake up and are reminded, immediately, that they are not alone. They don’t have to wake up and cry, and wait for us to run down the hall. We’re already there.
• It builds trust between you and your child. By being there for them at night, it encourages them to let down their defenses (many kids have had to fend for themselves for way too long) and soon you’ll be able to see their real personality emerge. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that if you don’t co-sleep your child will never trust you. There are many ways to build trust between a parent and child. What I am saying, from lots of experience, that co-sleeping can be a beautiful way to begin building that trust – with minimal effort on both of your parts.
• It makes them feel special. When you have more than one child, co-sleeping can be a way of giving your littlest some extra-special mama and baba time. Literally. They get you all to themselves a whole 8 – 10 hours longer than anyone else. And while something so simple might not seem like a big deal, it has been a very big deal for our kids when they’re newly home. Just knowing that they get to sleep smack dab between us at night has been a huge confidence booster in those wobbly first days, weeks and months. Surprisingly, none of our kids have been envious of their new sibling and the sleeping arrangements. When I asked why that was, they replied that they knew we had co-slept with them – so why wouldn’t we co-sleep with their new sibling?
2. It’s good for you.
• While you probably are not craving physical closeness like your newly adopted child, co-sleeping is the fastest way to a decent night sleep for not only your child, but for you. Note: I said decent, not good. But I’ll take decent over non-existent any day. And when you’re just home with your new little one, sleep can be hard to come by. So, if you’re just home from China, or about to travel, think of those first few weeks as the newborn period with a biological child… sleep when the baby sleeps (except don’t nap too long or you’ll never get over the jet lag).
• Unless you’re living the fairy-tale adoption that many of us dream of but few of us experience, you need time and opportunity to bond with your little one. In all of our reading about adoption and bonding, we – as mothers – focus on our child’s ability to bond with us and wonder, “Will it happen naturally? What can I do to foster attachment?” But we rarely focus on our ability to bond with our new child. Attachment is a two-way street, and each direction is an equally essential part of the equation. Of course, we are the grown-ups and we can rationally decide how we are going to act toward our child, but the response of our heart is sometimes not as lovely as we’d like. Co-sleeping fosters a closeness – simply by proximity and time spent together – because you are getting to know your child as much as your child is getting to know you. And that speeds along the bonding process in a big way.
• It has big payoffs during the daytime. Think of it as the ultimate in mothering multi-tasking… it’s like holding your baby for 8 – 10 hours a day, without the back pain. With all of my kids, I’ve found that the days are so much easier when my child has had me close by all night. Less crying, less anxiety and less need to be carried. Of course, I said less need, not no need. But less is a whole lot better when you’re trying to fold laundry or make dinner or love on another one of your kiddos. And while it might not feel as good for you as a day at the spa, a more contented child day in and day out is even better.
3. It’s a good barometer of your relationship.
• Attachment is an ongoing process. It’s not something to be attained in the first few days or weeks or even months after meeting your new child. But sometimes, when the days are busy and full, it’s easy to overlook what might be missing in your relationship with your little one. If your child, who was once happy to lay close to you, now pushes you away, is combative or won’t look you in the eye, then there’s work to be done. And, at the other end of the spectrum, some of your sweetest moments will come during co-sleeping hours. Just a few night ago, after the lights were out, I received a kiss, initiated by our Clementine who is just learning to safely express herself. It was one heck of a sweet reward.
• If you don’t want to lay close to you child, out of exhaustion, depression or simply lack of a growing attachment on your part, then you’ve got work to do. Sometimes it’s just a phase, but it’s best to be as pro-active as possible. There are attachment exercises and many other resources for families struggling with attachment issues. Co-sleeping won’t resolve all of your attachment concerns, but it can help bring them to light so you can focus your energy correctly, and get the support and encouragement you need to improve your relationship with your little one. Sometimes it’s easy to miss subtle signals that our feelings aren’t where we’d like them to be in the busyness of daytime, but when you’re sleeping next to that little person, it’s virtually impossible to ignore.
4. It isn’t forever.
• If you’re a co-sleep hater, like I once was, and the idea of sleeping alongside a toddler with ninja-like moves makes you queasy, just take it a day at a time. Most of my kids have only co-slept for a relatively short season once home – between 3 and 9 months. And compared to the significance of the outcome, the length of time invested initially is almost negligible. Take it from someone who has very little extra time and energy… co-sleeping is one of the very best short-term investments you can make.
• When your child is ready, it’s super easy to transition out of mama and baba’s bed and into their own bed. We have a tiny toddler bed that we snug up on my side of the bed, once our little one shows interest. Then we test the waters occasionally, at first just a few minutes, putting all their favorite loveys into that little bed with them, to see how well they do. No pressure, all based on the child’s comfort level. Eventually they’re happy to move full-time to the toddler bed next to ours and then, a few weeks later, to the other side of the room. By this point they’re usually pretty ready to get out of our room and into a room with bigger (and cooler) siblings and possibly a new
bribe lovey or three.
5. The benefits last a lifetime.
• Or at least 10 years, because that’s as far down the road to a lifetime as we’ve gotten. And, so far, I can tell you this: co-sleeping does wonders for a child’s sense of security, sense of family and sense of belonging. It might not happen overnight (okay, it never happens overnight) but it is amazing how feeling loved, cared for and part of something permanent changes the game for a child who was once orphaned. My adopted children are 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 5, 4 and 2. And laying a solid foundation in the beginning, a foundation that says, “You matter, you belong, you are loved”, doesn’t just make a difference for a tatruming toddler. It makes a difference for a daughter who has been home 9 years, and is wondering about her birth mother. It makes a difference for a son who has been home 7 years and is wondering about his finding spot. And the difference it makes is profound.
I’m honestly not sure what our family would look like if we hadn’t co-slept with our kiddos. In the last few years as books (like the Connected Child) and websites (like Empowered to Connect) have made attachment-parenting so much more understandable, and the counter-intuitive idea so much more digestible, my husband and I are kicking ourselves for all the rookie moves we made. And yet, our kids are doing remarkably well. I am convinced that our simple decision to co-sleep, and the early bond that was formed by that physical, nightly closeness, balanced out much of our not-so-great adoptive parenting.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Sometimes co-sleeping just isn’t possible. Our Isabelle, who had almost never even been held, simply could not tolerate co-sleeping in her first few months home. Sensory-wise, it sent her through the roof. And I know there are other kids who simply refuse to allow that sort of closeness. But if it’s hard going at the beginning, I want to encourage you to keep trying. Clementine was initially resistant to the physical closeness of co-sleeping, she simply didn’t want anyone near her at night. Because of her special needs, though, we didn’t have the luxury of an alternative. Sleeping between us was her only option. Now home almost 5 months, she is showing significant improvement in her tolerance for closeness, and is even initiating snuggles and kisses (like I mentioned above) more and more frequently.
If you can’t or don’t co-sleep, no doubt there are many other ways to promote a healthy attachment with your child. This is simply what has worked for us. We’ve managed to co-sleep with all of our adopted kids by following their lead both for when to begin and when to end. And while we’ve endured more kicks to the head, elbows to the kidneys, and hours precariously balanced on a 6″ strip of a kingsize bed than we’d like to count, it’s positively worth it. It has been a blessing beyond anything we could have ever expected, both in the short-term (currently, all our kiddos are sleeping through the night, in their own beds, except Clementine who currently owns our bed), and in the long-term as our kids, home 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 years, continue to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted small people.
And that’s good for everyone.
P.S. This post was modified from a post I shared almost 3 years ago. I left most of it, changed some, and added a lot, but 3 years later we continue to feel as passionate about the benefits of co-sleeping.