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Life After Adoption

Two days after my husband and I adopted our second daughter, Lucy, at age 6 months from an orphanage in Vietnam, she stopped eating. Completely. She'd writhe and howl when we put the bottle to her mouth, which meant we had to force-feed her with a syringe—an agonizing undertaking for all involved.

Our older, biological daughter, Olivia, was also capable of pulling scary stunts (like keeping us awake for four months straight), but because we'd known her from the second she was born, it felt different. She'd arrived as a blank slate in a way that Lucy did not, and we knew, for the most part, what to expect with her. But Lucy's time spent in a Hanoi orphanage meant that she had a tiny history, a way of doing things. We spent the first few months together learning and adapting to each other's respective "ways of doing things." The process was filled with challenges, yes (like Lucy's hunger strike), but feeling our love grow more and more every day was the ultimate reward.

If you're bringing an adopted child home, whether from across the globe or across the state, expect your own set of challenges as well. Here's some help in making the transition as smooth as possible.

"She's not eating enough!"

No physical cause for Lucy's hunger strike was ever found, and two weeks later her appetite returned as suddenly as it had disappeared. In retrospect, we wonder if it was a grief reaction, which is not uncommon in adopted babies.

"Even babies as young as 4 months old can experience loss," says Karen Rispoli, a psychotherapist and adoptive parent. "They're losing the sights, sounds, smells, and people that are familiar to them, and may react in different ways, one of which is by eating less."

Or more. Some babies may overeat because they hadn't been getting enough food where they were. For toddlers, one way to reassure them that food is plentiful is to leave Cheerios or teeny bites of soft fruit out on a low table; usually, once they see that food is available when they want it, overeating resolves itself. If you're worried your baby isn't eating enough, or if unusual eating habits last for more than two weeks, consult your pediatrician.

If possible, ask your baby's previous caretaker what kind of formula or cereal she was eating, and purchase several cans of it (note that even the same brand's formulations differ from country to country).

"How do I get him to sleep?"

Getting a baby to fall asleep and stay asleep is the holy grail for all new parents—but adjusting to new sleep habits can be particularly hard for adopted babies, who may never have slept alone. If your child was in an orphanage, he very likely shared a crib with another baby; if he was in foster care in a foreign country, it's possible he shared a bed with an adult. "Sleeping alone in their own room could be totally unfamiliar to these kids," says Linda Waggoner-Fountain, M.D., codirector of the International Adoption Clinic at University of Virginia Children's Hospital. Instead, keep the crib next to your bed for a few months, or use a bedside sleeper, she says.

Techniques like the Ferber method aren't recommended for newly adopted babies; letting your baby cry it out can impede his developing trust in you. "Their fears often come out at night," says Rita Taddonio, director of the Adoption Resource Center at Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency in New York City, of adopted children. "So it's important to be extra attentive to them." If that means rocking them, holding them, or sitting next to them as they fall asleep, so be it.

"Do I need a special pediatrician?"

You want a pediatrician who is accessible, thorough, and doesn't pooh-pooh your concerns. Get recommendations from friends, doctors, or adoption counselors, then call to find out how much experience they have with adopted children.

If you adopted your baby abroad, try to have her initial evaluation done by a pediatrician who has experience with internationally adopted kids. They know how to interpret foreign medical records, which health tests to run, and what kinds of developmental delays to look for (some infants adopted from orphanages have minor delays, but usually catch up quickly). They'll also make sure your baby is up to date on immunizations (many countries don't follow the same vaccination schedule we do).

"I'm sad, and I don't know why"

You've waited so long for a baby—maybe undergoing years of fertility treatments before pursuing adoption—and now you're finally a mom. How can it be that you feel so miserable?

Because postpartum depression is hormonal, it's more accepted and easier to understand. But the attainment of any long-awaited goal often results in a letdown. And maybe the sudden awareness of this huge new responsibility, coupled with a baby's endless demands, has left you feeling overwhelmed and incompetent. "Adoptive moms and dads often feel like they're not entitled to be parents," says Taddonio.

The worst part is, you may feel too ashamed to tell anyone what you're going through. "Since you've worked so hard to become parents, friends may not understand why you're sad," says Taddonio. Talk to a therapist who has experience with this. "You need someone to validate your feelings."

"When will we bond?"

Adoptive parents often suffer from the misconception that bonding with a biological child is effortless, happening within seconds of delivery. Not true! Most parents would probably agree that this special connection isn't forged in an instant, but over time. "Attachment forms through the repetition of hundreds of positive interactions," says Taddonio. "Children are genetically wired to attach to someone who responds to their needs." (Studies have shown that long-term attachment issues are not generally a problem for children adopted under age 2.)

It's the routine daily activities—feeding, bathing, dressing, comforting—that eventually translate into true love. As you do these tasks, your baby develops trust and comes to associate you with meeting her needs. It's likely she had numerous caregivers before, especially if she was in an orphanage; now it's time for her to have parents.

Christina Frank, a freelance writer, has an essay in the book A Love Like No Other: Stories From Adoptive Parents.