Jump-Starting Attachment with Babies and Toddlers

While waiting for our children to arrive, most of us have entertained the fantasy that our new babies or toddlers will greet us with open arms, ready to love and be loved. Reality is more complex, of course. But the more attuned we are to the needs and cues of our newly arrived babies and toddlers, the better we can help them settle in and become attached.

Bonding 101

  1. Carry your child a lot, even a 33-pound 2-year-old. Get a good baby carrier and aim for an hour each day. Carry him or her while you cook, vacuum, walk or shop. Your arms and back may get tired, but carrying helps “glue” your child’s heart to yours.
  2. Rock your child heart-to-heart every day, and don’t phase out that bottle yet. Bottle-feeding is great for bonding, even with 2- and 3-year-olds.
  3. Be the primary food provider in the first six months. Meal time is powerful bonding time. If someone offers your child a treat, take the treat yourself to give to the child. You should be the source of everything wonderful at first. Grandma’s turn will come later.
  4. Play on the floor at least half an hour each day. Tickle, laugh, dance, play peekaboo and be silly every day. Fun has tremendous bonding power.

Common Problems

Resisting Affection

A newly arrived little one sometimes sends conflicting signs. Your child will beg to be picked up and then immediately fuss to be let down. He or she will whine to be held and then nearly fall off mom’s lap to avoid body contact. He of she will go limp when carried. Parents sometimes think their child “isn’t cuddly,” which is not true. Your child is feeling hesitant about these new people in his or her life. Hesitant kids need more contact, not less. Acclimate your baby to touch with a lot of gentle cuddles every day. Don’t be deterred if he or she resists. Hug, carry and cuddle your child anyway. Your touch is the good medicine he or she needs to attach. “Uncuddly” kids eventually enjoy affection if parents are gently, lovingly persistent.

Avoiding Mom

Poorly attached babies sometimes prefer caregivers other than mom. This is self-protection. They don’t want to risk falling in love with yet another mom who might leave. Mom should be the one to do the majority of the care for the first few months, even if a child shows a strong preference for dad or someone else. It is crucial that a child bond with mom first.


“Children will typically regress developmentally with a move,” says Deborah Gray in her book “Attaching in Adoption.”

“Parents will need to move backward with them and bring them forward again.” Treat your child younger than his or her age for a few months after homecoming. Feed him or her. Even a self-feeding child can get bites from mom at mealtime. Take your child from room to room with you as you move throughout your day. Play on the floor. Respond to the cries, just as you would a newborn. After all, he or she is newborn to your family. The more nurturing you give your new little one, the more quickly attachment can happen.

Extreme Independence

Some babies and toddlers will play alone for long periods of time, never asking a thing of mom. That’s not as good as it sounds. Interaction is crucial to bonding with newly arrived babies and toddlers. Short periods of alone play are OK. But in general, you should interact. Let him or her splash in the sink or watch while you do dishes. Go for a walk. Read a story. Most of your waking hours should be together. Yes, it is intense, tiring work. But there’s nothing more critical in those early months than building that attachment.

Disturbed Sleep

This is a biggie for parents. Most babies who are moved will have disturbed sleep for weeks or months after homecoming. It can get exhausting. Remember that the more often you can be the solution to his or her unhappiness, the stronger the attachment will be.

“Do not leave an adopted toddler alone crying at night as often recommended by many parent discipline specialists,” says Mary Hopkins-Best in her book “Toddler Adoption.”

“The techniques of temporary segregation and isolation are for children who are securely attached, not for toddlers learning to trust that their parents will meet their needs in a loving and responsive manner.”

Hug your child, lie next to him or her, or pat his or her back. Keep it low-key, dark and quiet. Some parents bring the child into bed with them to get better sleep. Others use a mattress on the floor of the child’s room as a cozy place for parent and child to sleep on restless nights. In the wee hours, you may wonder if responding is the right thing, but remember to think of your child as newly born to your family. For now, he or she needs to have those nighttime needs met.

Signs of Attachment Expect attachment to take time. Think months, not weeks. Though children can appear settled fairly soon, most take six months to a year to attach well. Rarely does it happen within a month. Be patient.

Good Signs

  • Does your child make good eye contact with you?
  • Does your child giggle when you tickle him or her?
  • Does your child seek your praise?
  • Does your child nestle in when you cuddle?
  • Does your child cling with arms and legs when you hold him or her on your hip?
  • Does your child search for you when you are out of sight?
  • Does your child prefer you over strangers and friends?

If you answered yes to these questions, then it is a good sign your child is attached to you. If you answered no to several of these questions, you may want o seek professional help for your child. If you notice challenges with these things, don’t panic. There is time. Remember to work on Bonding 101 every day. Don’t listen to well-meaning people who say you’ll spoil your child. Neglect, not nurturing, is what spoils a child. Nurturing helps your child become a healthy and well-attached member of the family.

Mary Ostyn has eight children, including two from Korea and two from Ethiopia. She is married to her high school sweetheart, John, whose many virtues include a love of children and an extreme tolerance for high noise levels and large grocery bills. Ostyn enjoys freelance writing, cooking Ethiopian and Korean foods, working on her children’s scrapbooks, and camping in Idaho’s great outdoors with her family.

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