Adopted Children and Sleep

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Related Page: Advice about Sleep

Baby adopted at 8 mos. can't go to sleep

I'm in need of support here - I believe I'm doing what I need to do, but it still breaks my heart every night. I'm a single mother of a 12-month-old daughter adopted 4 months ago. She'd slept in the bed with her foster mother before I got her, and for the first 2.5 months with me she slept in my bed. I love sleeping with her, but I can't go to bed at 7:30 (especially since I'm back to work now!), and it seemed unavoidable that she would have to learn to sleep by herself. About six weeks ago we started the process of getting her to sleep in her crib. I read some books and then we rock and sing, and then when she's 90% asleep I put her in her crib. She almost always wakes up immediately and cries. It is heartwrenching, and after a few days I realized that it was easier for both of us if I didn't go in when she was crying - although I sometimes call to her to tell her everything's OK if she seems distressed. There were occasional times when she sounded really scared and I went in and patted her. This seemed to work pretty well, and for a month or so she'd go to sleep after 2-3 minutes of crying. I keep trying to tell myself how she needs to release some stress, crying's not always bad, etc., but even those 2-3 minutes make me feel horrible, like I'm doing her some harm. I want to stress again that it is just not possible for me to go to bed with her, and that if I lie down with her for a while, then get up, she wakes up crying then. There's no way to avoid the crying unless I get in bed when she does and stay in bed all night. When we started this process, for the first 3 weeks or so, I was rigid about never bringing her into my bed. She woke up very early, we were both up and crabby at 5 am, and she was spending lots of time at daycare crying. About 3 weeks ago I decided to take her back in my bed in the morning (originally around 5 but creeping back to 2-3 now). The MINUTE I first did this she had a complete turnaround at daycare, and doesn't cry beyond the first 10 seconds when I leave. But the downside to this is that over the past few weeks (including 2 weekends when we went away and she slept with me, and a few days when my sister insisted on going in and picking her up when she cried-!!-), the bedtime crying is getting longer and more desperate-sounding again. IT BREAKS MY HEART EVERY NIGHT.

So, it seems to me my choices are:
1. Go to bed at 7:30 with her (absolutely not possible)
2. Continue taking her in my bed in the morning, with the downside that her bedtime crying will be worse than if I didn't do that.
3. Go back to the hard line, with the downside that we both get less sleep and she does her crying all day at daycare rather than at bedtime.

I still feel, all told, that the status quo is the best solution, but I'm so sad every night. Can anyone help?


I understand your dilemma, but I really don't think it is necessary to have your child have to cry every night. Who knows what her past may have been to cause her to feel so needy at bedtime, or why she needs you so much, but it seems that she is/does. I think you may have other choices besides the ones you mentioned. You could a)keep her up a little later, until you actually do go to bed, or until she just falls asleep on her own wherever she is; b)let her sleep in a place near where you are (a playpen in/near the living room) so that she doesn't feel too separated; c)let her stay up later, and sleep in your arms for a while in the evening.

I don't believe that a child has to be put on a rigid schedule, especially when the child continues to be distressed. She may need more time with you, and more time to develop a feeling of safety before she is ready to sleep alone.

Every child is different. My first baby needed to sleep close by, nursed several times throughout the night, and spent most of the night in our bed. At 3, he still comes to our bed in the early morning to snuggle and sleep. My second baby has been content to sleep in her own bed, only wakes up once to nurse, and spends much less time in our bed. She has pretty much slept through the night since she was 6 weeks old. No book can address every child's needs. If your gut is telling you that leaving her to cry it out doesn't feel right, listen to that. By all means, don't try to stick to a rigid routine.

I'm really glad you wrote in about children and adoption and sleep. I think it's an important issue and one that I have not seen discussed on the UCB Parents list-serve.

About 6 months ago, my partner and I adopted a 10-month-old from Foster Care who is now 16 months. He too had slept exclusively with the foster mother from the day he moved in with her even though the foster mother initially told us he slept in a crib. As it turns out, she only said this in front of the social workers because of fostering rules about sleeping with children. When our son came home with us, he would NOT sleep in a crib and he hated to be confined in a crib. We tried everything and nothing worked. Our son has an incredibly strong will -- the social workers used to tease us about it. So we decided to read. There wasn't much at all about particular issues regarding children and adoption and sleep. What was available was mostly for individuals who adopted from birth. My partner and I read Ferber and several other books on children and sleep. We tried Ferber's methodology. Finally, after letting my son cry one afternoon for hours, I said I hate this. He hates this. This doesn't feel good to me and I don't care if other parents think I'm weak or being a bad parent -- I'm not doing this. That's what felt right. I have come to the conclusion that adoption, particularly from foster-care (and/or when the child is not adopted at birth), is a whole different situation than what is described in many of these sleep books.

The Ferber's of the world are referring to babies who have experienced no trauma or real separation from a primary care giver. In that case, you are dealing with the baby's desire to sleep with you and that's it. In our foster situation, we were dealing with our son's separation from his biological mother, our son's subsequent separation from his foster mother and his very real fear (based on past experience) of separation from us. That's a whole lot of separation from primary caregivers in a very short life-span and gives a lot of reason for anxiety. If I were my son, I'd want the comfort of sleeping with me too.

Because of this, we decided we would keep him in our bed for six months and re-evaluate after that time. We chose to do this as a way to physically and emotionally bond and to ease our son's transition. We didn't have the experience that so many other parents have -- a new-born child getting used to the way you smell and the way you breathe through constant holding. The experience of having our child know our sleeping sounds and vice versa, or the ability to put him in a crib from the beginning of his life and establishing the crib as a safe place. We were catching up -- getting to know one another in a situation that felt sudden for both of us and undoubtedly traumatic for him. Our instincts turned out to be the right thing for our son and our method paid off.

Initially, our son would do exactly what your daughter does, if we layed down with him and left, he'd wake up and cry. We continued to put our son down in our bed even for naps and did not force the crib issue. We put him down in our bed initially because the sheets smelled like us, the pillows smelled like us, we felt it would be comforting and would feel as if he was with us. We also believed it would facilitate bonding.

The other thing we did, which was key for us, is that we introduced a transitional object (his blue bear which he calls Boo -- it's got a bear's head, arms and the body is a blanket and it's really soft). Every night when we put him down we would give him Boo and have Boo give him kisses. We would rub Boo on his cheek, we would make sure he had Boo when he had his bottle at nap time and at bed time. If he was upset and crying about something when in the house, we would give him Boo and have Boo give him kisses in addition to our own. When we went on vacation, we took Boo with us so he could sleep with Boo. After a month or so, he began to ask for Boo. We would lay down with him, give him Boo at bedtime and he would fall asleep and NOT wake up. If we went in to check on him, he would be holding on to Boo. We were then able to transition him to a bed next to ours (we put our mattress and box spring on the floor and got an inexpensive fold-up futon that was a little lower than our bed when folded). He would remain asleep even though he was no longer in our bed!

We recently bought our son a bed (with wooden railings and an opening so he could get in and out) and introduced him to the idea of taking a nap in his own bed with Boo. This was our way of slowly making the transition to his own bed. He slept in his own bed at naptime and didn't wake up! We still lay down with our son and we still put him down next to our bed at night, but Boo has proven to be comforting to him and an invaluable replacement for us when we aren't sleeping with him. We are now beginning not to touch him when he's falling asleep so that he will learn to fall asleep on his own. Eventually, he will be in his own bed at night as well.

I don't know how many transitions your daughter has been through, but I believe that children who have been taken away from birth parents and then foster parents need time to feel secure and to build the knowledge and trust that you'll be there. I believe she may need to know this more than she might if you had adopted her at birth. You said you like sleeping with her. So sleep with her. Everyone told us not to sleep with our son but for us it's worked out well. Our son has become remarkably secure during the last few months. The friends who told us not to sleep with our son either had their children biologically (they knew exactly what happened to their children from the moment of birth, they had months of nursing and sleeping with and near their children), or they were friends who had adopted children who were already used to sleeping in a crib.

I love sleeping with my son and he has his own bed now and he knows that. As he gets a little older and he has more receptive language, we'll talk about it. When he's ready, we'll help him move to his own bed. I don't believe you have to go to bed at 7:30 at night. Yes, it will take many nights to get her to sleep alone in your bed if that's what you choose and she may wake up and you may need to lay with her until she falls asleep again. I know it's a pain. There were nights when our son would wake up four or five times at night before we were ready to go to bed -- and we would have to go in every time. But I think of each of those times that I went in to lay down with our son to help him sleep as depositing trust in the bank. For us, it's been well worth the trust built and has resulted in his NOT waking up even when we're not in bed with him.

Your daughter will only be this age for a short time. I believe foster kids especially need a sense of feeling supported because of their prior life experiences. You've only had her for four very short months. In the scheme of things, it's nothing. I think it's reasonable that she is still adjusting to such a sudden change in her home situation. I would guess she's still getting used to you and your house and the fact that she's no longer in the foster home that she knew.

If you do try the transitional object, just don't lose it. It's tricky at first because you're not used to making sure you have access to it all the time -- but THAT, I imagine, is when a whole new nightmare would begin. We are actually in the process of purchasing another Boo, just in case. Once a child is wed to a transitional object, they need it.

Good Luck. William

I adopted a foster child at 14 months, who was very fortunate to have bonded with her previous foster mom and suffered minimal transition anxieties. (We're very fortunate to have remained good friends with the previous mom.) She had always slept in a crib in a separate room, so sleeping in my bed was not an issue, but even now, at 3-1/2 years, I still stay with her every night until she has fallen asleep. It used to take an hour or more of me singing, talking, or just being there until she felt secure enough to let go of being awake, sometimes crying, sometimes not. Early on, I established a routine (PJ's, teeth, book, bed) and now that she's in a bed, I lie down with her and count slowly under my breath until she is asleep. I used to often count to 100 or more before her breathing told me she was fast asleep, and now the norm is 20, and the record is 7! My kid is very sensitive to stimulation so I didn't use methods like massage or touch, on the contrary I had to minimize all light, sound, touch for her to sleep, especially when she still took daytime naps (until age 2-1/2). Occasionally, though, she wanted a physical connection, and fell asleep perhaps grasping my finger. She developed a strong attachment to an baby blanket associated with sleeping and comfort, and surprised me when the first one got lost and she switched easily to another one.

Even though I agree that a kid should eventually learn to fall asleep by herself, and my evenings are far different from what they used to be, I treasure these sweet moments while my daughter falls asleep, and it does get faster and easier with every passing month. My habits have changed, too, in response to our schedule -- I often fall asleep with her for a half hour from 8:30 to 9 p.m., go to bed later, then wake up early in the morning and get a head start on my work and chores before she gets up at 7:30 a.m. When I have a babysitter, I explain the bedtime routine very specifically and clearly, and my kid usually has no problem falling asleep with them (again, this has gotten much easier over time).

This is in response to the letter in response to a sleep question--I did not see original question but a parent wrote in about experience with a baby adopted at ten months and how difficult it was to deal with sleeping separately at night. I work with lots of parents around sleep issues and also with a number of families who have adopted older babes and toddlers. My feeling is that parents should think about their adopted baby as a newborn, regardless of the child's age. A newborn baby needs to be almost constantly with a parent to develop a feeling of trust that his needs will always be met. An older adopted baby does not have the physical needs of a newborn, but he, and the parents, need to be together as much as possible during the early months together. I don't have a month to month idea about this--but what seems to happen is that an older adopted baby who is given lots of closeness will start to separate naturally. So the advice about sleep, separation, discipline, etc that might apply to a typical toddler has to be filtered through the older adopted child's emotional age within the family.

There's an excellent book (the only one I know of) called Toddler Adoption:The Weaver's craft, by Hopkins-Best. If you can't find it locally, it can be ordered through Tapestry books, catalogue and online--they carry a wide range of adoption related books.

Meg Zweiback