Parenting

THE ADOPTED CHILD AND DISTRESSED SLEEP

By R. Dubucs

"THE ADOPTED CHILD AND DISTRESSED SLEEP" Often it is hard for new adoptive parents to learn much about their child’s pre-adoption life and current emotional state.  This can be particularly true if the child came from a foreign country, joined them before learning to talk, or experienced an unspeakable trauma.  However, some adoptive parents have uncovered clues to that past life and current state by observing their child’s sleeping patterns.

A family adopted a one-year-old boy named Jack from Latin America.  (All names in this article were changed, to protect the children’s privacy.)  At the time of the adoption, he was hyperactive, malnourished, and the product of foster and institutional care.

Like many hyperactive children, Jack was very active even in his sleep.  He could not stay covered by a blanket for five minutes.  His sleeping positions kept changing, but he always appeared to be on the defensive while asleep.

Furthermore, Jack could not doze off without a bottle, which he clutched during the night.  He had entered his last orphanage chubby and emerged badly malnourished.  For various reasons, his parents suspect that the older children in the orphanage were stealing the milk of the younger ones like Jack.

One night the boy’s mother made the mistake of trying to increase his comfort by gently loosening his grip on the bottle as he slept.  Jack immediately woke up sobbing.  He thought his mother was trying to steal his milk.

In the first three months in his adoptive home, Jack woke up repeatedly during the night crying for another bottle.  Often he would go through five bottles of baby formula in one night, with no adverse effect on his appetite the next day.

Jack’s parents were able to solve the problem of the child’s getting cold from lack of a blanket by buying blanket sleepers (sometimes called sleeper suits) of winter weight.  The parents had a more difficult decision to make with regard to the bottle.

The medical and dental professions do not favor allowing children to fall asleep sucking a bottle.  While Jack’s pediatrician believed in giving an adopted child unlimited food in the first year after the adoption, he advised against crib bottles because of the increased risk of an ear infection.  The family dentist also recommended against crib bottles, because of the risk of tooth decay.

The parents had to balance the physical concerns against the emotional concerns.  Like many adopted children, Jack did not arrive with a teddy bear or other favorite toy.  His primary comfort was the bottle.  The parents decided to work first on providing emotional security and to postpone bottle weaning until later.  They wanted him to learn quickly two rules of the house: (1) children here do not go hungry; and (2) children here do not have to be on guard in their sleep.

Approximately four months after Jack’s arrival, his parents saw one of their happiest sights ever.  They walked into the nursery and found him wholly relaxed in his sleep.  The toddler was not holding his bottle, which was tossed aside in a corner of the crib.  He was flat on his back with both arms lying above his head.  In his yellow sleeper suit, he looked like a fuzzy duckling totally at peace.  Jack had finally learned the rules of the house.

Some children, including infants, provide useful clues to their new adoptive parents through other sleeping patterns.  One baby named Robin could not go to sleep without head banging.  At bedtime, it looked as if he was knocking himself into a stupor against his pillow.  Prior to his adoption at age eight months, he had survived six moves and six changes in his primary caretaker.

Robin’s alarmed parents consulted their pediatrician, among other sources, about the head banging.  They learned that some children denied adequate stimulation get into the head-banging pattern or a comparable rocking pattern as a way to make themselves sleep.  (Some other children develop this sleep-inducing routine despite ample stimulation.)  The parents suspect that their son, like many other babies drawn from an institutional or foster-care setting, had been left for long periods alone and unstimulated in his crib.  Because the head banging was not hurting Robin, the parents were advised to let him continue the practice.

The boy also exhibited another sleeping pattern shared by many newly adopted children.  He slept far more than is usual for a child of his age.  Sometimes he slept so much that there was time for only two feedings that day.  Concerned about his slow weight gain, Robin’s parents consulted their pediatrician.  It turns out that withdrawal through sleep is the method used by many adopted children to cope with the stress of a radical change of life or the mourning for parts of the old life.  The pediatrician advised the family to let Robin sleep as much as he wished.  According to the pediatrician, the baby eventually would need far less sleep.

For months, Robin was basically interested only in sleeping, eating, and being held.  It was as if he was “down a quart” on hugs.  Once his mother held him on her lap for two hours, until she had to get up; Robin himself showed no interest in escaping.

After living in his new home for about five months, Robin began needing a lot less sleep.  He slept a normal number of hours for a child of his age.  He also proceeded to grow nearly four inches in a four-month period.

In retrospect, Robin’s parents think that all the hugs finally paid off.  In their view, the boy no longer felt the need to hide in sleep.  Robin had finally learned that he had found a permanent family.

Many adopted children are afraid to be alone in a darkened room.  They may avoid sleep for fear of a monster hiding in the dark.  This sleeping problem is, of course, also found in many birth children and can often be solved by a night light.

However, the problem may be aggravated in adopted children by the fact that many of them (particularly those born in foreign countries, raised in orphanages, or from large families) are accustomed to sharing a room with other people.  Such children are not used to being left alone in the dark and, if young, are likely to prefer having a roommate.

In such a situation, one adoptive family with enough bedrooms to give everybody one has doubled up the two small boys in a room.  Both youngsters clearly prefer sharing a bedroom to having separate rooms.  The parents plan to give each child his own room when he is older and wants more privacy.

Some of the sleep-related problems of adopted children are far more serious and may require therapy.  For example, one family adopted an older American girl named Ginger, with the knowledge that she had previously experienced physical abuse.  The new parents discovered that Ginger had trouble sleeping and was scared of the dark.  It took the parents a while to find out the explanation, based on an additional trauma from her past life.  She turned out to be afraid of the dark because a child molester used to come to her at night.  Sadly, for some adopted children like Ginger, the monster hiding in the dark was real.

From observing, hearing about, and reading about the sleeping patterns of various adopted children, I have concluded that the patterns sometimes can provide clues to the child’s past life and to his current state.  For new parents of these children, I have a message.  Time (often about six months for the transition period), love, patience, and a sense of humor can help you and your child through.

For our adopted children everywhere I also have a message.  May sweet dreams come to you!

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