- Attachment research and science demonstrates the importance of caregiver sensitivity and responsivity.
- The same factors are predictive of a secure attachment between adopted and biological children and parents.
- Children and their caregivers can develop secure attachments even under stressful circumstances.
One of the most discussed topics in the psychology of parenting is attachment theory. As parents, we want to develop a secure attachment relationship with our child based on our sensitivity and responsivity and our child’s sense of safety and security.
Not surprisingly, one of the largest concerns among parents of adopted children is “Will my child and I develop a secure relationship?” As an adoptive parent myself, I am especially empathic to this concern.
In early March 2020, we got a call that our soon-to-be-adopted daughter had been born seven weeks prematurely. While our friends started to quarantine in their New York City apartments, we packed our things to drive over 900 miles to meet our daughter in the NICU.
Our joy at being chosen as the adoptive parents was met with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Here we were in the middle of a global pandemic in New York City, then the epicenter of the virus. We were about to disobey guidance to stay home and instead travel over 900 miles where we would surely need to spend weeks visiting our fragile newborn daughter in the NICU. What if we exposed her to the virus? Where could we bring her once she was released from the hospital?
The next day, we arrived at the hospital and were greeted by employees in full personal protective equipment and thermometers. Just as that unsettled feeling started to come back, we saw a tall, blonde woman standing next to a man and another woman. We recognized them as the birth parents and grandmother from having video chatted with them, but this was the first time we had ever met in person.
The birth mother's hands shook as we introduced ourselves. We were aware of the depth of the trauma involved in parting with a baby she had only just given birth to one day prior. She had only spoken with us on the phone, and she was trusting us to raise her child.
The hospital had tightened safety procedures to protect babies in the NICU from the virus. Only two people could be in the NICU at any one time with a patient. We decided to have my husband and the biological mother go up first. My husband then came down and I went up to the NICU with the biological mother. We were ushered into a tiny room with a sink and soap. It was mandatory that everyone wash their hands and arms for two solid minutes before being near the newborns. Then, wearing a face mask and gloves, the biological mother and I sat together holding our daughter.
She was tiny, but healthy and adorable. She had rosy, full cheeks and already smiled and laughed in her sleep. While she was tiny, her full face made her look more like a full-term baby than a premature one. We were lucky that we were still able to hold her outside of the incubator despite her still being connected to her nasogastric tube. The NICU nurse handed her to her birth mom, who then handed her to me. She felt small yet strong in my arms, and cuddled into my chest. Holding her in my arms felt completely natural. The birth mother and I spoke about her other children and her life experiences that led to this moment. She was extremely open about her life and decisions, but the sadness in her voice was unmistakable.
The next day, as the stress of the situation all came crashing down on me, I woke up with a horrible migraine (my first ever) and could not get out of bed until the afternoon. I became consumed with worry that the circumstances surrounding my second daughter's birth would impede her developing a secure attachment. We had not been present at her birth, we could only hold her for brief periods of time, and we could not feed her ourselves.
For the next several days, my husband and I alternated sitting with our baby in the NICU. Our older daughter was over the moon to meet her sister, but children weren’t allowed into the hospital. So my husband and I took turns sitting in the car with her while we traded places in the NICU.
Finally, after 13 days in the NICU, our baby was ready to be discharged. Under normal circumstances, the entire family is allowed to “room in” with a preemie the night before she goes home. Under COVID-19 restrictions, only one individual over 18 was allowed to stay, and we decided that would be my husband as our older daughter was in need of some time with me.
The next day our beautiful new daughter was released from the NICU. As I held her, that niggling thought kept creeping into my mind: Would there be long-term implications of the circumstances surrounding her birth. Most importantly, would we develop a secure attachment?
As I started to spiral a bit, I turned back to my research background. At this point, I had been a developmental psychologist for 15 years. My primary research during this period had been on attachment. So I knew what the research said about attachment.
Overall, research on adoption and attachment shows that most adopted children do form secure attachments to their adoptive parents. For example, research from Rutgers University shows that adoptive parents and their babies form attachments in the same way that biological parents and their babies do, and they are just as likely to form a “secure attachment," which means the baby learns that they can trust their caregiver to be supportive, reliable, and loving. Other researchers using large samples and examining data longitudinally have found the same quality of attachment in adoptive and biological families (van den Dries Juffer, van IJzendoorn, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2009). What matters most in an adopted parent-child relationship is what matters most in any parent-child relationship: sensitivity and responsivity from the caregiver.
Three years later, I am confident that my daughter and I have a secure attachment. I am forever grateful for my career as it gave me the confidence to persevere through an extremely exciting yet scary time, and to have confidence in my ability to mother even when the environment was not all I wanted nor hoped for.
van den Dries, L., Juffer, F., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, & Marian J. (2009). Fostering security? A meta-analysis of attachment in adopted children. Children and Youth Services Review, 31(3):410-421