Developmental regression (going back to a younger way of behaving) is very common in newly placed foster or adopted children. Still, parents often worry that they are creating bad habits if they “give in” to these regressions. And no area causes more significant concern than sleep!
We received the following question from an exhausted new mom.
My newly placed 9 month old had been going to bed relatively well in his foster family. He would be rocked and given a bottle and then he would go to sleep and sleep through the night. Since he has been home, he won’t go to sleep without us walking and rocking him in our arms and he wakes up at least once in the night and we have to walk/rock him to sleep again. We are both getting exhausted. We think this might be grief coming out, but we worry that we are creating a bad habit by walking/rocking him to sleep each night and throughout the night. I’d love your advice.
You’ve put your finger (and heart) on the hardest part of new adoptive or foster parenting—the balance between what our child needs for attachment and establishing bad habits. Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all answers, but we can share some general advice.
Listen to Your Instincts
First, I think you should rely on your gut as to the cause of this change in his habit. If you feel it is grief, it likely is because what parents think is usually on target. Also, it is prevalent (in fact, it should be expected) for a child to regress to previous behaviors when adopted. For example, the majority of 3-year-olds who were potty trained before entering foster care or adoption start having accidents right after placement.
The Good News About Regression
Regression is actually not a bad thing (and yes, I know that it doesn’t feel good right now, but hang with me on this). Regression allows you to go back and nurture him at an earlier stage. An example of this is that we often encourage parents who adopt toddlers and preschoolers to try to reintroduce the bottle, so they get to experience the bonding that occurs with that form of earlier nurturance. Your son may be seeking the more intense nurturing that he had as a younger baby.
Regardless of whether this is grief or regression or more likely a combination of grief causing regression, I think your best bet right now is to be there for him on whatever level he needs. He is giving you to “opportunity” to create great attachment.
This Too Shall Pass
This won’t last forever, I promise! I also know the mind games that you can play in the middle of the night
“I am creating bad habits.”
“I’ll never get a full night’s sleep again.”
“Lack of sleep is the number one cause of ______(fill in the blank of your greatest health fear).”
I know because I did this!
It helps to set a time frame in your mind. Say, I’ll give us six months (or 3-4 months if six feels too long) to shift him to a better nighttime habit. I don’t think it will take that long, but it helps quiet the middle of the night angst to know that there is a timeline. For the next month, don’t make any changes. Let him lead with what he needs. After a month, decide what type of bedtime routine you want and slowly begin to shift.
I would suggest reading some sleep habit books—there are a lot. We’ve also interviewed the authors of several of them on the Creating a Family Radio Show/Podcast.
- Eat, Sleep, Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year (book) (here’s our interview)
- Happiest Baby on the Block Guide to Sleep (book) (here’s our interview)
- Sleepless in America (book) (here’s our interview)
- The No-Cry Sleep Solution (book) (here’s our interview)
We also have a LOT of resources on sleep issues because it is the #1 question we get from new adoptive and foster parents. I suggest reading/listening because you have the opportunity to develop the routine that best leads him and you to the sleep habits you want.
For example, I know that many “experts” at some point recommend not letting the baby suck themselves to sleep with a bottle because they then associate that as the only way to put themselves to sleep and thus require a bottle in the middle of the night if they wake up. The bottle habit may be a routine you are perfectly comfortable with, but if not, you can introduce other means of him soothing himself to sleep.
Best Advice for Coping with Sleep Regression
One suggestion I can make from experience is for one of you to be on duty each night and rotate. For single parents, this is an excellent time to call in favors from your support team.
The nights you are not on duty do whatever you can to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep on the couch in the room furthest from the noise. Use earplugs or white noise, so you won’t hear him when your partner is in charge (and vice versa for your partner when you are in charge). I had a friend once who asked to use our spare room on the nights she wasn’t on duty for a week or two when she thought she’d go insane if she didn’t get some sleep.
Hang in there, mama!
The mom got back to us to let us know that about a month later, they started shifting him to better sleep habits by being slower to respond in the middle of the night. After two nights, he was sleeping through the night! Your mileage may vary, but this news may give you hope.