I speak to a lot of groups about adoption, and I almost always include a discussion of embryo donation (also known as embryo adoption). The reaction, most often, is one of surprise. Many people do not consider embryo donation when they think of adoption.

family built by both embryo donation and international adoption

Families considering adoption or those who have decided that infertility treatment is not working are often curious about the differences between traditional adoption (either domestic infant, international, or foster care) and embryo donation.

(There are similarities and differences between adoption and embryo donation. Because of the similarities, some people refer to embryo donation as “embryo adoption”. Because of the differences, some people, including the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, object strongly to the term “embryo adoption”.)

I love been-there-done-that advice, so when one of our Creating a Family Facebook Support Group members offered to share her experience with creating her family of four kids in five years through both adoption (in her case international adoption) and embryo donation, I readily agreed. Keep in mind that this is her story and not meant to be a universal depiction of the experience, nor an endorsement of her views.


I have always wanted to adopt, more than biologically having a child.  So when we got married, we figured we’d have 1 bio child and then adopt… well, that child never happened for unknown reasons.  We tried six IUI’s during our first five years of marriage and then decided to go ahead and start adopting.

International Adoption To Start

We got in the non-special needs adoption from China line, wanting our first to be “healthy” since we were new parents, although we were open to minor special needs.  The process was to take 9-12 months total right before we were logged in, but the slow down in China adoptions started right after we submitted our dossier.

how does embryo adoption compare to traditional adoption

We were left feeling pretty helpless and wondering if we should drop out of China when we received a call from our agency saying that they had a little girl, 10 months old, in Russia* with a cleft lip/cleft palate (and some other stuff that wasn’t accurate in her file) that they wanted us to consider.  She had been referred to another family that turned her down.

We had $10,000 saved for our China adoption plus a grant for $3,000. That’s it, but we jumped at the chance to possibly be her parents.  After our 1st meeting, we knew that she was to be ours.  Somehow we brought her home — $42,000 later — within 4 months of receiving her referral when she was almost 15 months old.

We continued to wait in the China line, and we continued life, loving being parents at last. We still longed for the bio child, but more so, I longed to go through ALL the things a “normal” woman does when she has children. I prayed for God to take away this desire, but He didn’t, so one year after having our daughter home, we went back to our Reproductive Endocrinologist about the possibilities of going back into treatment.

Donated Egg or Sperm vs. Donated Embryo

IVF would cost around $20,000 with no guarantee of a child, and since we didn’t know the reason for our infertility and since I was almost 40, we might need donor egg or sperm.  My husband wasn’t up for sperm donation because he felt that it would be like me having a child with another man, and I wasn’t up for a donor egg with his sperm because he wasn’t up for the opposite. (I figured his attitude would be different with that child as well — like it was more his than mine/ours.)

When the possibility of an entire embryo being adopted was brought up we immediately decided to try that. We liked the “fairness” of neither of us being more genetically related to the child. The fact that it cost from $5,000 to $7,000 versus the $20,000 was a HUGE deal for us as well since we were still in the waiting line for an adoption from China.

Embryo Donation Process

We met with the clinic’s psychologist, then had to select the embryos to use. We had to choose four and what order we wanted them transferred, in case they didn’t survive the thaw. We were given very basic information on the donors (age, health, education, race, etc.) They were labeled with the number of embryos in the group and their quality ranking (excellent, good, fair, poor). In our experience, the better the quality of the embryo that you want the longer the wait. We were willing to try lesser quality embryos.

Our first try at embryo donation was successful, and we ended up with a beautiful boy!  While still on the delivery bed, I told my husband that we had to go back and see if there were more embryos from his “batch” because I couldn’t tell him that we wanted him and not his siblings. Six months later, we started the process again and were again successful and had another beautiful daughter. [Note that the process and availability of embryos differ depending on the infertility clinic or adoption agency you are using.]

Back to International Adoption To Add One More

We were still saving for and interested in adopting from China. We decided to change our original request in China from as young as possible girl, to a little boy from 0-2.  We were thrilled when they referred us a healthy** boy 1 month and 1 day younger (14 months) than our baby girl.  He finally came home only a few months ago at 18 months old.

Embryo Donation vs. Embryo Adoption

I prefer the term “embryo adoption” over “embryo donation” because, in my opinion, these are children. They are not mine biologically. They WERE wanted by the biological parents at one time, but then they decided that their family was complete without using these embryos so they allowed their children to be adopted.

The definition of adoption is to take into one’s family through legal means and raise as one’s own child or to take up and make one’s own. Notice that it doesn’t say anything about how the child was born. We took the embryos on and are raising them as our own — regardless of what stage they were in when we took them on.

However, the terminology doesn’t matter in the end. We care merely because we are choosing to tell our children about it, and that’s also much easier to describe rather than we took this blob of tissue that was donated for someone to use, and transferred it hoping that it would result in a child.

[Note that most in the professional infertility field and those involved with infertility advocacy prefer the term “embryo donation”.]

Cost comparison of Traditional Adoption vs. Embryo “Adoption”

These were our cost for each type of adoption. [For more up to date information on costs and how long people wait for each type of adoption, go to Adoption in the US 2018: How Many? How Much? How Long Do They Take?

  • Russia* — $42,000
  • China — $30,000 over the 6 years
  • Embryo Adoption–$5-6,000 [Note that she was successful the first time with both embryo donations. The costs would obviously be higher, had she gone through repeated embryo transfers. The cost is also higher when going through an agency that provides more services.]
[Typical embryo donation can range from $6,000 to $18,000.]

Differences in Feelings of Attachment

I don’t feel more connected to the children born to me through embryo adoption than the children adopted to me in the more traditional sense. There are times that our oldest feels pressure from being the oldest, and we are still learning how to deal with that. I think if one of the embryo adoptions had been the oldest, we’d still have that issue, but with that child instead. And obviously, since he’s only been home a short time, I am more connected (and defensive of) the three older children versus our newest son.  (i.e. how bringing him in affected the other 3).

People wonder if we felt a more immediate bond to the babies born to us from embryo adoption than the children we adopted from Russia and China. Honestly, my husband bonded almost immediately with our Russian daughter the first time we met her at 12 months. I did not. But by the 2nd trip I started to bond, and by pickup time I already felt like she was ours — and was all along meant to be with us.

Our Chinese son didn’t attach at ALL with me in China. He refused to even let me push the stroller for him. It was VERY hard for me to bond with that kind of rejection. He started to let me do things for him after my husband started back to work though. We’ve been home 3 months now, and we’re just starting to see real progress on some of his actions towards me.

The other two by embryo adoption were different as well. I believe I had some sort of postpartum depression with the first, and attachment came more slowly for me. I was extremely nervous about everything ahead of me, never having really dealt with newborns. He was in NICU for the first week (due to AB/O blood incompatibility—something to think about with embryo donation). I couldn’t breastfeed (but I pumped), but then he wouldn’t latch after coming home. I couldn’t hold him often that first week, and there was all that stress of not being there at all for our daughter from Russia. Gradually we bonded once we got home.

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Think you might be struggling with Post Adoption Depression?

I bonded immediately to our second child through embryo adoption. I just wanted to hold her ALL the time. Bonding is still strong for her and me, more than the others, but that’s ok since daddy is pretty much “the man” with the other three.

Beyond the initial bonding, there is NO difference between our children’s attachment altogether. Our children all love to cuddle with us and be around us all the time, which is good, considering I’m a stay at home mom now, and we don’t get much time out — hoping that changes as they get older. LOL

Feelings of Control Differs Between Embryo Donation and Traditional Adoption

In the embryo adoption, once they implanted, I felt like we had a lot more control, if for no other reason than we didn’t have an unknown length of time before we’d have them in our arms, and we didn’t have others chasing us down for more paperwork.

The embryo adoption process was pretty scary the first time, not knowing if they would implant or not, and then never having been pregnant I was pretty scared about doing anything. After implantation, most of the fears subsided though.  The second time the fears were basically gone. With traditional adoption, I was scared of the home study, and for the entire six years we waited to adopt from China we were always paranoid that anything we did might stop our adoption after all the emotions, money, and time had been put into it. It was quite stressful. Worth it that we stayed and have our son, but still stressful.

Importance of Being Pregnant

Being able to be pregnant fulfilled something in me, but I think that’s because of how my family treated me as someone less after our first adoption. (“You would understand if you had been pregnant.”) Other than that, it was not a requirement. I felt like a mother already and was fulfilled that way. If it hadn’t been for the family I would have not felt so compelled to try to get pregnant. But I am thrilled now that I did.

It was nice to be able to know that our children [through embryo donation] had a healthy pregnancy, and I didn’t have fears of FAS or anything like that. However, not having that control for our other two doesn’t/didn’t lessen our likelihood to adopt or love them.

Telling Children Through Embryo Donation and Traditional Adoption Their Story

I think it is important to tell our children through embryo donation about their conception because they do not have our genetics and looks. Some may choose not to, but to me, they have a right to know about their biological family, and that they most likely have other siblings out there. They also need to know and understand that their biological parents loved them enough to donate them to us instead of throwing them away or donating them to be used in science experiments.

Because our family is created from both embryo adoption and traditional adoption, the telling is harder. Our daughter from Russia already knows. It was hard at first. She wanted me to be her tummy mommy. But we took several talks to discuss it. She saw me pregnant with the middle two, so she knows where they grew.

Our son from China will know as well, but for him, it will be obvious that we didn’t give birth to him and until we talk about it, he won’t know I didn’t give birth to our first child either.

I think it’s going to be harder to describe this to our two from embryo adoption than it was to our daughter and son through traditional adoption. I think that explaining the embryo adoptions will be more difficult, but in part that’s because it’s not as common and doesn’t have lots of helpful children’s books and stuff to use.

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Books to help you talk about Embryo Donation with kids.


There are many different experiences with both traditional adoption and embryo donation. You can find resources to help you navigate this decision at Creating a Family (embryo donation, domestic adoption, international adoption, foster care adoption). Also, join our Facebook Support Group to get more of the been-there-done-that type of advice.

*Russia is no longer open for international adoptions to the US.
**This story was originally published several years ago and it is now unlikely to receive a referral of a “healthy” young child from China.

Originally published in 2012; Updated in 2019.
Image credits: 
Title graphic - Gabriel Pinto
Other pictures - from author