Even infants can have attachment difficulties


Harriet Fancott
Focus on Adoption magazine

When Cathy* adopted her fist child, Julie, in May, '92, the colicky one-month old was a fussy, demanding child who'd spent her first month of life in a lively caring home in Georgia. "Julie has always been an expressive child," said Cathy, "she has never had a problem making her desires, and wishes, and emotional needs known."

A year and a half later in January of '94, Cathy and her husband, Bill, went back to the US Adoption Agency to meet and pick up six-week-old Kevin, who was by all accounts the polar opposite of his rambunctious older sister. He was the proverbial good baby. Cathy had done a little reading on attachment and familiarized herself with the issues. Her radar went off after noting that Kevin seldom cried, slept through the night, and didn't put up a fuss after being fed by a complete stranger.

"From that point on, I had a gut feeling something needed paying attention to."

Cathy and Bill spent time holding the often tense infant in an attempt to enhance bonding. They always held him during feeding, never propping up the bottle. Meanwhile, Julie would wake in the night demanding to be walked, talked to, and cradled while Kevin continued to be a great sleeper. Everyone thought, "What a wonderful baby, he never cries."

When Cathy had been a stay-at-home mom for three months, she decided to extend her leave of absence from work to six months. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew something was still amiss. Behaviours she had seen in Julie were still not occurring in Kevin. Where Julie had been relaxed and moulded to Cathy's body when held, Kevin remained somewhat rigid. Julie maintained eye contact; Kevin averted his gaze. Julie cried to get attention' Kevin did not. Later when Kevin could walk and he'd hurt himself, he'd run the opposite direction from his primary caregivers, Cathy and Bill.

Despite the fact Kevin was slow in trusting and in attaching, Cathy kept the information to herself. She had several reasons for doing so. Firstly, Kevin's immigration papers had not been finalized, and she did not want to jeopardize the process (now children adopted from the US arrive as landed immigrants) and secondly, it would be an admission that she and Bill could not handle the challenges of their newly adopted child. So, she continued to employ the holding technique, engaged in a variety of play activities to encourage eye contact, and reinforced her commitment to Kevin through spoken affirmations.

At the seven-month point, Cathy and Bill began to see progress. It was also time for Cathy to look for day care, but she soon realized she couldn't leave her son. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't put him into day care... I had sense that this would be the most devastating thing I could do to him," she said.

The pair adjusted their schedule so they could parent full-time. Cathy began to work days, and Bill worked evening shifts. They continued more intense work on attachment, in particular in therapeutic holding. As well, Cathy constantly reinforced her role as mother and caregiver. She affirmed her commitment to their son by saying such things as, "You can return affection," or "You feel comfortable with mummy and daddy." She did everything and anything that would help. "Not knowing exactly what would work, we decided a little of everything wouldn't hurt," she said. Slowly over the next year of hard work, when Kevin was around 18 months, he began to show signs of attaching.

Now at 23 months, he does all the right things. When he's hurt, he knows where to go, and he exhibits all the appropriate behaviours.

The circle, says Cathy, is complete. "Our precious son's favourite activity is out-screaming his older sister demanding 'Mom Look!" or "Dad LOOK!" at whatever amazing feat he's performing, such as jumping off a chair. Today Kevin is a happy, contented little fella who brings constant joy to our lives."

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.