Baby bonding blues ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

Baby bonding blues

Attachment disorders are as likely to occur — or not — with adopted and non-adopted children

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 06/07/2012

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Dear Patti,
My husband and I have a beautiful 2-year-old son who is the joy of our lives. I was recently advised that, due to my health, the stress of any future pregnancies would cause physical harm. At first, I was devastated by the thought of not having another baby. I know I’m a very good mother and have the love and energy needed for a second child.  
My husband and I want to adopt a newborn, but I’m hearing from the other mothers in my “Mommy and Me” class that an adopted baby can end up with an attachment disorder and become deeply traumatized for having been taken away so quickly from his or her biological mother. 
What is an attachment disorder? Are adopted babies more prone to such problems? Do siblings have more of a problem attaching to each other when one of them is adopted?
  — Maddie 

Dear Maddie,
Attachment disorder is a syndrome in which there are significant disturbances in mood, behavior and familial and social relationships due to an inability to form deep attachments with others. It’s a problem that starts to occur in infancy and early childhood and is often caused by early traumatic experiences, such as the primary caretaker being unresponsive, unloving, neglectful or abusive. It can also occur due to a prolonged separation from the primary caregiver.  
While the diagnosis of an attachment disorder usually relates to the inability of very young children to cope and relate well to others, it can also apply to the difficulties of school-aged children in their interactions with others. Children who have minimal attachment with loved ones and are diagnosed with this disorder may also suffer from depression, anxiety or poor impulse control and experience an inordinate amount of fear. In addition, they can have poor self-esteem or a lack of trust or positive belief in others and sometimes even experience a generalized sense of suspicion and pessimism toward everything and everyone. They are more likely to have learning or academic problems as well as attention or behavioral problems. When relating with others, they can often behave in a very dependent manner or cope by being pseudo-independent.  
Psychologist John Bowlby first defined attachment as the deep bond between two people beginning with the bond between a baby and its mother. According to attachment theorists, this bond is representative of how the child subsequently forms relationships with the rest of the world. Other theorists believe it is a secure mother’s ability to continuously regulate or calm her baby’s shifting emotional states that, in turn, provides the child with the ability to self-regulate or self-soothe, necessary elements in forming healthy attachments to others. 
Sometimes mothers are concerned their baby might have attachment issues but think it’s simply undesirable behavior the child will outgrow with guidance. If in doubt, however, parents should get their children evaluated. Just in case there are real issues that are impacting development and socialization, the earlier this evaluation can occur, the better.
As for your question about adoptive family relations, I’m happy to report that ongoing studies show parents’ feelings of attachment are just as deep as non-adoptive families and, therefore, adopted children do not have a greater incidence of the mental-health risk of attachment disorder due to being adopted. Further, adopted children measure the same as non-adopted children with relation to their emotional well-being. 
While there are many factors affecting the relationships between siblings, adoption does not seem to be significant. Siblings, in fact, are typically reported to be unaffected by adoption and also appear equally as close and loving to one other as to biological sisters and brothers.
Since you and your husband are already dreaming of an addition to your family and are asking questions on how best to protect this child before it’s even born, my feeling is that it’s doubtful you will have any more problems of attaching to your baby — or your baby attaching to you —  than the average mother, adoptive or not. Take good care of your health and your existing family, and move forward in a grounded but joyous manner as you pursue the upcoming steps to welcome your future child.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her Web site,


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As an adoptee who's adoptive parents did not recognize nor understand the importance of baby bonding, I can attest to the damage done by parenting which undervalues this important concern.

20 years of therapy, siblings who don't speak, troubled attachment to girlfriends, failed marriage and a dwindling pattern of parental contact - it's nothing to take lightly. I don't blame my adoptive parents for it; it happened to them, too, and was never addressed. But I've had to spend many years vainly attempting to fill the emotional emptiness left by a childhood bereft of any active affection.

After meeting my birth-parents as an adult (with the expressed intent of bonding with them and healing the attachment wound) I've since learned that nothing can effectively repair what takes place in one's early childhood. The damage is usually permanent and needs to be carefully understood and embraced before any healing can take place.

I don't think adoptees are "better off" raised by birth-parents. I believe that simply having parents who understand that sincere, unconditional love and a consistent expression of healthy affection is essential for children, particularly in their earliest years.

I am biased of course, but reading how vigilant and concerned about this issue Maddie is, she certainly appears to be the kind of caring Mom an adoptee would yearn for.

posted by peter on 7/07/12 @ 06:28 p.m.
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