Helping an Adopted Child with Night Waking

Photo (C) Roli Seeger 2010

We adopted our daughter at birth but due to the state’s adoption laws and her case of jaundice, she was confined to the hospital nursery for 5 days. We had limited access to her during visiting hours. So her welcome to the world was to be separated from both her birth mom and me, sick, and in need of necessary but frightening treatment.

The nurses were wonderful but they were limited by conventional medical concepts and practices. They woke her on a rigid schedule and fed her every four hours. This was the only time she was really held and received affection or physical connection.  The feedings occurred without regard to signals from her—sometimes she was hungry, but sometimes she was wakened from a deep sleep on the hospital’s schedule.

Once my daughter came home, she continued to wake every two to four hours and would cry hard until she was fed. I believe the rigidity of her waking was a result of her early experience in the hospital.

After several months, I became more confident that she wasn’t actually hungry and didn’t actually need a bottle every time she woke in the night. I also got some listening time for myself on my strong feelings that I need to eat every 4 hours, so that I could better distinguish between my own fears of starving her, and the real situation each time she woke. I began to listen to her feelings when she woke in the night and wanted to be fed. I gave her my loving attention, but no bottle. We saw some lessening of nighttime waking, but the pattern persisted.

As she became more verbal, and sometimes switched from “hungry” to  “thirsty” I would get confused sometimes as to whether she really needed the bottle she was crying for. To sort this out each time, I learned to offer her water in a cup when she cried for her bottle in the night. If she rejected this and continued to cry, I knew she was not thirsty but looking for the sucking behavior and the pattern of eating to numb out big feelings. I offered close physical connection instead and listened to her feelings many times.

When I didn’t have the attention to listen to how she felt, I would lightly explain that to her and feed her, so we could all get some sleep. Her night waking lessened in frequency but continued to occur at least once or twice every night.

Finally, when she was somewhere between eighteen months and two years of age, we were very tired. I made a commitment to listen to her feelings through the entire night every night for as many nights as it took. We started on a night when my spouse could take care of our older daughter, and I made arrangements to able to sleep the next day. My daughter started as usual by waking and crying for a bottle.  As I held her close in bed I thought harder and harder about how best to help her with the feelings she experienced during the first five days of her life. I finally said quietly,  “We will never leave you alone with strangers again.”

It was a fascinating moment. The instant I said this, she hiccupped once, took a very deep breath, sighed and relaxed into my arms. Then after a minute the sobs started coming again, but this time they were much deeper. She cried hard for a few more minutes and I told her once more that we would never leave her alone with strangers again. Again, she immediately went quiet, took a few more deep sobs, and instantly fell asleep. She slept through the rest of the night.

The following night was a repeat of the above on a less intense level. From then on we had far, far fewer night wakings. I can’t say it all went away instantly or entirely, but things improved dramatically from that night onward. For many years, I continued to reassure her with that same thought when she cried. She did persist in wanting “nighttime juice” in a sippy cup right before bed. It served as a dependable outlet for the hurt she experienced at the beginning of her life. It took us years to log the amount of listening time she required to loosen up her strong sense of need, but she is now about to turn 8 and she is the world’s best sleeper.

In order to listen to her all those times with an open heart, I had to cry a lot about my own feelings about her having been alone in the nursery, and about adoption in general. We have always assumed that our children understood much more that people traditionally think, so we have talked to them like this since they were newborns. If they do not grasp all the words, they certainly grasp the feeling and the intent. Telling them how safe they are with us can serve as a powerful anchor for them as they face and release their worst feelings.

-a mother in West Tisbury, MA

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