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When Your Newly Adopted Baby is Sick: Promoting Attachment in a Hospital Setting

When we were making our plans for bringing Elvie home from Ethiopia, we considered our attachment work seriously, knowing that she would need to begin going to medical appointments due to her birth defect sooner rather than later. We settled on two weeks exclusively at home, with no outside visitors, as our plan for adoption cocooning. While it wouldn’t be ideal, it would at least give her some time to adjust to a whole new country, a whole new family, and a brand new way of life before she had many people looking her over and helping us make medical decisions for her future.

But then we got to Ethiopia and met her, and realized that her medical situation was much more dire than we thought, in ways we didn’t anticipate. I knew that getting treatment for her malnutrition was far more important than sticking to a cocooning plan. We were quite fortunate to have a caring international adoption doctor that advised us on her care while we were in Ethiopia and then made a housecall once we were home. It fit right into my cocooning plan, and I foolishly thought that we’d just get started treating what was wrong from home in the beginning. I was so hopeful that we could turn her health around while keeping her sheltered at home, but that was just not to be. We arrived home on Saturday afternoon, saw our doctor Monday afternoon, and checked into the hospital Tuesday morning. So much for our cocooning plans!

Still, there was plenty we could do to show her that we were her family, that we would be her constants, that even though many faces came and went, the ones that were always there were ours. There were simple things we could commit to doing that would bond her to us, even though she was in the hospital. We couldn’t cocoon, but we could still do attachment work. And so we did.

The toughest part about doing attachment work in the hospital is that you have to say no to a lot of people who want to do things to help you. I don’t know how many times a nurse said, “It’s why we’re here,” and encouraged me to go take a break or to let them do some of the things we’d committed to doing as part of our attachment work. As tempting as it sounded when I was tired from being up most of the night, I still said no. If Elvie had multiple people caring for her in ways that were not medical, it would be just like the orphanage and care center in Ethiopia. It wouldn’t help her understand that things were different, and that we were her family. So we said no a lot, and mostly people took it with grace. When we had time to explain why, we had a lot of support for our decisions.

The primary thing we did for Elvie was that one of us was at the hospital with her at all times. In the beginning, I wouldn’t even use the bathroom if she was awake. When her eyes were open, I wanted her to see one of our faces. We had no idea how long she would be in the hospital, but we knew that one of us would be with her the whole time. Included in being with her at all times was accompanying her to every procedure, even if someone else volunteered to take her. Like I said, if her eyes were open, the goal was that she would see either Jarod or me right there next to her. As the weeks wore on, there were times that I would use the bathroom or slip out for coffee quickly while she was awake, but to the end I tried to do things that would take me out of her sight when she was asleep.

We also committed to doing all of Elvie’s personal care. If her diaper needed changing, one of us changed it. If her fingernails needed a trim, one  of us trimmed them. If she needed lotion, one of us put it on. The only thing that I allowed hospital staff to do was to give her a bath, and this was because she absolutely hated baths. I figured that I could pass it off as another unpleasant medical procedure and allow someone else to be at the receiving end of her displeasure. All the other little things, the things that we would have been doing ourselves if we were home, we did while we were at the hospital.

When it came to feeding Elvie, we were also the ones to do that. Every bottle that she ate was fed to her in our arms, from our hands. We focused on making eye contact while she was eating. If she so much as snuffled in the middle of the night, I would wake up and offer her a bottle. This was probably the most intense part of our attachment work, as it caused the most lost sleep. But just like her personal care, I knew I would be doing the same if we were at home on our own, so I did it.

Finally, we simply held her as much as possible. It was hard when she was hooked up to so many machines, with wires and tubes to navigate around, but if she would allow us to hold her, we would do it. While there were some times that it was clear she wanted to stretch out on her bed with nothing additional touching her, most of the time she was thrilled to be on our laps, and we were more than happy to hold her.

By the end of our hospital stay, the attachment  work had paid off, and over time we saw that she recognized us as her people, and she would be upset if we were gone. While it was hard to hear my baby cry as I dashed back into her hospital room with my breakfast, it was so gratifying to hear her quiet as soon as she heard my voice, and calm down completely as soon as I picked her up. Working on attachment at the hospital certainly wasn’t my ideal, but it was most definitely worth it.

Now that we are home, we can see Elvie’s attachment to us deepening even more. Missing those first two weeks we intended to have at home was a bummer, but we have more than caught up, and I am pleased with her progress. We are so happy to have her in our family and to see her recognizing us as hers.

Read more of our family story on Finding Magnolia.
Follow Finding Magnolia on Twitter.
Keep up with our latest family happenings on Facebook.

Read the rest of the When Your Baby is Sick series on Babble:
When Your Baby is Sick: The Practicalities of Hospital Life
When Your Baby is Sick: 12 Items to Bring to the Hospital For Your Baby
When Your Baby is Sick: 10 Things to Bring to the Hospital for Yourself
When Your Baby is Sick: What a Normal Hospital Day is Like

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