We still have a long way to go in fully understanding what actually happens in an infant’s brain during pregnancy and right after birth. As biological parents we are able to give a child a full description about what was happening during pregnancy and birth to help fill in some of the possible pieces to later behaviors. In adoption that is not always possible as most adoptive parents or adoptees don’t know anything about what life was like for them in the womb or at the time of birth. What we do know is that attachment starts well before a child is born. That means that a break of attachment even at infancy can be hard on a baby’s developing brain.
At just 18 weeks pregnant a baby is able to hear the birth mother’s heart beat and start to depend on its rhythm. Creates a bond that allows the baby to learn to depend on this adult figure as their primary source of survival. The first short attachment trauma happens at the time of birth where the heartbeat sound is broken and the baby enters a very unfamiliar world full of new senses. This bond is reinforced when a baby is placed back onto the birth mothers chest. So that the baby learns that even when the baby loses touch, the baby will be reunited with its primary source of comfort and survival. This might be added to already-existing prenatal trauma that both birth mother and child might have faced during pregnancy. Things such as rape, unplanned pregnancy stress, drugs, alcohol, or domestic violence can hinder the child’s development in utero.
In adoption we might assume that there is some sort of stress at the time of pregnancy and after pregnancy. What does that mean for your child and their development? The hardest answer is that no one might ever fully know. That is the worst answer to receive in almost any situation, and it does not make supporting your child any easier.
What we do know is that there is trauma when it comes to a break of attachment with the birth mother, even if at the time of birth. The bond of the heartbeat is broken, leaving the baby anxious about not being able to return to their primary source of survival. If the baby is anxious and doesn’t have language or ability to navigate the world, this may create fear and mistrust.
Studies have shown that emotional memories can be a stronger connection in our brains than visual or verbal memories. Emotional memories can be harder to identify and reconcile. Meaning they can stick with us our entire lives without us being aware of the traumatic event. Even if someone cannot visually remember a memory, the brain does remember the memory. The brain connections on how we perceive the world may have been formed through a time where fear and anxiety dominated the brain chemistry. It is possible that the child will focus their energy on soothing, comforting and taking care of themselves. They may develop a mistrust for parents and others.
What does this mean? As a parent of a child who has experienced attachment trauma the best thing you can do to help and advocate for your child is educate yourself. Understand what might have been the effects of attachment trauma from loss of birth family, orphanage caregivers, foster family, and/or past primary caregivers. This is not a simple checklist but a complex integration into what is now their life. We may never know all the effects that attachment trauma will have on children but as parents we can strive to know what we can do to help, or when to seek professional help.
· The Connected Parent: Real-life Strategies for Building Trust and Attachment by Karyn Purvis, PhD & Lisa Qualls
· The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Karyn Purvis PhD & David Cross PhD
· The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Newton Verrier
· The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
· Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma by Daniela Sieff