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AF answers your parenting questions. May/June 2007

Have a question? Ask our panel of experts.

Graduating from family bed

Q:Our newly adopted 15-month-old refused to sleep in a crib, so we let her sleep in our bed. Three years later, we’re still co-sleeping, but I think it’s time she starts sleeping by herself. We’ve been encouraging her to sleep on a small bed in our room. Any other suggestions?

A:There’s nothing wrong with sharing a family bed, but if you’re sure this isn’t what you want for your family, here’s how to make the transition. First, instead of placing a small bed in your room, get a bed that can accommodate your daughter, plus one or both adults, for her room. Sleep with her in that bed until she becomes comfortable sleeping in her own room, then wean yourself out of her bed.

Don’t sneak out after she’s asleep—if she wakes up at night, she’ll probably just make her way back into your bed. Instead, explain each step you’ll take (sleeping with her for the entire night, lying down with her until she’s drowsy, sitting next to her bed until she falls asleep, and so on), and let her know that you’re doing this because you’ve seen that she’s ready for it. Stickers or other small rewards for progress can make a big difference for preschoolers. She should begin to feel confident and safe in her own bed within a few months.
—Sarah Springer, M.D.
International Adoption Health Services of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh

Removing sibling rivalry

Q:Our three-year-old daughter still has not adjusted to our new son, two, who came home a few months ago. She was expecting a “baby,” not someone who is already walking, talking, and taking attention away from her. She will knock him over or pinch him, and sometimes says she wants him out of the family. What can we do?

A:Sibling rivalry is common when a newly adopted toddler is brought into an established family circle. The situation will normalize after a while, but in the meantime, there are some things you can do to ease the tension.

Encourage your daughter to take on the role of “important big sister.” You can set the rules about what big sisters do, such as protect, share, teach, and so on, and what they don’t do—such as bite, push, or boss around.

Remember that this is training time, so keep punishment to a minimum. Your role is to monitor, protect, and teach your children, and to do so with love, patience, and good humor. Playing together as a family will provide a model for sharing, and will be more effective than lecturing. Spend some extra one-on-one time with your daughter, and reward her for good behavior in all things, not just when she’s being a good big sister.
—Marjorie Clay Bluder
Adoption Homestudy Agency of Colorado

Sharing tough information

Q:We have very little information about our five-year-old daughter’s birthparents, but what we do know is disturbing—her birthmother died as a result of domestic violence. When should we share this information, and how?

A: You’re right in thinking your daughter needs to know that her birthmother has died. In fact, children can often more easily deal with the idea of losing a parent through death than losing a parent through abandonment.

Children can understand the concept of death by four to six years of age, so you can tell her now. You don’t have to be explicit about the cause of death, but you shouldn’t lie. Don’t say something like, “your birthmother got sick and died.” For now, you might say that her birthmother died in an accident.

When she’s about 10, you should talk to her more specifically about the cause of her birthmother’s death, even if she hasn’t asked. You can say to her that, now that she’s older, you want her to know her adoption story in a more adult way. Then tell her the details you know. Until then, be sure not to share this information with anyone else. This is her history, not yours—and it is not something she should find out from anyone but you. —Mary Ann Curran
World Association for Children and Parents, Seattle

“Dear Birthmother” references

Q:A close friend has asked me to write a letter about her and her husband to put in the album they’re making for potential birthmothers. I’m honored to be asked—but what should I write?

A:Nelson Handel has written an authoritative guide to help prospective parents write letters to potential birthmothers, and many of the tips from Reaching Out: The Guide to Writing a Terrific Dear Birthmother Letter (EasternEdge Press) can be adapted to your situation.

Include intimate anecdotes, and relate them as vividly as possible. Instead of writing, “Their wedding day was very special,” describe how you helped your friend choose the cake—and how happy she and her husband looked when they fed it to each other.

Talk about how a baby will fit into their lives. Describe the puppet shows you and your friend put on together when you were kids, and how she can’t wait to introduce her child to the same type of play.

Above all, don’t make your friends seem like people they’re not. The better you communicate their personalities, the love they share, and the things that make them unique, the better their chances of connecting with a birthmother who shares their outlook.
the editors of AF

Books for understanding the birthmother’s perspective

Q:Do you know of any books, like I Wish for You a Beautiful Life: Letters from the Korean Birth Mothers of Ae Ran Won to Their Children, written for kids adopted from China?

A:While we don’t know of any books of letters from Chinese birthmothers, there are two excellent books, both published by Yeong & Yeong, that tell the adoption story with empathy for the Chinese birthmothers. Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son, by Kay Johnson, is a scholarly book that explores the complexities behind the one-child policy. When You Were Born in China, by Sara Dorow, can help kids understand why children might be placed for adoption. Both should be in the library of every China adopter.
—the editors of AF

Breast milk vs. formula

Q:I keep hearing about the benefits of breastfeeding. Should adoptive parents make the effort to feed infants breast milk?

A: At our clinic, we used to share donor breast milk with adoptive parents, especially those who had adopted pre-term infants. But this practice has ended, as the medical community has discovered that blood-borne pathogens, particularly HIV, can be passed through breast milk.

Adoptive moms may choose to breastfeed, although the success rate is fairly low. Even when taking hormones, it’s difficult to achieve full lactation, and if a child has been bottle fed for several months, he’s usually hesitant to latch onto a breast. But I wouldn’t worry about using formula—most of the options on the market are perfectly fine, and will provide the nutrients your baby needs.
—Deborah Borchers, M.D. Eastgate Pediatric Clinic, Cincinnati

Helping kids who feel “different”

Q:My 11-year-old reports that she feels “different” from her peers. Is there anything I can do to help her learn social skills?

A:Try to observe your daughter with her peers. Does she have difficulty asking to be included in group play, or does she domineer? Does she listen well to others? Watch a TV show together, turn down the sound, and ask what she thinks the characters are feeling in different situations.

You may be surprised at her perceptions. Does she think she’s different from her peers in her interests and intellectual ability? For a girl her age, it could be a physical issue—is she ahead of or behind her peers in development, is she tall, is she overweight? These issues can be immense for girls approaching middle school. And, finally, is it an adoption issue? Is the child a difference race from her parents or most, if not all, of her peers?

Two books you might find useful are Good Friends Are Hard to Find, by Fred Frankel (Perspective), and Unwritten Rules of Friendship, by Natalie Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore (Little, Brown).

Regardless of the problems they may be facing, kids your daughter’s age benefit from being around other adopted children—especially transracial adoptees. Your daughter needs to know she is not the only kid who looks different from everyone else in her house. Having even one friend with whom she feels comfortable will be a huge help. Look for a heritage camp, culture day, or adoptee support group at, or ask your agency.
—Mary Ann Curran

Filing taxes without a SSN

Q:We are adopting domestically, and have been told that our adoption might not be finalized by the end of the year. If our child doesn’t have a social security number, what do we use to file taxes?

A:The IRS can issue you an Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number (ATIN). This temporary nine-digit number is designed for families in your situation—new parents, in the process of adopting, within the U.S. or internationally, who cannot get a social security number for their child in time to file their taxes. Request an ATIN through Form W-7A, which you can download at Along with the form, you’ll need documentation describing how your child was placed with you for adoption. (Note that it can take up to eight weeks to receive an ATIN.) An ATIN is valid for two years, and can be used to claim the dependency exemption, the child and dependency care expenses credit, the adoption tax credit, and the child tax credit.
—Peter Wiernicki Joseph, Reiner & Wiernicki, P.C., Rockville, Maryland

Older child adjustment

Q:We are adopting an 11-year-old boy from Eastern Europe. For the last seven years, he has lived with a loving foster family. We’ll be spending a month in his country, but we want to ease his adjustment when we return to the U.S. What behaviors should we watch for?

A:Your son has to adjust to both your family and his new country—and the result can be anger, depression, and rejection. A child’s grief is a sign that he’s learned to attach and trust—and kids can usually learn to do so again.

Try to spend time with his foster family before you leave. He needs to see that you are working together and that you all have his best interest at heart. Try to get a sense of how the family functions—for example, what is the level of physical affection, how much independence was he given, and so on. Your son has learned that this is how a family operates, and your family’s habits may at first seem wrong to him. It will take time—maybe years—before your child truly feels part of your family, but eventually he will. Just keep loving him, and have patience with how he is making sense of his new life.
—Mary Ann Curran

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