Problems with Sleep in Adoption

Did your children experience sleep disruption on placement and if so how long did it last and were you well prepared for it?


I am a two-time adopter and both our children came with sleep problems, to some extent due to their very young age, but of course also in part to the disruption of placement itself.  Looking back we can see how unprepared, uninformed and, certainly first time round, totally naive we were.  But what surprised us was the conflicting advice we received from social workers and our GP, and the lack of advice for adopters in child sleep books.  After seeking help for our daughter’s sleep I was inspired to make a career change and become a sleep consultant myself.  Here’s our story:

Our son was eight months old when he was placed with us and he was already sleeping through the night with foster mum.  We were told to expect some sleep disruption on placement but there was an expectation from everyone involved that sleeping through the night would resume fairly quickly.  The only advice we got about sleep was to give our cot bedding to the foster mum for her to use and send with him, unwashed, so it would smell familiar to him.  What we didn’t know until introductions started was that foster mum was rocking our son to sleep in her arms although, fortunately for us, he was happy to fall asleep in our arms too.

The nights always started well with him falling to sleep in our arms and going into the cot no problem, but then he would wake multiple times in the night and scream incessantly whilst we tried to figure out if he was hungry, in pain, needed a clean nappy or just upset at waking up in a strange place with unfamiliar people to console him.  Finally, he would fall asleep in my arms again and I would return him to his cot and crawl back to bed.  The worst nights were when you laid him in the cot a little too quickly and he would wake up and you’d have to start all over again.  Several months later he was still waking multiple times a night so we decided to start sleep training and opted for the “pick up, put down” approach for no other reason than I couldn’t cope with listening to him cry for very long.  So every time he cried we picked him up to calm him and then put him back in the cot without letting him fall asleep on us.  It was a real endurance test but slowly and surely it worked and within a matter of weeks we rediscovered the joys of an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

Fast forward to summer 2014 and our daughter arrived in our lives aged just four months.  Sleep did not come easily to her and she fought every nap and bedtime routine that we tried.  Getting her to sleep, even for a catnap which is all she would have in the day, was a tortuous ordeal that involved us doing anything we could think of to stop her screaming.  We joked that our neighbours must have thought we were tearing her limb from limb as she screamed at a pitch and volume that seemed physically impossible for such a tiny creature.  We resorted to driving her round the village at all hours of the day and night, walking up and down our cul-de-sac with her in the pram, rocking & jiggling her; you name it, we tried it until finally we discovered that she liked to fall asleep with a bottle in her mouth.

We settled into a routine of sorts, with her still only catnapping in the day but at least we had a way of getting her to sleep quickly.  I had moved into her room to be with her during the night and as weaning started when she was six months old we expected the night feeds to tail off and for me to be able to return to our room.  But two months later and, although she was eating heartily during the day, the night feeds were still happening as often as they were before weaning started.  I consulted our Health Visitor who suggested watering down the night feeds so our daughter would find them less appealing and not bother waking up for them.  We had no success with this nor with reducing the amount we were putting in the bottle at night.  She still woke regularly every night and the only thing that would get her back to sleep was a bottle, no matter how watery or how little was in it.  I turned to the Internet for answers and fairly quickly came across The Sleep Lady; an American clinical social worker by the name of Kim West.  Kim’s diagnosis was that our daughter had a feed-to-sleep association that had to be broken before she would sleep through the night.  We followed her simple advice and within three days our daughter was sleeping through the night.

I was so impressed by Kim’s methods that when she advertised for people to train with her to become one of her certified Gentle Sleep Coaches I jumped at the chance and I qualify next month.   I would love to have a specialism supporting adopted families with sleep problems and I have a book about sleep for adopters in the pipeline.  I would love to hear from you to understand what sleep problems your children had on placement, what you did to resolve them, how long it took and whether they are ongoing?  What do you wish you had known about sleep before you adopted?  Please get in touch with me through this post or through my facebook or twitter accounts.  My facebook page is and I’m @sleeppractice on twitter.

7 thoughts on “Problems with Sleep in Adoption

  1. Debbie

    Thanks for this post. We had exactly the same problem with our little boy. He fought sleep and needed to be rocked to sleep when we adopted him at a year old. He used wake 4 or 5 times a night screaming until we rocked him again. We kept doing that as he was very attached to his foster mum and needed (and still does) lots of reassurance.
    After about 2 months of this, the health visitor told us we needed to break that cycle for our own good and his as he needed to get to sleep on his own. It was very painful but we did start putting him down on his own. He has always fought sleep though and I wish I’d know of other methods. Hopefully when we adopt again your book will be out!

    1. Amanda

      Debbie, our GP and Health Visitor told us the same but had no suggestions on HOW to do it. Most health visitors seem to only know about controlled crying and seem unaware of the other gentler techniques that I believe are far more appropriate for new adopters in particular. Please get in touch as you get ready for your next adoption. Happy to advise even if the book is still a work in progress!
      Amanda, The Child Sleep Practice

  2. Sarah

    Thank you for this. Our son too slept through the night at his foster mum’s. He came to us at 10 months. And once with us he woke 4 or 5 or more times a night. At first we needed to lift him up to console him. But soon it was enough to speak softly to him when he woke, while stroking his little body, rubbing his back, or holding his hand – chanting mantras like ‘ mummy’s here, you are safe and sound’ ‘Mummy loves you’. Gradually we stopped talking, just stoked his chin. And climbed back to into our own bed. we had two aborted ‘sleep training’ attempts. But as leaving the room for even ten secs left him in consolable we quickly stopped. Just not worth it. I’d say the first three months were super hard, and the first year hard. But by going to bed early, I could be there to check in with him. I’ve been meaning to write a blog about it. I’ll let you know when I have. Sleep is so important to the well being of the whole family. Thanks again.

    1. Amanda

      Sarah, I would love to know about your blog when it’s ready; do stay in touch. Your instincts to stay with your son whilst he was learning to settle himself to sleep were spot on. Sleep and feeling safe and secure go hand in hand so it’s lovely to see that you instinctively verbally reassured him that he was safe with you there. In hindsight I wish I had co-slept (room sharing rather than bed sharing) with our son. I did with our daughter and I think it really helped her.
      Amanda, The Child Sleep Practice.

      1. Sarah

        Thank you for your reassuring comment. 🙂 I’ll keep you posted on my blog…
        We are co-sleeping (some room not bed), and that has worked a treat. Much more so, I believe, than if we had to slug downstairs every time he needed us.
        The bed sharing was never an issue. While we all like the idea of it, the practice is arms and legs everywhere, and more disrupted sleep. He prefers the space of his cots. Our bed is for cuddles, stories, and when he is ill/has nightmares. The latter is rare, the former is daily.
        Thanks again.

    1. Amanda

      Thanks for your comments and for sharing your blog. Children have to feel safe in order to sleep and those who have experienced early trauma obviously struggle with this. It’s great that you and your two figured out what works for them. A white noise machine is another great tool for blocking out extraneous noise and blackout blinds are a godsend.


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