Institutional vs. Home Life for a Newly Adopted Child

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How an Institutional Setting Differs from a Warm, Home Environment

If you adopt a child who has been living in an institutional setting, keep in mind that its often hard for children in these settings to become attached to their caregivers.

The caregivers rotate in shifts and there are usually too few of them. A shortage of adult caregivers means the baby has few opportunities for face-to-face verbal or social communication.

In addition, instead of being exposed to different surroundings and positions, young infants lie on their backs, swaddled, staring at the ceiling. A baby’s need for food and diaper changing is done according to the institutions schedule, not according to the baby’s needs.

When a baby cries out in pain or illness, he or she isn’t reliably comforted.
Older infants and toddlers are confined to playpens. Instead of being read to or exposed to painting or water play, older toddlers and preschoolers spend their days wandering around a playroom.

When children are fed, its often not enough food and the mealtimes are rarely pleasant or times meant to develop social skills. Some children in institutions are also exposed to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in addition to neglect.

Raised in this type of setting, a child learns:

  • Its every kid for him or herself.
  • Don’t trust adults they might help you now, but probably wont be around next time you need them. Adults aren’t that helpful anyway.
  • Eat as much as you can, whenever you can.
  • Be careful at night, that’s when you’re really on your own.

In order to survive in an institutional setting, children develop coping strategies. For example, some children need very little in the way of adult attention and get enough to meet their needs. Others develop self-stimulatory activities to entertain themselves. For others, withdrawing becomes the way they cope.

Those who learned at an early age that adults wouldn’t always try to ease their pain either learn to ignore pain, or don’t bother to seek an adults comfort when hurt. While these strategies may be an effective way to deal with life in an institution, they can interfere with the child’s ability to develop a healthy attachment once they move into a nurturing family environment.

Once you understand what the child has gone through during the early months or years of his or her life, you can see the importance of taking the time to let the child become attached to you. To help start things off on a solid first step, pack toys that are small, lightweight and simple, such as: a soft blanket, cuddly baby doll, inflatable beach ball, toy car, bottle of bubbles, books tactile books, lift-the-flap books, photo albums of your home and family, etc.

Adapted from the International Adoption Health Services of Western Pennsylvania, Pediatric Alliance, PC