Children can go through developmental phases related to their adoption.


What children can do is limited only by their developing capacities, the resources that adults provide, and our expectations. The earliest years of a child's life, from birth to 5, unfold in a series of developmental stages. Each bears a set of notable physical, cognitive, and social milestones.

Birth to 1 Year

During the first year, an infant grows from being mostly asleep to more often awake, from horizontal to vertical, from receiving to sending. A lot happens in this time: At first, others must lead the newborn to interact, then baby gradually learns how to draw others into play. Physically, infants cannot manipulate things, but with growth come rudimentary handling skills. Likewise, the ability to communicate broadens, with smiles and laughter becoming welcome additions to the primal expression, crying. The prerequisites to life, social relations, and other skills are forming in these first 12 months.

Even very early in a person's life, adoption means change and a loss. Babies react somatically -- bodily -- in their patterns of sleep or eating. They may lack vitality. Infants and toddlers may express forms of grief. At ages 6 to 12 months, a baby's need for primary care is strong, producing an intense attachment to the caregiver. Your baby can perceive the loss of an individual and may go through denial, or exhibit searching behaviors, looking for the previous caregiver. Babies might express their vulnerability, frustration, and anger by uncontrollable crying, disinterest in food or play, depression, or withdrawal.

The transition of adoption -- moving from one environment to another -- represents a mixed time. Because even while the bodily adjustments may feel unpleasant, they combine with the joys of new parents falling in love with a child and the child falling in love with you. Usually, the earlier the change occurs, the fewer or shorter-lasting are the transitional behaviors.

1 to 2 Years

Children work hard testing and stretching their physical limits in this stage. Growing from wobbly and toddling to sturdy and steady, this age typically can say: "Me do myself." Waving bye-bye gradually turns into speaking, "Bye-bye." Two-year-olds' interest in other children grows. And they always seem to be on the run, practicing new motor skills, climbing, dancing, and exploring. Initially spilling things from containers, toddlers usually end this year filling things up.

Starting from this stage and continuing through the kindergarten years, parents can ease their children's frustration level with consistent, reliable structure at home. Use these tips to guide your child into greater -- and safer -- independence:

  • Stock the lower two shelves of a bookcase with your child's books and magazines.
  • Fill an easy-to-reach kitchen cabinet with pots, pans, and cans.
  • Satisfy curiosity about your precious possessions by letting your child explore them while carefully supervised, sitting on your lap.
  • Set limits gently but firmly. Children want to know life is not a free-for-all.

2 to 3 Years

Simple sentence structures expand now, enabling a child to tell you things: "Me want juice." Parallel play progresses to engaged play with other children. Vocabulary expands from a constant "No!" into an occasional "yes." As a 3-year-old understands more about how the body works, toilet training can begin. Imitating what Mommy does or pretending to be Daddy (or a lion or mouse) hold great appeal for this age. Your used-to-be baby now becomes a big girl or boy, taking a bath alone, getting dressed unaided. Still, your child will struggle between wanting to snuggle on Mommy's lap and exercising this newfound self-reliance.

Two-year-olds are intense little human beings, coming strongly into their own personality. If adoption happens around this age, they experience similar changes as the baby and toddler do, but more intensely. Clingy behaviors and/or pronounced withdrawal could characterize adjustment at this stage.

3 to 4 Years

The 3-year-old asks, "What's that?" The 4-year-old adds, "Why?" In this social stage of learning how to cooperate with other children, friends gain importance. It's a time of growth from depending solely on a parent toward counting on other adults too; it's less scary now to be away from Mom or Dad. Dramatic play bears significance at this age: acting out and dressing up as a firefighter or an ambulance driver, trying on different roles. Young people now look at their small world and puzzle out their place in it, starting with family -- which raises unique issues for young adoptees.

Reaction to adoption issues at this age can show up as anxiety. Children are questioners now, figuring things out: If I left here and came there, then is this home, where I'm really going to stay? Unsure, they might not want to learn the answer, so they may refuse to go to school or to sleep; they could experience night fears or night terrors.

4 to 5 Years

Cheerful, energetic, and enthusiastic mark this stage of forming friendships and making plans. Typical 4-year-olds are learning how to wait their turn and share. Little scientists, this age group likes to take things apart. Cognitively they expand from being able to use their own individual symbols toward using more standard symbols, like letters and numbers. Less egocentric than a year before, preschoolers are moving out into the world and feel a need to be accepted there.

Four-year-olds are easily distracted and often change their mind. Hugely inquisitive, they ask each other questions. They also want facts about where babies come from, which takes on a special dimension for adopted children. This is the time when you'll have to answer, "Was I in your uterus (or belly), Mommy?" And if yours is an interracial family, be ready now for "How come I look different?" Every parent individually needs to figure out how to reply. Knowing your own child will guide you toward the best answers for these questions. Depending on your child's readiness, your response may be quite simple or a bit more complex.

A Parent's Role for Any Age

Becoming aware of typical developmental milestones is a start for how parents can maximize their children's potential for success throughout life. Knowing when to be concerned about their development and how to look for outside services helps too. Be open to early evaluation and intervention. It does get harder at the 3-to-5 age level to access services. Call SPARK if you have any questions about evaluation.

A parent's role doesn't have to be overwhelming: You are a supporter, comforter, holder, and information provider. Begin telling your children their adoption story in a meaningful way from the time they come home. The details and style can grow along with their interest and emotional maturity. Tune into where they are developmentally; watch how they play out their stories. Be there for them. You are their most precious and wonderful toy.

For more information on child development or to get help coordinating evaluations and services, call Jamila Cleary, 212-360-0259, or e-mail

Joan Radigan, MS, SAS, Significant Steps Child Development Center

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

American Baby