This article explains why adopted children are more susceptible to pre-birth factors which might affect their development, such as domestic violence, drinking alcohol and substance abuse. It counters the argument that just because a child is taken into care at birth they will be 'fine'.

Effects of Adoption on Child Development: Why Being in Care from Birth is No Guarantee

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When we think of the reasons children are adopted, I’m guessing most of us think of abuse and neglect.

We know that there are homes where children’s needs are not met, where parents are not able to make the changes they need to in order to provide for their children, and/or where abusive relationships are not abandoned in order to protect a child.

It was my prayer, before we even met our boys, that they would never experience abuse or neglect. I felt it was a big prayer, because surely this was why children ended up in the care system, but I prayed it anyway.

Yet as I started to understand more about the care system, I realised that a large number of children do not experience abuse or neglect post-birth, because they’re removed from parents as soon as they’re born, due to serious concerns regarding the care of their older siblings. If children have already been removed from the birth family, and birth family have not put the changes in place to support any further children, then a care order will be issued on an unborn child.

This was the case with my boys. But now, four years down the line, I’m becoming more and more aware of the serious effects of adoption on child development, regardless of abuse or neglect, as I start to see how our boys might have been affected by their time in utero.

This article explains why adopted children are more susceptible to pre-birth factors which might affect their development, such as domestic violence, drinking alcohol and substance abuse. It counters the argument that just because a child is taken into care at birth they will be 'fine'.

Abuse and neglect starts at conception

Of course, my language has had to change. It is no longer appropriate for me to talk about ‘children having not experienced abuse or neglect’. Abuse and neglect can happen in the womb, and this can have a massive impact on child development later on, so perhaps a better phrase would be ‘haven’t experienced abuse or neglect since birth’.

It is not only appropriate but sadly accurate to say that children in care will have experienced abuse, neglect or both in utero.

I imagine it can be pretty tough to be an adoptive grandparent, aunt, uncle, or close friend, watching your children/siblings/friends put so much of themselves into their adopted children, for seemingly little return, but there are reasons why an adopted child may struggle – despite all the love and resources being poured in.

So I hope that this blog post outlining some of the main effects of adoption on child development will help you begin to understand the issues your adopted friend is struggling with, and why they’re there in the first place.

Adopted children are massively more at risk

Straight-off, before I get going, I want to reassure you.

Pregnancy affects children: there is no getting round it. But if you’ve been pregnant, and see some familiar situations in what follows, please don’t feel guilty. No pregnancy will be 100% perfect.

I’m sure we’ve all had an argument with our partners during pregnancy, dealt with a stressful work situation during pregnancy, had too much alcohol in the early weeks before we realised we were pregnant, and/or any other situation which can put a child a risk.

Notice I just put the word ‘can’ in there – not ‘does’. You see, we humans are pretty resilient. And our kids are pretty resilient. Most of them can cope with the odd unhealthy choice or stressful life event.

But when I’m talking about adopted children’s experience in the womb, I’m talking about a vastly scaled-up difficult pregnancy. Not the odd argument with a partner, but regular, daily verbal and physical abuse. Not the one glass of wine, but an addiction to alcohol or other harmful substances throughout the whole pregnancy.

Did my alcohol consumption at our New Year’s party on 31st December 2008 affect the newly-created foetus who’d just started growing in my womb? Maybe. But he’s 10 now, happy and healthy, so I can only assume that any impact of that alcohol has been countered by all the good stuff he’s received – physically and emotionally – since then.

So, please, do not allow this article to induce guilt! That is not the point. We are trying to better understand why adopted children struggle. Agreed? Good, let’s crack on.

This article explains why adopted children are more susceptible to pre-birth factors which might affect their development, such as domestic violence, drinking alcohol and substance abuse. It counters the argument that just because a child is taken into care at birth they will be 'fine'.

Effects of stress during pregnancy on infant and child development 

We all deal with stress, whether we’re pregnant or not. But the difference for children placed into care is that their birth mother’s life was likely to have been far, far stressful than the life we lead.

On a daily basis, a mother who has had children removed from her may have to deal with any/all of the following stress during pregnancy: poverty, unemployment and/or low earning potential, low literacy levels and/or additional needs, poor standard of housing, little extended family support, social isolation, relationship breakdown, abuse, addiction and mental health.

This is as comprehensive a list as I can muster, and covers the main areas, but there will no doubt be additional stressful factors that I’ve not thought of.

Now imagine a child growing inside the womb of someone battling this level of stress on a daily basis. There have been numerous research papers on the effects of stress during pregnancy on infant and child development – and Sue Gerhardt’s excellent book Why Love Matters explains it very well. (Check it out on Amazon or Wordery.) Levels of cortisol in the brain are established very early on – in utero and within the first three years of life – so even if a child is adopted into the most calm and relaxed family, they may still feel highly stressed and anxious.

Domestic violence and pregnancy

A mother whose children have already been taken away from her is far more likely to be in a situation of domestic violence – for abuse is one of the chief reasons children are removed. If mum cannot keep her children safe, if she cannot leave her abusive partner, they need to be removed for their protection. If there is an abuser in the family, they are likely to be abusive towards both mum and children.

But of course an unborn child cannot be so easily removed from danger. Every time mum is shouted at, hit or raped, that child experiences the abuse as well. They are not simply observing the abuse, but physically and emotionally going through the torture as well. Cortisol levels increase, and of course there may also be a long-term physical or mental impact if the child is injured as a result of the domestic violence suffered during pregnancy.

Effects of drinking alcohol while pregnant

We are all too aware of the potential effects of drinking alcohol when pregnant: foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) which affect growth, learning and behaviour; an increased chance of miscarriage; and an increase in premature birth, which also has knock-on effects on child development.

How might the dangers of alcohol be more present in the situation of a child who will be removed at birth?

An adopted child may well have a mother who drank during pregnancy, either because of addiction (alcoholism being a common factor in families whose children are put into care), a stressful environment (see above), an unwillingness to deny herself a party lifestyle, lack of education about health and safety during pregnancy, or simply because she didn’t know she was pregnant.

This last one may be more common that you’d imagine: if a mother is not actively looking to get pregnant, if she has health concerns which may affect her monthly cycle, if her environment or lifestyle is haphazard or chaotic – all very possible factors in the life of a mother whose child has been removed – then the chances of her not even realising that she’s pregnant are fairly high.

Again, let me reassure you that this post is not about feeling guilty if we had the odd drink during pregnancy. Whilst we all need to act take responsibility for our alcohol consumption – particularly when pregnant – the point of this post is to show how adopted children might be more exposed to pre-birth dangers because of the situation of their birth family, and how it might affect them later in life.

This article explains why adopted children are more susceptible to pre-birth factors which might affect their development, such as domestic violence, drinking alcohol and substance abuse. It counters the argument that just because a child is taken into care at birth they will be 'fine'.

Substance use during pregnancy

Again, like alcohol, the effect of substance use during pregnancy can be extremely negative and long-lasting. Unborn babies become addicted to a substance from which they then need to withdraw, once born. This withdrawal can take several weeks or months, and is extremely painful for both baby and those caring for him.

Longer-term, children who have absorbed substances in utero may develop difficulties in behaviour, concentration and memory – and the chance of miscarriage or premature delivery is higher.

If a child has been removed at birth, it is most likely to be because older siblings have been removed, and that family/household has been deemed unsafe for children. One of the common factors in such households is substance use – and this becomes yet another obstacle for many adopted children to mount during the course of their lives.

Separation from birth mum

When I was pregnant with my birth children, I would often read or hear information about the connection I was forming with them.

My baby, I was told, could hear my voice. He could also hear and recognise Dad’s voice, if he were around regularly (which he was). My baby could feel my heart beat, hear the regular thumping of my blood as it pumped life into him. And, of course, my baby was fed by the placenta which grew inside me.

We all know these things, of course, but it’s easy to forget the attachment of an unborn child when considering adopted children. We think “Oh, it’s OK, they were removed from birth, they’ll never know any different” without remembering that it was another woman’s voice they heard, another woman’s heartbeat, another woman’s blood and nourishment.

They may have heard several male voices, not knowing which one was ‘Dad’. Or they may not have heard his voice at all. They may have heard the voices closest to them shout and scream.

The effect of adoption on child development – the literal separating from the one inside whom you grew – cannot be overstated. It is this separation, this learning to attach to another, this pattern of separation and re-attachment which was begun at your birth, and over which you had no say, which impacts all adopted people through childhood and as they grow into adulthood.

Therapeutic parenting and other empathic strategies can work to an extent, but ultimately this sense of loss and separation is an aspect of an adopted child’s identity which will never go away. We were designed to be raised by the person inside whom we grew. If we’re not, then we feel the effects.

The big question mark

I’m sorry this has been long – but equally, I’m kind of #sorrynotsorry. I think it’s important to explain all the reasons an adopted child may struggle, and all the very many ways we humans can experience trauma before we’re even born.

Sitting above it all, though, is a big question mark. Adoptive parents very rarely have an exhaustive life history of their child’s birth family. They will rarely know how the pregnancy went, and which of the above factors were evident. They may not know for sure whether there was alcohol or substance use during pregnancy, or how much, or when. They may not know how abusive an environment was. And they’ll almost certainly never know how much stress was felt by birth mum during pregnancy.

Raising an adopted child is like doing a massive jigsaw with several pieces missing. Sometimes you manage to connect a row of pieces, and it’s beautifully satisfying – but at other times you’re only too aware that the gaping holes will probably never be filled in.

As a Christian adoptive mum, I cling to the hope – for me, but especially for my adopted children – that one day our holes will be filled in. One day, we will all be healed, whole and totally perfect.

In Heaven, where the significance of biological families will fade away, we will all be as we were meant to be: equally adopted into God’s perfect family forever, with all our hurts healed.

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Enjoy this? Why not read:

Mixing biological and adopted kids comes with challenges. What are the prospects for blended families? Is adoption after a biological child/children a good idea? One mama shares her experience.


  1. Hi Lucy, that’s a very informative post on adoptive kids. Not many people go that deep down when choosing to go for an adoption. This may really help them plan better.

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