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Baby Holding- does the good outweigh the bad?


(I’m so glad to have Melodie share her perspective on this topic.  You can ready my introductory thoughts here.)


Melodie Sheppard in LiberiaGuest Post by Melodie Kejr

Read more of her writing at her blog.

Holding the precious little babies in orphanages is one of the most talked about events for those traveling on short term mission trips or adoption related purposes. We see numbers of children that far surpass the number of care-takers and feel the desire to “love on” the children, especially the infants and toddlers, who are not receiving the same level of affection they’d be receiving if they were in a family.

The heart’s desire to cuddle a precious child in an orphanage comes from a pure motivation of wanting to love someone in need. We can’t bring them all home, but we want to leave an impression with the child that they are loved, if even for a moment.

The question is, is it really beneficial? Could it actually be harmful? Does the good outweigh the bad when it comes to baby holding?

Short term visitors holding babies in orphanages is a very complicated topic and I’m going to try to do my best to explain how I feel about it based on my years of experience working actively with orphanages and adoptions in Liberia.

The short answer is no, the good does not outweigh the bad. But I want to help you understand why this is, and offer some healthier options for showing love to children in orphanages overseas.

There are a number of reasons baby holding is harmful, but also reasons why in most situations it is not necessary. There are numerous practical and even ethical questions when it comes to mission work, adoption, orphanages, and other forms of aid overseas. Things we don’t often understand because we have not lived there long term, we do not understand the culture, and we are shaped by our home culture.

As a guiding principle I have learned to ask my questions by imagining doing the same action here in the United States.  For example, suppose a youth group wants to go to Mexico and host a week of VBS for kids. Is this something you would be comfortable sending your children to if that same youth group came to your neighborhood and hosted the same VBS program? Thinking of it this way you are challenged to consider the quality of teaching your children would be exposed to, the safety aspect of letting your children spend a lot of time with a bunch of teenagers you don’t know, and thoughts of what the teens will actually be teaching the kids. Does it line up with what you believe? Just because someone is poor and lives in a different country does not mean they don’t think through many of the same things we do when someone wants to come and offer some form of volunteer service.

So how does this play out in an orphanage setting with children who don’t have parents to look after their best interests? When it comes to baby/toddler holding, and even the level of affection that is offered to older children, visitors in orphanages often behave in a way they wouldn’t if the setting were mimicked in the United States.

When we see children overseas in a place with no parents around, we immediately assume ownership of them and start to do things only parents would do. I don’t know if this is an American mentality, or just something that has developed over the years as a culture of how we view orphanages.

Imagine my little 17-month-old boy is playing in my back yard. The yard is completely fenced in and you can’t see me from the kitchen window keeping an eye on him. Because you cannot see his parent around, would you feel it was okay to go into my yard, pick him up, and start playing with him? Of course not! You’d feel that you might scare him, and worse yet, be accused of trying to kidnap him.

Suppose you visit your friends in their home for the first time who are foster parents of a group home. Would you go up to the children and pull one of them onto your lap, even if the child really seemed like they wanted that kind of attention? I doubt it. You’d understand foster children and foster parents have different requirements and try to be respectful of that. Despite the fact there were a lot of children as compared to the number of parents, you still probably wouldn’t feel comfortable holding the children and interacting with them as if you knew them well.

When visiting children, specifically children living in orphanages overseas, we cannot treat them as if we own them, or treat them differently than you would treat my child in my back yard or your friend’s foster child. The practical reasons for this are the same, which involve not making a child afraid, respecting boundaries set by those in charge of the child, etc, but there is a more serious factor that can be very detrimental to a child’s development.

The biggest potential harm for these children is the high likelihood of forming attachment disorders. Many adoptive parents have experienced serious attachment issues with their children that resulted largely in part to short-term visitors holding their child during their orphanage stays. Stories like this are not uncommon.

These issues can can have long-term consequences on a child which effect how they interact with their peers, how they relate to their adoptive parents, and if they aren’t adopted, how they relate to individuals once they leave the orphanage, either after reunification or as young adults.

This is what you need to know. Though it’s not like a family with a mom and a dad and three kids, an orphanage is like a family in the sense that the children come to know and trust the caretakers. At least this was my experience in Africa. The security guards are positive male figures in their lives. Typically friendly guys who don’t usually hold the children, but leave the children with a sense of safety. The nannies, washers, and cleaners are female mother and aunty figures. Older children are like older siblings who hold the babies and play with the toddlers. Many of the caretakers take to one child or another and will give them a little special attention. Some of the older kids really bond to some of the younger kids and babies, with a little one on their backs or at their sides almost constantly.

In most orphanage settings the babies are not being held as much as they should, due to the high numbers of children. But they are being held. They are being held by the nannies and they are being held by older children. They are typically getting held enough to not go into a depression and want to give up on life. (Now, this is not true for special needs children in orphanages in Eastern Europe. And of course I cannot speak for orphanages all over the world.)

So when a stranger enters the building and starts holding the kids, it teaches the children that it is okay for strangers to hold them. It is okay to go to strangers for love and affection after they are adopted or moved out of the orphanage into a different setting. If this happens on a regular basis, which is true for orphanages that do adoptions and orphanages that have partnerships with people in the states, it is very damaging as the children begin to see all visitors as safe. They also make short-term bonds with these people, then the people “abandon” them, just like their birth parents did (whether through a loving adoption decision or death). Sometimes children, even the babies, will assume one of the visitors is there to adopt them, especially based on all the special attention they are getting. Only to experience deep loss once again when the visitor leaves without them. The children develop coping mechanisms that will effect them their whole lives if they are not intentionally dealt with.

So what about the children who will never be adopted?

If these children grow up receiving constant brief interactions from visitors, they will leave the orphanage environment also not knowing how to form healthy bonds, and also behaving inappropriately with strangers. This may lead to continuously being taken advantage of in a number of ways, but especially sexually for the girls. It may lead to young mothers and fathers who do not know how to commit to a marriage and parent their own children.

I do think there are a few exceptions.

Holding a tiny newborn is probably okay, though you wouldn’t want that to distract you from doing something with all the children that would make a greater impact.

In Eastern Europe there are horrible situations where children are packed into cribs and never touched at all. These babies just stop growing and some will even be 14 pounds at 14 years! This is so unimaginable. I feel it is beneficial for these children to be held, although they would still grieve when you go. I encourage everyone interested in adoption to consider one of these children, truly the “least of these.”

Also, some situations of special needs children in African orphanages are pretty pathetic as the children are often stigmatized, and if they are older, difficult to keep clean, so smelly. It may be appropriate in some situations to hold these children.

The good news is this does not mean there are not other things you can do in orphanages and with street children that will show your love and care for them.

Holding the hands of toddlers, playing games with the children, bringing puppets and bubbles, and reading stories are all meaningful interactions that will not cause emotional damage. Paying for a special meal and eating it alongside the children is another way to create positive, healthy memories of your visit. If a baby is not being held while these things are taking place, ask one of the older kids to pick her up. The baby already knows this older child and will be getting some extra affection while enjoying watching you.

Going on short term mission trips and volunteering in orphanages may impact you towards adoption or mission work some day, but this should never be done at the detriment of others. If you are new to adoption or mission work, and just want to learn more, there is a lot of information that is available to us today that doesn’t involve spending thousands of dollars going overseas to hold babies we really shouldn’t be holding. One can still make a commitment for adoption or to sponsor a child without doing these things.  If you truly want to make a trip overseas, make it at least a six month commitment. Better yet, consider becoming a missionary that focuses on meeting the needs of vulnerable children. Otherwise your trip really needs to focus on something else.

*Melodie tells me she’ll be watching the comments, so feel free to address any follow-up thoughts or questions to her and she’ll respond.  Thanks!

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  1. Thank you for this timely article.

    Question regarding the permissions. Seems the negative affects you’ve outlined are not related to the permissions of those in charge of the babies/children, but the negative affects of holding these little ones is in effect, from the attachment and other issues it creates.

    If an orphanage encourages short term missionary groups to come in, and to hold the kids, does that change the circumstance? I thinking, no. But I wanted to hear your thoughts regarding this interaction, even as our church is pursuing a relationship with an African orphanage with that situation.

    Thank you for your response ahead of time.


    • Thanks for your comment, Rick. You’re right, the permissions I spoke of relate more to how the visitor’s mindset should be when it comes to doing work overseas. Many orphanages are so used to this they do not see any problem with visitors holding the babies and may even encourage it. Unfortunately a lot of these people are looking at what they can do to make you, the visitor, happy so you’ll support their organization, and not necessarily the long-term effects on the child, many of which they too may be unaware of. Many orphanages have never had someone sit down with them and say “how do you think we can make the most impact on the children with our partnership/visits?” Often the visitors just decide what they will do and the leadership of the orphanage think “that sounds good enough – wouldn’t want to rock this boat as we need the finances.” I think a good place to start is to begin a dialogue with this orphanage about bigger ways to make an impact than short trips with baby holding. For example, what if your church chose to not send a lot of teams out to visit this orphanage, and instead used those funds to build a new orphanage? What if the thousands of dollars on potential missions trips was spent on sending the older children in the orphanages to better schools? I knew of a situation where the orphanage directors daughter wanted to be trained as a doctor or nurse and go back to work with the children in the orphanage. Imagine the impact of sponsoring this kind of education for someone involved in this orphanage you are hoping to work with? There are a lot of possibilities for making a difference that don’t involve baby holding trips :-). Thanks for your question and I hope this helps!

  2. Very interesting article, Melody. It gave me a lot of food for thought. i had never heard of such mission trips but now I see that sometimes these could be detrimental to children. Thanks so much for this post!

  3. Hey Melodie. Enjoyed the post -great thoughts and well-said. I don’t think I know you, so I just wondered how you got connected with my One Year Home post over at Safari Njema. Thanks for linking to it – always glad to spread awareness.

    • Hey Tiana! I am glad you liked my post. Your write-up was very insightful for me and helped me a lot with this post. I came across your blog randomly when a friend of a friend linked to it on her facebook wall.

  4. Great thoughts, Melodie. Thanks for sharing from an informed perspective. I especially like the idea of supporting orphanages in ways that could truly impact the future in greater ways for these kids, i.e. spending the money on better education for the older kids, supporting a director’s daughter who wants to get trained to be able to come back and serve the orphanage( in an earlier comment by you) . Too many short term missions (NOT ALL–don’t get all bent out shape, people) seem to be geared toward the experience of the short-termers, and how it makes them feel/affects them, as opposed to the people that they are supposedly going to serve. I am strongly in favor of building up and helping from the inside out, with those who are there long-term. Thanks again for guest-blogging, Melodie!

  5. I’ve always heard it’s good to have a missions experience in your lifetime, but now that I think of it, who is it good for? And why is it good? We can’t base the goodness on a feeling or emotion the trip generates, but rather it should be based on being Christ’s hands and feet and sharing the gospel.

    Thanks for helping us think through these issues!

    • If mission teams work along side the locals on a project it can be good for both. It must be done on the local time schedule (work early in the day in summer for example, don’t take a leisurely breakfast and get on the jobsite at 9am…

      Not related – but a great toy to take along is a Jacob’s ladder. Also, a parachute and some tennis balls, water rockets. Sometimes it is better to not bring stuff but rather learn to play the way the local kids do. Depends on the situation. A projector with a small dvd player, showing imax films of Africa Serengeti and animals underwater (the film “shark island” is terrific – not just sharks). Take a boombox that has a mic jack for greater sound. Sorry got way off subject. Exhausted from the heat…

  6. Thanks for your insight on this. Regarding infants, how do you feel about infant massage? I’m on a team going in a few months and instead of holding, that is one of the areas we are training in.

    • That’s a tough one, Courtney, and I’m not really sure how to answer it. I’ll just share some of my initial thoughts:

      1. Is the message being done while the babies are laying in their cribs? If so that might make a difference and be okay. But maybe not…

      2. I know there is a difference between actual training in baby message from a professional and just rubbing a baby. I really don’t want to suggest that baby message is okay and other holding is not so people reading this post will now just message the babies instead. You know what I’m saying?

      3. Could you show this article to those in leadership of your trip so they could evaluate the purpose of the trip? It might still be a good thing to go, but maybe your focus could change a little.

      I’m sorry I don’t have a more definite answer. I’ll pray that God gives you wisdom for this upcoming trip.

  7. Pingback: 3 helpful responses when countries close international adoption | Church4EveryChild

  8. I love this article and would agree in the past, I can’t agree now. Attachment disorders are formed from having no love or conditioned love, ie abusive love, expected love, etc. Attachment issues aren’t not having love therefore developing poor habits to gain love.
    Another point comes to mind. How does one learn to walk on their own? How does one learn to give love on their own? How does a baby learn to love themselves? Because they were shown love. We watch. We do as we see. If we are held, then we learn that holding is good. If we are nurtured they we learn that we are worth nurturing. If 1 person says kind words. We remember kind words. They stay with us.

    Last point that came to mind is in life we have people walk in and out all the time. Why aren’t we all suffering from
    attachment disorders?
    We learn that not everyone can be there all the time. And it has nothing to do with our self worth. We learn that loneliness and death are apart of life.

    If there are two babies side by side and everyone walks into a room and hold only the baby on the left. What do you think the confidence level will be of the baby on the left versus the baby on the right.
    In the end giving love is giving love.

    I remember the people that came into my life as a child and changed the course of my actions by showing me a little love. It does work.

    • I agree with you that love is always better than no love. I think the point here (although I won’t speak for Melodie) is that these kids may be able to receive love through consistent caregivers in the orphanage environment if we can focus on helping in other practical ways that may be less rewarding for us, but more beneficial for the kids because we could free up the caregivers to spend more time with them. I don’t think it’s bad for children in general to have people they love come in and out of their life, but kids in orphanages are in a unique situation where they don’t have parents to balance out the insecurity of those short-term connections. If you didn’t have parents and had people walk in and out of your life all the time, I think attachment issues would be highly likely. Your points are valid, but I think the realities of orphanage life are very different from what typical kids experience. I appreciate Melodie’s perspective on this because of her years of experience with these kids.

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