Our 18-week-old foster child has been with us since she was five weeks old. Since her mother got out of rehab two weeks ago, she has begun seeing her mother once a week for an hour. Now the baby has started something odd — and this happens only with me. When settling down for sleep, she puts her head on my shoulder, then turns to snuggle up under my jaw. Then she’ll work her way up my face and open her mouth in an O shape, suctioning herself to the side of my face. This usually happens two or three times before she goes to sleep. Is this odd?


The behaviours you describe are signs that your foster baby is becoming attached to you, emotionally and literally! She is beginning to understand that you are the person she can turn to when in need of comfort and soothing. What she is doing is called “non-nutritive sucking,” something breastfed babies do a lot at the breast to feel soothed in the context of a physical connection with their mothers.

At four months, your foster baby knows when you are about to put her down to sleep. Babies are particularly in need of calming and connection as they anticipate sleep, something often experienced as a scary separation from their parents. Babies use nuzzling and sucking behaviours to feel calmer, and the skin-to-skin contact helps them feel connected.

As you noted, your foster baby has had a significant early disruption to her attachment process with her biological mother, and she is likely feeling confused and anxious since the visits have restarted. Keeping this in mind can help you understand her greater need for comfort at sleep time. It will be important for you to let her continue these normal behaviours and provide her with lots of holding and love.

Written by Dr Ruwa Sabbagh. Originally published in Today’s Parent, January 2008.

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