You hear it all the time: this couple or that one had an open adoption. But what exactly is open adoption and how does it differ from, say, a private adoption?

In a nutshell, open adoption refers to any situation where the adoptive parents and the birth mother know each other and exchange identifying information. Just how much information they exchange depends on a number of factors, but mostly it has to do with how comfortable they are with one another. An adoption profile is often the first point of contact between waiting adoptive parents and birth parents–the first chance for waiting parents to introduce themselves and get their relationship off to a good start.

Overseas adoptions are generally not considered open adoptions since the birth parents are not involved. In many cases, their identities aren’t known because their children were abandoned. Private domestic adoptions in Canada and the US, on the other hand, are open since they usually involve some kind of interaction between a prospective birth mother and adoptive parents. “Private”, in this context, simply means that the adoption is arranged by a non-government agency.

Despite its name, the details of an open adoption aren’t released to just anyone. Everything is strictly confidential, known only to the parties involved. In the beginning, information is exchanged on a non-identifying first-name basis. However, as the relationship progresses, full names are often offered, as well as phone numbers and addresses.

For adoptive parents, there are practical reasons for choosing an open adoption. For starters, most birth mothers prefer going this route since it gives them more of a say in the process. The other advantage is that it meets the needs of a child better than other adoption options.

Closed Adoption

Perhaps the best way to explain what open adoption is to explain what it’s not. Open adoption is the opposite of closed adoption, which is what most people think of today when they think of adoption.

Until recently, closed adoption was standard practice. It was a process marked by secrets and lies, where information was scarce or knowingly withheld. Instead of allies, adoptive parents and birth parents were treated like adversaries, creating much hurt and bitterness on both sides.

Typically, what happened was this: a birth mother with an out of wedlock baby would be forced to surrender her baby to a public agency. It would then place the baby with a set of adoptive parents who would raise him as their own. Court records would be sealed, preventing the child from tracing his/her roots and his birth parents from knowing what became of him. Until one day the child would stumble upon something and realize that the people who raised him/her weren’t his “real” parents. Cut off from his/her origins, he would spend years trying to fill in the gaps of his life and make sense of his origins. Needless to say, the process rarely served the interests of anyone apart from the agencies that controlled it..

Exchanging Information

In open adoption today, prospective adoptive parents and birth mothers have many opportunities to contact each other and share information. Prior to the placement, they have the option of exchanging e-mails, phone calls, and even visits. They also have access to one another’s family, medical and social histories. These documents provide a glimpse into their lives, and cover topics ranging from their major illnesses to their attitudes about adoption.

In most open adoptions today, a birth mother not only gets to choose the parents she wants for her child, she has the choice of taking an active role in putting together an adoption plan with them. With the prospective adoptive couple, she can decide what, if any, future communication she wants to have with them and her child after the placement, and in what form.

The details can be worked out in one of two ways: verbally, with a handshake, or more formally, through a written agreement. Although the agreement is not legally binding, both sides should avoid promising anything they don’t plan to honour. Doing so will only create bad feelings between them and could have a detrimental effect on their child.

In some instances, the prospective adoptive parents and birth mother may hit it off so well that the adoptive parents will be invited to witness the birth and, in some cases, even cut the umbilical cord. After the placement, it’s not unheard of for the two parties to share family dinners or to go away on vacation together.


Despite concerns by some waiting adoptive parents, studies show that the more open the adoption, the less chance there is of the prospective birth mother changing her mind. The reasons are pretty straightforward: If a birth mother feels that she’s part of the process it’s less likely for her to say she didn’t know what she was doing.

As for the fears that a birth mother will come back for her child, experience shows it’s usually the adoptive parents who push for more contact after the placement. In most cases, the birth mother is happy to recede into the background and put some distance between herself and the adoptive parents and the child.

Another common misconception about open adoption is that it causes children to be confused about their origins. Experience clearly shows that children understand the difference between the person who gave birth to them and the people who raised them. As a result, they grow up knowing who they are and where they came from. What’s more, they know that they’re loved and valued by both sets of parents. Since nothing about their origins is withheld from them, they have no need to fantasize about them.


Open adoption isn’t for everyone. In order for it to be successful, it requires work and a lot of flexibility. Some prospective adoptive parents or birth mothers may decide they have all the extended family they can handle and don’t need any intrusions in their lives. The key is to set limits early on as to what kind of relationship you want to have, but to be prepared to adjust them if necessary. Communication is the key. Above all, both sides need to be frank, open and honest and not feel constrained to say what’s on their minds.

Some birth mothers may initially feel uncomfortable sharing details of their private lives with complete strangers. However, it’s generally the waiting parents who have the most reservations about open adoption. In the early stages especially, they feel threatened by a prospective birth mother and more often than not want nothing to do with her. They fear that she’ll change her mind or that they’ll make a mistake and say the “wrong” thing to her. What’s more, they worry that one day there will be a knock on their door and that when they open it, there she’ll be, ready to take her child back.

After the placement, some adoptive parents wish their child’s birth mother would just go away and leave them be. Although keeping in contact with a birth mother may seem strange and threatening, there are practical reasons for doing it. For one thing, a birth mother’s connection to her child will always be there, even if she isn’t. To hide or deny it is to hide or deny an essential part of a child’s identity.

Ten Common Mistakes Adoptive Parents Make When Pursuing An Open Adoption

  1. They don’t realise most prospective birth mothers favour some kind of open arrangement.
  2. They want to know everything about their prospective birth mother, but don’t want her knowing anything about them.
  3. They don’t realise that until that the prospective birth mother’s consent period expires, she’s a pregnant woman.
  4. They don’t realise that meeting their prospective birth mother will only solidify their relationship.
  5. They fear that once their child grows up they’ll lose the child to his or her birth mother.
  6. They promise more openness than they’re prepared to deliver.
  7. They don’t treat a prospective birth mother as an equal, but rather as an adversary or a rival.
  8. They don’t realise that a prospective birth mother has the same goal they do–their child’s well being.
  9. They don’t understand that the adoption process isn’t over until it’s over.
  10. They don’t realize that their child will have two sets of parents.