As someone who started a career in the adoption field, I would often, and still do, get the question, “how does adoption work?” You may have found yourself unexpectedly expecting. Getting answers to your question, “how does adoption work,” can make this option less overwhelming. Knowledge is power, and especially essential in this phase of your life. “How does adoption work” is a very broad question with varying answers depending on the type of adoption you wish to pursue when making an adoption plan for your baby.

Deciding to place your baby for adoption is a big decision. Understanding the important role you play as the birth mother or birth father is critical. It is also important to understand the various steps you will take as an expectant parent and the regulations and requirements the respective hopeful adoptive parents you choose for your baby will need to complete. Understanding what options you have as a birth parent will help you take the first step.

So, How Does Adoption Work?

The first decision is the most important one. It is the decision to place your baby for adoption. After that decision is made, the next steps can vary from the birth parent to birth parent. A good thing to think about at this time is the type of relationship you wish to have with your child. Do you want to have an open adoption or a closed adoption or semi-open adoption? What’s the difference?   

What Are the Differences Between Open, Closed, and Semi-Open Adoption?

Each adoption is unique. If you choose to place your child for adoption, the relationship you decide to have with the adoptive parents and your child is entirely up to you. The birth mother and/or father steer the decision on how much or little relationship to have with the adoptive parents and the birth child. There is also a lot of room within that decision to create a dynamic and paradigm that works for you. While all adoptions are different and entirely unique to the triad of birth parents, adoptive parents, and child, there are some characteristics that set each apart.

How Does Adoption Work with an Open Adoption?

The first question you may have is what exactly is included and entailed in an open adoption. First of all, open adoption is the most common type of private domestic adoption. Currently, over 95% of private domestic adoptions in the United States are open adoptions. Prior to the 1970s, open adoption did not exist in any capacity. There is a spectrum as to how open it is and how much contact you choose to have with the adoptive parents and birth child, but all open adoptions include the birth mother and/or father, the adoptive parents, and child all having a relationship. The extent of this relationship is usually decided at the start of the adoption process, but we’ll go over more on that later. The amount of communication can vary greatly among the birth mother who chooses an open adoption and the adoptive parents who also make that choice to have an open adoption. Open adoption can range from a scrapbook or photos sent once a year, to often and open in-person communication and visits between the child, birth parents, and adoptive parents. 

While 95% of adoptions in the United States are open, close to 40% are semi-open adoptions. A semi-open adoption can mean different things to different people. Usually, it means that communication between the birth parents and adoptive parents and child are facilitated through the adoption service provider, which can be an adoption attorney, social worker, or adoption agency. The agency acts as a mediator and shares information about the child and adoptive family with the birth mother or father directly. The birth parents can also share information about the child and the couple with the agency to be shared with the adoptive family.

How Does Adoption Work with A Closed Adoption?

5% of all domestic private adoptions are closed. Most adoptions between the 1930s and 1975 were closed. Closed adoptions were originally enacted so birth mothers could remain anonymous and have her identity protected. Many women felt that there was no choice but to place a child for adoption, some even against her will. Today, closed adoptions continue but are much rarer. Studies and research show that open adoption, even just semi-open is a preferred adoption for everyone in the adoption triad–birth mother and/or father, adoptive parents and child.  

Closed adoption is when the birth parent does not have any contact with the birth child and adoptive parents, and the adoptive family does not have any contact with a child’s biological parents. Many times, this can mean that birth records are sealed. The times that closed adoptions are chosen by the birth mother is in order to preserve her privacy.  There are many reasons a woman may choose to place her child through a closed adoption placement. She still is able to choose the adoptive parents and family with whom her child is placed. A closed adoption is usually easier if the birth mother and/or father is using an adoption agency as the adoption service provider. If records are sealed, it is important to realize that the adoptive parents and/or your birth child may search for you at some point. A search does not mean you have to have a reunion or share information you do not wish to share. Some states have laws giving people who have adopted their birth and adoption records at some point in their life. It is important that laws continue to change and as your child grows, more states may give people who were adopted rights to the records.  

In a closed adoption, you also may realize at some point that you would like to be reunited. reunion registries are a way for you or your birth child to connect at some point in your lives. Understanding that you may not be able to keep your identity from your child and the reasons why people who are adopted search for birth parents is a consideration.

What Are the Next Steps? 

After deciding what type of relationship you want to have with the child you place for adoption, your next steps are to decide if you would like to use an adoption service provider to complete. All adoptions will need the support of a social worker and attorney. However, many birth parents decide to work with an adoption agency or adoption attorney to ensure that all of the legal steps are followed.  

Working with an adoption agency makes it much easier to get your questions answered throughout the pregnancy and adoption process. Most adoption agencies also have a number of prospective adoptive parents with whom families are working who are looking to build a family through private domestic adoption. Agencies may have profiles for you to view hopeful adoptive parents. These agencies can also organize in-person interviews and meetings so that you can personally choose the family with whom you place. Those hopeful adoptive parents will provide a book of photos, a profile on family and personal history, how the couple met, what the individuals do for a living and for fun, values, and if the couple has other children. Hopeful adoptive parents will also go through a home study to ensure the home is safe and the couple has the proper education and preparation going into adoption. Couples have to go through a background check process, have financials reviewed, and recommendations from local houses of worship, kids’ schools, neighbors, and friends. You will have a comprehensive profile of who the family is and if you believe the couple is the best fit for your child.  

You can also work through the process in the opposite order. You can search for hopeful adoptive parents profiles on or do research on Adoption.ORG. If you find a match and would like to meet in person, you can work with the respective agency with whom the adoptive family is working. You can see information on that agency in the profile. You may even want to reach out to the agency directly to get more information.

During this time, you can also share with the agency how much contact you wish to have with the adoptive parents and your birth child. The agency can help create a profile of your wishes for the adoptive family so the couple understands how open or closed you wish the adoption relationship to be. This will be a part of your adoption plan, which you will create for you and your baby.  

The adoption agency or adoption attorney can also work with you and the adoptive parents to determine what expenses will be paid for by the hopeful adoptive parents. These expenses can include agency and attorney fees, other legal fees, medical bills, counseling, rent, utilities, maternity clothing, transportation, and food. Most states have regulations for these types of birth mother expenses. Your adoption service provider can help you understand what expenses can be covered per your respective state laws.

You can also work with your adoption agency’s social worker to create a birthing plan. Your birthing plan can including exactly what you would like to happen at the birth of your child, including if the adoptive parents will be present at any point during your labor or if you would like to have support people with you, the amount of bonding time you would like with your child and other medical choices surrounding your labor.  

How Does Adoption Work Once the Child Is Born? 

Once your child is born, there are various steps in finalizing the adoption. After you have given birth to your baby, there will be an amount of time determined by your state before you are able to sign any paperwork relinquishing your parental rights. Your baby is legally your child until you sign the relinquishment paperwork. The decision of when or even if you sign the relinquishment paperwork is up to you. You can change your mind.  You can ask all of the questions you need, speak to your support people or social workers. You have the right to make sure this is the decision you still want to make–to place your child for adoption.  

As per your birthing plan, any involvement of the hopeful adoptive family is your decision. You can have as much time as you need privately with your baby. Some women want a few hours, some just a few minutes, or nothing at all. You can decide to have the hopeful adoptive family in your room for the birth or ceremoniously plan to place your child in the family’s arms for the first time. This is entirely your decision. 

After you sign the relinquishment papers and place your child with the adoptive family, there is a period of time between that placement and the finalization of the adoption. This amount of time can vary by state, but usually, most states require at least six months. During this time, the adoptive parents will have visits from the home study social worker to ensure the child is safe and thriving in the family’s care. The child may be in the adoptive family’s legal custody or the custody of the adoption agency–this also varies by state.

During this time, and after the finalization, you will begin the open adoption communication upon which all parties agreed. You may receive calls or photos or even visit. You may feel a range of emotions during this time including sadness, grief, relief, confusion, or peace. Reaching out to your support system, friends, social worker, counselor and loved ones is important. Taking time for yourself as you go through the process is critical.  

Above all else, as you begin this journey, conducting research, speaking with a social worker or adoption service provider on the options available to you, and understanding the steps involved on how adoption works will help you take this first step.

If you would like to speak confidentially with an adoption professional about your pregnancy options, click here.

Jennifer Mellon is the co-founder and president of Trustify, providing private investigators on demand to consumers and businesses. She has worked in the child welfare field for more than a decade, serving as the executive director and chief development officer at Joint Council on International Children’s Services. She also worked for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) and served on the board of the Campagna Center, which provides critical educational services to children and families in the DC Metro region. She currently serves on the development board for the National Council for Adoption and currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and five children.