I was asked this question today, and thought I would post my response here in case it can help anyone else as they deal with sleep problems in their newly adopted infant/toddler. I obviously don't have all the answers, but sometimes just hearing from someone else who has been there can be an encouragement!
We just adopted our son from Uganda- brought him home in January. Sleep has been a grueling issue for him and so of course for me and my husband as well, so I would love to hear any advice you have. We are desperate!!!
I'd be happy to share anything we've learned about helping our little guy with his sleep problems, but unfortunately I don't have any magic answers. :( I know it's so very hard when the little one doesn't sleep; if you're sleep-deprived it makes everything harder and seem much worse than it would seem otherwise! I'll share here our experiences; sorry if it gets super long!
How old is your son?
Our son was about 9 months old when we brought him home. At least, that's what the official paperwork says, but we suspect he was actually a few months older--probably closer to 12 months.
Anyway, we've had major sleep problems with him. We've now been home about 8 months, and I can say that it's much, much, much better than it was. But he's still not consistently sleeping through the night; especially if he gets sick he is up most of the night.
When we first came home, we were giving him a bottle every time he woke up in the night. He also got one before nap time and before bed time. The bottle was huge for him; because he hadn't gotten one in the orphanage, he really missed out on the sucking time. It was also a good way to get a chance to rock him, sing to him, etc. It was one of the very few ways to get him to sit still!
After the bottle, we would then rock him and pat him until he finally fell asleep, then carefully transfer him to his crib.
The whole time we'd be trying to put him to sleep, he would scream, shriek, kick his legs, flail his arms, arch his back, etc. It was really bad. But we just kept on holding him, talking to him, singing to him, praying out loud for him, etc. And yes, it was very draining, but it was the best thing we could have done for him I think. He needed the comfort and reassurance, needed to get the anxiety/grief out, and that apparently was his method for coping.
We quickly tried to get him into some sort of routine; a regular time for nap(s) and bedtime, and we kept things very low-key when he woke up at 4 or 5 every morning (yawn); we'd keep the lights low, not play loudly or wildly with him, and that type of thing to try to get him to understand this was not really morning yet! (It's not morning around here until at least 6am, preferable 7. Haha!)
Oh--we also gave him a small stuffed lion "blankie" during the rocking and bottle times, and he always had it with him in bed. At first of course, it made no difference at all to him whether he had it or not. But now he's quite attached to it and it definitely seems to help him self-soothe a bit!
After a couple months of this (what felt like torture), we decided to try to get him to fall asleep in his own bed. We'd go through our whole routine; diaper change, bottle in the rocking chair, hugs and kisses, then we laid him down and patted his back. We'd pretty much ignore him unless he was lying down. When he was lying down, we'd pat his back. If he stood up, we waited a minute, then quietly laid him down again and started patting. Repeat. (Over and over and over again.)
One day this went on for over a half hour, and I had to go to the bathroom! So I laid him down one more time, patted his back a minute, and then left the room. My plan was to come right back after using the bathroom. While I was in the bathroom.... he fell asleep!!
So then we started leaving the room after lying him down and patting him for a bit. Every 5 minutes or so we'd go back in, lie him down, pat, then leave again. We'd keep doing this until he fell asleep.
After a few nights, we extended the time by a couple of minutes, and kept extending the time, until it got to the point that he was falling asleep quickly after we left the room.
Once he was regularly falling asleep on his own, in his own bed, in a relatively short amount of time, we started trying to reduce the bottles he got in the night. He was still waking up at least 3 or 4 times in the night for a bottle at that point. We reduced the amount from 6 ounces to 4 ounces, and decided we wouldn't give him his morning bottle (8 ounces) until at least 5am. (Trying to teach him the difference between night time and morning!)
Once this started going well, we reduced the amount of formula in the 4 ounce bottles, so it was 4 ounces of water, but only 1 scoop of formula (so half concentration).
It took a long, long time to get to this point, but I can say that now he goes to sleep on his own, in his own bed, and generally doesn't even make a peep after we leave the room. He's smiling and blowing kisses, then we leave and don't hear from him again until he wakes up. :)
He's also taking a regular afternoon nap of about 1.5 to 2 hours. Sometimes he will wake up too early and we lie him down again, pat his back for a minute, and usually he will go back to sleep. He's also going to bed at night the same way, and if he wakes through the night it's usually only once. His norm these days is to wake around 5 or 6, get a bottle, then go back to sleep for a while until 7ish, though we do still sometimes have bad nights where he is up a lot, crying, won't go back to sleep, and so on.
I wish I had a magic "we tried this and it worked!" solution for you, but this is the best I can do. I'll be praying for your son and your whole family though. I know how hard it is, and it's just so tiring to everyone involved. I'll continue to pray, and if you have any further questions or would just like to chat, please feel free to send me a message!
You are doing a wonderful thing, and it will get easier! Hang in there!