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Adoptive Families: How Do You Refer to Biological Parents?

process5“For many adoptive parents, it is easy to talk about their first meeting with their child, the first day they brought her home,” says Nicole M. Callahan, National Council for Adoption. “But the questions that adopted children have do not end—and may not necessarily even begin—with the day their adoptive parents brought them home. Some children may have endless questions about their birth parents and birth families.”

It’s only natural for adopted children to wonder about their birth families. “It’s a dark hole in every adopted kid’s heart that needs to be filled with some sunshine,” writes Ann Brenoff, The Huffington Post. So, it is important for parents to be able to answer these questions in an open and respectful manner. “Parents have to think about how they communicate and what kind of environment they are establishing,” says Callahan. And an important aspect of this conversation is nomenclature – how do you refer to biological parents?

“As names have power, words have power.”

– Patrick Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind”

Common Names for Biological Parents

“Positive adoption vocabulary helps to ensure that adoption is viewed as a wonderful way to build families,” says Angela Tucker, The Adopted Life. However, “adoption terminology can be tricky – many terms evoke strong emotions, are used incorrectly and aren’t always completely thought through.” So, it is important to be mindful of the terminology you use. There is no right or wrong answer and the term you use is heavily dependent on your unique situation. Here are a few common terms used for biological parents.

Birth Mother

“The word birth-parent is so inculcated within the adoption field, and thus my vernacular,” says Tucker. The term was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s with the help of adoptive mother and author Pearl S. Buck and researcher Marietta Spencer. The latter developed a framework for “Positive Adoption Language” (also referred to as “Respectful Adoption Language”) – the preferred language of adoption agencies and adoptive families. However, there has been some recent backlash around the term “birth mother.”

“They make me sound like a baby machine, a conduit, without emotions. They tell me to forget and go out and make a new life. I had a baby and I gave her away. But I am a mother…”

– Anonymous

Despite the recent backlash, it all comes down to how you use the term and if you have contact with the biological mother. If you have an open adoption, just sit down and have an honest conversation with your child’s biological mother and discuss terminology – what they prefer, what you prefer, etc. In the end, you should be able to compromise.

First Mom

“First mother is diction commonly preferred by women who object to birth mother,” says Gretchen Sisson, All-Options.

Beth Hall, the founder of PACT, says “the use of the term first-mom implies that the biological mother is more than simply a genetic connection to the adoptee.” Yes, your son or daughter is your son or daughter, but they “will always remain her child as well,” says Dawn Davenport, Creating a Family. “For this reason, more adoption professionals are using the term ‘first mother.’” However, some adoptive parents dislike this term because it implies that they are the “second mom,” but that is not necessarily the case. You are just plain “mom.”

“I like acknowledging the ‘motherness’ of the women that gave birth to our children,” says Davenport. “Respecting her role as my child’s first mother does not lessen my role as a mother.”

Natural Mother

Natural mother is the preferred term according to “Honest Adoption Language” (HAL), which was developed in 1993 by researcher Susan Wells. This was done in response to “Positive Adoption Language” to better reflect the experiences of women who surrender their children for adoption.

Tummy Mom

“Tummy Mom” is a popular term to describe adoptive parents, especially when small children are involved. This term tends to be replaced with one of the above three options as children grow and gain a better understanding of adoption and the world around them.

From the Outside Looking In

Adoption is a very complex situation and one that is often not easy to talk about, especially for those not intimately involved – your friends and family members. “Be mindful of what you ask,” advises Princeton. “Refer to the biological parents as the biological or birth parents.” And whatever you do, refrain from referring to them as the “real parents.” This is a sure-fire way to create tensions.

“A real mom is someone who holds her child while he cries, feeds her child when he is hungry, Band-Aids and kisses his scrapes and wounds, cuddles her child when he is scared of monsters, teaches her child the difference between right and wrong, and sets healthy boundaries to ensure the child feels safe,” says Princeton. “That is what a real mom is.”

Need Someone to Talk to?

Adoption Makes Family is here to help! We are a non-profit (501-C3) licensed adoption agency based in Maryland. Our adoption counselors are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your convenience. If you would like our advice or just need to talk, please give us a call at any time.

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If you have any questions, you can contact us by phone at 410-683-2100, by e-mail at or use our online contact form.

Adoption Makes Family was founded to meet the needs of birth parents and adoptive parents in a manner that is sensitive, compassionate, and personal.


  1. Brenoff, Ann. “8 Things Adoptive Parents Should Never, Ever Do.” The Huffington Post,, 3 Nov. 2014,
  2. Callahan, Nicole M. “Adoption Advocate.” Dec. 2011.
  3. Davenport, Dawn. “What Does Your Child Call Her Birth Mother?” Creating a Family, 1 Nov. 2014,
  4. Davenport, Dawn. “What’s in a Name? Birth Mother? First Mother? Real Mother?” Creating a Family, 26 Apr. 2015,
  5. Princeton, Jessie. When You Find Out My Son Is Adopted, Please Dont Refer To His Birth Parent As His “Real Mom”. Thought Catalog, 15 Feb. 2015,
  6. Sisson, Gretchen. “What do we mean when we say “birth mother”?” All-Options, 28 Nov. 2012,
  7. “Talking to Your Child About His or Her Birth Parents.” American Adoptions,
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