Tracing Birth Parents
by Testing Your DNA

Birth Parents

Today, many adoptees are tracing birth parents through DNA testing.

I did it myself, reuniting with my birth father’s family more than twenty years after he had died.

To get to the truth I used several DNA tests.

You can read my entire true story and get the details of each test in my book...

Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA.

Here are the tests I have taken my search for family.

Tracing Birth Parents: Y-DNA Testing for Men

This is the classic genetic genealogy test that I used to learn my birth father’s surname. If you’re a male adoptee, I recommend you take this test.

Even if you’re primarily searching for your birth mother, narrowing down the possibilities for your birth father can simplify your search.

This test works because the Y chromosome passes down, relatively unchanged, from father to son, generation after generation.

By checking your Y-DNA against a huge database of other men, you can find cousins who share a common ancestor in your father’s paternal line.

Since men usually pass down their surname to their sons, you may find that a majority of your matches cluster around one particular surname.

That name, most likely, will be the last name of your biological father.

Once you find that name, tracing birth parents becomes easier. You can narrow your search to men of that surname who lived in the time and place of your conception.

My Recommendation for Y-DNA Testing

I recommend that you order your Y-DNA test from the company with the largest Y-DNA database by far: Family Tree DNA.

According to the company, nearly 40% of adopted men who take this test are discovering their paternal surname in their initial results. For others the chances of uncovering that hidden surname will increase over time.

To see how I used the Y-DNA test in my personal search see my page on Genealogy DNA Testing.

To learn more about the Y-DNA test see “The Paternal Line” on my DNA Genealogy page.

NOTE: The 37-marker test is often sufficient to identify your likely surname. You only need more markers if you get too many matches and need to narrow down your list.

You can always upgrade from 37 to 67 or 111 markers later. If money is less of an issue and you want to save time, you can test a higher number of markers in the first place.

New Autosomal DNA Tests for Everyone

These new tests, used by both men and women, are the latest development in tracing birth parents with DNA.

One test is Family Finder from Family Tree DNA.

Another one is the 23andMe test.

The third such test is AncestryDNA from

These three tests have different strengths and use different databases.  But all of them can find blood relatives who share a common ancestor with you from the last five generations or so.

Unless you get really lucky, you’re probably not going to get an immediate match with a parent or sibling. But you will almost certainly find biological cousins of varying degrees.

Once you contact these people, they may be able to provide the clues needed for tracing birth parents.

Each test will also estimate your overall ethnic ancestry. Knowing your ethnic background is personally satisfying for any adoptee.

Furthermore, the information can provide clues in your search for birth parents.

My Recommendation for Autosomal DNA Testing

Now that the price has dropped below $100 for each test, the standard recommendation for adoptees is to "fish in all three ponds."

Since most people only test with one of these companies, there is no way to know in advance which test will lead you to the closest relative with the most information.

Spending less than $300 on DNA tests is a small investment when you consider it may solve the central mystery of your life.

To learn more about these tests read my Autosomal DNA Testing page, which goes into more detail about how the tests actually work. 

For a more detailed comparison of these three tests, see my Autosomal DNA Comparison page.

Contacting Your Matches

Whether you use the Y-DNA test or the new autosomal tests, you need to contact your matches to learn what they know.

What you’re looking for is branches of their families that extend into the same geographic area where you were born.

When tracing birth parents with DNA testing, remember that your Y-DNA matches will definitely connect to your father’s side. But your matches from the autosomal tests could connect to either side of your family.

Many of the matches who respond to your inquiry will be genealogists looking to enlarge their own family trees. Initially, all you will have to help them is the geographic area of your family.

While most people are willing to help adoptees with tracing birth parents, you may run into the occasional person who is not sympathetic to your cause.

Therefore, you may want to omit any mention of adoption until you collect the basic information about the other person’s family.

An Ongoing Process

If you don’t uncover useful information right away, don’t be discouraged. Thousands of new people order these DNA tests every week.

It might take awhile to find the close match with key information that's the breakthrough you need. Your presence in the databases is the necessary first step.

Relationship Testing

Eventually, some combination of DNA testing and conventional research should lead you to your birth parents or their families.

Then you can confirm your relationship through two of these autosomal tests.

Simply have a suspected close relative take Family Finder or 23andMe. Assuming you're already in the database, you just need to order one more test.

The subject of the test can be a potential parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or first cousin. The results will tell you how closely you are related.

The tests can even distinguish a half sibling from a full sibling.

NOTE: The AncestryDNA test does not distinguish among various "close relatives." While it can be useful for finding relatives, it is not as good as the other two autosomal DNA tests for precisely measuring relationships.

Mitochondrial DNA?

Both men and women can also take a mitochondrial (mtDNA) test that follows the maternal line. But learning anything about recent relatives from an mtDNA match can be elusive.

That’s partly because the maternal line usually changes surnames every generation. It’s also because mtDNA mutates very slowly. The common ancestors you share with your matches may have lived thousands of years ago.

All this means that mitochondrial testing is the least informative DNA test for tracing birth parents. Unless you have additional funds and are curious about the origins of your maternal line, I suggest you save your money.

Focus on the Y-DNA and autosomal tests described above.

Return from Tracing Birth Parents to Adoption Search Intro

Return to DNA Testing Home