The infant's inner world and contribution to psychoanalytic theory of child development

Observers usually come to feel that they know about the observed infant in a way that they had not previously thought possible and find the experience of developing their observational skills invaluable. Some health professionals with twenty years' experience with infants described their practice as changing within weeks of starting an observation because they had begun to think differently about the meaning of the infant's experience.

Increased understanding of subtle projections and aspects of interchange between infant and parent, or infant and parent with observer, and other members of the family are reflected in the rapidly growing literature (Waddell, 1988; see also chapters four and six). Margaret Rustin (1988) in an important paper on tolerating infantile anxieties defined the aim of infant observation as describing the development of the relationship between infant and others, including the observer, to try and understand unconscious aspects of behaviour and patterns of communication. She thought that the most valuable aspect learnt is developing a psychoanalytic attitude of having space in one's mind to wait until one's thinking becomes clearer. She emphasised observers' need to contain feelings aroused in him or herself in a similar way that a mother who is receptive to her baby's feelings transforms them by thinking about them, and in this way observers learn to become aware of projective identification (Bion, 1962).

An observer may be offered a glimpse of the sense of awe that mother and baby share, and of a baby's inborn capacity for aesthetic experience in the beauty of the nurturing care received; also an experience of a baby's ambivalence with the aesthetic impact of the "beautiful" mother (Meltzer & Harris-Williams, 1988), which threatens to overwhelm the newborn. Newborn babies evoke different aspects of the "mother inside" the mother (Balsam, 2003); seeing and thinking about an infant "calling forth" their mother (Groarke, 2010) out of their need for contact, which enables the mother to internalise a revised maternal object, adds further nuances to existing concepts such as Harris' (1975) description of a baby helping the mother to become her mother, and Stern's concept of the motherhood constellation (1995). Observational material about a six-week-old baby's self-consciousness and coyness emerged before this was published in the infant research literature. Stephen Briggs (1997) delineated gradations of receptive and non-receptive parental containment and Daws (1997) using a combination of infant observation material and research findings added rich clinical thinking about the difficulties in intimacy with which many parents and babies struggle.

Infant observation adds further rich details about infants' functioning, describing difficulties in development which further differentiate psychoanalytic concepts, such as precocious independence and early pathological defences. Bick (1968) elaborated the early defences that she saw infants adopting in the face of extreme anxiety of disintegration and loss of identity, suggesting that an infant in the earliest un-integrated states searches to take in a containing object experienced concretely as a skin to hold the parts of the personality together. Faulty development in taking in a containing object leads to a primitive defence that Bick termed second skin formation which can lead to the infant's active use of his or her body, or other precocious or pseudo-independence. Bick (1986) described a related state, "adhesive identification", in which an infant attaches him or herself to the surface of the object, leaning up against this for a rudimentary degree of safety, physically or psychologically, to combat massive anxieties that the self could spill out into space; this may be masked by a second skin formation. Symington (1985) used infant observation material to differentiate between infants who, not feeling adequately held together emotionally by their mother, precociously take over this function, and infants who, defensively omnipotent, view themselves as very powerful. Infant observation may clarify the stage when regression occurs (Haag, M., 2002).

Gradually a space for reflection and the growth of meaning widens as the infant works through oedipal anxieties and anger. This links with the crucially important development of the capacity to observe oneself in interaction with others, beginning with the infant's capacity to tolerate the link between the parents as a loving couple as a template for a relationship in which an infant is an observer and not a participant (Britton, 1989). The infant is excluded from the couple's relationship while maintaining separate relationships with each of the parents, which opens up observing space. Some of the changing feelings about being in a twosome and a threesome were seen in a little girl in the following material which shows a movement in her erotic transference to the development of an observing reflective space in response to her male observer:

When she was fourteen weeks old, she began giving him huge smiles and was more interested in him than in her mother. Two weeks later, she was so playful towards him that he felt like picking her up and for three months she would strain to turn round and look at him. Her mother thought that this relationship paralleled the one she had with her father but that it had its own unique quality. Often after she had given up trying to get him to play an escalating game of smiling she engaged him with intense eye contact. He would look away after about twenty seconds and she began to imitate this behaviour with a dream-like reflective look and he felt guilty at contributing to this change. She seemed to wonder what he was thinking. Her mother then noticed that she went into this space by herself, which had a more active thinking quality than daydreaming. When she was five months old and he talked to her mother she felt ignored and burst into hurt tears. At eight months of age, she turned away from the observer with an embarrassed, coy smile.

The infant's capacity to negotiate the triangular relationship between him or herself and the parents has an effect on the observer's observing (Rowley, 2008), and how the observer resolves this in turn has an influence on how they move between their identifications with parent and infant and how they triangulate with seminar members. With growing evidence of how early infants reach out to others in their environment, some concepts such as the father viewed in psychoanalytic theory as initially primarily a duplication of the mother no longer seem tenable (Adamo & Magagna, 2005).

The observer has been seen as having a counterpoint function in the infant's developmental stages; by finding a position that facilitates emotional growth in the dyad and the observer, the observer fulfils an important function when the dyad works through separation conflicts (Maiello, 1997). When the early mother-infant dyad is very intense, the observer introduces an element of discontinuity in coming and going, representing otherness. The observer then represents a new version of continuity in continuing to visit. Finally, with the ending, the observer conveys through continuing to be a non-persecutory other when the infant's security breaks down, that the mourning process can be worked through. At times when an observer feels particularly despairing on behalf of an infant, considerable change often occurs for the infant after an observer is able to contain this. Maiello (1997) comments briefly how resilient babies may be in the face of maternal difficulties, deriving sustenance from the presence of an observer, and such infants may later help their mother.

Raphael-Leff (1993), in considering why the infant of the different theoretical schools can seem so different when they all observe the same infant, suggested that it arises from how the observer's different theoretical lenses view an infant's different states of alertness.

What is absent from observations is also significant, such as observers rarely reporting overt expressions of babies' sexuality, for example at the breast or exploring their genitals. Such absence of observational material contributed to important new theorising about sexuality (Fonagy, 2008). When the subsequent pregnancy of the mother of an observed baby is reported the effect for observed baby can be seen in the toddler's jealousy and attempts to make reparation (Wilson, 2007).

The practice of infant observation widened to include audiovisual aids. Sunday's Child (1989), filmed by Lynn Barnett, followed the development of an infant in Britain for two years. It is a major teaching tool in the psychotherapy field as a source of information about child development. Barnett produced follow-up films of the child until he was twenty-one years old and some continuity of personality development can be tracked. Piontelli (1987) broke new ground by including ultrasound scans in her observations. From her observations of babies in utero (1992), she questioned whether a rudimentary form of self-other differentiation starts then. When some infants whose scans she had observed subsequently experienced difficulties in development they were offered psychotherapy and in her published clinical material she conceptualised links from observing the babies before birth and the children they became, in ongoing temperament and in activity levels.

Filming infants in dyads in a longitudinal study of six pairs of infants of the same age and their changing relationships integrated research technique in developmental psychology with psychoanalytic theory (Urwin, 2001). The observation demonstrated in the infants a growing capacity for concern in identification with the weaker infant and a growing internalisation of a parental figure linking to the capacity to conceive of the separate existence of another. Filming infants in trios showed the existence of social competence much earlier than previously thought with them relating to more than one other, for example three 6 to 9 months-olds competing for another's attention, playing "footsie", showing possessiveness and animosity to another with scowling and sneering, appearing as an instance of the oedipal triangle (Bradley & Selby, 2004).

 
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