Babies Can't Talk by Rosalind Field
"If psychotherapy is a ‘talking therapy’ how do you work with a new-born?!"
This is a question I’ve been asked by both parents and professionals alike. It’s a very good question.
It is not uncommon for new mothers to feel that they don’t understand what it is that their baby is trying to communicate. This can lead to frustration on both sides and to a feeling of the impossibility of trying to understand. This might be compounded by the misconception that babies do just cry sometimes for no reason. (Yes, really is a misconception!). This can give way to a desire for their baby to ‘grow up’ soon so that they will be able to talk about what they need. However, the renowned researcher Beatrice Beebe, using micro analysis of mother infant face to face interactions, suggests that babies, even new-borns, come into the world with an inborn ability to communicate. It’s just a matter of parents trying to understand their ‘language’! Of course, this is easier said than done!
How does a baby communicate?
Despite the dependence on their adult caregivers a baby does have some personal agency and that is via their body. For example, a baby might look away in a playful interaction for a few moments in order to self-soothe; none of us can maintain eye-contact indefinitely as it can feel overwhelming. This sometimes makes mothers feel that their baby is not interested in them and they try to re-engage through play. However, if the baby continues to feel uncomfortable, they are likely to develop a habit of avoiding eye-contact as a way of protecting themselves. Left unaddressed this may become a character trait, making the relationship less enjoyable for both the baby and parent. Similarly, if a baby doesn’t feel comfortable in the way that they are held, they may become rigid and not ‘mould’ into the parent’s body. Sometimes the parent is left feeling rejected with a belief that their baby doesn’t like being held, which in turn can lead to an unhelpful vicious cycle.
In the 1960s the famous child psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, revolutionised modern Western thinking about infancy and childhood. He said;
"There is no such thing as an infant,’
and went on to write,
‘meaning, of course that whenever one finds an infant one finds maternal care, and without maternal care there would be no infant’.
For today I imagine that Winnicott would alter ‘maternal care’ to ‘parental care’ as fortunately nowadays more fathers and other care-givers are actively involved in the everyday physical and emotional care of babies.
What Winnicott was getting at is the interdependent nature of the care giver-infant relationship and focused on the idea that an infant could not exist without the support of this physically and emotionally nurturing relationship. This concept, along with Beebe and her colleagues’ research on communication, informs Parent Infant Psychotherapy (PIP) where it is the relationship between the caregiver and the infant that is seen as the patient or client, rather than any one individual. Acknowledging the relational process between both partners the therapy works to bring about change. The baby is an active partner in the therapeutic relationship as the therapist and parents think together about what the baby might be communicating with her sounds, visual gaze, and bodily movements. We might think about it as though the communication process is a kind of dance between the parent and baby where they are trying to learn new steps. Sometimes there’s a miss-step, but they both learn to adjust their movements so that with time their own unique dance can flow more comfortably.
In a PIP session the adults (parents and therapist) think together about what they are observing in the baby’s communications and try to make sense of what may be occurring on an emotional level between them.
How does a baby have a sense of him or herself?
Parents have often asked me this as I use a simple toy mirror in PIP sessions and ‘talk’ with babies about who they might be seeing in the mirror.
The baby has a body which is responded to by her parents and how this happens is important to her gaining a sense of herself. If she is responded to sensitively and spoken to gently she will learn that she is a valuable little person with a mind of her own. As Amanda Jones describes (see video link below), she will learn to think, ‘I matter and my feelings matter’. There is a gradual creation of a helpful interaction between the two minds of the parents and the baby which will continue into childhood. It is a fundamental building block for creating an emotionally healthy individual.
When things don’t go so well this important adopting of positive bodily experience can become disrupted and the baby can feel distressed. In turn, this can make the parents feel overwhelmed and unable to respond sensitively to their baby. It is through interrupting this unhelpful cycle that Parent Infant Psychotherapy can be invaluable.
Beebe, Beatrice et al (2013) The Origins of Attachment: Infant Research and Adult Treatment - Routledge
Jones, Amanda (2015) The Emotional Life of a baby.
Winnicott, D.W (1960) The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship
International Journal of Psychoanalysis 1960 41:585-595