Infant observation (direct)

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The direct observation of babies is a way of learning about the developing human mind. In "The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman" (1920), Sigmund Freud stated that if direct observation were sufficient to provide us with information on the origins of human sexuality, he would not have bothered to write his books. Arguably, we observe nothing that we do not already know, and vision, although closely linked to the scopic instinct—the foremost tool of curiosity and inquiry—is not a productive way of investigating psychic reality. Nevertheless, his observation of Little Hans, related in "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy" (1909), provided him with the essential elements of his theory of the libido and castration anxiety. He believed he was able to see directly in the child "these sexual impulses and these formations built by desire that we have such difficulty uncovering in the adult." His observation of an eighteen-month-old child playing the Fort!/Da! game with a wooden reel, related in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920), by establishing the basis for his theory of the death instinct, played a role not only in his theorizations of narcissism, but also because it provided a paradigm for numerous currents of thought in child psychoanalysis. Freud and Melanie Klein, working within different perspectives, encouraged their students to observe infants, but without making this a separate field of study. It was Donald Winnicott who, in "The Observation of Infants in a Set Situation" (1941), defined that field by envisioning infant observation as a "set situation" capable both of providing information about the infant carried by its mother and of establishing an authentic therapeutic relationship with the infant, working in a nonverbal mode. Winnicott proposed his own reading of Freud's "game of Fort!/Da!" and helped us to see what distinguishes his interpretation from pure behavioral observation. He analyzed the sequence of the baby's behaviors in three stages: (a) hesitation, which he interpreted as a "sign of anxiety about something" and a symptom of a conflict between the infant's desire and its interiorization of a threatening maternal imago; (b) then the expression of self-confidence—which is close to what he called "omnipotence." In some cases, this phase can lead to the world of make-believe and shared play; and (c) the game of appearance/disappearance of the object, in which the infant, emerging from its depressive mood, expresses its ability to restore the object through the game. Winnicott thus establishes a difference between the primitive processes, as they can be directly observed, and the deeper processes that are already a reconstruction and elaboration of the primitive processes, linked with experience of the environment. He made it possible to utilize direct infant observation to better understand psychic reality in the process of being constructed. The postwar period, in which psychoanalysts were faced with the problem of early psychopathologies, renewed interest in observation. René Spitz and John Bowlby, borrowing their methods from genetic psychology and ethology respectively, proposed new developmental models focused on, respectively, the concept of organizers of the ego and attachment theory. An important research trend then developed, mainly in the United States, that interpreted the baby's nonverbal behaviors as genuine mental acts. Her work informed by the theories both Klein and Wilfred Bion, the British investigator Esther Bick, in "Notes on Infant Observation in Psycho-Analytic Training" (1964), for her part upheld the idea that the infant's mental life unfolds in a projective mode that must be contained by psychic structures that are sufficiently developed to support the emergence of the processes of introjection. Originally conceived as a contribution to the training of child psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, this method has been extended to other objectives: research on the beginnings of the infant's mental and relational life, prevention and treatment techniques used in families and in various institutional settings (treatment and other centers for young children, nurseries, neonatal care services). From an epistemological point of view, Didier Houzel (1997) underscored the difference between an ethological approach and observation that he characterized as psychoanalytical, which sticks to the proposed framework both internally (coming as close as possible to the baby's somatopsychic experiences) and externally (type of contract established with the family, means used by the various parties to abide by or transgress the conditions, and finally the observer's capacity for empathy). Observation thus takes place in two stages: encounter with the subject, and the deferred working-over of transferential and counter-transferential material.


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.
  2. ——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
  3. ——. (1920a). The psychogenesis of a case of homosexuality in a woman. SE, 18: 145-172.