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Mother-Infant Communication

“Mother-Infant Communication” is a documentary project I am producing with Columbia University’s Dr. Beatrice Beebe. The film, now in pre-production, was financed generously by a video grant from PEP-WEB, Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing, the online database for psychoanalytic researchers, academics, and clinicians.

I am pleased to be sharing with a wider audience Dr. Beebe’s fascinating work, which uses “video microanalysis” to decode interactions between caregivers and babies to reveal a magical world of non-verbal communication. Looking at dyads via this method, one begins to wonder if parent and baby are bound by unseen threads, hands, eyebrows, mouths, all moving in unison in a rhythmic dance of mutual recognition.

How it works: Dr. Beebe’s video microanalysis captures two uninterrupted minutes of face-to-face play between mother and her four-month-old baby, a camera on the mother and a camera on the baby. The film is then coded, second-by-second, for each movement, sound, and emotion. The coded interactions (like “chase and dodge” or “disruption and repair”), if repeated over and over again, can predict with remarkable accuracy a secure, anxious, avoidant, or "disorganized" way of relating at one year.

At one year, we can predict adult attachment styles (see upcoming blog post on the “Ainsworth Strange Situation”). What we see unfolding are the expectations for what happens in relationships: how they will go, if they will last, and how they will end.

Anxious attachments seem to spring from several kinds of interactions. For example, when babies look away during face-to-face play, we know they are over-stimulated. If the caregiver allows them the space to re-regulate, and doesn’t “chase” them (ie., try to call them back into play), we’re seeing the roots of a securely attached relating style. But if the caregiver doesn’t allow the baby to self-soothe, we may see an anxious or even disorganized attachment style emerge.

The bottom line: babies must learn to self-regulate. A controversial 2012 book, Bringing up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman, compares French parenting styles with North American “helicopter” parenting. Parents, she argues, must let their baby be frustrated. How else will they learn to navigate a frustrating world? How else will they learn to tolerate big feelings and stressful life events without falling to pieces or experiencing crippling anxiety or panic attacks?

Many of the people who find psychotherapy helpful, people who had loving, supportive, but perhaps over-involved and anxious parents, are in fact learning for the first time how to do just that: self-regulate.

Although the research Dr. Beebe and others are doing shows plainly that our attachment styles are affected and influenced by our earliest relationships, there is always the possibility of what is called “earned secure attachment,” in healthy relationships that last over time. Psychotherapy can provide one such relationship.

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