Parent-Infant psychotherapy is supportive psychotherapy. The aims are not only to meet the immediate presenting problems in the baby or the toddler, but also to help the parent and child feel more positively about themselves and their interaction.
Some babies do not sleep well. Others reject the breast or will not let it go. Some seem sad and withdrawn, while others appear anxious and restless. Some cling to their mothers, whereas others avoid looking into their mothers’ eyes. Then there are the babies who seem well in the eyes of an outside observer, but whose mothers worry anyway. Some parents are anxious or uncertain about parenthood.
The relationship between the mother and baby has a history. While the mother’s history is long and the baby’s history is just forming, the therapist is trained to see how these histories affect the everyday interactions around the identified concerns of sleeping, feeding, playing, stimulation and regulation.
Parents and their infants are going through a momentous process of change in early development. In parent-infant psychotherapy, questions, worries and concerns are raised and addressed by focusing on the interaction between parent and baby This interaction goes on largely nonverbally. The parent-infant therapist is trained to pick up nuances of the relationship and put them into words, so the infant and parent can develop or continue to develop a healthy attachment.
The therapist helps the parent observe and address what works to reach the baby. The infant’s reactions to modifications lead to the next step in the therapeutic process until the problems are resolved.
Here is a small example:
Anna is a 4 month-old baby. Her mother, Susan, is depressed and crying because of her doctor’s recommendation to wean Anna early for medical reasons. Since Susan also had to put the baby in day care to go back to work, she is even more anxious about the bond between them and thinks her baby has withdrawn from her. Anna is very tense, looking at the therapist with a fearful expression but without tears.
The therapist is impressed by this young baby’s capacity for containing her emotions. The therapist describes this observation to the mother. Susan says that that’s exactly what she is afraid of, making her baby feeling lonely and too precocious, as she was herself with her own depressed mother. While Susan is deeply involved talking to the therapist, her attention is diverted from Anna who is slipping from her lap and begins to fuss. The therapist makes eye contact with Anna, waves and says,; “Hello, I see you!” Amazingly, Anna answers by doing the same motion with her hand. They start a kind of play at imitating each other and saying hello.
Susan observes, and the therapist affirms, that her baby is actually good at communication and very creative. Susan holds Anna firmly against her breast and starts playing by moving her hands and singing in order to amuse Anna, who begins to smile. Anna then sucks her thumb happily. Susan begins to explore the idea that she might modify the day care schedule and spend more time fully engaged with Anna.
In this simple exchange, Susan was able to recognize how her guilt and painful feelings of deprivation from her own childhood made it hard to really see her baby and to figure out how to be with her more. Her refocusing her attention on Anna helped to free the baby from her dispirited state. Susan could rediscover her own capacity to engage and delight her baby and feel like an effective mother