Early Interactions

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The notion of early interactions between the child and its environment first appeared during the 1970s and has since become widely accepted. The further development of the concept corresponds very closely with the spread of knowledge concerning what is now referred to as the psychology, psychopathology, and psychiatry of the baby (or nursing infant).

The concept was put forward by developmental psychologists and is generally contested by psychoanalysts insofar as it refers more to the field of interpersonal relations than to intrapsychic problems in the strict sense of the term. Psychoanalysts prefer to speak of "interrelations," a term they use in reference to the constitution of the child's imagos and the progressive establishment of its mental representations (of self, object, and object relations).

However, the term early interactions is now very widely used. It is based on a new vision of the nursing infant, a vision that first appeared toward the end of World War II. Although before that time babies were very largely considered by professionals to be eminently passive beings engaged almost exclusively in oral and digestive functions, they slowly came to be described as being much more active in the relationship and already having an intensely social orientation. They were recognized as having many skills, particularly the personal capacity to engage a relationship with its caregiving adult or, on the contrary, to withdraw from this relationship. Infants use some of these skills spontaneously in their daily lives while others, on the contrary, remain potential, as if in abeyance or on reserve, being manifest only in experimental situations (free motricity, early imitation).

It is this notion of active skills and relational reciprocity (in spite of the indisputable dissymmetry between the psychic organization of very young infants and adults) that gave rise to the concept of an interaction. From being seen as a passive consumer, the baby increasingly came to be considered as an evolving human being. This shift in focus can probably be linked on the one hand to adult guilt feelings with regard to children at the end of the last world war and, on the other, to intensified research into the earliest stages of psychic development as a result of the exacerbating urgency of our quest for origins.

In reality the concept of early interactions covers different levels of facts. Five different levels are classically distinguished in a baby's interactive system: biological interactions, ethological interactions, whether instinctual or behavioral, affective or emotional interactions, fantasy interactions and, lastly, the so-called symbolic interactions. Early interactions really only related to the first four levels, the last one being more concerned with children who have already acquired the use of language.

Biological interactions come into play very largely during intra-uterine life and are generally referred to as "feto-maternal interactions." They continue to a lesser degree after birth, particularly in the form of breast-feeding.

Behavioral interactions facilitate the various postural adjustments (in his own day Henri Wallon spoke about the "stimulating dialogue" between the mother and child), as well as the attunement of a certain number of biological rhythms (for example, regulating the contractions of the muscle cells in the mother's mammary glands with the rhythms of the baby's crying). They require no humoral mediators.

Affective and emotional interactions enable both the mother (or, indeed, the father for that matter) and the child to harmonize their emotional state with that of the other. The main mechanism coming into play seems to be the process of affective attunement described by Daniel N. Stern.

The level of fantasy interactions has been the subject of the liveliest debates with psychoanalysts insofar as they contest the very idea of the action of fantasies and stress the fundamental dissymmetry in the organization of psychic processes in the adult and the child. The process of affective attunement also appears here as the best current candidate for the role of messenger in these fantasy interactions, a study of which is obviously essential with regard to inter- and transgenerational transmission. In fact this level of fantasy interactions poses the whole question of its role in relation to the complex mechanisms of identification and projective identification.

In Anglo-Saxon countries the study of early interactions continues to be very largely the domain of developmental psychologists (T. B. Brazelton, A. J. Sameroff, R. N. Emde), whereas in other countries, particularly in France, a whole research trend came into being in the wake of Serge Lebovici's (1983) work, mainly in an effort to integrate this concept of early interactions into the data of classic psychoanalytic metapsychology.

The following are the main questions currently raised by the concept of early interactions: Can the different types of interactions between the baby and its environment be considered as first forms or precursors of future object relations? How is the change effected from the interpersonal level to the intrapsychic level? What is the role of these interactions in the child's relation to intersubjectivity? Is there not a danger that the question of interactions will lead to a sort of metapsychology of presence to the detriment of the role of absence and the excluded middle?

Bernard Golse

See also: Infant observation; Infant observation (direct); Lack of differentiation; Lebovici, Serge Sindel Charles; Tenderness.


Lamour, Martine, and Lebovici, Serge (1989). Les interactions du nourrisson avec ses partenaires. Encyclopédie medico-chirurgicale (Vol. Psychiatrie ). Paris: E.M.-C., fasc. 37-190-B-60.

Lebovici, Serge. (1983). Le nourrisson, la mère et le psychanalyste. Paris: Le Centurion.

Sameroff, Arnold J., and Emde, Robert N. (1989). Relationship disturbances in early childhood. A developmental approach. New York: Basic Books.

Stern, Daniel N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Stevenson-Hinde, J., and Simpson, M. J. A. (1981). Mothers' characteristics, interactions, and infants' characteristics. Child Development, 52, 1246-1254.

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Early Interactions

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Early Interactions