Infant Development

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The term infant development refers to the processes of psychic organization and transformation that lead the preverbal infant from absolute dependency to the earliest integrations of the ego during the first year of life.

By studying the "psychical apparatus" in its structures, functioning, and development, Sigmund Freud established facts and proposed hypotheses that are indispensable to the study of early development. Freud's newborn is a being in a state of helplessness (Hilflosigkeit ) whose development requires that a "mutual understanding" be established between it and its mother, as he explained in "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950 [1895]). The infant is active, driven by needs that give rise to the hallucination of satisfaction, which, according to The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), is the prelude to fantasies and thoughts. Its oral component-instincts trigger the fundamental mechanisms of projection and introjection, as described in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905d) and "Negation" (1925h). These mechanisms gradually enable the infant to form an idea of its mother as a total object; it can then bind its autoerotism to the love-object, as described in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." The parents' narcissistic investment in the infant, described in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914d), and the quality of the primary identifications that unite the baby with its parents, described in "The Ego and the Id" (1923), are the basis for its own "life and death narcissism," to borrow André Green's expression.

The earliest psychoanalytic writings on the psychic life of infants came from Melanie Klein (1933) , Anna Freud (1946), Donald Winnicott (1945), René Spitz (1945), and John Bowlby (1951). From the beginning, the quality of interrelations between mother-environment and the infant was universally accepted as being a vital necessity, indispensable to human psychic and somatic development. Early work in the field produced such landmark concepts as "early organizers," "prototypes of ego-defense," "archaic forms of communication" (Spitz); "tonic dialogues" (Julian de Ajuriaguerra); "interactional epigenesis" (Erik Erikson); and "interactive spiral" (Serge Lebovici).

Over time, Freud's basic theories were further elaborated. Thus the conception of the oral instinct's anaclisis on the alimentary function was broadened to include sensory, affective, and object forms of nourishment. The theory of an attachment instinct (John Bowlby) took into account the needs for contact that play a major role at birth and in the evolution of the separation-individuation process in the young infant (Mary Ainsworth, Margaret Mahler). The notion of stages (Freud, Karl Abraham) was supplanted by that of "positions," with its greater focus on the analysis of processes. Klein's hypothesis of an ego that is active from birth, operating through projections and introjections, has been accepted and appears to be compatible with Freud's theory of "primary identification with the parents" or fundamental narcissistic identification, set forth in "The Ego and the Id." The infant's access to a representation of the mother as total object and the prevalence of the depressive position over paranoid anxieties (Klein) precipitate the coming together of the ego.

Recent works on "adhesive identity," the "psychic skin," and the "skin-ego" (Esther Bick, Frances Tustin, Didier Anzieu) have brought new developments to these problematics. The theory of an early activation of the ego's reflexive function has also opened a field for exploration. The advent of consciousness of self, termed the "mirror stage" by Jacques Lacan, is, in Winnicott's view, a construction linked to "the mirror of the mother's face and the family." According to Winnicott, interiorization of the love-object enables the infant to find or create potential spaces for representation of the self and the outside world.

In another problematic, Daniel Stern described the evolution of different "senses of self" and explored the primitive forms of representations that result from the "interpersonal bond." Wilfred Bion (1962) analyzed how, through the earliest projections and introjections, there immediately develops between mother an infant a process of thought, or reverie, that transforms the excitations that submerge the infant into "alpha elements." The latter can be considered as protorepresentations elaborated in the coalescence of "infant's body" and "mother-environment" (Piera Castoriadis-Aulagnier, Monique Piñol-Douriez). They are the malleable foundations of psychic construction, and they undergo the transformations proper to the depressive position and later developments. Through maturation and interrelations, the "interactional epigenesis" leads the preverbal infant to love and to hate. At the end of the first year, the infant is ready to develop language, many of whose elements it already understands, and which it is beginning to babble.

Although Freud made joint use of "direct observation and regressive analysis" (1905d) as working methods, some psychoanalysts believe that direct observation reflects an objectifying scientism and that because it is preverbal, the very young infant cannot be subjected to a psychoanalytic approach. Nevertheless, the theories elaborated on the basis of observation of early development can feed into psychoanalytic practice, theory, and research.

Monique PiÑol-Douriez and Maurice Despinoy

See also: Adhesive identification; Anaclisis/anaclictic; Anxiety; Archaic mother; Breastfeeding; Breast, good/bad object; Combined parent figure; Creativity; Depressive position; Early interactions; Eroticism, oral; Experience of satisfaction; Family; Good-enough mother; Handling; Helplessness; Holding; Identificatory project; Infantile omnipotence; Infant observation (therapeutic); Lack of differentiation; Maternal care; Maternal reverie, capacity for; Mirror stage; Narcissism, primary; Optical schema; Paranoid-schizoid position; Prematureness; Primal scene; Primary love; Primary object; Primary process/secondary process; Processes of development; Self-consciousness; Self (true/false); Stranger; Sucking/thumbsucking; Symbiosis/symbiotic relation; Thought-thinking apparatus; Transitional object; Transitional object, space; Transitional phenomena; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a.


Bion, Wilfred R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann Medical Books.

Bowlby, John. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. Geneva: W.H.O. Monographs.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams, Parts I and II. SE, 4-5.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1914d). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.

Freud, Anna. (1946). The psychoanalytic treatment of children. London: Imago Publishing Co., Ltd.

Klein, Melanie. (1933). The early development of conscience in the child. In S. Lorand (Ed.), Psycho-analysis Today. New York: Covici-Friede.

. (1987). Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant. In The writings of Melanie Klein: Vol. 3. Envy and gratitude and others (pp. 61-93). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1952)

Lebovici, Serge. (1983). Le Nourisson, la Mère et le Psychanalyste. Paris: Le Centurion.

Spitz. René A. (1945). Hospitalism: an inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, I, 53-74

Winnicott, Donald W. (1945). Primitive emotional development. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 26.

Further Reading

Tyson, Phyllis. (2002). The challenges of psychoanalytic developmental theory. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 50, 19-52.

Tyson, Phyllis, and Tyson, Robert. (1990). Psychoanalytic theories of development: an integration. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.