Emotional Milestones: No. 2 – Managing the absence of mummy

Our baby is now beginning to grow and develop an inner coherence. In my last blog, Emotional Milestones 1 I thought about how this comes about. In this blog I am going to think about the second emotional milestone:

  • For the baby to develop an idea of a caregiver (usually mother) who comes and goes, initially for short periods of time and then for longer absences.

Once the baby begins to develop its own sense of inner coherence the stage is now set for the infant to allow its mother to be a person who comes and goes.  This may sound like a very strange idea as of course the mother comes and goes but this is not how the baby sees it. In the first few months of life, babies manage their extreme dependence by believing that they are in control of the mother, that she is not an independent person but part of themselves. The present mother is a wonderful thing for most babies and when she is around the world looks like a hopeful place that can be enjoyed. In contrast the absent mother is experienced with terror and anger. The newborn baby struggles to tolerate these feelings, which threatens to overwhelm the undeveloped infant mind. Most babies will communicate this in no uncertain terms, they scream at the top of their little lungs and their whole body becomes rigid with fury. They seem to be pushing away from themselves the awful experience that has overwhelmed them, whether this is hunger, cold or just feeling frightened.

Although frightening for the baby to know about its dependence on its mother. If it doesn’t it will not be able to develop and grow psychically. I thought in my first blog about how the mother needs to provide a certain kind of attentive care to give her newborn a sense of inner coherence. The second reason the baby needs this attentive care is to give the baby an experience that his physical and emotional needs will be met. This gives him a sense that he can trust his mother to look after him. This trust allows him to notice and accept that the thing that makes him feel so good, his mother is separate from him. Once he has got this idea he can notice that this mother and all she means is there sometimes and not there at other times. Most babies over time and with good attentive care allow themselves to internalise this picture of a mother who comes and goes. They also become increasingly able to manage the feelings stirred up by their mothers absence, which means they can be left for increasing amounts of time. Oh, and some babies are better at this than others.

Bion, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist believed our ability to think starts at this point, with the baby having to use its own mind to remember that there is a mother who comes when it is hungry, cold or frightened. The baby must ‘think’ about the mother, call her to mind. A baby using his tongue in between his lips is a baby who is working hard to hang onto an idea of the good feeding mother. If the baby can manage to begin to know about his mother comes and goes he can also begin to gain confidence in his own ability to manage without the actual presence of his mother, use his own thoughts and developing inner coherence to manage on his own. It will find going to grandparents or childminders more bearable and starting school will not be as traumatic.

Around the time that the baby’s own internal world is beginning to be more resilient weaning comes on the agenda. For most babies weaning is a very difficult time and the way the baby manages this heralds the way they manage change and loss in the future. It should not be an easy time, the infant is having to lose the wonderful thing which more than anything else makes the world feel safe:  The baby is also having to lose the idea that he will have this wonderful exclusive relationship with his mother forever.  The fact that this feeding relationship has to be given up can be hard to bear and for a while your infant will have moments of seeming down and hopeless, grizzly and unhappy and at others they will be full of rage and destructiveness as they fight against the knowledge that they can no longer have what they want. This can be a tough time for the mother who must struggle with her infant’s fury and distress. Additionally, she too must manage the loss of the lovely closeness as her baby ‘leaves the lap’ and takes a step towards independence. It is so important that mothers help their baby to negotiate this difficult time by being a mother who can use her mind to understand how difficult it is for her baby while not giving way to his tyranny. If a mother can stand her ground it enables her baby to work through his grief and anger giving him a template that changes, and losses must be faced and worked through. If this can happen it will give the baby a really strong emotional foundation and allows him to suddenly make huge strides in his development and confidence.

Good mental health is hard won and so much depends on these early years. It needs a baby to struggle with his feelings and a mother who helps him do this. If either the baby or the mother avoids the process of working through difficult feelings then problems in behaviour and emotions will arise if not now, then in the future.

What can you do as a parent to help your baby to negotiate this vulnerable time. Some babies are born with very fragile constitutions and find it difficult to tolerate even very small amounts of emotional frustration. These babies need very attentive care and it can be difficult to get it right for them. Do get some help as early as possible as it will make life so much easier in the long run. I do feel that an ACP qualified psychotherapists would be the best place to start looking for help as they spend many years observing and understanding infants and mothers and the care they need. Thankfully most babies do not fall into this category and there is much that mothers can do to help. I sometimes break it down into avoiding what I am going to call over parenting and under parenting. They both cause problems for your baby being able to grow and develop good mental health.

  • Avoiding the feelings stirred up by separation and weaning: This means that as the baby grows it gets a certain message, ‘my mother cannot tolerate difficult feelings, they must be very dangerous, I need to avoid them at all costs’. If this happens the baby will not develop those emotional muscles so needed to help us make our way through life. This could lead to all sorts of difficulties in the infants development and may mean they never allow their mother to be a separate person in their own mind. Future problems might include: Struggling with a move from milk to solids. Difficulties of separation from their mother. For a long time I have felt that many cases of elective mutism are actually about issues of separation. Language is a way of communicating with a person who is separate from you. If the child has not managed this second emotional milestone he believes his mother and his mind are ‘joined’ – are ‘one person’ with one mind so why would talking be needed.
  • Responding immediately to every whimper and noise the baby makes. Because of the intensity of the feeling aroused in the baby by the absence of their mothers some mothers find it difficult not to respond to every murmur or whimper their baby makes. This makes it difficult for the baby to begin to know about an independent mother who may go away but comes back when he really needs her. This will affect the baby’s ability to develop its own mind and thoughts. It also means the baby never has a chance at managing its own worry and anxiety for short amounts of time.
  • It is however a matter of balance and degree. Leaving a tiny baby too long is not helpful. It should seldom get to screaming point, but if it happens every now and then it will not be the end of the world for most babies.
  • Not getting to know your baby. Get to know your baby, not a theoretical baby in some book or some professionals head. Notice how your baby likes to be held, how long it can tolerate your absence, what position does he like when he is feeding, which breast is his favourite, how does this change at different times of the day. Remember that you are the most important person to your baby and when all the feeding burping and changing is done your baby might just want to spend time with you.
  • Managing change: I often have parents who tell me that their child does not like change. All change involves an element of loss and so of mourning. It also demands toleration of feelings of vulnerability, not knowing and to acknowledge at least for a while you are going to feel a little out of control. If children have not been helped in those early months to work through the difficult feeling stirred up by absence and weaning they may well struggle to manage the feelings stirred up by the change.
  • As you might appreciate if the baby has a difficult early experience and is neglected and abused in the first few months of life understandably, they never allow themselves to believe that their mother is a separate person. They will also have had to manage overwhelming and difficult experiences without the presence of a containing attentive mind. How the child then goes on to manage their emotions and their relationships for me sits at the base of many attachment difficulties, where very complicated patterns of relating are established in the mind of babies and children. These children also struggle with their emotions, particularly those needed to make good attachments. Some babies if they are removed early enough to very good and stable care the early patterns can be addressed. The baby can manage to take in a new and different experience, and this might resolve their attachment difficulties. Some children are just very lucky, as they are born with a constitution which allows them to take the very small amount they get from their environment and make use of it in order to grow and develop good mental health. However, many children and indeed adults who have had very difficult early experiences really struggle with mental health issues and may need professional help.

Where to get help

If you are concerned about your relationship with your baby or your baby’s emotional development do get help as soon as possible. Sorting things out at this stage of your babies development might only take a few sessions. Many professionals, even mental health professionals do not have training which includes working with infants and mothers. A safe bet would be to get help from someone who is registered with the Association of Child Psychotherapy (ACP) or who has trained with OxPIP. Both these trainings spend many years observing and studying babies and how their emotional world develops. They also spend time understanding about parenting and how to help parents make changes which can help their baby grow and develop.


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