Here I would like to point out that Winnicott, a pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, practiced in a time before the explosion of psychiatric medications, and when psychoanalytic thought heavily influenced the practice of psychiatry. If that were still the case, I would agree with this marriage. However, in our current climate of mental health care, where the 15 minute "med check" is the most common type of visit, I think both fields would do well not to marry each other, but rather to marry the growing field of infant parent mental health.
I trained in both general and developmental and behavioral pediatrics, and work in a department of child psychiatry. I know that for the most part neither discipline is exposed to the explosion of research and knowledge coming out of this new discipline, at the interface of neuroscience, genetics and developmental psychology. This knowledge has great bearing on preventive mental health care.
Here is a case in point. Prior to my own education in this new field, that came in part from my studies as a scholar with the Berkshire Psychoanalytic Institute and in part from a superb post-graduate training in infant parent mental health at U Mass Boston, I would not have known how to work effectively with mother-baby pairs in the setting of maternal mental illness.
Three-month-old Jenna sleeps peacefully in her mother’s lap. The cards seem stacked against her. Cara at 17 is struggling to finish high school. She has been diagnosed in the past with depression and anxiety, but currently is receiving no treatment. Her primary care doctor, who referred her to me, has been prescribing an anti-anxiety medication as a temporizing measure. Cara has been playing phone tag for over a month with the therapist at the community mental health center, whom she needs to see in order to get an appointment with a psychiatrist.
Cara is scheduled as my patient in my behavioral pediatric practice. I put anxiety as the diagnosis on the billing form. But in truth the aim of my work with this mother-infant pair is to protect her daughter’s developing brain from the well-documented ill effects of maternal mental illness on child development.
Cara talks in a rambling manner about a range of subjects- her older sister at 20 pregnant with her second child, but neglectful of the first, her father who abandoned the family when she was two. She is particularly focused on her difficult relationship with Jenna’s father, Ed. She tells of his drug use, his neediness and his difficulty accepting his role as father.
An infant’s brain makes as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second. The way in which these connections are formed is highly influenced by human relationships. As Cara responds to Jenna’s face and voice, is attuned with her rhythms and needs, both physical and emotional, she is literally growing her brain.
Important research has shown that when a mother can think about her baby’s mind and attribute meaning to his behavior, she helps him to develop a secure sense of himself and of his relationship with her. This security helps him to regulate himself in the face of difficult emotions. As he grows older he will have the capacity to think clearly and flexibly and manage himself in a complex social environment.
When I work with mother-baby pairs like Cara and Jenna, I focus on one simple thing. I listen to these mothers with the aim of helping them to reflect on their baby’s experience of the world and the meaning of their behavior. It never ceases to amaze me that with this singular focus, meaningful communication happens even in what appears to be chaotic and dismal circumstances.
As I listen to Cara’s rambling story, I know I need to help her start thinking about how all of this affects her relationship with Jenna. I use a technique I learned from leading researcher and clinician Peter Fonagy to help a person who is stuck in this kind of non-reflective thinking. I hold up my two hands. “Wait," I say. “I want you to help me understand how you think these problems with Ed connect with your relationship with Jenna.”
She pauses for a moment and then begins to cry. “When Jenna is so needy of me, it makes me think she’s just like her father, and I get so mad. Then I feel terrible for getting angry at her.” It’s a remarkable insight. But she isn’t done. She looks down at Jenna. “See how relaxed she is when I am calm. But when I get upset, she starts to cry.” Then she tells me of a time when she felt about to lose control, but somehow had managed to make Jenna laugh. “We were having a conversation,” she says joyfully, “even though she doesn’t say any words!”After a year of visits like this every one to two months, despite having grown up in a quite chaotic environment, Jenna is a bright, curious well-regulated toddler. The research from infant-parent mental health clearly supports devoting this kind of time and attention early on to parent-child relationships as a model of preventive mental health care.
However, in order for a marriage between the two disciplines and infant-parent mental health to be successful, both need to divorce the current climate of health care where, under the influence of a powerful health insurance industry, there is no time for listening.