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Pediatrics and Psychoanalysis: An Essential Partnership

Posted by Claudia M Gold  July 18, 2012 01:10 PM

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D.W Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, has been among the most important influences on my work. Unlike him, however, I have been determined not to "defect" from pediatrics to become a psychoanalyst. I have always felt it was important to bring the wealth of deeply meaningful ideas coming from the discipline of psychoanalysis to the practice of pediatrics.

For example, in my current position as a behavioral pediatrician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital I teach the pediatric residents and  medical students about colic by starting with Winnnicott's notion of "primary maternal preoccupation." I read to them from my book: Keeping Your Child in Mind, itself an effort to bring psychoanalytic ideas to a general audience:

Winnicott described the first weeks to months of motherhood as a period deserving of a name, a psychological state, which for both a newborn and mother is not only healthy but highly adaptive. The name Winnicott gave this state was “primary maternal preoccupation.” He referred to a mother who is preoccupied in this way with her baby as an “ordinary devoted mother.” This way of being in tune with the baby happens naturally and does not look like anything particularly dramatic. A mother knows what her baby feels through her intense identification with him. He is a part of her. Though her role is in this sense “ordinary,” it is in fact hugely important. Winnicott writes: “It will be observed that though at first we were talking about very simple things, we were also talking about matters that have vital importance, matters that concern the laying down of the foundations for mental health.”
Rather than asking "what to do" to "manage" colic, I encourage them to think about the meaning of the behavior within the context of this intense infant-parent relationship. Similarly, when parents come to see me about how to "manage" their child's "behavior problem," I help them to recognize that they are engaged in a kind of "dance of dysregulation" with their child, and that they both need to learn a new way to dance that is calm and coordinated.

This weekend, however, I get to do exactly the opposite, namely bring my knowledge as a pediatrician to a group of psychoanalysts.  Just as psychoanalysts are experts in relationships, so pediatricians (and all professionals who provide primary care to children) are experts in babies.  We are immersed in child development in a way that is unlike any other profession.

I am speaking at a conference at the Austen Riggs Center, co-sponsored by the Yale Child Study CenterDevelopment of the Parent as a Person: Psychological, Biological and Genetic Contributions. Within minutes of looking at the proposed lineup of presentations, I knew exactly what I had to add. My talk is titled: "The Development of the Parent: the Child's Contribution."

 After more than 20 years of listening to countless parents and seeing thousands of babies, I have no doubt that babies come in to the world with their own unique set of qualities and characteristics, that from the first moment have a significant impact on the development of the parent. Almost every parent who is struggling with their child's challenging behavior has shared some variation of, "we saw this from the moment he was born."

I will use the photographs from Kevin Nugent's book: Your Baby is Speaking to You, that so beautifully captures the way babies are engaged in complex communication from the start. I have a video clip of a baby at three days of age having a conversation with me. I will introduce the Newborn Behavioral Observation system, a clinical tool designed to bring out these qualities in the baby, and promote healthy relationships from the start.

A number of years ago I attended a conference entitled "Pediatrics and Child Psychiatry: an Essential Partnership." I was hopeful, but sadly it ended up being primarily about prescribing medication, with a little bit about "parent training" thrown in. The word "relationship" was not mentioned once.

Here we have two parallel relationships: the parent-child relationship, and the pediatrics-psychoanalysis relationship. In each pair, one has the opportunity to have a profound and positive effect on the development of the other.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »


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