Sally McLaren Jungian Analyst and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Horsham, West Sussex

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Infant Observation

‘At the beginning I was met with this challenge……. ‘put aside your books, theories and preconceived ideas, and come and play’.

This took me out of my comfort zone.

Others in the group had their own challenges.

But my weekly encounter with my baby, together with the reflection and processing of that experience in the writing up of notes, in the seminar group and in my personal therapy, has led me into deeper levels of human experience both within myself and with my patients.

It was a life enhancing experience both personally and professionally, and one I shall not forget.’


I wrote these words soon after completing a two year Jungian infant observation course in 2012. I offer here some thoughts and reflections from myself and others as an introduction to the experience.


A Transformative Experience

In her paper, Margot Waddell (2006) gives an account of the history of infant observation from its beginnings in the 1960s and she describes the tripartite structure of the method, involving weekly observation, writing of detailed notes and small weekly supervised seminar group. She goes on to write,

‘Such an account of the observational process is deceptively simple. For what the majority of those who have undertaken an infant observation attest to is the intensity of the impact of the experience, its lasting effects, and its centrally formative contribution both to a psychodynamic understanding of intimate encounters with other minds and relationships, and to the influence of such encounters on their own self-understanding. As Margaret Rustin has put it, ‘The capacity to contain and observe emotionally powerful psychic phenomena is the basis for knowledge of oneself, and for that contact with psychic reality which is at the core of an authentic personality’ .

Some such capacity, it seems to me, underlies all great literature – from Homer, to Virgil, to Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Blake, Keats, George Eliot and beyond.’


The author describes the crucial role of containment and reverie. She writes with poetic sensibility and her paper is interwoven with literary quotes which bring a lyrical quality to the paper and a sense of the universal and profound truths that underlie her themes. Infant observation facilitates ‘learning from experience’ of an ‘unprecedented kind’, in particular the attitude of ‘negative capability’ described by Keats as ‘the capacity to sustain a frame of mind that can tolerate being ‘in uncertainties, Mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. She writes ‘familiarity with this formulation is in danger of draining from it the essence of challenge.’ It is ‘a hard won goal for psychoanalytic work, nowhere more finely honed than in the weekly encounters with the world of the infant and his/her family.’

A recent book, ‘Infant Observation – Creating Transformative Relationships’ (2014), containing a selection of seminal papers, traces the development of infant observation from its beginnings in Esther Bick’s 1964 paper, through to its’ ever widening scope and possibilities today not only in training but also in research and as a therapeutic method in child psychiatry.

In the final paragraph of the book the editor states:

'The field of infant observation has reached a ‘new level of maturity and emotional vigour…..the application seems endlessly creative…..almost any aspect of the way an infant observation is carried out or discussed in seminars may be varied. But if the focus remains on being receptive to and reflective of the truth of the emotional experience whatever its impact, infant observation will continue to be a transformative experience for all involved. The observer may therefore in an indefinable way understand better the baby whom they once were.’


Infant Observation with Soul in Mind

My paper, 'Birds, Beasts and Babies - Notes from an Infant Observation', won the Roszika Parker prize and was published in the British Journal of Psychotherapy in 2014.

The editor writes,

'Sally McLaren's essay is based on her final report covering the second year of an infant observation. 'As images and symbols are amplified', she writes, 'threads link together'. Her paper.....moves seamlessly from the fine grain of an observational recording, and of the inner world, to a series of theoretical associations in the Jungian tradition. The use of the word 'notes' in her title is apposite: she unobtrusively notes the relationship between the observational data and a framework in which theoretical ideas are called to mind by an exchange of words, looks or behaviours. Synchronicities - a 'uniting factor' - run through the essay and are thoughtfully and imaginatively charted.'

My recent paper on this theme, 'The Winnowing Way - Infant Observation with Soul in Mind', was published in Harvest, the journal of the C. G. Jung Club, in December 2021.

The editor writes,

'Sally McLaren's experience of Jungian infant observation awakens the archetypes of the divine child, mother, rebirth, and life after death. We hear echoes of Jung's statement that when we see a child, we may feel that we have unfinished business. Her reflections on the infant bring her into dialogue with her grandmother's writings and the birth and death artwork of Bill Viola. Earliest memories and earliest remembered dreams carry numinous power that brims with fatefulness. Recovering the innocence of babes as we age and becoming as little children as we die promise to open the gates to the world of the ancestors and their unanswered questions.'

I shall be presenting my first paper, 'Birds, Beasts and Babies.....' at the C. G. Jung Club, together with some reflections on 'Infant Observation with Soul in Mind' on Thursday 20th January 2022. THIS WILL NOW BE AN ONLINE EVENT. All are welcome. Information on Jung Club website.


References

Waddell, M. (2006). Infant Observation in Britain: The Tavistock Approach. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 87(4): 1103-1120.

Thomson-Salo, F. (ed). (2014). Infant Observation – Creating Transformative Relationships. London, Karnac.


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