Sally McLaren Jungian Analyst and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Horsham, West Sussex

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Infant Observation Course

‘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.

What is involved?

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.’

Who is it for?

Anyone who works with people will benefit from undertaking an Infant Observation, especially analysts, therapists and counsellors but also health/social care and other interested professionals.

Formal qualifications are less important than motivation and commitment. An attitude of curiosity, openness to thinking about unconscious dynamics, and a capacity to contain feelings without acting on them are also paramount.

It is essential for applicants to be in their own psychotherapy from before starting the course and throughout the observation period in order to benefit fully from the experience.

I shall be presenting my paper, 'Birds, Beasts and Babies - Notes from an Infant Observation' at the C.G.Jung Club, together with some reflections on 'Infant Observation with Soul in Mind' on Thursday 20th January 2022. All are welcome. Information on Jung Club website.


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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