Pioneer of Baby Psychology Dies at 76
Dr. Daniel Stern, the psychiatrist who coined the term “motherese” to describe the unique way mothers communicate with babies, has died. The New York Times has more on his life and work:
“Dr. Stern was noted for his often poetic language in describing how children respond to their world — how they feel, think and see. He wrote one of his half-dozen books in the form of a diary by a baby. In another book, he told how mothers differ psychologically from women who do not have children. He coined the term “motherese” to describe a form of communication in which mothers are able to read even the slightest of babies’ emotional signals.
Dr. Stern, who did much of his research at what is now Weill Cornell Medical College and at the University of Geneva, drew inspiration from Jay S. Rosenblatt’s work with kittens at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. Dr. Rosenblatt discovered that when he removed kittens from their cage, they made their way to a specific nipple of their mother’s even when they were as young as one day old. That finding demonstrated that learning occurs naturally at an exceptionally early age in a way staged experiments had not.
Dr. Stern videotaped babies from birth through their early years, and then studied the tapes second by second to analyze interactions between mother and child. He challenged the Freudian idea that babies go through defined critical phases, like oral and anal. Rather, he said, their development is continuous, with each phase layered on top of the previous one. The interactions are punctuated by intervals, sometimes only a few seconds long, of rest, solitude and reflection. As this process goes on, they develop a sense that other people can and will share in their feelings, and in that way develop a sense of self.
These interactions can underpin emotional episodes that occur years in the future. Citing one example in a 1990 interview with The Boston Globe, Dr. Stern told of a 13-month-old who grabbed for an electric plug. His alarmed mother, who moments before had been silent and loving, suddenly turned angry and sour. Two years later, the child heard a fairy tale about a wicked witch.
“He’s been prepared for that witch for years,” Dr. Stern said. “He’s already seen someone he loves turn into something evil. It’s perfectly believable for him. He maps right into it.”
Dr. Stern described such phenomena in 1985 in “The Interpersonal World of the Infant,” which the noted psychologist Stanley Spiegel, in an interview in The New York Times, called ‘the book of the decade in its influence on psychoanalytic theory.’”
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