Thoughts on The Mother-Infant Interaction Picture Book

Beatrice Beebe has been observing mothers and infants for many years. She reveals much of what she has learned in language appropriate for parents, teachers, and clinicians alike in her 2016 book, The Mother-Infant Interaction Picture Book. 

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Beebe has analyzed hours of split screen video in which mothers interact with their 4 month old infants. One of the most astonishing findings from the microanalysis of these videos is:

These parent-infant communication patterns predict infant attachment patterns at one year, a key milestone in the infant’s development…An infant’s attachment pattern at one year predicts many aspects of the child’s development, including school achievement, social engagement, and emotional well-being.

In the book, authors Beebe, Cohen, and Lachmann analyze a collection of images from the videos that have been digitally altered by illustrator Dillon Yothers to protect the privacy of the research subjects. The book also includes a short video, which, along with introductory text, teaches the reader how to view the pictures in order to discern aspects of the mother-infant interaction that Beebe and her colleagues have determined significant in the development of attachment styles.

Noting that much of what we communicate occurs out of our awareness, is, in other words, implicit or unconscious, Beebe aims to demonstrate what mothers and infants do to mutually regulate emotional states and to illustrate when and how that process goes well and also when and how it can be derailed.

The book begins with an introduction to the terms Beebe and her colleagues use to describe various non-verbal behaviors of  mothers and infants and a review of the research techniques used to analyze and code what they observe in the films. Specifically, they note attention by observing gaze; they note orientation by noting how the infant may arch away or how the mother may loom in; they note emotion by noting degrees of affect in facial and vocal expressions; they note touch.

I found her description of the importance of looking and looking away to be particularly interesting and relevant for parents and teachers.

Looking into the fact of a partner can be very stimulating; in fact most animals do not sustain long periods of such looking unless they are about to fight or make love…Infants as well as adults look away to reregulate their arousal.

I often hear teachers or parents who are trying to get a child’s attention say, “Look at me when I am talking to you!” Beebe’s research suggests that children who are gazing away may not be misbehaving but rather attempting to regulate their own arousal. Insisting that they “look” may stymie their attempt to calm down, keeping them in an untenable state of emotional dysregulation. Understanding that maintaining a gaze can be overstimulating may help teachers and parents do a better job of helping children calm down. In short, there are times when a child just needs to avert her gaze for a bit before re-engaging with an adult.

Beebe calls the dynamic when mothers are unable to let an infant avert her gaze the “chase and dodge” pattern of interaction, in which “…the mother increases her stimulation when the infant looks away, [and] it interferes with the infant’s ability to dampen his arousal.” Too much chase and dodge may lead to patterns of insecure infant attachment.

Beebe, Cohen, and Lachmann draw the reader’s attention to series of split screen pictures of mothers and infants and translate the non-verbal behaviors as they understand them. Slight movements, shifts in body position or gaze, and vocal rhythms that are difficult even to discern in a video become demonstrable in frame by frame drawings taken from thousands of hours of video. Years of observation of these micromovements have allowed Beebe and her colleagues to theorize about the meaning of communications between mothers and their infants and to begin to understand how certain communications result in healthy, secure attachments while others seem to lead to insecure attachment patterns. It seems that on the basis of repetitive patterns of interaction, infants develop expectations about interaction that are laid down in memory.

The particular patterns formed by the dyad guide the actions of each, are learned, and are remembered…These procedural memories become quasi-automatic with repetition…[and] influence future behavior…These expectencies form the basis for generalized expectencies, which are carried into other relationships.

This research offers a very detailed look at how basic personality is formed in the earliest relationships, in the non-verbal and mutually influencing interactions between parents and infants. Strikingly, because these patterns of communication become habitual and stable over time, it is possible to predict an infant’s attachment style at one year from the microanalysis of only a few minutes of video taken at four months.

The book is divided into two main sections. In the first, readers are introduced to the theory and research and taught how to observe the drawings. We learn about how patterns of communication between infants and mothers lead to the acquisition of procedural memories that form the basis for future interactions and therein influence the development of attachment styles and unique personalities.

In the second section of the book, Beebe, Cohen, and Lachmann show readers how certain interactions lead to secure attachments while others lead to insecure-resistant, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-disorganized attachment styles. They observe mother/infant dyads who are better at mutual regulation and at repairing moments of dysregulation or failed communication and others who struggle to meet each other.

This is a fascinating book that offers a close look at the way parents and infants communicate, mutually regulate their emotional states, and develop patterns of interaction that endure over a lifetime. While reading the book may not be able to change a parent’s attachment style or guarantee that she can provide experiences that will result in a secure attachment style for her infant, it can alert parents, teachers, and clinicians alike to some of the dynamics that are at play in the development of a child’s behaviors, capacities, and vulnerabilities. Perhaps some parents may become more aware of their own tendencies and may realize the need for psychotherapy to address their own attachment issues in order not to pass them on to their children.

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