©Rainer Mahr

The „competent infant“  -  some conclusions from nowadays infant research for theory and praxis of Bioenergetic Analysis.

( Translated from German into English by Stefan Grenz )

Since some years much is written on “new infant research” in psychotherapeutic literature. Accordingly, many hypothesis and concepts of development psychology need to be altered – they are not longer consistent  with the new research data.

Of special interest seems to be a shift of focus from “the reconstructed child” towards “the real child” and the introduction of video observation with its microanalysis.

The “reconstructed child” comes into focus when in psychoanalytical research information of the infant’s development processes are gathered from the memories of patients. As these are very subjectively and due to influence from other experiences, the direct observation of the infant, of “the real child”, is now preferred.

Both developments are not that new. Since many decades researchers gather their information on the development of infants from field observation and laboratory experiments ( cf. René Spitz and Jean Piaget ).  Even Wilhelm Reich has done such studies by direct observation. He also came up with related research projects but these made only little progress. ( Boadella, 1981)

Also the early child development is documented on film since this medium is available in sufficient quality. But the new infant research with his modern video equipment can document and analyze behavior and interaction between child and reference person much more precise than in earlier times.

Especially new is that many a psychoanalytical researchers as  Daniel N. Stern, Martin Dornes, Alan Shore, did gather their developmental psychology convictions not only from a “reconstructed child”.  Much more they considered the discoveries of different research basis such as behavior psychology, psychology of perception, biological and neurobiological research. Through that the contradiction of the “reconstructed” and the “real” child seems to be losing its importance. Because by real observation of an infant I will learn something about its behavior and skills. About its subjective sensations during a certain developmental phase I will only learn by their emotional revival in the therapeutic process or in the dream.

Now I will not present a lot of these new data but tell you about some conclusions which got interesting and important to myself.

It will be those conclusions and principles that seem to determine the development of an infant.

It will be those conclusions and principles that can help us to think about our understanding of the psychotherapeutic process.

It will be those conclusions and principles that can widen the conception of some terms.


1. The bodily, mental, spiritual and social development does happen within a process of self-regulation.

Some observations of the infant research show that the development of a person can be described as a self regulating process.

The slogan of the “competent infant” characterizes one of the most spectacular discoveries of modern infant research. It describes those various observations that each infant is involved actively with the organization of its development from the very start of his life and that the infant is quite competent: a newborn baby is able to differentiate between the milk of his own mother and another mother; a newborn baby can differentiate between a synchronized movie and a not synchronized movie.  That means the infant notices if its hearing and perceiving fits together. It is the ability for amodal perception.

Rather quickly after its procreation an infant knows how it will look, it knows that it needs to develop and grow. The infant knows what is needed for that, it knows how this can happen and the infant knows when its time has come to leave the mother's womb. Of course the infant does need the nurturing and protecting body of the mother to reach his goals. But everything is centered around its will for being alive. The infant is the real actor, mother helps it to get what it wants. ( Here the term “will” does not mean a rational and intellectual decision. It is the irrepressible power for life. The term “instinct” would be too capriciously.)

After its birth this is not at all to be changed: I once was very surprised about a video that showed how an infant after its birth, still being connected to its  mother by the umbilical cord, searched for and found the way to its mother’s breast – without any help. Of course, it is hungry, it needs food for survival.  So it takes care for it – as natural as each mammal – as long it is not hindered to satisfy its elementary need. If it is hindered, it screams. If the mother can’t or won’t give him support, the infant will try to manipulate her towards this direction, to establish a relationship that never can be solved and that guarantees him a lasting, appropriate support. Many are the observations that prove how active and consequent infants are in trying to get their will to live.

Of course - the infant does not know yet how life functions, how it can be protected from cold and dangers, how important social life is for him, what it all needs to know in order to survive in this modern world. So normally a partnership is developed between child and adults. The parent-like figures help the child to bring its will for life into operation.

If an infant does not or only insufficiently succeed in establishing this partnership, it will die or it looks for alternatives. It develops options how to live without this support, it tries to grow up quickly and become autarkic or does withdraw into self to protect itself against threats from the biological and social environment.  Of course it can only become less well adapted to its environment than with the nurturing orientation by adults. It will play the social rules less well or it will not accept them.

If we try to see all these behaviors of a child as an unit - with its abilities, strategies and its ambition to survive and to live better - then it becomes clear: human life develops during an self regulating process, after which all living creatures are organized and function. A self regulating process is to a highly degree automated. Each change - in energy balance, metabolism, each change in the biological or social environment is answered with an innate, tried out and proven pattern. Such patterns work fast, precisely and effectively. Usually they are unconscious for us.

E.G.: Perhaps a person’s experiences with its environment have led to a pattern to never give itself to close relations in order to never again be rejected. This pattern then works so effectively that a need for closeness, love or sexuality does not come up. Then this person in his life gets an offer for a relationship that occurs not to be threatening him no more. Or his life conditions change in a way that he had to accept support and closeness. So all his efforts to devote himself to a relationship are hindered or doomed to fail by a pattern that once was designed to protect himself from a closeness that was threatening. People in such situations come to us and look for psychotherapeutic help. The self regulating patterns are to be eliminated or changed. But how is that possible, if they are automated and unconscious?

Alive systems and to a special degree humans with their consciousness and mind have developed a possibility to change these patterns of self regulation themselves: they are able to visualize their patterns, they can recall their history and purpose and they can confront their patterns with the new actual needs, threats and their meanwhile further developed abilities and strengths.

That can lead to new decisions, new patterns which they can integrate into their self regulating systems. For this process they can get support in psychotherapy, especially when their patterns are too deeply rooted in their personalities. When social norms and taboos forbid to question certain patterns or if the identity or power of a person is weakened, so he or she cannot stand up against hindering patterns.

The concept of the “competent infant” shows it in its autonomous and active role in its development – its reference persons are shown in an important but only supportive and promoting function. Inappropriate interventions that do not correspond with the living will of a child do irritate, disturb and hinder this self regulation.

From this background psychotherapy can be understood as support to trust again own possibilities of self regulation and to adjust patterns to new needs and life circumstances. Less interventions, give time, let grow and let happen can provide more space for new orientation and self regulation than the display of so called better life concepts.


  • 2. Interaction is an essential criteria for secure attachment and relationship.
  • Good, secure attachment and relationship nowadays stand for optimal bodily, spiritual and mental development of a person and for an effective psychotherapeutic process.  It has to be a good, loving relationship that provides stability and raises trust. This attachment and relationship concept is shaped by the idea that the adult has full responsibility for the relationship’s  quality. The adult must be able to give and to demand stability, trust and love.

However, results of research show that the infant itself is much more actively engaged in its own development process as this was assumed until now. It screams or smiles and the mother (or the reference persons ) responds. There is an input by mother (or the reference persons ) and a reaction from the child. That means an interaction determines the event between both. Good attachment and relationship are important for development processes because they allow interactions – on the motile, sensorial, nonverbal and verbal level. Psychoanalytical theory describes such interaction processes with its concept of mirroring for example. But it is the adult that motivates, confirms, mirrors the many efforts of the child to move or to express itself. To a growing degree, however, it becomes evident that also the child motivates, manipulates, challenges the adult and that it does need an appropriate reaction. If such reactions are missing or do not refer to the input they are not understandable for the child and it becomes irritated, frustrated. In search for his own inner answer it does develop dysfunctional behavior.

It is well known that learning of all kind is an interactive process that is not possible without this relating to each other. In the same way this is true for the psychotherapeutic process. In whatever setting psychotherapy is done, it always does need the therapist as partner of interaction.

Daniel Stern describes how self-consciousness of a human being is completed in several periods. The first period, the “the ascending core-self” awakes my special interest as it seems to manage without a relation to another person, without a partner of interaction. For example: an infant pedals with its legs and pushes against a wall. With this pressure he feels how its body moves. He feels this movement at the parts of the body with that he lies on the mattress or that things depart from his field of view. If this movement repeats itself, the child experiences it is itself which causes it with its leg movements.

It can also be that it hears different tones. But there are tones which he feels at the same time. It hums in its body. Other tones do not cause physical sensations. Out of this follows the experience that there are tones, which are from me, which belong to me. Other tones do not seem to have anything to do with me.

Or in the stomach the baby feels emptiness. It is unpleasant and so the baby screams. Soon thereafter a breast appears, at which it can suck and which fills this emptiness. Its screaming has this effect - it itself is it, which can cause it.

With all these experiences in the infant a notion forms itself - of what belongs to him, what he is, what he can manage. It is a first emerging of a possible self-confidence. Stern calls it “the ascending core-self”. 

For these experiences the baby does not need a contact to his reference persons. It is busy only with its body, his feelings and the attainable articles around itself. Nevertheless it does not learn without relationship. It links the movement of its legs with the feelings that it moves itself. It sets the tones, which he hears, in relationship with humming, which it notices in its chest. The breast, which satisfies its hunger, emerges, if it screams. There is always an interaction between the world outside and its own motile and sensory feelings. From this interaction the baby begins the development of its self and learns to cause important effects for himself. Naturally it needs the interaction for its further development also to humans. But it is not the only relationship, which holds, feeds and promotes it.

This infant’s way to learn about interaction between his feelings and the environment it will never loose. Other possibilities are developed additionally as those between himself, his self-knowledge and between the reactions of other humans.

These observations can enhance our ideas of the essence and meaning of relating in the process of human development considerably. Relationship does not only describe the interactions between humans but also the way humans relate to surrounding things.  Always we relate to humans, animals, things, nature, ideas and social circumstances. In this interactive processes there is a confirmation, reflection, new evaluation of the relation with the possibility to change it and to enhance it.

We can observe and use this extended understanding of relating particularly well in the body psychotherapeutic process. Because beside the relationship work between client and therapist we try to bring the client into a relationship with his body and its various feelings. If this succeeds, the client himself brings these feelings in relationship with his history, with the ascending images and feelings. An interaction between these different levels of a person develops. They learn, to merge into an understanding, clarifying and healing dialogue with one another. If this dialogue is progressed sufficiently, it leads to more self-confidence and autonomy. In this process the therapist is present, but not engaged in the inner relating process that is going on in the client.

This aspect on attachment and relationship arouses the impression that the baby first creates an attachment and a relationship with his body and his environment. Only after than and due to many successful interaction process it develops attachment and relationship to mother, father and the other close care persons. This contradicts naturally many experiences on close connections and feelings, which determine the life between mother and child from the day of birth. There must be still another form of connection and relationship, that  already works before the described interaction processes become possible. It only should be shown one specific aspect of the meaning of relation which is of special interest for the Bioenergetic Analysis.


3. A secure attachment and relationship is the switch between stability and instability. Crisis is normality.

  • To guarantee and support the optimal development of a child, attachment and relationship to the caring adult have to be stable and safe.

But this suggests the conception that parents must always be affectionate, have  understanding, give orientation and always have the necessary time and space to do so. However such an attitude is hardly to be persevered. If then in the family heavy crises and separations occur, a traumatic development appears inevitable for the child. Some development-psychological observations seem to permit however a more differentiated evaluation of crisis situations in the life of an infant:

There is naturally this harmony between mother and child, if the child lies satisfied and content in her arm and the mother enjoys this company and her luck having a healthy child. But some day mother won’t have any longer so much milk that the child will be full and content. The security of the child to  find sufficiently food at the mother’s breast is shaken, it will be feeling vitally threatened and starts screaming. The mother begins to feed with „spare food“ and after some time the child will first only arrange itself with the new situation then will accept it. The crisis is settled by the mother and the threatened security is regained.

Or one day the child discovers the attraction to play with other small children. Those like the same games, are more similar to him, the communication is simpler. It prefers the contact with them to the mother. Now the mother comes into a crisis, feels rejected, misses the tender closeness and harmony. It will need some time, until she can accept that, even be pleased about this development. The relationship comes into a crisis, the connection becomes more lose and needs to be established on a new level. This switch of crisis to its overcoming, shapes the entire development of a child. The necessary “secure attachment” does not consist of the absence of crises and breaks, but of the ability of all involved persons to overcome them. Crisis is not the exception, but normality. Human development happens in the same structures in which in our world something new is created: change occurs only by a condition of imbalance or, chaos is their necessary condition.

Humans, independent of age and level of development do not come into emergency and difficulties, because they are confronted with crises and breaks, but because they have learned to understand them as catastrophe. They were not encouraged to develop solutions and to put them into operation.


In addition research of the development of human beings - and animals too – show that the relationship of the reference persons is not needed on the same high quality all the time. But special behavior and support is needed on top quality on special events of development.

That means that development happens in sensible phases, is possible only at a special window of time, not earlier not later.

EG. If you cover the eyes of young birds for some time, after that this bird will never learn to see. It must be able to use its eyes at a very specific time.

When it would be possible at all it will need a very long time of investigation to discover all the specific windows in which specific attitudes, behavior and perception will develop. And it really seems impossible that parents are always aware of these windows. But it shows that responsible and loving parents will cause too problems and traumas of their children. And nobody gets aware of this neglected windows.

The most important task is not to create no problems and traumas but to help the children to overcome them.


4. About the flexibility of patterns of behavior.

The whole development of a human being is minted to create patterns of behavior for the very different situations. They enable the regulation of bodily functions, emotional states and social relations. These patterns are trained by the contact to the environment and above all in relation to the reference persons. And difficult and traumatic experiences will favor dysfunctional patterns. The quality of these patterns are of great importance for the therapeutic process for during the early years of life a lot of very important patters are established. Problems emerging in later phases of life in taking responsibility for the own life and the building of new contacts are related to unfavorable development experiences in these early years. In many cases that is probably a suitable link, because these early experiences create behavior patterns, which are activated again and again if necessary, in order to be able to master a situation fast and effectively. If these patterns do not fit the new task or they cannot and are not allowed to be changed due to the earlier experiences, then the new life situation cannot be mastered well – relationships fail, autonomous life cannot develop.

Development-psychological concepts of Oerter – Montada and others (Oerter - Montada) however make very clear that the later life phases of humans represent completely own development and learning processes, which can train new and alternative behavior-,  thinking- and feeling patterns independently of the earlier experiences.

E.G.: A boy from a family, in which eroticism and sexuality are tabooed, by accident in puberty meets a young woman with a free and lustful attitude to sexuality. The woman likes this boy and deals with him respectfully and empathetic. With her and through her he experiences for the first time the pleasures of sexual contact. He will easily and gladly take over her attitude towards sexuality, old norms and fears reside into the background. He experiences a new socialization within this area.

There are similar observations with young people, who experience their whole school career as failure, show no more interest in achievements at school. If they are challenged in any working process, they can develop suddenly unbelievable abilities for performance, punctuality and responsibility. How many young people get children and become very nurturing mothers and fathers over night - usually without therapeutic support.

Each life phase, attendance of the kindergarten, beginning  of school, school change, start in working life, establishment of partnership and family, local change, retirement, death, brings the concerned individual into a crisis with many possibilities for personal development. Only, if these crises cannot be mastered by own power, psychotherapeutic support can become necessary.  

The reasons for emerging difficulties are often more differentiated than unsatisfactory relations in the early childhood: If a child goes to kindergarten at a time at which it feels no need jet to discover the world outside of the mother, this can become a traumatic event. The child feels left and its safe world breaks down. If this concerns a quiet and sensitive child, who originates from a small family, then it possibly can’t stand the noise and the fight in the group of children for best toys. Some weeks too early can have a shaping effect on the child.

If a child gets traumatized by this event it does not happen by insufficient holding und support of the parents but of the difficult and unbearable new situation.

Being aware of that will be very helpful when you are working with teenager. You know it is very difficult to work on their early experiences. For many of them it is of no interest looking into the past. But it is of big importance to learn how the life of the grown up world is functioning. A partner giving ideas, understanding and orientation is asked very much. And this is a very good occasion to prove old patterns and to create new ones.

Real life is more than the repetition of early childhood experiences and patterns. It brings always new possibilities and difficulties – until our very last breath.


5. How Assertiveness turns into Aggression

Biological concepts on behavior of animals and humans describe aggressive impulses as innate and necessary actions, in order to protect, sustain and form the own life. In Bioenergetic Analysis ( Lowen 1979) and other psychotherapeutic concepts there are similar ideas. However they have to distinguish between good and bad aggressions ( or aggression and destruction ). This moral category in defining terms is in principle problematic and prevents its clarity.

Martin Dornes, however, makes in his development psychology the helpful distinction between self-assertion and aggression (Dornes 250 ff.): the aggressive impulses, that can be observed already with babies, serve exclusively their interest to explore the world and not let themselves be detracted from this purpose. Those are impulses of self-assertion. A baby, who scratches the new couch table, likes perhaps the noises or the movements which develop thereby. If one prevents it from this activity, it screams and tries to continue scratching. If one puts a pasteboard on the table, it will continue to scratch contently.

There are reports on infants who strike their mothers face incessantly and pull on their hairs, which sometimes insults them very. „You are such a bad child, strikes the dear mummy, so she does not love you any longer, etc.“ The child perhaps discovers that it can move mother’s head, if it pulls on her hairs. The head moves backwards and the child again tries to pull it into his direction. That is an exciting and funny game, which provides also the experience how strong the child is already, if it can move this huge head. The mother, however, interprets this action due to her own personality as attack and refusal. The child is punished and rejected for its experiments.

The child reacts with more and more violent actions to succeed in asserting its will. Finally it comes to a behavior pattern, that is activated by the child with each expression of the mother. Even because of an emerging adult the impulse for defense and self-assertion is already activated. The adult is perceived and treated as an enemy. At this point self-assertion becomes aggression. Aggression is only an expression of defense and hostility – independently of a goal or a value that is worth fighting for.

Studies showed that this change from self-assertion to aggression can be completed during the 5th – 6th year of life and remains stable till adult age (Dornes 268 ff.). Therapeutic measures can succeed then only by a training for aggression control or by social standards and sanctions, which are an outer help to restrain rage, aggression and the desire to let others suffer (Dornes 281 ff.). 


Jose Luis Gomes of Amnesty International represented on the IIBA conference in Seville 2007 an depressing lecture on increasing violence, wars and torture everywhere in the world. By analyzing the causes and questions for possibilities of eliminating these horrors and sufferings, a large embarrassment showed up in the entire meeting.

Now I am busy with the question whether the represented model of  aggression development and the way how in many cultures the impulses and needs of children are dealt with, show a substantial source for the emergence of this violence.

It became evident that parents can misunderstand their children’s joy of experiment and drive for self-assertion, therefore devaluate it and stop it.  Out of this can grow a child’s pattern to experience and see every appearance of an adult as an hostile act. Each contact, each offer for relating is fought. Of course, these aggressive feelings, whishes and fantasies are suppressed - by force, withdrawal of love, religious, moral and social standards. These human beings, that grow up in an emotionally  repressive environment, are not aware of their aggressive potential at all. Additionally, they never learned the responsibility of regulating their feelings to a sufficient degree. They as well were never supported in resisting demands that were contradictory towards their own lives and values. For them, what was right, was always that what the other one, more powerful person said and wanted.

If those human beings are confronted with demands to kill others, to torture them - where should they get the power for resistance from? If these humans live in situations, in which norms and rules fall away with the social control – what should prevent them from killing and torturing?

Such conditions seem to have developed in the prisons in Iraq. The soldiers were alone in their own subculture, without outer control and with very much fear.

After the 2nd World War the question was raised, why that many well educated, Christian educated people could become helpers and murders in the German fascism. Many became so without the threat of outer suppression. There are studies that show clearly that actors had usually gone through an emotional repressive education (Adorno 1971, Adorno 1950). They had no knowledge and no power for internal and outside resistance.

If that killing and torturing in this world is to come to an end, then we should have a sharp look how children in different cultures are educated.  How is the relation between respect for the child with his own impulses and values and the socially needed limits?

If the Bioenergetic Community feels obliged to stand up for a more justly  and healthier world, then it could care to clarify these circumstances with its specific knowledge and bring them into social awareness and discussion. The way in which children are educated cannot be a private issue only and cannot – to an increasing degree – be left for the liking of a certain culture, if this world is to become more peacefully.



Adorno, Theodor W.(1971): Erziehung nach Auschwitz. In: Ders.(1971): Erziehung zur Mündigkeit. Vorträge und Gespräche mit Hellmut Becker 1959-1969. Frankfurt(M), S.88-104

Adorno, Theodor W. (1973). Studien zum autoritären Charakter

Adorno, Theodor W., E. Frenkel, Levinson D.J.. Stanford, R.N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality.

Boadella, David (1981) Wilhelm Reich, Leben und Werk, Scherz

Dornes, Martin (1997)  Die frühe Kindheit. Frankfurt, Fischer

Lowen A (1979): Bioenergetik. Rororo, Reinbeck b. Hamburg.

Oerter, Rolf; Montada Leo(2002). Entwicklungspsychologie. Ein Lehrbuch. Beltz, Weinheim

Salber, Linde (1977) Piagets Psychologie der Intelligenz. Schwann, Düsseldorf

Spitz, René A. (1969) Vom Säugling zum Kleinkind. Klett, Stuttgart

Stern, Daniel N. (1992) Die Lebenserfahrung des Säuglings, Stuttgart


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