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CADP Seminar with Campbell Paul, recipient of Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie Fellowship

“What Do You Think, My Baby?” – The emergence of emotional understanding shared between infant and parent; lessons from sick infants

Babies enter the world as supremely social beings with an amazing capacity for experiencing a range of complex emotions. They build with their parents enduring and sustainable relationships. Parents frequently attribute strong and powerful emotions to their very young babies, feelings such as happiness, surprise, anger, fear, rage, hunger and love. A father, talking of his newborn son said, “You’d think, to look into his eyes, he knew the game clean through, he seems that wise” (CJ Dennis 1916).

The precariousness of infant survival over eons may have seen many parents defensively distance themselves from forming a strong emotional attachment with their baby from conception. What happens when parents find it hard to see thoughtfulness and wisdom within their own infant?

Many studies have shown that babies themselves may have the capacity to see into the mind of the other, as if trying to understand their feelings and intentions. When a baby is very sick there can be significant disruptions to this playful and mutual mind-reading between baby and carer. An infant’s illness or a parent’s despair may disrupt “the infant’s intrinsic potentiality for ‘’intersubjectivity” (C Trevarthen).

Infant mental health is a discipline which has developed out of our understandings of the emerging infant-parent relationship and the emotional and social development of the infant. Infants can be sad and withdrawn but in seeking out and responding to the baby as a person in their own right, we can help parents overcome some of their own distress and defences and reconnect with their infant. Infant-parent psychotherapies endeavour to reach the baby directly through the therapist’s use of playful and enlivened gaze, facial expression, vocalisation and hand and body movements (DW Winnicott).

We can learn a lot about ourselves from sensitively listening to the seemingly subtle communications of babies, and perhaps especially from sad or troubled infants.


Associate Prof Campbell Paul Consultant Infant Psychiatrist,

The Royal Children’s Hospital, the Royal Women’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne


Professor Campbell Paul Biography

The right ones Assoc. Professor Campbell Paul is a Consultant Infant Psychiatrist at the Royal Children’s and Royal Women’s Hospitals Melbourne and Honorary Principal Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne. With colleagues at the University of Melbourne, he established and delivered postgraduate courses in Infant and Parent Mental Health since 1992.  These courses developed out of a longstanding experience in paediatric consultation-liaison psychiatry and infant-parent psychotherapy. He has a special interest in the understanding of the inner world of the baby, particularly as it informs therapeutic work with sick or hospitalised infants and their parents.

With colleagues, he has developed models of working in therapeutic groups with troubled parents and infants. He trained as an analytic group psychotherapist.

He is President-Elect of the World Association for Infant Mental Health and is Director of the Australian training centre for the Newborn Behavioural Observation at the Royal Women’s Hospital Melbourne. Through engaging the baby, the NBO provides a powerful intervention to support the developing infant-parent relationship. He was also involved in the establishment of a clinical service for transgender children and adolescents at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.


Related Links

Alexander McCall Smith

The Isabel Dalhousie Fellowship