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The Development of the Baby and Gestalt Therapy

publicado em 24.05.2021 por anapaula

The Development of the Baby and Gestalt Therapy


Myrian Bove Fernandes

Sandra Cardoso – Zinker

Claudia Ranaldi Nogueira

Eviene Abduch Lazarus

Teresa Cristina Ajzemberg






This article offers a Gestalt perspective if early childhood. Using the phenomenological-existential approach, the cycles of early child development are described. Basic principles of Gestalt Theory and the Awareness Cycle are used.

These ideas were developed in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Written originally in Portuguese in 1997.





When Gestalt Therapy training was initiated in our country in the early 80’s, it was oriented towards adult therapy. However, attracted by the theoretical proposals pertaining to this approach, by the dialogical and phenomenological methods, and by the possibilities that vivid and spontaneous contact with children offer for child therapy, several child therapists decided to enroll in the Gestalt Therapy course and adapt this knowledge to their practice.

This context provided the background in witch a study group was created. We came together to exchange experiences, doubts and ideas related to therapeutic work with children. Throughout these years it has become clear to us that despite having embraced the methodology and theoretical reference point of Gestalt Therapy, it has been impossible for us to overlook our backgrounds in child development, that provides an essential basis for the comprehensive diagnosis required for therapeutic interventions during the process of working with children. We believe that the study of development is fundamental for the work carried out by both child and adult therapists.

We have no pretension of formulating a theory of development nor do we intend to present any conclusive results of a scientific research; however, we would like to bring up the questioning and discussions that we covered in our attempt to understand development from our knowledge and the viewpoints that are based on Gestalt Therapy theory.



Basic Ideas


We conceive development as circular and successive processes of creative adjustments, that embody action and reaction, expansion and contraction, differentiation and abstraction, analysis and synthesis, destruction and integration, and disorganization and reorganization.

As experiences of contact are assimilated, they create the structure of the self – and at the same time, they are the support for news changes. We understand self as described by Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, (1951): “the complex system of contacts necessary for adjustment in the difficult field, we can call “self”. Self may be regarded as the boundary of the organism, but the boundary is not itself isolated from the environment; it belongs to both, environment and organism. Contact is to touch something. The self is not to be thought as a fixed institution, it exists wherever and whenever there is in fact a boundary interaction”. (p. 151).

For instance, these interactions, or contact episodes, between mother and baby are being developed by orderly processes that lead to the configuration of specific patterns. At any moment, however, a disturbance can take place bringing unforeseen, unexpected events and the existing patterns will change. Some patterns will cross over, others will become crystallized and still others will dissolve, allowing the configuration of new patterns. What is important to keep in mind is that within the “game of patterns”, one part will reflect on the subsequent one and thus successively.

If we think about development as a process of differentiated apposite aspects in the contact field and how they relate to each other (for instance: sensation of cold and hot, pain e pleasure, tension and relaxation, etc.), we can also understand why a person has such complex “facets”. It is as if life could be represented by a kaleidoscope, where simple but different forms create and re-create figures that don’t repeat themselves. This metaphor demonstrates how complex the process of human development is. And, due to this complexity, it is difficult to describe all the possibilities of contact experiences, once we assume that there are no limits to such possibilities in the experiential world.

We can say that differentiation and integration are processes present in the assimilation of experiences, and that this assimilation of experiences provides the support for new process of differentiation and integration. For example, the baby is sleeping in his crib, alone in his bedroom. He wakes up in a silent room. He moves his body and starts making some sounds with his voice. His mother comes into the room and talks to him. She takes him in her arms for some minutes, puts him back in the crib and leaves the room. The room is silent again. The baby is moving rapidly and starts crying. Mother comes again, takes him in her arms for another couple of minutes and puts him back in the crib. The baby stars crying the moment the mother lays him down again. She picks him up and leaves the room with the baby in her arms. We can say that the baby is experiencing crying as a possibility for attention and the mother is in the process of making a meaning of her baby’s discomfort.

The dynamic organization and reorganization of these patterns, coupled with ongoing expansion of awareness, will favor a new expansion of boundaries. Growth will take place in the process constriction of identity construction. Development occurs as a dance-like movement and as noted by Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, (1951): “the field as a whole tends to complete itself, to reach the simplest equilibrium possible for that level of field. But, since the conditions are always changing, the partial equilibrium achieved is always novel; it must be “grown to”. An organism is only by growing. Self-preserving and growing are polar, for it is only what continually assimilates novelty that can preserve itself and not degenerate. So the materials and energy of growth are: the conservative attempt of the organism to remain as it has been, the novel environment, the destruction of previous partial equilibrium, and assimilation of something new”. (p. 151). Again, they not that: “we can interpret this growth to responsibility, again, as organism-self-regulation in a changing field”. (p. 80).





The development of the baby


Even before conception, the child’s parents, during the course of their lives, have constructed beliefs, dreams, aspirations, fantasies and ideas as how to be a father or a mother. All the experiences, which refer back to their relationships with their own parents, will turn into a system of beliefs that will influence their choices and attitude in raising their children. We are emphasizing the personal mythology of each member of the couple, who brings with him/her the myth of his/her family of origin. When a couple meets, they develop specific dynamics in their relationship, that depend on the resources they have and on the creative adjustments they must make to start their new family. (See Ciornai, 1995 in reference to the work of Feinstein and Krippner).

Therefore, we may question:

  • What is the meaning of this child’s arrival to his/her mother and father?
  • At what moment in the personal history of each parent and of the family is this child conceived?
  • What does this child come to fulfill? Does she or he come to stabilize or destabilize a relationship? To fill in gaps or to hold a relationship together?
  • What are the parents desires and expectations regarding this child? Will he fulfill the dreams that the parents themselves didn’t fulfill?
  • What are the apprehensions they have regarding the arrival of this child? Will the baby give them a lot of work? Could this affect their projects as individuals and as a couple?

In short, there are many possibilities regarding the anticipation of the baby’s arrival.


Within this field, the parent/child interaction will develop during the period that stars with conception and continues throughout pregnancy.

It should be kept in mind that the process of hereditary transmission is highly casual, which means that except for identical twins (and clones!) each human being is genetically unique and biologically different from another being.

In the moment the egg is fixed in the uterus wall, the growth process of a new being stars and is supported through the interaction with the mother.

During this period circular changes occur. Changes in the fetus influence the way the mother feels and perceives her baby and reorganizes herself according to her new sensations. On the other hand, the fetus is accommodating himself inside the uterus and is influenced by the emotional and organic state that the mother is experiencing.

In conception, the embryo provokes hormonal and biochemical changes in the woman’s body that undergoes some difficult transformations such as breast rigidity, nausea, sleepiness, etc. There is emotional and organism reorganization in which fantasies and anxiety are often present. The woman’s body is constantly adjusting in order to welcome the new human being that is taking more space and becoming more and more present inside of her.



First Interactions


During the pregnancy it is the mother who mediates exchanges between the fetus and the outside world. These exchanges take place on both a physical (hormonal changes) and behavioral (talking with the baby) level.      The way the mother is experiencing the exchange with the environment will also influence the fetus.

As the fetus receives nutrition, his cells multiply, his organs continue the process of differentiation and functional organization. He forms and develops his sensory and motor apparatus. Research (Wilheim, J. 1992) demonstrates that the intra-uterine environment is not calm and quiet as we might have supposed. The combined internal noises of the mother’s body such as, cardiac beats, intestinal sounds and blood streaming, produce the equivalent sound of urban traffic. The fetus sense and reacts to the light and sound from the external environment.

We are assuming that the mother/father/baby contact boundary is narrowly linked to the quality of the contact established by the fetus with his environment, that is, his ability to receive stimuli. So, we believe that if the mother’s boundary is sufficiently strong to filter and select the stimuli that impresses on her, and at the same time is sufficiently permeable to permit new stimuli to impress on her, as consequence, the fetus will be receptive to new situations that will favor his growth; and will also be protect against invasions of stimuli which are potentially toxic.

In the mother’s boundary is of a weaker consistency, the fetus will be subject to additional invasions, and disagreeable sensations may occur and somehow registered. If contrary to this, the mother’s boundary is extremely rigid and impenetrable, we assume that the fetus will be protected by a barrier that may isolate him from the environment, thus suffocating or severely limiting his growth.

Recent studies by Whiliem, J. (1992) assert that the baby is not a passive receiver of external stimuli, but rather he is a being that construct himself with his own characteristics during the months of intra-uterine life, through interaction with his mother. Well before birth the fetus perceives sound and light; he is capable of swallowing, tasting, reacting to bitter substance, making faces, smiling, dreaming, choosing favorite positions, recognizing his mother’s voice, playing with the umbilical cord, reacting when stimulated and showing intelligent behavior. We believe that these behaviors are linked to the capability to adapt and to conform to new situations, and to select conditions and profit from experiences, all of which imply learning and memory. We can also say that the first creative adjustments already exist ins this phase. We illustrate this statement by referring to experiments reported by Willhiem (1992), in which his pregnant women read the same story aloud to their baby twice a day. Three days after birth, when reading the same story and another story aloud to their baby, they observed that the baby showed evident preference for the story that was already known by him by sucking more frequently when it was read. Similar experiments were made using music and maternal and paternal voices.

Since the sense organs and motor apparatus of the fetus have already been developed, he is ready to be in contact once receives stimuli. However, maturation of the central nervous systems at this point only permits the sub-cortical structures (reptilian and limbic brain) to perform their functions. The neocortex has not yet developed to the point of permitting the cognitive activity that is necessary for establishing relationships and accurately comprehending phenomena that occur at the boundary. Nevertheless, the fetus shows responses that are appropriate in view of its biological maturity.



Contact during Pregnancy


We believe contact is made via eminently energetic and sensory-motor support, although at a primitive level. A specific dynamic is thus characterized: interwoven admits periods of retraction, sensations emerge that are fully experienced and sensed by the organism. The fetus promptly mobilizes energy, emits a motor response and retract as a new born might. Let us imagine, for example, a mother changing the diapers of her two-moth-old daughter. She is holding her legs up and talking to the baby while she is cleaning her body. Mother puts baby’s legs down on the bed and fastens the diaper. The baby moves her arms and head following different stimuli in the room with her eyes. As the mother is dressing her, the baby starts making some sounds. The mother responds by talking to her, but the body’s sounds are getting louder. Mother continues talking and stars cleaning the body’s ears. The baby moves her head faster, from right to left, and also starts moving her upper body and legs. She is now crying.

The mother promptly stops the task and takes the baby girl in her arms saying: “Ok, it is time to eat now…”

We understand that this dynamic is a process of contact, where we can question whether, there is, any awareness on the part of the baby. Perhaps there may be “awareness”, although primitive at this point. Once the sensation is experienced, and in some way registered, this vivid experience is appropriated by both the baby and the mother. The mother interacts with the baby and helps to give meaning to the sensorial expression of her baby-daughter.

Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1994) assert: Presumably, there are no primitive organism in which awareness and motor response are the same act; and in organisms of higher grade, where there is good contact, one can always show the cooperation of sense and movement (and also feeling). (p.4)

We can assume that during human development in the womb, there is already differentiation, even if it is subtle, between sensation, perception and motor response. However, if we use the definition provided by Zinker, J. (1997) there is still no awareness in the fetus. According to Zinker, awareness refers to the ability for reflecting, before moving to action, and also mentally exhausting all the possibility for action. “Awareness, therefore, allows me to understand what my body needs at this point in time.” … “Awareness is a blessing because it enables me to understand what time.” … “Awareness is a blessing because it enables me to understand what is going on inside, and what I can do to make myself feel better.” (p.90).

Keeping in mind the description given by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (1951), we can infer that the fetus and the newborn baby display a primitive sensorial “awareness” (can we call it fetal “awareness”?). We could say that in the awareness – excitement-contact cycle, described by Zinker (1997), the baby may go from sensation directly to action, skipping over the perceptual naming phase of the experience. This action will result in contact and retraction.

It can therefore be theorized that before birth the baby is an “intelligent”, sensitive being that exhibits unique personality traits. He has an emotional life that is narrowly linked to the experienced interaction with his mother. The baby may very well be in empathic communication with her, sensing her emotional condition and her affective availability in relation to him.

We assume that throughout intra-uterine life this internal environment is consonant with the environment the baby will find after birth. There is a certain continuity between intra-uterine life and after birth, and this allows us to infer that the same apparatus that led the child to develop along the course of his life, are already present during intra-uterine life. In this period, the baby will register his experience and, after birth, will have assimilated this process as self-support for future interaction.


When the baby is born…


Immediately after birth, the baby is ready to interact.

Mother and child are active at the moment of birth. There is a sudden change in the filed and new behavior patterns are required from the mother, from the child and also from the family. While inside the womb, mother and baby experience the field in different ways. For example: the sounds the baby hears are different from the ones that the mother hears; the baby lives in a liquid environment while the mother uses the respiratory system to survive. At birth, the baby becomes part of the same environment and a process of contact boundary reorganization takes place.

Depending on how the arrival of this new being affects its parents field, they will feel different emotions. Many mothers and fathers enjoy and warmly embrace contact with their baby, while others may feel invaded and cannot reorganize themselves promptly in the new situation. Some mothers and fathers may go through postnatal depression, and will withdraw from the baby. Many conflicts may occur and be influenced by the economic and social conditions. Regardless of the mother’s reaction, however, it is expected that she will be the figure with whom the baby will be in contact more intensively. This child who still grasps the world in a very sensory manner, will assimilate and memorize his sensations primarily in the contact with his mother, father, the caretaker and the people around him.

The baby is extremely competent in attracting the parents, who are normally enchanted with him. An example: the father is sitting on a chair, his son is four months old and the father is feeding him. He is using his left arm to support the baby’s upper body, neck and head. His arm envelops the baby’s little body and his left hand touches the baby’s belly. The father is holding the bottle with his right hand. The baby’s body is still; his eyes are wide open looking to his father’s face. The baby’s left hand is touching one finger in the father’s hand. The father is looking at the son’s face, smiling and at the same time, moving his finger, gently caressing his son’s small hands. The baby blinks from time to time, staying still looking straight into his father’s eyes. The father has all his attention focus on the baby.

Marshall and Phyllis Klauss (1989) assert that newborn infants prefer high-pitched voices, especially the mother’s. They already move toward sounds since the nerves that link hearing and vision have already been developed. Therefore, they coordinate vision, sound and the memory of their mother’s voice from the first weeks of life. One can infer that this movement is an adaptive response, which insures the possibility of experiencing contact.

Babies perform contact functions. There is no specifically right way to interact with them. Their visual capabilities, and their parent’s desire to admire them, create infinite opportunities for them to experience, discover and interact with each other. Tuned into their babies, parents soon learn what interests and what annoys the child. Although many responses of the newborn infant are called “reflexes”, it can be seen that infants move to the rhythm of the mother’s voice, performing a kind of dance, while their mother is talking. The authors believe that in some way the babies’ bodies are prepared to respond to human language and to “talk”, much earlier than when they can actually formulate words. Daniel Stern asserts that the “choreography of maternal behavior is the raw material from the outside world with which the baby starts to construct his knowledge and his experience of everything that is human – the forms and modifications, the expressions, units and meanings of behavior, the relationship between the baby’s own behavior and that of another person.” (p.15). One could say that the mother/ baby field forms the matrix for social development.

During daily activities, mother and baby will weave a dialogue: baby talk. For instance, a cry or a smile from the baby, when taking a bath or when diapers are being changed, will result in a response from the mother, who will interact and organize her responses within a pattern (she will talk in a “regressive way”, in a falsetto voice, leaving spaces between phrases, pausing before continuing the “dialogue” – as if the baby were really answering – making faces, expressing feigned surprise; in short, using expressions that are exaggerated in time and space). The child imitates the mother’s gestures, grimaces and sounds, and enhances these responses by experimentation.

Choreography is thus formed, impregnated with emotion and affection. A meaning is gradually constructed for mother and child that is associated with each behavior. If initially, the baby’s behavior of looking, smiling and crying are endogenous, they will b e transformed by successive interactions with the mother. The child starts to establish his first significant relationship, displaying intention in is his responses (smiling to approach, turning his face away from the mother, probably when he wants to withdraw from contact…). He is learning the social communication code and, little by little, will form an individual interactive repertoire.


Interaction and Dialogue


The mother is present in this relationship not only with her contact channels attuned to perceiving the baby, but also with her cognitive skills, that allow her to decode her child’s needs and to respond to them adequately. We believe that in this relationship she is organizing the environmental stimuli for the baby. By selecting stimuli, and associating emotions with facial and body expressions, and by creating a daily routine in dealing with her baby, she helps the child to form clear perceptual figures, that tend to be completed, and that may subsequently fade into the background, thus aiding the child in developing self-support.

Within this child/environment intersection, the mother plays a double role: that of creating an environment in tune with the baby’s need, and creating an environment that is in sync with the socio-cultural field in which this child will be raised. Thus, the baby will be able to learn communication codes, and to deal with limits and frustrations, i.e., he will learn to live under the law and rules established by the family and the society, create defenses to deal with difficult situation, develop curiosity, invest knowledge, etc.

Experiencing “no” also allows a child to perceive the others. Children who are faced with a limit learn to establish boundaries between themselves and the other. The child thus starts forming a notion about him/herself as someone who feels, desires and behaves differently from the other.

Theoretically, one can state that when saying “no” to the child, the mother interrupts the cycle of contact performed by the child at the moment of transition between energy mobilization and action. When deprived of completing this cycle, the child can either reinvest this energy, subsequently applying it to the same figure, or he can back this energy, reinvesting it in himself – for example: the child bangs his head on the floor, pulling his own hair. Or he may block this energy, and hold it back, thus learning to temporarily delay satisfaction. Perhaps the child can reinvest this energy at a more favorable moment. Therefore, the child will be developing what is called “tolerance of frustration”. She/he will be dealing with disappointment. Whatever path is taken for such resolution, the child will be making creative adjustments and will construct a behavioral pattern. This pattern will become a personal style of his/her dealing with similar situation.



Becoming part of the World


The creative adjustment in this process is derived form both the inclination to tend to his/hers own needs, and from the emotional consequences brought about by his/hers perception of the affects of his/her action on others and the non-human environment.

For example, a mother is breast-feeding her six-month-old son. She is sitting on a comfortable chair and has a pillow over her lap where the baby is laying mostly with his upper body. The pillow supports his head and she has her left arm under the pillow. When he starts sucking her breast, the mother’s sister enters the room and they start talking to each other. The baby is looking to his mother’s face while she is talking to sister. The baby starts making sounds. The mother looks at him, touches his arms and legs while talking to her sister. The baby boy continues sucking her breasts, looking at her face and making more sounds. The mother looks at him for a second and turns to her sister again, in the next minute, the baby moves away from the breast and makes very loud sounds. Mother stops talking. The baby’s body and face are tense. Mother looks surprise. Her sister decides to leave the room. The mother agrees and is now silently looking at her son. He comes back to her breast and starts sucking again…

From the child’s numerous experiences of his relationship to his world (such as frustration, love, potential realization, and many others) that are recorded in his memory, he will begin to have a representation of himself in the world. This representation is charged with emotion. There is a tendency to assimilate and record it within previous existing “maps”. The child therefore plays an active role in constructing a representation of himself and of the world. When articulating these representations of himself, and associating them to his own sensations, he will form an awareness of himself. We must acknowledge that the confirmations or non-confirmations from the people who are significant for the child are important in forming theses representations.

As the child strengthens his relationship with people who are present, as caretakers, he becomes attached to them. The quality of this attachment will consolidate his representation of the self, and will interrupt the development and articulation of his patterns with the world. An example of attachment behavior: a girl is eight months old and spends most her time at home with her parents. She has infrequent contact with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The father’s parents are reuniting the siblings for lunch before going away for vacation. When the baby arrives in the house, the other guests are already there. She is in her mother’s arms. Suddenly an aunt gets closer to them and takes the baby girl away her mother. The baby does not protest and is looking at this woman’s face. Then, the girl looks around and looks at the aunt. Suddenly her face changes, she looks scared and starts crying and looking around the room. The aunt notices that her niece is getting more anxious and starts walking in the direction of the mother. The baby sees her mom, stops crying and jumps into her arms. Then she turns her face to her aunt and smiles at her…

Building an identity is a process of integration and organization that the child subsequently applies in the continual process of creative adjustments. This construction is a relational process that forms a personal style and is impregnated with the representation that the child has formed of himself/herself in the world.

It should be recalled that from very early in the child’s life people other than the mother can assume the function of caretaker: fathers, grandparents, nurses, nursing room attendants, nannies. There have been cultural changes in the roles of both fatherhood and motherhood. Fathers today play a more active part in the baby care which widens the baby’s field even more. The father’s presence stimulates new organizations: it can bring new and vibrant emotions that can help the child to enrich the perspective he has of the world. It can also widen the child’s personal response and resource repertoire when dealing with different situations. Gottman and De Claire (1997) state that “fathers can influence their children in some ways that mothers cannot, especially concerning the relationship of the children with schoolmates and their school performance.”

(p. 170).

For these authors, father’s games are more turbulent and full of surprises: they are an emotional roller coaster metaphorically speaking, while mother’s games are more classical, calm and foreseeable, thus making children more relaxed. They report that “the father’s noisy rough style helps children to learn about emotions” (p.174) (such as monster or airplane fun, which lead children to “experience the emotion of feeling just a tinge fear, when they are excited and having fun” (p. 175). Let us remember that although there have been cultural changes in the last 30 years in the roles of fathers and mothers, it is still traditionally a fatherly attribute to establish a direct relationship with children, setting limits, strengthening theses limits and cooperating with children as they begin to develop self confidence. Also, given that many children live part of their lives in day care centers now, this reality brings other implications for their development.

A child lives within an expanded field where dynamic processes take place. They are in contact! Thus, when facing new situations they become disorganized, they go through the experience, they organize themselves and creatively adjust. The recording of these experiences will be assimilated and will form children’s  knowledge about themselves, about others and about the world, in short, about their relational existence.

They thus evolve and they construct themselves through many-sided interactions in a world that encompasses thousand of possibilities.




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