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Michigan - Birthplace of Parent-Infant Psychotherapy

You might wonder why I have chosen to start my USA travels in Michigan. Well... this is the birthplace of parent-infant psychotherapy (PIP). Actually, to be more precise... PIP was birthed out of a sharing of knowledge between the UK and the USA... a bit like what I'm seeking to do in this travelling fellowship.

Selma Fraiberg

Selma Fraiberg (1918-1981) was a social worker who was trained as a psychoanalyst by Anna Freud, in London. She then moved back to the USA and pioneered a model of parent-infant psychotherapy that she described in her famous paper 'Ghosts in the Nursery' (Fraiberg, et al., 1975). She was said to have been the first to use the term parent-infant psychotherapy. I think every parent-infant psychotherapist knows her paper inside out (perhaps). Selma's starts her paper; "In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents, the uninvited guests at the christening."

What is Parent-Infant Psychotherapy?

In simple language, parent-infant psychotherapy is about expelling the ghosts from the nursery. According to Selma Fraiberg (1975), parents bring to the task of parenting, their own experience of having been parented; their resolved and unresolved conflicts, which become activated when they parent their own children. Like 'Ghosts in the Nursery’ these conflicts invade the parent-infant relationship and negatively impact feeding, toilet training, discipline, etc., by influencing the way parents interpret their child’s behaviour.

For instance, they might have expectations of their child, which prevent them from seeing him as a unique individual. Or perhaps the child is seen as a replacement for someone who died. The parent might also use the child to fulfil their own failed ambitions, leaving no room for the child to develop in his own right.

More malicious 'ghosts' might present themselves in the nursery. For instance, a parent might have been severely abused in childhood and in their determination to protect their child could become merged with the child, leaving no room for the child to separate and grow in a healthy way, for fear that someone might hurt him. As the therapist works with the parents and child together, the parents gain insight into these unconscious patterns of relating to their child and are able to free the child from the unconscious baggage that they have dumped on him.

The Michigan conference celebrated the work of Selma Fraiberg (1918-1981), who devoted her career to helping troubled children. Selma argued that all subsequent development is based on the quality of the child's first attachments. She instilled these beliefs and values into her students and these values have been preserved by the Michigan Association of Infant Mental Health (Mi-AIMH).

Mi-AIMH was set up by the first and second group of community-based clinicians, who had completed their training at Selma Fraiberg’s Child Development Project at the University of Michigan, who wanted to share their excitement about their work. The graduates invited a respected paediatrician, T. Barry Brazelton as their speaker at their first conference and were amazed that 800 people attended from all over the country. It has been very enriching to share in the celebration of 40 years of the Association and to be reminded of the legacy of Selma Fraiberg, who described the essentials of infant-parent psychotherapy clearly and simply so we can understand it.

Making Links In Michigan and California

I am so grateful to Deborah Weatherston, Ph.D., IMH-E® for helping me to make the right links in order to fulfil my objectives. For over a year, she has patiently and sensitively guided me with kind and encouraging words and responded to my numerous emails in the midst of her very busy schedule.

Deborah was the Executive Director of Mi-AIMH from 2001-2016; and is described by her colleagues as a sensitive, insightful IMH clinician, competent and caring program administrator and author ... who never forgot she was there for the babies. Although she treated each parent with gentleness, respect and exquisite tact, she always seemed to be asking herself: “If the baby could talk, what would the baby say?” Because of these qualities, Deborah was recipient of the Selma Fraiberg Award in 1989 (taken from the manual, Celebration of 40 Years: Michigan Association For Infant Mental Health, 1977-2017).

Thanks Deborah for all your help and for welcoming me in person to the 40th anniversary conference of Mi-AIMH.

Apart from this personal welcome, Deborah also connected me with the three main universities that are key in the training of Infant Mental Health clinicians; Wayne State University, Detroit; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Michigan State University, E. Lansing, Michigan. She also introduced me to professionals at the University of San Francisco, California, who have prepared an excellent itinerary for me. I will tell you about my learning from these visits in future blogs. By the way, Selma Fraiberg was a professor of child psychoanalysis at the University of California in San Francisco later on in her career.

I will return to my learning from the conference in my next blog...


Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E. & Shapiro, V. (1975) ‘Ghosts in the nursery: a psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships’. In Fraiberg, S. (ed) Clinical Studies in Infant Mental Health. London: Tavistock 1980.

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