A Baby Adrift
When nine-month old Linda looked to her mother, she could not find her mother’s smile. Neither could she find her mother’s eyes, which were dull and cast downward, and thus she could not see her own emerging self in them. Linda was adrift.
The renowned British pediatrician and psychoanalyst’s Donald Winnicott’s adage, “There is no such thing as a baby” (1960) (read: there is no such thing as a baby without its mother or without the relationship with its mother) is never more poignant than when a mother’s depression is conveyed to and internalized by her baby.
How a circle of music-making mothers and infants broke into and transformed that cycle is as much about music as it is about the transmission of affect.
A Mother’s Depression
In the course of my work as a developmental music educator, I came in contact with Linda’s mother, a young military spouse who revealed to me that her husband’s deployment had especially contributed to her despondent state of mind.
Linda’s mother was in a small group of mothers who brought their typically developing 6-12 month old infants to a weekly music circle. Mother’s overt signs of depression were apparent; she sat in a slumped pose, her face was lifeless, her gaze averted, she was socially withdrawn, using a monotone whisper when she did speak.
Baby Linda sat a few feet apart from Mother, looking a bit like a doll who had been deposited on the carpet. This image contrasted strongly with the other babies, who were held in laps and moved rhythmically to singing.
Acknowledging babies’ affects of delight, surprise, or fussiness occurred with caregivers’ vocal color while validation of each partner in the mother-infant dyad was communicated with natural, rhythmic turn-taking of sounds and movements as well as face-to-face contact.
These are known to be hallmarks of important early “communicative musicality” which have bearing not only in outright musical settings, but within core regulation of infant behavior. (Malloch and Trevarthen 2009).
Music and A Transactional Turn
About three weeks into the program, a seasoned psychoanalyst came to observe. An interesting and important turn of events occurred during this session that the analyst characterized as a “clear example of mother-infant dyadic rupture through symptoms of maternal depression and uncharacteristic yet important repair by the baby, which initially took third party intervention.” (Denton and Weeks, 2014).
We witnessed Mother and Linda in their parallel but disconnected routine and, as before, Linda’s attempts to connect to her mother failed, her affect flattened and initiation ceased.
Robb (2000) has shown through voice analysis that reflections of maternal depression (stunted vocalizations, shorter phrases, lower pitch, longer silences) are matched by an infant in an attempt to attune to her mother.
This time, however, the other mothers, noticing Linda’s plight, began a wordless, natural intervention. They shifted their bodies toward the baby, opening direct face-to–face contact, smiled and sang her name with heightened affect and musicality.
The singing circles’ enthusiastically-supported breath carried wide open vowels of emotional hue, life-affirming effects of rhythmicity sounded and a basic pulse grounded all. Linda brightened, moved her upper body rhythmically to the music and then referenced her own mother. The smile on the child’s face pulled in her mother, who then began to sing her daughter’s name.
Their unique dyadic connection deepened before our eyes, evidenced by both musical expressiveness and rising positive affect.
These series of encounters beautifully highlight music as a powerful affect-carrying medium and its potentially helpful role in cycles of maternal depression and infant affect.
The constructive impact of third-party intervention (in this case, an attuned circle of singing mothers) that infused positive affect into the baby — who then wooed her mother back to reciprocity – is illustrated. In addition, important implications for parent-infant therapy may be drawn from the dynamic flow of music and of multiple channels for relational repair.
Denton, D. S. and Weeks, K. (2014). Parent Singing in Relational Treatment of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Imagine, 5(1), pp. 80-84.
Malloch, S., & Trevarthen, C. (2009). Communicative musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship. Oxford University Press, USA.
Robb, L. (2000). Emotional musicality in mother-infant vocal affect, and an acoustic
study of postnatal depression. Musicae Scientiae, 3 (1), 123-154. doi: 10.1177/10298649000030S108.
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The theory of the parent-infant relationship. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. New York: International Universities Press, 1965, pp. 37-55.
Mom and baby photo available from Shutterstock