Why Provide Empathic Care for Infants? Part 3 of 4

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What does empathy look like for babies? And its absence?

The What Happened To Mothering? Series

I see a lot of educated people not showing empathic care towards their infants, even when at the moment we are discussing the importance of responsiveness. Here is some needed education!

Infant deprivation was well studied in the early to mid-20th century, in experiments and observational studies, comparing impersonal care of institutionalized infants with other kinds of care or family life care. It was noted that deprivation occurred not only from the absence of the mother, as with orphans, but also from insensitive mothering. (See my prior discussions of “mother love” and “good enough mothering.”)

Robertson (1962) in studying a longitudinal sample of children and mothers, from birth to several years later, found that unemotionally responsive mothers had children who demonstrated psychological deterioration. The key is empathy and empathic care.

In his book, Early Deprivation of Empathic Care, Dr. John Leopold Weil (1992) defines empathic care as “motherliness,” which includes:

  1. Enduring, positive pleasurable contacts with the infant afford the infant calmness, comfort and protection. These motherly behaviors are deeply instinctual and spontaneous, regulated by processes in a healthy limbic brain system, where the mother feels rewarded by keeping her infant close and content.
  2. Watchful attention and awareness of conditions affecting the infant’s activities and emotions mean the mother is nearby, accessible physically and psychologically to the infant’s signals.
  3. Tenderness or gentleness prevents instigating overarousal in the infant. The mother attends to the delicate cues of the baby with a quiet, peaceful approach.

Weil (1992) defines empathic care as:

“the capacity of the caregiver to experience pleasure in response to the infant’s pleasure and to experience tender unpleasure (sadness, concern) in response to the infant’s unpleasure. Conversely, the central core of an infant’s emerging empathic reactivity will be defined as the capacity of the infant to experience pleasure in response to the caregiver’s pleasure and to experience unpleasure in response to the caregiver’s unpleasure” (pp. 19-20).

“Only those who know the child intimately from day-to-day contacts can appreciate his or her specific needs, capacities, interests, idiosyncrasies, and weak points” (Langmeier & Matejcek, p. 66).

Anna Freud (1953), a renowned scholar of neurosis, said:

“[The caregiver’s] task is] to remove tensions as fast as they occur, and to supply satisfactions before the need for them rises to a climax of despair. The well-cared-for baby therefore appears to the outside to ‘need little.'” (p. 16)

But if the mother of the well-cared-for child is absent, it is clear that she has been keeping the child in a steady state with all her little attentions.

“It is the responsiveness of an empathic person (mother or substitute caregiver) with an ability to tune in to the infant’s emotional communications which assures an infant the appropriate type of stimulation at the appropriate time.” (Weil, 1992, p. 14)

Weil points out two basic needs in an ever-changing infant: tranquilizing, comforting stimulation and arousal stimulation.

Tranquilizing, Comforting Stimulation

Babies are easily startled, especially a few weeks after birth, rapidly going into a fear state. They can even go into shock from powerful or unexpected stimuli, unable to control subcortical reactions with yet-to-be-developed cortical controls. Thus, any irritation or distress should be attended to with tranquilizing actions. The baby is signaling: “Please change what is happening” (Emde, Gaensbauer & Harmon, 1976, p. 87).

“In general, tranquilizing stimulation is gentle, soft, and tender and is characterized by: (1) diminishing intensity such as is afforded by a mother talking or singing more and more quietly to her infant until the infant drifts off to sleep; (2) diminishing rhythm rates; for example, patting, rocking, and talking to the infant at a rate initially matching the infant’s own movements and then becoming slower and slower as the infant’s excitement gradually subsides… (3) deep pressure, gently and diffusely applied; (4) gradualness of change temporally and or spatially” (Weil, p. 25).

The empathic caregiver acts as a tension reducer through stroking, cuddling, rocking, shifting positions, singing or speaking softly. The infant’s resulting pleasure is pleasurable to the caregiver.

Tranquilizing stimulation is especially important in the first months as the child adjusts to the environment outside the womb. With each month that goes by, the infant will be in need of arousal stimulation for sensorimotor, emotional and cognitive development.

Arousal Stimulation

Stimulation that arouses alertness and excitement is almost opposite of tranquilizing stimulation because it (1) increases in intensity in one or more senses (tactile, visual, auditory, sensorimotor); (2) uses sudden changes in temporal and/or spatial stimulation and (3) increases speed. Of course, if things get too intense for the infant, the child will need tranquilizing stimulation.article continues after advertisement

The goal is to maintain optimal arousal in the child for their age, time of day and even moment by moment, whether tranquilizing or arousing. Weil (1992) notes that

no simple fixed prescription can tell an adult how to fulfill an infant’s needs from moment to moment and how to relieve the infant’s ever-changing conditions of distress…throughout its waking hours, an infant requires the benefits of all aspects of empathic care (persisting, positive, tactile, visual, and auditory attachment’ attention’ tenderness’ and empathic, resonant, emotional awareness) if it is to be consistently protected from mounting distress and if its regarding states of pleasure are to be facilitated and maintained” (p. 27).

In other words, the caregiver has to ‘feel with’ the child. The goal of empathic care is to maintain the infant’s contentment or pleasure, which wires the brain for self-regulation and sociality.

Deficits in Empathic Care

Caregivers show deficits in empathic care when an infant’s distress fails to mobilized them to provide tender comforting protection. There are various nonverbal gestures or body postures that indicate a lack of empathic care, including keeping the body angled away from close contact, keeping shoulders back instead of curved toward holding the child, maintaining an uncomfortable posture when holding the infant, or grimacing when the child gets too close. These kinds of postures signal aloofness.

Signs of unempathic care include interrupting the child’s pleasurable experiences (e.g., feeding) and a tendency not to alleviate infant distress. Weil (1992) describes multiple case studies where adults are more concerned about following a script, schedule or a directive rather than the state of the baby. Other case studies show how the caregiver is overcontrolled, unable to express feeling or recognize it in others. As a result, infant displeasure is not mitigated and even increased by a caregiver who is unempathic.Infants who experience unempathic care, but not completely impersonal care as in the hygiene-focused institutions of the past, find other ways to inadequately self-comfort, as with finger sucking, clinging to cloth or stuffed animals, or humming. Children who are forced to find ways to comfort themselves may move into a precocious formation of the ego (in Freudian terms) or executive function (in cognitive science terms), which may be harmful if the child turns away from human contact, not growing the social orientation of a healthy child, and toward her “own motor-manipulation of the inanimate environment” (Weil, 1992, p. 86).

After examining case studies, Weil (1992) hypothesized disorders from early unempathic care that are elaborated during adolescence in multiple possible forms:

(1) Social hyperreactive states turning towards the caregiver with anxious, hostile or dependent actions;

(2) Non-social hyperreactive states (turning away from the caregiver/relationships) through manipulation (e.g., workaholism, hoarding, sadism, delinquency, fantasies of power and achievement);

(3) Non-social hyperreactive states (turning away from the caregiver/relationships) seeking self-stimulation (e.g., focus on gustatory pleasures, drugs, sensation seeking through the arts, hypochondria, promiscuity, autoeroticism);

(4) Non-social hyporeactive states seeking tranquility (e.g., introversion, anorexia, alcoholism, drug use, suicidality).


As long as a child feels wanted and loved in the early months and years, they can be quite resilient to sudden changes later on. Meanwhile, it is important to support parents’ empathic responses toward their infants and young children.

The What Happened To Mothering? Series


Emde, R., Gaensbauer, T., & Harmon, R. (1976). Emotional expression in infancy: A biobehavioral study. Psychological Issues, 10(1), Monograph 37. New York: International Universities Press.

Freud, A. (1953). Some remarks on infant observation. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 8, 9-19.

Langmeier, J., & Matejcek, Z. (1975). Psychological deprivation in childhood. Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press.

Robertson, J. 1962). Mothering as an influence on early development: A study of well-baby clinic records. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 17, 245-264.

Weil, J.L. (1992). Early deprivation of empathic care. Madison: International Universities Press.

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