Psychoanalytic Theory Translated into Practice with Parents  

A parent told me the other day about her wish to be a containing presence for her baby.  It’s such a beautiful concept and expression, and it seems that this psychoanalytic idea has found its way into everyday language.  Yet, what exactly does it mean, and where does the phrase originate?

Origins of the concept  

The psychoanalyst Bion first used the phrase containment in a series of papers between 1960 to 1970s.  It is a powerful and profound idea, which has great significance in relationships, and here I will discuss it in parent-infant relationships. Containment – or to be a ‘container’ –  can help us understand what happens in the mind of a parent whilst supporting a distressed baby or child.  

Supporting Distressed Infants

When an infant is distressed, their anxiety is experienced (by them) as terrible.  The baby projects their distress out into the world.  They seek to tell whoever is listening that this is “too much for me to cope with on my own!”  Ideally, the infant’s distress moves the caregiver so that they step in and attempt to soothe the baby, perhaps by holding them or speaking softly to them.  

Ideally, the caregiver can remain calm and connected to the baby.  In so doing, they also convey to the baby “I know this is hard for you, I can cope with your distress it does not overwhelm me, I am here for you”.  The infant’s distress/anxiety is ‘contained’ by the caregiver.  

In this exchange, the caregiver essentially takes in the infant’s expression of anxiety, and by their calm presence and soothing actions, supports the infant to calm themselves. Thus, the anxiety becomes tolerable for the infant, and it is transformed in the interaction with the caregiver.  In short, the infant has the experience of taking the feelings back into themselves, but in a manageable form.  For example, the parent says to the baby, “Oh no, you’re so upset, look at you all red and so sad.  It’s OK, I’m here, it will be better soon”.  

In this exchange the infant has the experience of being supported with their difficult feelings, but also that their difficult feelings did not threaten their relationship to their caregiver.  Over time the infant, child and adolescent learn that difficult feelings are finite and can be managed.

Caregivers – Additional Skills to Support Distressed Infants

The adult caregiver also uses their capacity for reason and language in this exchange.  They can help the infant to organise difficult and overwhelming feelings into words.  The infant’s experience can be symbolised in words and tone of voice, as well as reflected in bodily gestures, which can be understood and digested by them.  The caregiver may also alter aspects of the infant’s environment to support the baby to manage their distress.  

Containment has a central role in helping infants learn how to regulate difficult feeling states.  It is a powerful and important concept in relationships with infants and adults alike.  Learning to manage difficult feelings is a key aspect of emotion regulation.

If you would like to see one of our perinatal psychologists, call the Centre for Clinical Psychology in Carlton.  

Our team all have training in working with trauma and also supporting parent-infant relationships.  We support families with the adjustment as well as mental health challenges through the entire perinatal period.  We also have a strong interest in infant mental health. 

If you would like to see one of our perinatal psychologists call 03 9077 0122 or email ; or BOOK ONLINE

Medicare rebates are available.