Clinical Implications

Communication Sciences Lab

The value of microanalysis research for parent-infant early intervention

by Beatrice Beebe, PhD

Infants form powerful relationships even in the early months of life, and they suffer when relationships are difficult. The last decade has shown progress in conceptualizing methods of intervention with mothers and infants. Both traditional talk therapy approaches, and interactional approaches aimed at helping parents become aware of interactions, are effective.

However, over 4 decades of research on mother-infant interaction, using second-by-second video microanalysis, is a rich resource for mother-infant therapists that is currently underutilized. Nonverbal behavior is so fast that much of the detail is lost to the naked eye in real time. The central advantage of this research for early intervention is the detail with which interactions are described, and the specificity of the links between patterns of interaction and different kinds of disturbances, such as maternal depression and anxiety, and infant insecure attachment outcomes. We now know that different kinds of interaction disturbances are associated with maternal anxiety, for example, as compared to maternal depression. We can identify the interaction patterns at 4 months that will predict different kinds of insecure attachment patterns at one year. Armed with this microanalysis research, the therapist has new eyes with which to evaluate the interaction.

For the past two decades we have been using the fruits of microanalysis research in early parent-infant intervention. The therapist and parent observe the videotape together. All people have varying difficulties in becoming aware of their own nonverbal behavior. But nonverbal behavior is the baby’s only language. By watching the videotape, in real time or in slow-motion, more of the details of the interaction become visible. With the therapist’s knowledge of microanalysis research, specific interactions in the areas of attention, emotion, orientation and touch, as well as patterns of timing and arousal, are evaluated. It is a powerful way of teaching the parent to observe both the effects of parent’s behaviors on the infant, and the effects of the infant’s behaviors on the parent. The parent learns the subtleties of the baby’s nonverbal language, as well as that of his or her own.  One mother exclaimed, upon viewing the videotape with her therapist, “I’m setting the pace, and setting it too fast!  My mother always did that with me. I can’t believe I’m doing the same thing with my own baby.” The parent’s powerful experience of watching herself and her baby interact, and our joint attempts to translate the action-sequences into words, facilitates the mother’s ability to see herself and her child.  Parents can discuss aspects of their own history that may interfere with their ability to see and read the baby’s nonverbal behavior. As a result, the parent gains an improved ability to engage the infant. This work can usually be done with only a few sessions. We used this approach to intervene with mothers who were pregnant and widowed on 9/11 (Beebe et al., 2012)


  • Cohen, P. M., & Beebe, B. (2002). Video feedback with a depressed mother and her infant: A collaborative individual psychoanalytic and mother-infant treatment. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 2 (3), 1-55.
  • Beebe, B. (2003). Brief mother-infant treatment: Psychoanalytically informed video feedback. Infant Mental Health Journal, 24 (1), 24-52.
  • Beebe, B. (2005). Mother-infant research informs mother-infant treatment. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 60, 7-46
  • Beebe, B., Cohen, P., Sossin, K. M., & Markese, S. (Eds.). (2012). Mothers, infants and young children of September 11, 2001: A primary prevention project. London: Routledge.