René Spitz and Anaclitic Depression

June 16, 2020
Anaclitic depression can affect babies during their first year of life if they're separated from their mothers and don't form emotional attachments. It's a serious condition that can be fatal.

The term “anaclitic depression” was coined by René Spitz in 1945. Spitz was an Austrian-American psychoanalyst who worked as a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was also a professor in several American universities. He emulated Sigmund Freud but primarily worked with children.

Spitz began researching child development in 1935, when he was still living in Europe. He used direct observation and the experimental method. All of Spitz’s conclusions have solid empirical foundations. In 1945, he conducted very thorough studies in an orphanage, and his concept of anaclitic depression stemmed from his observations.

“What’s done to children, they’ll do to society.”

-Karl A. Menninger-

Spitz’s work made a significant impact, not only on the scientific community but on society in general. A 1952 documentary called Psychogenic Disease in Infancy showed a lot of his studies. This film was the catalyst for changes in the way hospitals cared for children. Also, it introduced the concept of anaclitic depression to the world.

What’s anaclitic depression?

When René Spitz started his research in the 1930s, the academic circles at the time believed that children were incapable of suffering from depression. Some psychologists argued that the signs of depression were clinically irrelevant in children. In this regard, psychoanalysts believed that children didn’t have the necessary reflection abilities, which made it impossible for them to become depressed.

In spite of these popular views, two researchers questioned conventional wisdom and decided to test its validity for themselves. These two researchers were René Spitz, who coined the term anaclitic depression, and John Bowlby, who studied the early mother-child relationship in detail.

Spitz reached the conclusion that children can suffer from depression, even at a very early age. He discovered that the clinical profile included well-defined symptoms. In addition, he observed that children became depressed after sudden separations from their mothers or other attachment figures that lasted more than three months.

A baby crying.

Characteristics of anaclitic depression

Spitz pointed out that anaclitic depression affected children under a year old. It occurs when a baby who developed an attachment to their mother is suddenly separated from her for more than three months. If this occurs, the baby will manifest many depressive symptoms.

The most obvious symptoms are:

  • The baby loses the ability to express themselves through gestures. In other words, they stop smiling.
  • Anorexia or lack of appetite.
  • Trouble sleeping. The baby will sleep fewer hours or sleep at odd times.
  • Weight loss.
  • Psychomotor delays.

If the baby is deprived of an attachment figure for more than 18 weeks, all the symptoms worsen. The baby goes into what Spitz called “hospitalism”. In other words, the child becomes unable to form stable emotional attachments and their health becomes fragile. Hospitalism often leads to death.

The outcomes of the study

There are some historical references on an experiment conducted by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. People say that he built an orphanage and instructed employees to fully and completely meet the physical needs of the children living there. They were to clean, feed, and dress the children. However, he prohibited the staff from forming any emotional attachments with the babies. The result of this peculiar (and cruel) experiment was that most of the babies quickly died.

A sad little boy with anaclitic depression.

René Spitz’s studies on anaclitic depression prompted an important change in orphanages, at least in more developed countries. His research showed that, for babies, emotional attachments were as important, or more important, than food itself. Because of his work, orphanages and hospitals improved the conditions of young patients.

In conclusion, childhood depression exists. In fact, today, suicide is the sixth leading cause of death in children between the ages of five and 14. It’s also important to remember that children with attachment deprivation in their early stages of development often have behavioral issues and tend to live chaotic lives.

  • Schonhaut, L. (2014). Desarrollo neuropsíquico del lactante. Revista chilena de pediatría, 85(1), 106-111.