May 04, 1981 12:00 PM

Now there are shrinks for infants, but don’t scoff. Psychologist Serena Wieder had a 4-month-old tot in treatment who refused to look at his teenage mother, arching his back and recoiling. From birth, the mother had been ignoring his cries, believing he was rejecting her. Another small patient was withdrawn and ate and slept erratically. The problem: The babe was seldom cuddled.

Instead of waiting until psychic scars mark the families for life (and result in child abuse, juvenile delinquency or learning disorders), Wieder and her staff of 10 provide an early-warning system and counseling at the Family Service clinic in Lanham, Md. Elsewhere in the U.S. other pilot programs are researching troubled mother-infant relationships in general, while treating individual cases. The therapy in Lanham, free to patients, costs the sponsoring National Institute of Mental Health between $200 and $5,000 per case. Because the project, known as the Clinical Infant Development Program, was already funded for 1981, it should escape the current Administration’s budget cuts.

Many families are referred by public health agencies, but the 37-year-old Wieder, who is the program director in Lanham, finds that infant emotional stress is not confined to poor children. “How you interact with your baby is not a function of socioeconomic status,” she contends, adding that most parents overlook the danger signals. “Every mother asks, ‘Is my baby doing okay?’ ” the psychologist notes. “The answers tend to focus on physical landmarks, on what the baby weighs or measures. There isn’t enough emphasis on the emotional landmarks. Babies can let you know what they are experiencing, if you know how to observe them and interact with them.”

The children at the clinic range from 3 days to 4 years. Some mothers are enrolled in the program even before they give birth if personality disorders or family difficulties indicate their infants may be emotionally affected.

“Babies are much more complex than we ever thought,” observes Wieder. “They’re not passive, unseeing, unhearing creatures. They are interacting with their environment from the first.” Problems can start, Wieder explains, when infants are irritable and “the mother feels inadequate instead of understanding that this is her baby’s individual way of coping.”

The solution in the case of the month-old infant who wasn’t cuddled enough was to assign a homemaker to care for an older child so the young mother could tend to her newborn. A psychiatrist showed the woman how the baby should be swaddled and comforted.

The 4-month-old child who tried to turn away whenever his mother held him was soothed by extended periods of rocking in a dark room. While a therapist cooed to the boy and massaged his tense muscles, his mother consulted a psychotherapist who helped her uncover a bitter, isolated childhood. After nine months, mother and son were playing games together.

Another case involved a child who had difficulty learning to talk. Her mother, exhausted by raising two older siblings, didn’t encourage her. “The mother subconsciously wanted this final child to stay a baby,” says Wieder. “Through therapy we were able to make the mother aware of these feelings.”

Wieder has two children of her own and is excited by “feeling my two lives have a common thread.” She was raised in the Bronx, one of three children of a grocer. After receiving a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the City University of New York, she spent three years in Israel aiding families bereaved by deaths in the Yom Kippur War. She was a staffer at New York’s Montefiore Hospital in 1977 when, at 33, she married Jonathan Blank. Their children, Nathaniel, 2, and Rachel, 4 months, use both parents’ names: Wieder-Blank.

Wieder joined the Maryland clinic in 1978. Now she gets to try her expertise on her own kids. “If Rachel has a difficult evening,” she says, “it’s a situation where any mother might ask, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ and get aggravated and tense. I know this is Rachel’s peculiar way of dealing with tension, and she’ll calm down if I hold her.”

Nathaniel went to the office with his mother until he was 6 months old. But after 30 interviews Serena found an ideal woman, with three children of her own, to care for her offspring. She has returned to her job, working a flexible 45-hour week, and yet managing to maintain a kosher household under the complicated Jewish dietary laws. She readily admits she’s not immune to the kinds of weaknesses her tiny patients’ moms exhibit. “I am healthy and have a lot of energy,” Serena says, “but I get tired. I am going to watch the cues—my own and my babies’—to see just how much I can handle.”

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