What Are the Infant’s Phases of Separation From the Parent? An Account by Margaret Mahler

In her seminal research on the mother-child relationship, Margaret Mahler observed the baby develop from a state of “symbiotic” dependence on the mother to a state of exploration and progressive separation. 

In the 1950s, Margaret Mahler founded a child studies center in NYC where she and her team observed, recorded and analyzed the interactions of infants and toddlers with their mothers. She concluded that early childhood development depends on a symbiotic relationship between mother and child until the child is about two year old. During this period, the mother functions as a kind of auxiliary ego and stimulus regulator by responding to pressing physical and emotional needs, shielding or alleviating traumatic experiences, and establishing a caring, reliable, and powerful frame for the infant’s experiences.

Mahler observed distinct phases in the psychological development of the infant and toddler – the first of which she call the “normal symbiotic phase.” During this phase, the mother-infant pair move from a place where the infant experiences itself as non-differentiated from the mother to a place where the infant becomes dimly aware that the mother is a separate physical entity.

The next phase Mahler called “separation-individuation” and she further subdivided this phase into 3 subphases: hatching, practicing, and rapprochement.

Hatching lasts up to 9 months and during this phase, the infant emerges from the normal symbiotic phase, becomes increasingly aware of the physical difference between self and mother, and her gaze and interest become more outwardly directed.

Practicing lasts from 9 to 16 months and the child learns with delight of her capacities for locomotion and begins to actively explore the world around her. She still thinks of herself as psychologically at one with the mother.

The last subphase, rapprochement, lasts between 16 and 24 months and represents a period of significant uncertainty and insecurity as psychological awareness catches up with the child’s new locomotive skills. At this point, the toddler becomes gradually aware that her capacity to separate herself physically may also mean that she could become psychologically separate from her mother. Whereas before this awareness, the toddler would launch herself fearlessly into the world, now her actions become more tentative: She wants her mother nearby or within eye contact so that she can learn to regulate the psychological experience of this new awareness of apartness, and she will return frequently to home base for reassurance and comfort.

The risk during the sub phase of rapprochement is that the mother will misread the child’s behavior as regressive rather than progressive and that she will withdraw, make herself unavailable, or act in a rejecting manner. This maternal response might then precipitate pronounced fears of abandonment at a time when the toddler is still not psychologically separate from the mother. Psychological issues originating during this period of separation-individuation are largely referred to as pre-oedipal and overlap with the Eriskonian phases of Trust v. Mistrust and of Autonomy v. Doubt and Shame.