Anaclitic depression usually refers to social-emotional, physical, and intellectual impairment that can happen when a baby has been separated long-term from their mother or primary caregiver.
Learn more about this condition and its symptoms, as well as the research behind what contributes to it, below.
A quick dictionary search tells you that “anaclitic” involves feeling love toward an object. In psychoanalysis, “anaclitic” means “leaning on.”
How do these definitions come into play with anaclitic depression? A baby who is separated long-term from the object they love and lean on will typically show social-emotional, physical, and intellectual impairment.
In the scholarly literature about anaclitic depression going back decades, this object of baby’s love their mother or primary caregiver.
The good news is that research seems to show that anaclitic depression in babies is transient. That means that when baby and mother or primary caregiver are reunited, the symptoms of anaclitic depression disappear. That said, researchers aren’t sure what the potential long-term behavioral effects are.
Anaclitic depression was first described in a 1945 journal article by René Spitz. In 1946, she described her study of 123 babies between 6 and 8 months of age who had been separated from their mothers for 3 months. Spitz noticed what she called a “striking syndrome.”
After about 6 months of age, the previously happy babies became weepy and then withdrew. They refused to engage with the people around them.
At first, they would cry or scream when pressed to engage, but after about 3 months, they became so unresponsive that even the crying and screaming stopped. Some of the babies lost weight, didn’t sleep well, and were more susceptible to colds or eczema. Gradually, their general development declined.
The symptoms of anaclitic depression are similar to those of depression. Symptoms include:
- anxiety, sadness, and crying
- withdrawal and refusal to interact with the environment
- development impediments, including slow reaction to stimuli and slow movements
- loss of appetite and weight loss
- frozen and emotionless facial expression
Anaclitic depression seems to resolve when baby and mother or primary caregiver are reunited.
During her research, Spitz found that when the mother and baby were together again, the baby quickly became happy and interactive. In addition to this dramatic change, in some cases, Spitz measured a marked jump in the baby’s development.
Spitz also studied a second institution where babies who had been separated from their mothers weren’t reunited.
Instead of a happy reunion, Spitz described a progressive syndrome, which, after the 3-month critical point of development, became irreversible and even lead to the death of almost a third of the babies.
There isn’t much research into anaclitic depression in adults. But an
Researchers examined how the type of attachment between child and parent related to depression. The study showed that people with secure attachment were less likely to develop depression. Anaclitic depression was more likely to show up in people who developed a preoccupied attachment (also called anxious attachment) style as adults.
It seems that, like all attachment styles, preoccupied attachment is based on parenting style.
A parent with inconsistent parenting behaviors who is at times nurturing and at other times emotionally unavailable may lay the groundwork that leads to a child developing a preoccupied attachment style as an adult.
This attachment includes a tendency to search for acceptance by others in an attempt to bolster feelings of low self-esteem.
Adults with anaclitic depression tend to over-focus on interpersonal relationships at the cost of personal autonomy. The loss of a relationship or interpersonal conflict may lead to strong negative feelings, such as:
- tendency to perfectionism
- need to meet high standards of others
- feelings of loneliness
- fear of abandonment
Since the basis of anaclitic depression in adults seems to lie in certain attachment styles, learning how to build secure attachment may help to resolve it. Secure attachment includes self-regulation, attuned communication with others, insight, and empathy.
With psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, and the tools of mindfulness, you can learn to build what is called earned secure attachment. This involves acknowledging dysfunctional experiences that you may have experienced as a child, and learning how to makes sense of these experiences.
Today, advanced social care in the modern world has reduced anaclitic depression in children, as such care is available and more accessible. However, adults may still experience this subtype of depression.
If you believe that you have anaclitic depression, consider talking with a therapist. They can help you understand and work with your attachment style.