Rene Spitz (1887 - 1974) was an Austrian-American psychoanalyst, one of the first researchers who used child observation.

He focused on both normal and disturbed child development, pointing out the effects of Maternal and Emotional Deprivation.

His work influenced the Psychological Basis of Biodanza (see Psychological Aspects of Biodanza).

Child Observation

Spitz focused his research on infants who had experienced sudden long-term separation from their caregiver, for example when the mother was sent to prison. These studies and conclusions were thus different from investigations of institutional rearing.

Anaclitic Depression

Anaclitic Depression was the term proposed by him to describe a child's reaction of grief, anger, and apathy to partial emotional deprivation (the loss of a loved object)

He proposed that when the love object is returned to the child within three to five months, recovery is prompt but after five months, they will show the symptoms of increasingly serious deterioration (Hospitalism).

The studies that René Spitz conducted were the first to show systematically that social interactions with other humans are essential for children’s development:

  • Spitz followed two groups of children from the time they were born until they were several years old.
  • The first group were raised in an orphanage, where the babies were more or less cut off from human contact in their cribs, or where a single nurse had to care for seven children.
  • The second group of babies were raised in a nursery in a prison where their mothers were incarcerated. The mothers were allowed to give their babies care and affection every day, and the babies were able to see one another and the prison staff throughout the day.
  • At age 4 months, the state of development of the two groups of babies was similar; the babies in the orphanage even scored a higher average on certain tests.
  • By the time the babies were 1 year old, the motor and intellectual performance of those reared in the orphanage lagged badly behind those reared in the prison nursery. The orphanage babies were also less curious, less playful, and more subject to infections.
  • During their second and third years of life, the children being raised by their mothers in prison walked and talked confidently and showed development comparable to that of children raised in normal family settings.
  • Of the 26 children reared in the orphanage, only 2 could walk and manage a few words.
  • Since the time of his pioneering study, many other experiments have shown what catastrophic effects sensory and social deprivation at certain critical periods in early childhood can have on children's subsequent development.