Anaclitic Depression of René Spitz

Anaclitic depression was a term coined by Rene Spitz in 1945.


Anaclitic depression was a term coined by Rene Spitz in 1945. Spitz was an Austro-American psychoanalyst who worked as a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital and as a professor at several universities in the United States. He was the heir of Freud’s postulates, but he devoted himself mainly to serving children.

Spitz began to investigate child development in 1935, while still residing in Europe. He used direct observation and the experimental method for his studies. All of Spitz’s conclusions have a solid empirical foundation. In 1945, he carried out meticulous researches in an orphanage and from his observations the concept of anaclitic depression was born.

“What is given to children, children will give to society.”

-Karl Menninger-

The work of this psychoanalyst had a great impact, both in the scientific community and in society in general. Much of his research was recorded in the film Psychogenic Illness in Early Childhood, made in 1952. This film had a notable impact on a change in the model of care for children, within hospitals. It also allowed the world to know the concept of anaclitic depression.

Anaclitic depression, what is it?

When René Spitz began his research, in academic circles it was thought that children were unable to experience depression. Some psychologists argued that the signs of this were clinically irrelevant in children. The psychoanalysts, for their part, pointed out that the little ones did not have the necessary capacity for reflection and that, therefore, it was impossible for them to become depressed. We are talking about the beginning of the 30s.

Despite these generalized beliefs, there were two investigators who departed from the official truth and decided to see for themselves how valid it was. These two researchers were René Spitz, creator of the concept of anaclitic depression, and John Bowlby, who studied in detail the relationship between mother and child at the beginning of life.

Spitz concluded that children, from an early age, were also depressed. He discovered that this state included a whole picture of well-defined symptoms. Also that the child reacted with this form of depression to the sudden separation of his mother or the bonds of affection, for a time longer than three months.

Characteristics of anaclitic depression

Spitz noted that anaclitic depression occurs in children under one year of age. It takes place when the baby develops a bond with his mother and then suffers a sudden withdrawal from her, for a period of three months. If this happens, the child begins to show a whole set of depressive symptoms.

The most visible symptoms are the following:

  • The baby loses the ability to express itself through his gestures. Basically, he stops smiling.
  • Presents anorexia, or lack of appetite.
  • There are difficulties to sleep. The hours of sleep are reduced or altered.
  • Weightloss.
  • There is a global psychomotor delay.

In the event that the affective deprivation lasts for a period exceeding 18 weeks, all symptoms become worse. The child enters a state that Spitz called “hospitalism.” The baby becomes unable to establish stable affective contacts and his health becomes very fragile. In many cases, this leads to death.

The effects of the investigation

There are references to a questioned experiment carried out by Frederick II The Great, King of Prussia. It is said that he ordered the construction of an orphanage in which the physical needs of the children were fully met. Aspects such as cleanliness, food, clothing, etc., were completely solved. However, it was forbidden to establish a bond of affection with infants. The result of this unique test was that most babies died shortly after.

René Spitz’s studies on anaclitic depression led to a major change in the way to manage orphanages, at least in more developed countries. It was evidenced that the bonds of affection with the babies were as, or more important than the food itself. That is why the conditions of children have improved markedly in these establishments.

Childhood depression exists and has increased throughout the world. Currently, suicide is the sixth cause of death in children between 5 and 14 years old.