Babies in Groups

How do children learn to join in with groups of other children? 

How early can group life begin?

Is group membership basic to infant mental health?

These were some of the questions this reseach study sought to answer. Using infant observation this study found babies aged 7-12 months could maintain coordinated interactions in trios and quartets, and demonstrate mutual interest and attentiveness. The research supported the hypothesis that early development of group behaviour alongside social development through parent-infant relationships. Authors conclude the infant observations offer insight also into the behaviour of aduts in analytic groups. 

Project detail


Many studies assume babies learn social skills from their parents, especially their mothers, and that this allows them to negotiate groups as they grow up. However, interacting with several other people at once is different to interacting with just one other person.


A quasi-experimental design using psychoanalytic infant observation methods was implemented. Previously unaquainted babies aged seven to twelve months were recruited. Each baby was assigned to a group of three or four. In the groups babies sat in baby chairs within touching distance in a room without adults. Parents and researchers observed via from another room via a video link. Groups were filmed for up to 12 minutes but terminated sooner if a baby became distressed or a parent requested it.

Material for analysis included field notes informed by psychoanalytic infant observation, 'thick' thematic descriptions triangulated through an advisory group of practitioners and researchers, and microanalyses of interaction/behavioural sequences.

Key findings

The study found babies could maintain coordinated interactions in trios and quartets, developing meanings which were unique to each group. The groups were observed to have a balletic quality thought to stem from mutual interest and attentiveness and a sophisticated level of coordination operating at many levels. Imitation functioned in the groups as a means of expressing 'togetherness' and as a prompt to initiating play.

Findings suggested negative feelings absorbed by one baby could lead to distress and breakdown of the group. Alternatively, expressions of concern were shared by the other group members, and anger or frustration could start a rebellious chorus directed towards the absent adults.

Findings are supportive of the presence of early development of group behaviour. Researchers believe this occurs with or alongside the development of parent-infant relationships.

Conclusions discuss the value of observing infant groups for illuminating behaviour in analytic adult groups. 


Urwin, C., Selby, J., Bradley, B.S. & Loewenberger, A. (2012). Group life in babies; the wish to be special and the wish to belong. Paper presented at the Research in group analysis and psychotherapy conference, London. 

Urwin, C & Sternberg, J. (2012). Infant observation and research. Emotional processes in everyday lives. Routledge: Hove. ISBN 9780415616607

Trudy Klauber (2012) Obituary: Dr. Cathy Urwin, born 13 September 1949, died 2 June 2012, Infant Observation: International Journal of Infant Observation and Its Applications, 15:3, 297-298, DOI: 10.1080/13698036.2012.733524

Collaborating institutions

Charles Sturt University

Project team

Dr Cathy Urwin

Dr Alana Loewenberger

Dr Jane Selby

Professor Ben S Bradley