In this brief guide, we will discuss anaclitic depression, its symptoms, hospitalism syndrome; you will also find some ideas of J. Bowlby about emotional connection, H. Harlow’s famous experiments on monkeys, and Z.

Freud’s ideas about increased self-focused attention in connection with the loss of the object.

What is Anaclitic Depression?

Anaclitic depression is a temporary depressed state of newborns after their separation from a mothering figure.

The term “anaclitic depression” is used in research with human newborns and animal newborns.

The research starts from studies on primates till guinea pigs and rats.

Anaclitic Depression and Rene Spitz

Austrian-American psychoanalyst Rene Spitz in the 40s of the XX century called the separation of the child from mother. “Anaclitic” means “leaning on.”

The term “Anaclitic depression” was mentioned in Spitz’s article on “Hospitalism” (1945).
Out of the 90 children who got into the bby’s house and were observed by Spitz, in the first year of life, 37% died due to lack of feelings, due to separation from their mother that had been giving them before love, security, tactile contact, and nutrition.

Anaclitic Depression and Hospitalism Syndrome

Anaclitic depression, also known as hospitalism, was a pediatric diagnosis describing newborns who deteriorated in hospital in the 1930s.

The child separated by mother loses weight, worries, and starts leaving contacts.

This condition turns into hospitalism syndrome: a state of personality disintegration, from which it is complicated to get out, because the child stops contacting, often this condition leads to death.

Hospitalism syndrome can occur if, during the first year of life, a mother or someone who has been caring for a child disappears for five months or more, and no one takes her place.

The baby loses the person who supports his/her life and, most importantly – the emotional life.

This separation causes a state of depression, which can have severe consequences if the contact with the mother does not resume for a long time.

“…A prerequisite for serious anaclitic depression is the fact that the infant spends the first six months of its life with a loving mother. If children suffering from anaclitic depression return their mother no more than after 3-5 months, they will become healthy again. If the separation from the mother lasts longer than five months and during this time no other object relations arise, then a regression begins, which becomes irreversible; that is, the child does not develop normally physically, mentally, and spiritually. If separation from the mother begins only in the second year of life, then personality changes also appear, which, however, tend to become reversible”(Thomas Haenel).

The Symptoms of Anaclitic Depression

The main symptoms of anaclitic depression are:

  • A progressive loss of interest to the surrounding world,
  • Loss of appetite,
  • Weight loss,
  • Slow development,
  • The poverty of facial expression,
  • Slow response to sound stimuli,
  • Motor lethargy,
  • Sleep disturbance,
  • Mood disorders.

The aggressive instincts of the infant experiencing anaclitic depression, are turned against the child itself.

The reason is that the infant does not have an external object to focus, and at the same time, he/she does not have an object’s stable and differentiated internal representation.

The danger of anaclitic depression is between the ages of one and one-and-a-half, or in other words, between the objectless and entirely objective stages.

John Bowlby about Babies Separated from Mothers

John Bowlby, a psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst has worked for many years on the problems of children, whom, temporarily or forever, left mother.

Deprived of maternal attention and care, babies developed more slowly both physically and intellectually.

He considered the critical period of separation to be three months: after that, the changes made by separation, according to him, it was almost impossible to fix. 

Separation led, as a rule, to depression (differing by intensity)the babies, who have had a good relationship with their mothers before being parted.

When meeting their mothers after separation, many children behaved closed, and could not express their feelings, in some cases the mother was forgotten, which in the future, according to Bowlby, seriously affected the construction relationships with other people.

The condition of children after what happened was alarming; they were scared, losing their mother out of sight.

Anxiety continued in the future, expressed in disbelief and fear of abandonment; in these symptoms, there was anger at the mother that was never expressed.

Harry Harlow’s experiments and the nature of attachment

American psychologist Harry Harlow wanted to study the mechanisms of attachment between newborn rhesus monkeys and their mothers.

According to behaviorists, the infants are attached to their mothers because the latter provide them with food.

Harlow said that the attachment is based on tactile comfort: babies need to touch their mothers to feel emotional comfort and security.

Harlow began his famous experiments. With the help of metal scissors and a soldering iron, he built a “surrogate mother” from a wire mesh.

A nipple was attached to it, from which monkey milk flowed. Besides, he made a soft surrogate mother, wrapping her body in terrycloth.

The second mother did not have a nipple. Newborn babies were put in cages with two surrogate mothers.

Adult monkeys who had their children taken away screeched and beat against the walls of the cells; the kids were moaning in a separate room.

This went on hour after hour, the laboratory was filled with cries of despair and stink: loose stools, as Harlow wrote, indicate a high degree of emotional stress.

However, then amazing things started to happen. A few days later, the infants transferred their affection from real mothers to cloth surrogates; they clung to them, crawled over them, caressed their “faces” with their small paws, and spent many hours sitting on their backs and stomachs.

The cloth mother could not feed them milk, and when the babies felt hunger, they climbed onto the wire mother, but then returned to the cloth mother again.

The surrogate mother made tactical contact not worse than the real one, but over the next year, Harlow noticed that the raised monkeys were not healthy.

They could avoid communication. Females attacked males.

Some demonstrated something similar to autism: they swayed, bite themselves to blood, and tear off their fingers.

Harlow admitted that infants raised by surrogate mothers suffer from emotional disturbances, and pointed out that in addition to touching, at least half an hour on the day the babies should play with each other.

Psychodynamic Essentials of Depression

Psychodynamic essentials of depression are:

  1. Reactivation of childhood’s loss experience,
  2. Introjection of the lost objects in childhood in connection with negative emotions,
  3. Loss of object relations in connection with increased self-focussed attention.

“…Owing to a real slight or disappointment coming from this loved person, the object-relationship was shattered. The result was not the normal one of a withdrawal of the libido from this object and a displacement of it on to a new one, but something different, for whose coming-about various conditions seem to be necessary. The object-cathexis proved to have little power of resistance and was brought to an end. However, the free libido was not displaced onto another object; it was withdrawn into the ego. However, it was not employed in any unspecified way but served to establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object. Thus, the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. An object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss, and the conflict between ego and the loved person into a cleavage between critical activity and ego as altered by identification” (Freud, 1917).

  1. Depression: Leben mit der Schwarz gekleideten Dame 
  2. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5
  3. Experiences of Depression: Theoretical, Clinical, and Research Perspectives 
  4. HFNE “Adderall for Depression”
  5. HFNE “Symptoms of Depression”
  6. I. Charles Kaufman, Leonard A. Rosenblum – “The reaction to separation in infant monkeys: anaclitic depression and conservation-withdrawal.”
  7. Psychotherapy and research, and anaclitic depression: The twenty-third annual Frieda Fromm-Reichmann Memorial Lecture (Psychiatry)


As you see, anaclitic depression, also known as hospitalism, is a temporary depressed state of newborns after their separation from a mothering figure.

The term “anaclitic depression,” is suggested by the Austrian-American psychoanalyst Rene Spitz.

The main symptoms of anaclitic depression are progressive loss of interest to the surrounding world, loss of appetite, weight loss, slow development, poverty of facial expression, slow response to sound stimuli, motor lethargy, sleep disturbance, and mood disorders.

In our guide are also some ideas of J. Bowlby, Z. Freud, as well as H. Harlow’s experiments to study the nature of the attachment between infant monkeys’ and their mothers.

Please feel free to comment on the content or ask any questions in the comments section below.


  1. Anaclitic Depression
  2. Attachment Theory