Psychological Development Across the Lifespan

Margaret Mahler

What is the differentiation sub-phase?

This is the first sub-phase of the separation-individuation process proper. It starts around four to five months and extends to about ten months. This is also the first of Mahler’s stages that was fully based on direct observation of infants. The term hatching was applied to this stage. The child is showing increased interest in the outer world and is beginning the critical process of recognizing the separateness of the mother. This is also the beginning of physically moving away from the mother; the baby slides out of the mother’s lap or crawls away from her. The psychological separation parallels the physical one. A number of behaviors demonstrate the child’s growing awareness of the mother’s identity as a separate person. One particularly charming behavior, which Mahler termed “custom’s inspection”, involves the child’s purposeful investigation of the mother’s face or even that of a stranger. The baby grabs at various parts of the adult’s face, figuring out what does and does not belong to that person’s body. The glasses, for example, come off while the lips do not. The child can also compare the features of the mother’s face to that of the stranger. Stranger anxiety and separation anxiety also occur during this phase, both of which signal a new awareness of the separateness of the mother.


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