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Dr. Daniel Stern, 78; psychiatrist studied mother-infant interaction

NEW YORK — Dr. Daniel Stern, a psychiatrist who increased the understanding of early human develop­ment by scrutinizing the most minute interactions between mothers and babies, died Nov. 12 in Geneva. He was 78.

The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Dr. Nadia Bruschweiler Stern.

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Dr. Stern was noted for his often poetic language in describing how children respond to their world, how they feel, think, and see. He wrote one of his half-dozen books in the form of a diary by a baby. In another book, he told how mothers differ psychologically from women who do not have children. He coined the term ‘‘motherese’’ to describe a form of communication in which mothers are able to read even the slightest of babies’ emotional signals.

Dr. Stern, who did much of his research at what is now Weill Cornell Medical College and at the University of Geneva, drew inspiration from Jay S. Rosenblatt’s work with kittens at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. Rosenblatt discovered that when he removed kittens from their cage, they made their way to a specific nipple of their mother’s even when they were as young as one day old. That finding demonstrated that learning occurs naturally at an exceptionally early age in a way staged experiments had not.

Dr. Stern videotaped babies from birth through their early years and then studied the tapes second by second to analyze interactions between mother and child. He challenged the Freudian idea that ­babies go through defined critical phases, like oral and anal. Rather, he said, their development is continuous, with each phase layered on top of the previous one. The interactions are punctuated by intervals, sometimes only a few seconds long, of rest, solitude, and reflection. As this process goes on, they develop a sense that other people can and will share in their feelings, and in that way develop a sense of self.

These interactions can underpin emotional episodes that occur years in the future. Citing one example in a 1990 interview with The Boston Globe, Dr. Stern told of a 13-month-old who grabbed for an electric plug. His alarmed mother, who moments before had been silent and loving, suddenly turned angry and sour. Two years later, the child heard a fairy tale about a wicked witch.

‘‘He’s been prepared for that witch for years,’’ Dr. Stern said. ‘‘He’s already seen someone he loves turn into something evil. It’s perfectly believable for him. He maps right into it.’’

Dr. Stern described such phenomena in 1985 in ‘‘The Interpersonal World of the Infant,’’ which the noted psychologist Stanley Spiegel, in an interview in The New York Times, called ‘‘the book of the ­decade in its influence on psychoanalytic theory.’’

In recent years, Dr. Stern ventured beyond childhood development to examine the psychology of how people thought about time. In one experiment, he interviewed people in depth about a single brief moment at breakfast and found that it took them a full hour to describe all that went through their minds in 30 seconds. This resulted in the 2004 book ‘‘The Present Moment: In Psychotherapy and Everyday Life,’’ which called for people to appreciate every moment of experience and discussed the nature of memory.

In 2010, he published ‘‘Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development,’’ which used new understandings of neuroscience to explain human empathy.

Dr. Stern, who wrote hundreds of scientific articles, also painted, wrote poetry, and had friendships with important artists. He gave Jerome Robbins, the choreographer, the title for his ‘‘Dances at a Gathering.’’ His friend Robert Wilson, the avant-garde director and playwright, said Dr. Stern’s slow-motion baby films helped inspire his seven-hour ‘‘silent opera,’’ ‘’Deafman Glance.’’

‘’So many things are going on, and the baby is picking them up,’’ Wilson said.

Daniel Norman Stern was born in Manhattan. He graduated from Harvard and completed his medical degree at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. After conducting psycho-pharmacology research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., he did his residency in psychiatry at the ­Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He later trained at the Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research at Columbia.

Dr. Stern leaves his wife, who collaborated on much of his research; two sons, Michael and Adrien; three daughters, Maria, Kaia and Alice Stern; a sister, Ronnie Chalif; and 12 grandchildren.

Dr. Stern pointed out how the evolution of the human body bolstered mother-child interaction. He noted that the distance between the eyes of a baby at the breast and the mother’s eyes is about 10 inches, exactly the distance for the sharpest focus and clearest vision for a young infant.

‘‘Her smile exerts its natural evocative powers in him and breathes a vitality into him,’’ he wrote. ‘‘It makes him resonate with the animation she feels and shows. His joy rises. Her smile pulls it out of him.’’

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