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What is True Infantilism?

by Kathi Stringer

Revision [N/A] July 31, 2002
Revision [A] August 3, 2002
Revision [B] August 7, 2002
Revision [C] April 7, 2004


There is remarkably little information on this subject.  For this reason it may be helpful to establish a criteria to recognize infantilism.

The onset of true infantilism is marked by earliest of memories fantasizing of regressive dependencies.  Usually always during early childhood & youth the individual believes they are isolated and alone with these regressive desires, and that no one else in the world is like them.  These individuals for the most part keep their pervasive symptoms of needing to act-out the regression hidden from family, friends and significant others.  A common theme revolves around wearing diapers, which in most cases will give rise toward a role-identification of an infantile personality.  Over time the behavior in most all cases will expand to include other infantile objects such as pacifiers, baby blankets, baby bottles and soft stuffed figures. 

Transitional Object vs. Fetish

A person may view true infantilism mistakenly for a fetish.  There is a stark difference since the desire for the object occurred before puberty [2,4,5].  For example, the diaper may be regarded as a symbolic formation to ward of insecurities [4] and becomes a transitional object for a child [6].  In strivings toward independence personality fragments may fuse with objects that represent nurturing [7].  It appears to provide a sense of control for the child to revisit a period that is widely accepted in our culture as nurturing.  The energized transitional object offers relief from separation anxieties from the maternal figure and/or provides a sense of recreation of a period lost in grief. 

The Abuse Connection

In some instances when abuse or neglect has traumatized a child [1], the small child may identify with toddlers in neighboring families and yearn for the same infantile attention.  The child may secretly wish to exchange places and experience being diapered, cuddled, fed and nurtured as a renewed experience from a failed situation [8].  The observance of the attentive maternal figure construes as representation for the unconditional love longed for in a healthy environment.  This longing may become fixated in the individual’s core developmental structures [3] since it provided a coping mechanism in absent of the good-enough mother.  In essence, the fantasy of receiving infantile attention helped the child survive and to emotionally refuel during a chaotic period.  In most case these mechanisms will continue to manifest by way of recurring infantile fantasies through out the life cycle of the individual. 

The Libidinous Component

As the infantile child moves through the latency period into adolescence, it is not uncommon for the transitional objects to remain with greater influence.  After all, the infantile fantasy has been repeated many times along with its vicissitudes and is now firmly imprinted into the psychopathic structure.  In some individuals, once libidinous gratification is augmented and integrated with the existing infantile fantasy, a new association emerges.  The existing fantasy that provided a cathexis for emotional refueling is now set into motion with the more satisfying libido component. Essentially, the pre-libidinous transitional object takes on a new dynamic to relieve anxieties and to satisfy cognitive patterns set in childhood.  It is not unreasonable to conclude that the fantasies imbued with the transitional object will become more concretized when intermittently connected to the libido drives.

Fragmentation and a Continuous Sense of Self

It is not uncommon for the infantile individual to become despondent from impinging feelings of guilt.  After all, they may think that children do grow up one day and they have failed miserably. 

Some infantile individuals tend to look at life as ‘all or nothing’ terms.  Either I am all regressed and unable to function, or, I am all grownup and must purge all the transitional objects.  This thinking is much like a toddler uses in the defense of ‘splitting’[5].  A toddler relates to the world in all or nothing terms..i.e..”I love Mommy” or “I hate Mommy.”  A toddler is unable to tolerate conflict or ambivalence and becomes unmanageable at times with temper tantrums since the anxiety is too overwhelming [5].  In succinct, the infantile individual that is either engulfed with regression or defiant of infantile longings is behaving age appropriately with the toddler.  

More desirable and since regression is an enduring imprint, it cannot be ignored.  To bring infantile wishes in harmony with a higher level functioning, a comprise must be reached.  This understanding of one’s complexities gives way to a more continuous sense-of-self. 

Dependency vs. Nurturing

Most infantile individuals incorporate a maternal figure into the childhood fantasy.  This becomes a problem since to achieve a realistic experience the individual may seek out a mother figure and become depressed in her absence.  It is for this reason I would like to point out a compelling difference between dependency and nurturing. 

Dependency engenders neediness [3] and a notion that one cannot be nurtured without the presence of another individual.  This is a false assumption that may lead to desperation.  A belief that infantile expressions can never be meaningful unless dependent other others can be catastrophic.  Dependency creates a dependency on others for happiness. 

The infantile individual can nurture themselves with the advantage and use of transitional objects.  The individual can simply be himself or herself and find happiness in being alive and able to experience regressive nurturing introspectively.  An acceptance of self is the most nurturing aspect of life.

A Helpful Analogy 

I’ll concrete this a bit further.  Transitional Objects, a term coined by Winnicott, is an object of attachment that the infant uses to provide relief.  In true infantilism, a diaper is a transitional object from ‘earliest’ memories….and holds a primary meaning of comfort and nurturing rather then a secondary sexual object. 

This analogy may help to clarify true infantilism.  A transvestite wears women’s clothing for sexual gratification, and clearly a fetish.  On the other hand a transsexual wears women’s clothing from the desire to ‘become’ a woman and some cases with SRS the transformation is complete, and this is not a fetish for a transsexual.  I see true infantilism as more connected to the transsexual aspect of this analogy.  In essence, for the true infantile individual, a diaper is not a fetish but rather a Transitional Object with it’s origins in early childhood.

Therapy and Treatment

There is no known cure for true infantilism.  Its patterns and deliveries to satisfy infantile longings are set firmly into place.  It appears to become problematic when situations place an emphasis for disclosure…i.e. getting engaged or getting married.  The infantilized individual grapples for a decision because fears of ashamedness, rejection, abandonment and exploitation are commonly associated with past developmental struggles in childhood.  It brings to surface a terrifying risk that the new partner or family member will misunderstand and take the position it is a bizarre perverted derangement and action to crush the behavior is paramount.    

As stated, there is no known cure and treatment toward self-acceptance and individuality may ameliorate destructive wishes and behavior.  Acceptance may resolve self-hatred and command the unrelenting forces of the cultural inner critic to subside.  Since the personality is fused with the nurturing transitional object, in would not be therapeutic to destroy, purge, annihilate or defeat the mechanism that has provided some emotional stability for the individual.  It would equate to most as wiping out the inner child.

One treatment modality may be applicable. A healthy balance is to be encouraged to help an individual from completely giving in to regressive behaviors.  Introduce exercises to limit the fantasies to diminish pervasive regressive behavior since engulfment may create a larger abyss that is not grounded in reality.  


I don't see how a therapist can help with regression, at least from my experience.....UNLESS, the therapist is there to help with self-acceptance and validation.  Once one can accept self, then the forces are not so relentless......it brings a feeling of.....I am okay....I am a unique individual and it is okay to be me.  If you can accept that, then life becomes more rewarding, and that inner child becomes loved.  Each needs their own time.  One should not starve the other, or put guilt on the other.....you are what you are.

Written by Kathi Stringer and may be reproduced for personal use with credits attached.


1. Letter from Bruno Bettelheim 1978

2. The Transitional Space / Peter Giovacchini (p.28,80,81)

3. Prisoners of Childhood / Alice Miller (p.23,24,54)

4. Separation-Individuation / Margaret Mahler (p.108,157,171)

5. The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant / Mahler, Pine, Bergman (p.77,82,84,155)

6. Object Relations Individual Therapy / Scharff & Scharff (p.58)

7. The Facilitating Partnership / Applegate & Bonovitz (p.159)

8. The Language of Winnicott / Jan Abram (p.251)

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