Watch, Wait and Wonder DownUnder


A Brief Review of the Development of the Watch, Wait, and Wonder Intervention


1976: Mahrer, Levinson and Fine working in Canada [Centre for Creative Infant Development], reviewed the available infant therapy literature and noted that the  interventions all had adults actively aiming to stimulate sensory and social responses in the infants. The infants would interact with the adults but they would also respond negatively.

Mahrer et. al. suggested a switch from the adult/parent as the source of stimulation to perceiving the infant as the stimulating, activating resource for parental responses.  They developed a training programme for mothers with infants aged 6-10 months and the instructions to these mothers included –

Cede to the infant the role of behaviour initiator. Not to block, stop or deflect any behaviour of the infant; not to take over the infant’s initiation; not to express mild displeasure or annoyance.

To be within 12-18” of the infant, preferably on the same plane”

Feedback from parents and observations of the infants and the dyads suggested this “infant psychotherapy or infant centred activity” had clinical usefulness but it was not formally researched.


Working through the late 70’s and publishing in 1980 and 1982 a group including Wesner, Johnson, Dowling and later Ostrov working in Wisconsin adapted the technique applying it to infants from 5-6 months to 3 years and when the infant and/or dyad were ‘troubled’. This Team published descriptions of their work and their approach was described for the first time as ‘Watch, Wait, and Wonder’; becoming “in many ways the heart and soul” of their infant-toddler programme. In a variety of ways they introduced mother-infant pairs to their instruction:

“Get down on the floor and watch what he or she does and don’t initiate activity”

They later added rules including

“Don’t take over; maintain a proper distance [10-18”], used standardised toys, and implemented a definite beginning and end to the session that was responsive to the dyad and age of the child.”

They collected comments from about 100 dyads using this technique over a wide variation of sessions [range – 1 to 400; 1980]. They got positive results for problems including – negative maternal feelings, irregularities of sleeping, feeding, and general adjustment; clinging, temper tantrums and unhappiness.

Subsequent funding cuts led to the end of the programme – a personal communication from Jerry Dowling to Elisabeth Muir in 1985 when Elisabeth approached Jerry regarding her interest in developing the intervention in Dunedin.

A  fascinating archived article about the work of  Wesner, Johnson and Dowling is linked below.

“Mother Gets Down To Child’s Level”  [May 1978]

 1986:  The Intervention has Two Parts –

E Muir, A Stupples and D Guy working in an outpatient child and adolescent setting with a service for Under Fives, piloted a further modification of this infant/child centred activity. This adaptation of Watch, Wait and Wonder retained the instructions for the infant/child-led play but changed the structure adding a second component – a psychotherapeutic discussion with the parent. This discussion was ‘mother/father-led’ addressing observations and the anxieties that are stirred up by seeing and not seeing the infant’s spontaneous activity, which in these clinical situations usually reflects the relational problem. This constituted a different kind of ‘wondering’ therapeutic process that has subsequently been further understood as supporting the parent’s capacity to mentalize about their infant.