Selma Fraiberg

1918 – 1981

by Constance W. Brown

Selma Fraiberg was a psychoanalyst, author, and pioneer in the field of infant psychiatry. A woman and a social worker in a profession dominated by male physicians, Fraiberg rose to prominence because of her brilliance, originality, and dedication. She devoted her life to understanding the developmental needs of infants, to creating programs that promote infant mental health, and to reaching parents and policymakers through clear, persuasive prose.

Fraiberg accomplished enough in her life to fill three careers. She was a psychoanalyst specializing in the treatment of children. She wrote The Magic Years, a luminous account of the child mind that is a classic in its genre. Her early work with blind infants and their mothers produced techniques to promote bonding in the absence of visual cues. This work, culminating in Insights from the Blind, had major implications for sighted children as well. Fraiberg’s close observation of interactions between these mothers and babies elucidated the normal process of bonding and opened the way to working with babies at risk for neglect, abuse, or “failure to thrive.” During this last phase of her career, Fraiberg started the Child Development Project at the University of Michigan, which served troubled families, trained clinicians, and developed a treatment model that has been widely replicated.

Fraiberg was born Selma Horwitz on March 8, 1918, in Detroit, the first of three children of Jack and Dorella (Newman) Horwitz. Her father, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, took over his father’s poultry business. On her mother’s side were Newmans, long established in Detroit, and Jacobses, Hungarian Jews who had come to the United States via England in the nineteenth century. The men were prosperous salesmen and retail merchants, active in community and synagogue. The women were housewives and mothers. The extended family was large and close knit.

Selma was feisty, shy, and intellectual. She had an especially close family relationship with her maternal grandmother, Jennie Jacobs, a strong-minded former suffragist who, like her granddaughter, was not in the family mold.

Selma was an undergraduate at Wayne State University in the class of 1940. She continued her education there at the social work school, where she met Louis Fraiberg, then a teaching assistant. They were married in 1945, the year of her graduation.

The Fraibergs’ life together was one of fruitful intellectual collaboration. He became a professor of English, teaching at Louisiana State University. He maintained a lifelong interest in psychoanalysis and social work, and assisted his wife with several of her books.

In 1956, the Fraibergs adopted a baby girl, Lisa. Practicing what she preached, Fraiberg stayed home with Lisa and in her spare time wrote The Magic Years, which won the 1959 Book of the Year Award from the Child Study Association of America.

For Selma Fraiberg, the years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from 1965 to 1979, were the culmination of her life’s work. She was professor of psychoanalysis at the University of Michigan Medical School and director of the Child Development Project. She wrote, spoke, and traveled widely. She was known to colleagues and students as brilliant, demanding, fiercely principled, difficult, and inspiring. Those close to her knew that she was shy and self-conscious, and that public exposure caused her strain.

In 1979, the Fraibergs moved to San Francisco, where Selma Fraiberg organized and directed an infant-parent program at San Francisco General Hospital. In 1981, she received the Dolley Madison Award in recognition of her critical role in the field of infant mental health. In August of the same year, she learned that she had a malignant brain tumor.

Selma Fraiberg died on December 19, 1981, at age sixty-three.


Clinical Studies in Infant Mental Health: The First Year of Life, edited with Louis Fraiberg (1980); Every Child’s Birthright: In Defense of Mothering (1977); “Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships,” with Edna Adelson and Vivian Shapiro. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 14 (1975); Insights from the Blind: Comparative Studies of Blind and Sighted Infants, with Louis Fraiberg (1977); Introduction to Assessment and Therapy of Disturbances in Infancy, editor (1989); “Libidinal Object Constancy and Mental Representation.” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 24 (1969); The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood (1959); “Parallel and Divergent Patterns in Blind and Sighted Infants.” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 23 (1968); Selected Writings of Selma Fraiberg. Edited by Louis Fraiberg (1987); “Smiling and Stranger Reaction in Blind Infants.” In Exceptional Infant, vol. 2, edited by J. Hellmuth (1971).


Anthony, E. James. “In Memoriam—Selma Fraiberg.” Frontiers of Infant Psychiatry, Vol. 12. Edited by Justin D. Call, Eleanor Galenson, and Robert L. Tyson (1984); Coles, Robert, “Talk With Selma Fraiberg.” NYTimes Book Review, December 11, 1977; Contemporary Authors (1981); “Selma Fraiberg Dies at 63, an Authority on Early Childhood.” NYTimes, December 22, 1981.


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I love selmas work.

Dear James, 
We are a group of Pyschologist here in Santiago, Chile. In our clinical and communitary pratice we work with adolescents and kids and lately we have encounter what for us has been a ground breaking study: Selma Fraiberg's "Clinical Studies in infant mental health" (1980). 
Due to the importance of her findings and theoretical proposals we would like to translate it and eventually, publish it in Spanish here in Chile, with the support University Of Chile.  
We have started the translation with colleagues here in Chile and Argentina in what we see as a critical advance in our field of research and practice. We have no doubt that Fraiberg's book will have a positive impact on the mental health professionals and more importantly in the well being of children, teenangers, their families or caretakers. In that spirit, how should we proceed to acquire the proper publishing rights? Who do we have to contact to do this process in the right way? Fraiberg, L. Fraiberg, Selma Publisher: Routledge; First Edition edition (November 20, 1980) ISBN 10: 0422776203 ISBN 13: 9780422776202 
We sincerely appreciate your help and any information that you can provides us will be more than welcome. 
Our best wishes and thanks for your help. 

Dear Descendants of Selma Fraiberg,

I want to let you know what a critical impact Selma Friaberg's book The Magic Years made for me as a mother, as a student of Early Chidl Development, and as a human being. I had a very difficult childhood with very little genuine love and desperately wanted to create my own family. I intentionally studied all I could at UC Berkeley on Child Development and Education because I discovered I adored working with children but did not dare have my own precious children unless I understood thoroughly the needs of children, the critical early stages especially. Her work, The Magic Years distilled all I learned about in my undergraduate years in a very touching way, showing me that given a little understanding and love and guidance, children will develop just fine and in fact will develop to be kind, loving beings on their own. I saved my copy all these years and am just so sorry I never wrote her myself to tell her the impact she made, not just on giving me the courage to be a mother, way different from my own mother, but in understanding that I was just as precious as all those children quoted in example after example in her wonderful book. We all have our Magic Years, no matter what stage we are in. Your mother's book gave me self-love and self acceptance of a kind and loving person dedicated to children despite all odds. So thank you, Selma Fraiberg, and thank you to her descendants. Please, please, make her book available again today. And a word of advice ; if you can find anyone to write an adaption in simpler, more practical terms as a manual for the everyday parent, it would go a long long way in teaching today's young parent about everyday kindness, acceptance, and understanding in raising their children they themselves chose to bring into this world. Really, it would make an incredible difference. I just know that as wonderful as The Magic Years is, many young parents just need a distilled version in some form. Please consider this for today's world to become a little kinder.

Thank you so much. Would you do me the kindness of responding to my comments with an email letting me know you have sent this on to the appropriate person? Thank you so much!


Janette Schulte

In reply to by Janette Schulte

I am the nephew of Selma. Growing up I remember the family get-togethers that included the Freibergs Were always intellectual, witty, and stimulating, As the family group included professors chemists physicists and several teachers. Selma was inspirational. Through the family line are other child advocates, Psychiatrists, teachers of learning disabled children. I myself am a Pediatrician and think of her often. Thank you for your comments.

How to cite this page

Brown, Constance W.. "Selma Fraiberg." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 11, 2021) <>.


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