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The criteria used by professionals in assessing child care cases are not always made explicit, partly because of the ambiguity of the terms 'vulnerability' and 'at risk'. This paper presents a child psychotherapy view of what professionals may look at in terms of the interactions between parent and young child and how these may be understood. 'Reasonable expectations' of child development and parental care are considered. In terms of the child, overall attachment and communication needs and the specific developmental phase in terms child's maturing cognitive and socio-emotional functions are emphasized. In terms of the parent, the capacity to see the baby as separate from their own internal conflicts and to reflect upon the infant's mental state are seen to be pivotal to the infant's psychological well-being. The authors discuss the unconscious reenactment of malignant patterns from the past through the relationship with the baby, and why parents are sometimes unable to avoid this. Finally, the authors suggest that assessment of the capacity for change in vulnerable parent-infant constellations must take into account the baby's developmental timetable.