The first two years are critical in a child’s development, influencing what happens in later childhood and even adulthood. Yet many new parents, as well as clinicians and carers, face questions over how they can best support a baby’s early development and provide appropriate care. With varying claims, scientific findings and advice on infant development, who and what are parents, practitioners, politicians and policymakers to believe about caring for babies?
Following a lifetime of observations in the UK and Africa of parents and infants communicating, Lynne Murray, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Reading, advocates adults share experiences such as book-reading, pretend play, or cooking with babies as early as in their first two years, as this will encourage good skills and habits in later life. Children who do not participate in such experiences early on are more likely to be oppositional or aggressive later in life.
An internationally recognised expert in child development, Professor Lynne Murray says: “The early environment, and particularly early social relationships, are crucial shapers of children's development, and although the parent/infant bond has existed naturally for generations, the modern science behind babies’ psychological development is very complex. Understandably, people are concerned about children’s cognitive development, academic school performance, and their mental health and well-being. Research shows that consistent, high quality care in the first two years sets children on a positive developmental pathway that has an impact on that person in their adult life.”
Scientific research on children’s development has far-reaching consequences, both for parents as well as for clinical practice and official advice such as NICE guidelines; the regulation of daycare; child protection legislation; early years policy; and support and early interventions. Professor Murray has worked extensively with babies whose mothers are depressed, anxious or living in deprived circumstances and she is well-placed to evaluate early years interventions for vulnerable children past, present and proposed.
Depression makes it hard for anyone, including mothers or fathers, to engage with other people in the way they would otherwise, and this can include their baby. Research by Professor Murray shows that the difficulties depressed parents have with their babies – noticing the baby’s signals and cues, being able to respond to them appropriately and enjoy being with them, especially when these difficulties persist over several months – are associated with an increased risk of difficulties in the child's development. For example, if a parent is very unresponsive and under-stimulating, this can affect the baby's cognitive development. If a parent becomes very irritated with their baby, or finds it hard to be supportive when their baby's behaviour is difficult to manage, and instead becomes angry, then the child is more likely to develop problems like aggressive behaviour. Or if a parent finds it hard to understand their baby's needs for comfort when they are feeling frightened or unwell, then the baby is less likely to grow up to feel secure and may be less able to cope with challenges and enjoy close intimate relationships with others later in life.
Professor Murray explains: “It is important to help parents understand their baby's needs and signals, so that positive cycles of relationships can be built up, and so that negative behaviour patterns do not become too entrenched - we know that the longer they go on, the more firmly established they become, and the more difficult it is to put things right in later development.”
Professor Murray gives meaning to baby’s behavior and gives parents the confidence to respond to and support their baby in her new book, The Psychology of Babies: How Relationships Support Development from Birth to Two. This book shows how much of what parents do naturally, in ordinary ways, is very helpful to babies’ development but that different parenting skills are required in different situations. This accessible resource for parents and professionals alike provides guidance on the following aspects of early development in young children:
Social understanding – the way in which babies relate to and understand other people changes over the first two years. Early face-to-face play, and then later pretend games and, later on, conversations about what people are thinking and feeling, all help children to understand others and learn to cooperate.
Attachment – supporting babies so that they become secure is vital in a child’s development, as this helps them to become resilient and well-adjusted. Aside from attachments to family members, babies’ attachments in day care can help their development. Day care is the fastest growing form of care for babies and toddlers, and research shows that provision of care is better in those countries where it is tightly regulated and well-supported by government. This book focuses on understanding which aspects of daycare are most important for babies’ security, as well as their social and cognitive development, and how babies’ experiences and relationships can best be managed in this context.
Self-control – supportive parenting can help babies to regulate their difficult emotions and behaviour and this book illustrates how to encourage positive experiences, such as using play to encourage a reluctant child to brush their teeth, as well as how to manage difficult patterns of behaviour such as aggression or anxiety.
Intelligence/cognitive development – this book explores how joint parent-child interactions support the development of a range of skills including language, reasoning and motor skills. It highlights for example the benefits of book-sharing compared with watching TV.
The Psychology of Babies: How Relationships Support Development from Birth to Two by Lynne Murray (Constable and Robinson, RRP £16.99) is available from all major book retailers.