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Lynne Murray interview: 'A lot of people writing baby books don’t know the research'

Susie Mesure meets Lynne Murray, who says the ‘terrible twos’ don’t exist, and has more good news for working parents

There’s a certain irony in hearing Professor Lynne Murray implore new parents not to feed or rock their babies to sleep. The infant development expert knows only too well the “nightmare” that it can create, even when your children have long since fled the nest. “I’m hopeless at sleeping even now,” she admits; and all because the mother of three, 63, “was absolutely hopeless at getting babies to sleep through the night”.

She never could leave babies wailing – “I just don’t think I’d have been capable” – and, indeed, sees real “ethical issues” with the trend for so-called controlled crying, otherwise known as letting babies scream, which could have “implications for attachment security”. And she should know: the developmental psychology professor, who is based at the University of Reading, has spent more than four decades studying hundreds of infants and the ways in which they develop.

I also blink twice at the revelation that she relies on a screen to interact with her two grandchildren, which comes barely minutes after her warning about the pernicious effects of leaving infants slumped in front of a two-dimensional babysitter. But her grandchildren are five, well past the two-years-and-under threshold under which research shows that even TV programmes designed for infants can be damaging. She uses Skype for a “weekly book-sharing” session with her grandchildren, who now live in Brazil. (Her daughter-in-law is Brazilian.)

This makes sense because she is passionate about the benefits of reading to children, even very young babies, who can learn to focus their attention on simple shapes or squiggles, attention span being one of the best indicators of later IQ. “I have my Roald Dahl book,” she says of her weekly date, “and they have the same edition, so we can both look at the same pictures. They’re old enough to follow the story. It works so much better than ‘Let’s have a conversation with Granny.’ They’re always asking their mum and dad: ‘When can we do book-sharing with Granny?’”

This example is apt because Professor Murray is all about the evidence when it comes to young children, which is what makes her latest book, The Psychology of Babies, such a joy. And lest the thought of yet another new baby book elicits any groans from parents saturated with the beasts, it’s not that sort of book and she isn’t that sort of author. I refer, of course, to the wealth of opinionated literature by so-called experts, who often haven’t even had their own children (yes, you, Gina Ford), let alone spent decades studying them.

“I’d like to hope that this is a book parents wouldn’t feel fatigued by. It’s not: ‘You should do this; you shouldn’t do that.’ That must be absolutely awful!” She is careful not to name names, but adds: “I think there are a lot of people writing baby books who perhaps don’t know the research evidence. It’s huge.” She alone has contributed more than 200 academic papers on the subject.

Her book gallops through the latest evidence on how relationships support development from birth to age two, helping to put young children “on the right pathway”. And by relationships, she means carers as well as parents. Indeed, one of the many positive messages is that parents anxious about dumping their bundle on someone else while they work should relax. “Babies don’t form just one attachment, but a number, with up to four or five special people who’ve been involved in their care. And it’s not necessarily the case that the parent is going to be the one who gives the best care.” Even better: “There’s no evidence at all” that this lessens the bond between young children and their mums and dads. And there’s more: “In the UK, there’s no evidence of detrimental effects of daycare on children’s development, because it is still quite well regulated.” Take that, Daily Mail.

What Professor Murray wants is for parents to pause and think about life from their infant’s standpoint. Just seeing things from a baby’s point of view can help to avoid the conflicts that can make life such hell for all involved. Her work is intensely empathetic; thus she invites parents to imagine how their toddler is only trying to help by pulling everything out of the washing machine as quickly as they are putting it in.

The upshot of “getting children on board to be helpful” or “shared cooperation” to use her official  term, is it can even help to avoid  the terrible twos by preventing aggression.

Many old wives’ tales, like the “terrible twos”, fly in the face of everything Professor Murray is learning from research. This can be dangerous in countries such as South Africa, where she spends a couple of months each year as an extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University. “They absolutely believe that babies can’t see or hear until they are a good few weeks old. If you believe that, why bother talking to a baby? Why bother doing face-to-face play?” Back home, which for her is Oxford, old wives’ tales are slightly less extreme, although telling parents a newborn’s smile is just wind “can take away so much pleasure”.

“When I had my first child I was in Scotland, on the maternity ward, and I was much frowned upon because I would pick him up when he cried. ‘Oh, you’ll make a stick to break your back with.’ And that’s just completely going against really solid evidence that actually if you do pick your baby up when they cry, they’ll cry less later on down the line, because they’ve got the sense that someone’s there that’s available, that they can rely on, so they’ll feel confident to deal with challenges.”

It isn’t only infants who’ll feel better about dealing with challenges after reading The Psychology of Babies; I’m willing to bet the step-by-step examples of parent/baby interactions will help mums and dads no end. And, yes, that stretches to trying to get babies to sleep by themselves.

Curriculum vitae

1950: Born in Prestbury, Cheshire.

1973: Graduates from the University of Edinburgh.

1980: Completes PhD from the same institution.

Post 1980: Takes time out to care for children.

1985: Begins work as Winnicott senior research fellow at Cambridge University.

1990: Becomes Medical Research Council senior fellow at Cambridge.

1996: Moves to University of Reading on fellowship.

2005: The Social Baby is published to much acclaim.

2009: Becomes a grandmother.

2009: Publishes work on treating parental sensitivity and child attachment security.

2011: Starts research for the NSPCC on the “Minding the Baby” intervention.

2014: The Psychology of Babies is published.