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The Psychology of Babies
Why Having Too Little Means So Much
The Psychology of Babies by Lynne Murray is a fascinating frame-by-frame insight into infant minds – but it may turn you into a judgemental armchair expert.
THIS book should carry a health warning: reading it will probably make you yearn for another baby, but it may also make you worry if you've done a good enough job with your existing ones.
The Psychology of Babies is essentially a textbook, but it is accessible enough for any reasonably educated parent. And, having received numerous accolades from professors and parenting charities alike, it's likely to be picked up by many.
Written by Lynne Murray, a developmental psychologist at the University of Reading, UK, the book promises a detailed account of the psychological development of children from birth to the age of 2, spanning their social, emotional and cognitive development.
What really sets it apart from other child development textbooks and parenting guides alike are the frame-by-frame images of babies and toddlers going about their daily lives: throwing food from a high chair; being left at nursery for the first time; settling down to sleep – all accompanied by detailed psychological analysis.
It's hugely seductive. The wealth of pictures invites you to substitute your own child for those in the various scenarios. Indeed, as the mother of a nearly 4-year-old and a nearly 2-year-old, I found it mildly unsettling to be so vividly catapulted back in time.
Studying the images of a baby gearing up for a breastfeed, I found myself hit with a flood of memories: the smell of human milk, the physical sensation of feeding a baby and the emotions it provokes. Which was when I caught myself thinking how nice it would be to have another tiny baby to care for. Did I warn you that this book is dangerous?
The aim of the book, says Murray, is threefold: fascinate, foster a greater understanding of normal child development, and encourage parents to trust their intuition. With the latter, for example, parents find out that those exaggerated expressions they catch themselves pulling at babies and the sing-song voices they adopt to go with them are completely natural, and actually benefit the child.
There is a fourth benefit, too, in the form of support for parents (and professionals) who may be struggling with challenging infant behaviour such as tantrums or aggression. "The understanding we can gain from the extensive research on child development, coupled with an attitude of careful observation as illustrated in this book, may be an invaluable support in our difficulties," writes Murray, optimistically.
And there is no doubt that The Psychology of Babies provides a more fascinating read for parents wishing to delve deeper into the inner world of their child than Gina Ford or other parenting gurus are ever likely to provide. But, in the end, is it really helpful?
I'm torn. On the one hand, it normalises what a lot of parents might find worrying about their child's behaviour, such as shyness debuting at a toddler group. Murray explains that a child burrowing into its parent's lap in new situations is perfectly fine – indeed, it is a sign of "secure attachment", a buzzword much-loved by child psychologists. Translation: your child has formed a close and trusting bond with you.
The book also has an excellent and reassuring section on settling children into childcare facilities, showing (rather than simply telling you) that a child who wails when they're handed over really can transform their mood within minutes of their parent leaving – assuming it's a good nursery.
Yet I wonder: how would it be for a truly struggling parent to learn about the various forms of insecure attachment and the long-term problems they can bring, such as aggression or social withdrawal? It might – and surely this is Murray's goal – encourage them to recognise troubling behaviours and seek help early. But it could just as easily provoke further anxiety.
Then there is the adjacent and inevitable problem that parents who read this book will be bound to compare their child's behaviour with that of similar-aged children shown in the photographs, and perhaps worry that they're not as advanced.
This isn't necessarily Murray's fault. For the most part, she does a great job of reassuring readers that deviations from the described patterns of behaviour are usually not cause for alarm. Reading any child psychology book would probably have the same effect on anxiety levels.
But that is at least part of the trouble with this book. It is simply too accessible, encouraging you to believe that you can become an armchair expert in child development just by leafing through its glossy pages. I felt tempted to reflect on families I know, and make judgements about a parent's psychological state – surely not a good thing. And if a parent is struggling, they would be better off seeking professional help than being led to believe they can solve the problems if only they study their child's behaviour hard enough.
What's more likely, though, is that parents will simply be struck by how closely their child's behaviour resembles the frame-by-frame illustrations. The more I read, the more it seemed that the book was a documentary of normality. Most sequences were so familiar that I began to feel rather turned-off. It was a bit like the feeling you get when you excitedly replay a milestone in your child's development to a fellow parent, only to have them reply: "Yeah, Tarquin does that too."
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