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Interview with Lynne Murray

Watch this video. Jane Barlow interviews Lynne Murray, the author of 'The Psychology of Babies'
I’m here with Lynne Murray, who is professor of developmental psychology at the University of Reading. Lynne, in this course, we’re going to be looking at the way in which the parent’s mind shapes the interactional context of the infant, and the way in which that interactional context then shapes the baby’s developing mind. Can you tell us about the five key stages of the first two years of life in terms of the infant’s capacity for social understanding and cooperation? Certainly, yes.
There’s a remarkable shift from the very beginning– the newborn, who is prepared for social interactions but has very few capacities to the end of the first two years, when you have a child who can understand that other people think differently from themselves, who can cooperate with other people. And that huge transition takes place through various distinct stages. So in the newborn phase, we have a baby who is ready to engage socially from the start. Infants prefer to look at faces rather than non-face shapes. They like looking at eyes that are open and facing them, ready for social engagement. They prefer the sound of the human voice to any other sound.
And they also pick up the characteristics very quickly of the people who are going to be looking after them. So they prefer their mother’s face, their mother’s voice, their mother’s smell even, within the first few days. And that gets them launched into being ready to be in relationship with somebody else who will be committed to them and who will support their development. Beyond that, around two months, babies become intensely social. It’s known as a period of core-relatedness– when babies interact with other people with a wide range of expressions and gestures. They start to vocalise and smile.
And the people who interact with them slip into supporting them by mirroring back their expressions, marking out what’s important, and using their own support to give the infant the sense of affirming their own expressions and sustaining the baby’s social capacities. From around three to four months, that changes. And parents are often puzzled, because infants lose that intense interest in one to one, face to face engagement. And as their eyesight improves, as their reaching and manipulation skills improve, they start to shift their attention to the wider world. And that means that parents have to adjust in order to remain engaged with the baby and find things to share together with their infant.
In doing so, they typically start to play a whole range of body games– round and round the garden, pat-a-cake– or introduce toys or other objects into the interaction, which is the way in which they can sustain a good engagement. And that also helps the baby, because it helps the baby shift from just being focused on engagement with one other person to beginning to move into the wider social world, supported in their interest by somebody else. That stage lasts until around nine months, when we enter something where the infant becomes much more aware of the way other people are thinking about the world and presenting it to them. We call this stage, perhaps, one of ‘connected up relatedness’, or ‘joint attention’.
And at this stage, the infant will use the partner’s responses in relation to the world to guide their own experience. One of those key features is called social referencing. So if the infant’s confronted with something that’s a little bit unusual or puzzling to them, they will look to their parent nearby to see ‘what does the parent think about this?’ And they will note the parent’s expression, and then respond to this new thing in their environment according to the way the parent’s reacted. So if the parent looks worried or puzzled themselves, the infant will back off. If the parent looks encouraging and positive, the infant will go forward and engage.
So they’re really connecting up their experience of the social relationship with their experience of the wider world. But they still don’t know an awful lot about the fact that other people’s experiences can be different from their own. So at this stage, for example, if the parent asks them, can they have something to eat, the baby might choose something that they themselves know and like, forgetting about whether that might be the same for the parent or not. An infant at this stage can’t look at their reflection in the mirror and know that it’s themselves that they’re seeing. They will respond to the baby in the mirror as though it’s a playmate and perhaps try to engage with them.
So you get another shift towards the end of the second year, around 18 months onwards, where there’s a new capacity to reflect on mental experiences, including those of other people, and to understand that other people might think and feel differently from the way the baby themselves thinks, and also a capacity to see themselves more objectively. So at this age, they will perhaps, when confronted with a mirror, clearly show that they recognise that it’s themselves in that image. So Lynne, can you tell us what the implications of this is in terms of what the infant needs from the primary caregiver with regards to their self organisation? Yes.
Well, at each stage of the infant’s development through these first two years, they can use the parent support in different ways. So, at the newborn stage, where infant feelings are often very raw and extreme and they have no sense of their own capacity to organise themselves, what’s really needed is parental holding and containment, just warmth and comforting to help the baby feel himself together. But as he develops, say around the stage of core-relatedness at about two months, when a lot of social face to face interactions take place between the parent and the baby, parents are doing things without even thinking about it that actually support the baby’s capacities to self organise and self regulate.
So we think about those early interactions. They’re by no means perfect. Parents don’t understand all their baby’s cues. They don’t always respond at exactly the perfect level of intensity. And there are often what are called mismatches where they misunderstand each other or the infant may have some unexpected event happening, like hiccuping or a loud noise that disrupts them. And at those moments, parents can do a lot to help the baby’s self regulation skills by noticing the infant’s reactions and just gently supporting.
Perhaps if they’ve made a mistake, they’ve misunderstood, they’ve reacted in too extreme a way, they notice that the infant got disregulated by that, they can repeat the same thing again in a much gentler way, helping the infant to cope with that experience so they have the constant experience of things going a little bit wrong, but then being put back together. And this has been shown to promote their self regulation skills.
Through the next stage, beyond three, four months, it’s very typical for these games that happen between parents and infants in this kind of topic-based relatedness phase to exercise the baby’s emotions, to take them to quite an extreme degree, and get the baby up to a very excited pitch, but in a safe context, where the infant can practise regulating difficult feelings. So they may use techniques like gaze aversion, just taking a break from the interaction when it gets very intense, using capacities to self regulate, perhaps sucking on their thumbs.
And if parents can take infants, help them go to points of extreme excitement and tension but also respect their need to just take a pause and self regulate down, again, this can be helpful in promoting the infant’s self regulation abilities. And then through the next months, fathers typically get into playing more boisterous body games with infants that, again, really push their level of excitement and intensity to the limits that are comfortable, and then help them recover from them again. As you go on to the stage of connected up relatedness, when babies can use other people’s feelings and expressions to guide their own experience, this is a key way for infants’ emotions to be regulated.
They can look to the parent for guidance and look to their responses and organise their own feelings in accord with what the parent’s showing them is meaningful about the environment. Then finally, as you get to the stage of this more cooperative relatedness, parents can begin to build on infants’ impulses to want to share experiences and help them to become used to helping and joining in. And this lays the foundations for good self regulation and cooperation and avoids babies developing aggressive behaviour problems.
At the same time, because infants can now understand what’s in other people’s minds and know that they’re different and language begins to develop, parents can begin to use techniques now of reasoning and of explaining why you should do something, why you shouldn’t do something. And this, again, can be internalised by the baby and taken on board as part of the way that he regulates his own difficult feelings. Lynne, that’s fascinating. Thank you very much. Pleasure.

In this interview Professor Lynne Murray explains some of the underpinning concepts from her book The Psychology of Babies. She depicts the five core stages of relatedness: newborn, core relatedness, topic-based relatedness, connected-up relatedness and co-operative relatedness (see the next step for more detail about these), and describes what it is that the infant needs from the primary caregiver at each stage.

Watch the video, then go onto the next step and read her description of these stages and look at some of the wonderful photo-images of parents and babies interacting at each of the different stages of relatedness, taken from her book.

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Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

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