A study of 178 newborns and their carers researched the long-term effects of leaving babies to ‘cry it out’.
The debate about whether it’s better to leave babies to cry or to soothe them immediately has gone on forever, some arguing that crying causes stress, others that it leads to better ‘self-soothing’.
Despite some headlines claiming the report came down in favour of self-soothing, in fact the researchers didn’t conclude for either side, suggesting that parents should be intuitive and adapt their style as their baby grows.
The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, examined the debate over whether parents should leave a wailing baby to “cry it out” or rush to their aid. Conventional ‘Attachment theory’ suggests that parents should dash to calm their infants, arguing that leaving them to cry could have knock-on effects in later years including the parent-child bond and raising the baby’s stress levels.
The counter-argument is that picking a baby up reinforces crying behaviour, and that parents should leave the child to ‘self-soothe’.
Bu t the researchers from the University of Warwick concluded that leaving infants to cry has no impact on their behavioural development or their attachment to their mother, but may help them develop self-control. Co-author Prof Dieter Wolke said parents should not worry too much about which approach they take, and added ‘We may have made a mountain out of a molehill.’
The researchers followed 178 babies and their mothers in the UK from birth to 18 months, with mothers asked to fill in questionnaires to report how often they left their baby to “cry it out” at several points in development: shortly after birth, then at three months, six months and 18 months. They were also asked how often and for how long their child cried at various point in the day as a newborn and at three months and 18 months.
At 18 months the team assessed the children’s behavioural development and attachment to their mother. The team found that mothers rarely left their baby to cry as newborns, but were more inclined to do so as the child grew older, with about two-thirds allowing the infant to cry sometimes or often by 18 months.
“We neither recommend leaving infants to cry out nor responding immediately,” the authors wrote. Prof Wolke said the findings suggested parents intuitively know how to best to respond to their infant, and both they and the child adapt over time.