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Leave your baby to cry, scientists say

Rosa Silverman
11 September 2012

Many parents instinctively want to rush to their baby’s side when they hear it crying, but new research suggests they would be better off leaving it for a bit.

Allowing an infant to settle itself does it no harm and can in fact enable both the child and the parent to get a better night’s sleep, scientists said.

A study of so-called behavioural sleep techniques such as controlled crying – where the parent waits a certain amount of time before settling the child - found they had no marked, long-lasting negative effects.

The risk of the mother suffering post-natal depression might also be reduced by practising the techniques, it suggested.

[Related article: Midwives 'should wait to cut cord']

Controlled crying has been a popular parenting choice, with some believing it trains babies to settle into a routine.

A parent using the method might leave their baby to cry for five minutes at first, before going to soothe them.

They would then leave and wait 10 minutes before going in again, then 20 before the next intervention, and so on.

An alternative method studied by the researchers was “camping out,” where the parent waits in the baby’s bedroom for it to fall to sleep.

The researchers from the University of Melbourne sampled 326 babies who were all at least seven months old and followed them up five years later to see whether those who had been subjected to sleep interventions had suffered any long-term harms or benefits.

[Related article: A third of parents lie about child sleep habits]

They also studied the mother’s experience.

They concluded: “Parents and health professionals can confidently use these techniques to reduce the short- to medium-term burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression.”

The scientists carried out their work following concerns that behavioural infant sleep interventions, although demonstrated to be effective in the short to medium-term, could ultimately harm children’s emotional development and subsequent mental health.

Their findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, appear to contradict those of another recent study suggesting that babies who are left to cry could feel “stressed” even after they settle down.

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