Leaving babies to ‘cry it out’ has no adverse effects on child development, new study suggests

New research has revealed leaving a baby to cry is no worse than soothing (Getty)
New research has revealed leaving a baby to cry has no adverse effects on child development. (Getty)

Should you leave a crying baby to “cry it out” or rush to their side? It is one of the most controversial parenting topics.

Advocates claim crying it out helps babies learn to self-soothe, which ultimately results in them getting a better night’s sleep. But critics express concern about the potential emotional harm of leaving a baby to cry.

New research has suggested that parents who do opt to leave their little ones to cry should not be wracked with guilt as it does not appear to have an adverse impact on their behavioural development as a toddler.

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What’s more, the findings showed that babies who were left to cry it out cry less and for shorter periods of time.

Also known as controlled crying, crying it out is a sleep training method popular with a lot of parents.

Established by Dr Richard Feber in the 80s, the idea behind the technique is that you leave your baby to self-settle without your help.

Researchers from the University of Warwick followed 178 infants and their mums over 18 months and assessed whether parents intervened immediately when their baby cried or let the infant cry it out.

The child’s behavioural development and attachment to their parent were also assessed.

The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, revealed that the use of the technique was rare when a baby was born, but increased over the child’s first 18 months.

Findings revealed there were no adverse impacts on the infant-mother attachment from leaving infants to “cry it out” in the first six months.

Following an assessment of a cognitive test and a play session, researchers also found no difference in behavioural development at 18 months between children left to cry or those soothed straight away.

Additionally, a child’s “cry duration” was found to be lower at 18 months if parents left their infants to cry it out for a few times when they were born – and often at three months, the authors said.

“Frequency of leaving infants to cry it out in the first six months in infancy was not found to be associated with either adverse behavioural effects on infant development or infant–mother attachment at 18 months of age,” they wrote.

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A new study has revealed leaving a baby to cry it out 'won't do them any harm' (Getty)
A new study has revealed leaving a baby to cry it out 'won't do them any harm' (Getty)

The authors were keen to point out that their research neither recommends leaving infant to cry out nor responding immediately.

Many parents responded intuitively to their babies – going to them immediately when they cried when they were younger, then waiting as the child got older to see if they could calm themselves, the authors said.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Ayten Bilgin, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick, said: “Only two previous studies nearly 50 or 20 years ago had investigated whether letting babies ‘cry it out’ affects babies’ development.

“Our study documents contemporary parenting in the UK and the different approaches to crying used.”

The lead study author, Professor Dieter Wolke, said: “We have to give more credit to parents and babies.

“Most parents intuitively adapt over time and are attuned to their baby’s needs, wait a bit before intervening when crying and allow their babies the opportunity to learn to self-regulate.

“Most babies develop well despite their parents intervening immediately or not to crying.”

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For parents are undecided about whether controlled crying is the right method for their child, Rachel Fitz-Desorgher, baby expert at The Baby Show and author of Your Baby Skin To Skin, has some words of advice.

”Until the age of six months, babies are unable to learn routines and good (and bad) habits – some babies are naturally more content and settled than others and what parents do to change that makes little difference,” she told Yahoo UK.

“From six months, they become able to learn how to self-settle at nap times and overnight and then the efforts parents make to ‘sleep train’ can really start to bear fruit.

“Remember though, just because your friend decides to sleep train doesn't mean you should – there is no right or wrong and it is perfectly fine to continue to rock or nurse your older baby off to sleep if that is what suits you better.’

If you do decide to sleep train, Fitz-Desorgher suggests make the most of your little one's natural developmental leaps and waiting until they have turned six months old.

It isn’t the first time the topic of controlled crying has been discussed. Last year an economic professor who advised parents to leave their babies to “cry it out” sparked a debate online.

In her book Cribsheet, Emily Oster claims that babies sleep better if they are trained from a young age.

The mum-of-two claims the controversial method does not damage children and will not make children less attached to their parents.

But while she believes the method has many positives, she added that it was every parent’s “personal choice” how to raise their baby.

Additional reporting: PA