Occasional cry-it-out has no adverse effects on infant–mother attachment or behavioural development

Last updated 18 March 2021

The debate over letting an infant ‘cry-it-out’ or responding immediately has been ongoing for decades. Now, researchers at the University of Warwick have provided important evidence to inform this debate.

Ayten Bilgin and Dieter Wolke conducted a longitudinal study involving 178 infants and their mothers. They examined the associations between the frequency of parents leaving their infant to cry-it-out at term, 3 months and 6 months of age and cry duration and frequency at 3, 6, and 18 months. They also investigated the association between the frequency of an infant being left to cry-it-out during the first 6 months of life and attachment type and behavioural outcomes at 18 months.

What will likely come as a relief to many parents is that Bilgen and Wolke found no adverse impact of leaving an infant to cry-it-out in early infancy on infant–mother attachment or behavioural development at 18 months. However, they did find that leaving infants to cry-it-out a few times at term was associated with shorter cry durations at 18 months-of-age. The researchers conclude that if used in a safe environment with a parent present, the cry-it-out technique does not seem to have a harmful impact on infants.

Referring to:

Bilgin, A. & Wolke, D. (2020), Parental use of ‘cry it out’ in infants: no adverse effects on attachment and behavioural development at 18 months. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatr. doi: 10.111/jcpp.13223.

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Dr Jessica Edwards
Jessica received her MA in Biological Sciences and her DPhil in Neurobehavioural Genetics from the University of Oxford (Magdalen College). After completing her post-doctoral research, she moved into scientific editing and publishing, first working for Spandidos Publications (London, UK) and then moving to Nature Publishing Group. Jessica is now a freelance editor and science writer, and started writing for “The Bridge” in December 2017.

Discussion

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Please now undertake a longitudinal study of these children to establish if they develop separation anxiety and signs of an insecure attachment! At a time when mothers experience what Winnicott describes as ‘Primary Maternal Preoccupation’ please don’t discourage mothers from becoming that good enough mother – allowing their baby to protest but not for so long that they experience abandonment.
Winnicott also says that A life built on the cumulative effect of reactions to impingement results in false-self living, which is no life at all’

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What about long term effects on personality development or coping styles of those children? The effect might not be on attachment style but on more profound aspects of self configuration or cognitive styles (i.e. views about the world)

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