In response to The Times’ article, “Let them cry! Cold comfort teaches babies self-control”
11 March 2020
The Parent-Infant Foundation welcomes this research by Ayten Bilgin and Dieter Wolke (published on Wed 11th March, in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Link here). It adds to our understanding of parenting and early emotional development and should be reported and used responsibly. The authors of this study do not recommend “cold comfort” or leaving young babies to cry themselves to sleep. They conclude “we neither recommend leaving infant to cry it out nor responding immediately. Rather, our findings are consistent with an approach to parenting which is intuitive and adapts to [the] infant”.
There is a wealth of evidence that sensitive, responsive parenting is critically important for babies’ development. Getting enough sleep, both as a young baby and as a parent, is an important but often frustrating endeavour which is impacted by a wide range of factors. A sensitive, attuned parent takes their unique child’s individual characteristics, developmental stage, communications and needs into account when deciding when to comfort a child to sleep or when to leave a little space for the child to try some self-soothing. That is the space in which resilience can grow, where the baby can learn that they have their own resources to self-regulate. Supporting the baby on this learning journey might involve short periods of crying and ultimately help avoid parental exhaustion. This is different from persistently ignoring a baby until he or she falls asleep, unable to self-regulate but too exhausted to stay awake.
Crying it out is not a singular concept and is not defined in this paper. The study looked at leaving babies to ‘cry it out’ as part of a sleep routine but does not tell us about the broader detail of those babies’ sleep routines or their wider experiences of being parented.
This study reassures parents that a small amount of crying it out is unlikely to damage their child’s attachment or cause behavioural and emotional difficulties at 18 months. Similar conclusions were reached by a 5 year follow up of a randomised controlled trial in 2012. However, the finding that babies left to cry it out more frequently in early life then cry less in later life should be considered thoughtfully – this is not necessarily a good outcome. Crying is an important way for babies to communicate their needs well into their pre-school years until they have sufficient verbal ability to reduce their crying.
This paper raises interesting questions about the associations between sleep practices, maternal sensitivity and later emotional and behavioural development. We welcome further research which can unpick the causal relationships between these concepts.