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Health & Fitness

It’s okay to let your baby cry much longer

A child looking sad
A child looking sad. It’s okay to let your baby cry much longer. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Children bring joy to many families. Their laughter, chatter and playful nature enlighten the mood in households.

But they can also be a source of distress or bother when they cry incessantly for no apparent reason or just to cause a tantrum.

Even though most parents can tell when their babies' cries are not genuine, many usually fear to ignore them out of concern that the incessant cries can affect their development adversely.

"I know my child very well. And depending on how the cry sounds, I can tell if he's hungry, wet, hurt or sick. I can also tell when he's just playing around or crying so as to get his way and do things he’s not supposed to be doing,” says Mercy Njeri who has a 16-month-old baby boy.

A new study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry has found that leaving an infant to “cry it out” from birth up to 18 months does not adversely affect their behaviour development or attachment to their parents.

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The research revealed that letting babies cry for a while to see whether they can calm themselves may help children to learn how to self-regulate and to develop a first sense of self.

The study dealt with an issue that has been a bone of contention for parents all over the world. Some believe that it is crucial to pick up babies and attempt to comfort them as soon as they begin crying, while others are of the opinion that letting them cry for a while or self-soothe does them no harm.

According to the researchers from the UK based university of Warwick, all these diverse opinions were made without much scientific evidence. Based on their knowledge, only two previous studies - done nearly 50 or 20 years ago - had investigated whether letting babies 'cry it out' affects their development.

The new research therefore sought to offer clarity on the matter, by providing “fresh” insights that contemporary parents can use.

While undertaking the study, the researchers followed 178 infants and their mums over 18 months.

During this period, they repeatedly assessed whether parents intervened immediately when their baby cried or whether they let them ‘cry it out’ a few times or often.

Through questionnaires, mothers provided information about how long they let their children cry - shortly after birth, as well as at three months, six months and 18 months. They also availed information about the duration their children cried at various points in the day during the same period.

At three and 18 months, the researchers explored how sensitive the mothers were towards their infants, using video-recorded interactions between the two.

They also assessed the babies’ behavioral development and attachment to their mothers. This was done using a procedure know as the Strange Situation Test that assesses how securely an infant is attached to its major caregiver during separation and reunion episodes.

The information about the behavioural development of the children during this period was obtained through direct observation (as they played with their mothers), assessments by a psychologist and responses given by parents through questionnaires at 18 months.

The results of the study revealed that whether parents respond immediately, or leave their babies to cry much longer makes no difference on the short-term and longer-term relationship or attachment that the children have with them. It does not also have an impact on the children’s behaviour.

Findings of the study further showed that mothers who let babies ‘cry it out’ a few times or often were not less sensitive in their parenting. In addition, the research showed that most mothers parent intuitively and learn from their infants.

Indeed, it was noted during the study that shortly after birth, most mothers attended to their children immediately ey cried. But as the children grew older, the mothers tended to wait a bit to see whether the babies could calm themselves. This helped the babies to learn self-regulation.

"We have to give more credit to parents and babies. Most parents intuitively adapt over time and are attuned to their baby's needs. They usually wait a bit before intervening when their babies are crying.

This gives the children an opportunity to learn to self-regulate. And most babies develop well despite their parents intervening immediately or not to crying," said Professor Dieter Wolke, the lead author of the study from the University of Warwick.

“This differential responding allows babies to learn over time to self-regulate during the day and also during the night,” added Dr Ayten Bilgin from the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick.

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