If mother and baby did not form an attachment by the time the infant turned one, the baby was far more likely to have sleeping problems, Dr Julian Morrell told the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Child and Adolescent Faculty Conference in Bristol yesterday. Other factors which could exacerbate bad nights included a mother's angry feelings towards the crying child or the baby's "difficult temperament".
But Dr Morrell, a senior lecturer in child psychiatry in Oxford, was immediately attacked by child experts who said his comments were "thoroughly unhelpful" and could only contribute to mothers' "insecurity and sense of guilt".
Around one in five infants regularly wake up in the night and once established the problem tends to persist, leading to about a quarter of parents seeking help. A child with sleeping problems is defined by one which wakes at least five times a week, or three times a night, or for half an hour or longer and has to come into the parental bed.
Dr Morrell looked at 64 mothers and babies aged between 14 to 16 months. Of these, 27 had sleeping problems. In the control group of 37, the babies only woke one night a week or very occasionally. In the sleep problems group half the babies had attachment problems compared with only one in twelve in the group which slept peacefully. "The difference is quite striking," said Dr Morrell.
Attachment between mother and child, Dr Morrell said, depended on "the quality and sensitivity of the interaction of the mother [or primary carer] as the child develops over the first year of life".
By the end of their first year the majority of babies became attached to their mother and showed distress if she left. But babies who did not form an attachment were characterised by not showing a sense of distress when she left or recognising her return. They also might show some distress, but primarily their feelings were of anger towards their mother, wriggling and squirming when they were picked up.
Dr Morrell said other factors which proved significant included the mother's behaviour - if she got angry at the infant's demands, felt doubt at her own competence or was depressed - or if the baby had a "difficult" temperament.
Mary Daly, spokeswoman for the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors' Association said yesterday: "This is thoroughly unhelpful and adds to the sense of guilt women feel and their insecurity as parents. It also shows our attitude to crying as a society. Babies cry because otherwise they would not survive . It calls us to their side so it can be a positive thing.
"Parents are exhausted by the birth and the crying further exhausts them. What would have been more helpful would be advice on practical interventions to help them," she concluded.
Dr Morrell said the research had important implications for treating sleeping problems and added: "If an insecure attachment is related to sleeping problems, leaving [such babies] to cry is going to make it even worse as they will feel even more insecure. We wanted to get people to think about these things in order to help parents."Reuse content