BACKGROUND: Children with cleft lip and palate are at risk for psychological problems. Difficulties in mother-child interactions may be relevant, and could be affected by the timing of lip repair. METHOD: We assessed cognitive development, behaviour problems, and attachment in 94 infants with cleft lip (with and without cleft palate) and 96 non-affected control infants at 18 months; mother-infant interactions were assessed at two, six and 12 months. Index infants received either 'early', neonatal, lip repair, or 'late' repair (3-4 months). RESULTS: Index infants did not differ from controls on measures of behaviour problems or attachment, regardless of timing of lip repair; however, infants having late lip repair performed worse on the Bayley Scales of Mental Development; the cognitive development of early repair infants was not impaired. Difficulties in early mother-infant interactions mediated the effects of late lip repair on infant cognitive outcome. CONCLUSIONS: Early interaction difficulties between mothers and infants having late repair of cleft lip are associated with poor cognitive functioning at 18 months. Interventions to facilitate mother-infant interactions prior to surgical lip repair should be explored.