elevating child care

Bonding With Babies – Where RIE and Attachment Parenting Differ

“I have only recently found your blog and been introduced to RIE and I must say a lot of it really resonates with me and makes beautiful sense!  I have to admit I’m having a little trouble with the concept of child-led play though. I’m also taken with the Attachment Parenting style which highly advocates baby-wearing and letting the child experience your day with you. They also advocate high touch/less STUFF (so in that way the concepts are similar), and I’m not sure how the styles would mesh. A lot of what I’m reading about RIE makes total sense to me but AP parenting does as well, and while a lot of it cohabitates beautifully I’m not quite sure how these work together. Maybe just because I haven’t seen it in action? Any advice?”  - Jessie

An increasing number of parents are reporting that they are combining Magda Gerber’s RIE approach and Attachment Parenting. Since I haven’t done that myself, I’d love to hear readers’ experiences in the Comments Section (below).

RIE and AP are distinctly different in both theory and practice, although both approaches could be considered valid routes toward secure attachment — both are responsive to the child’s needs. Where they diverge most is in their recommendations for bonding in the first year. These differences are reflective of the way each school of thought perceives infants’ needs and abilities.

Attachment Parenting views the baby’s first nine months as a “fourth trimester” and suggests that infants derive comfort and security from an environment that is as “womblike” as possible. Maintaining constant close contact with the mother is also thought to help babies regulate themselves physiologically. So, among AP’s primary recommendations are: a) keeping babies attached to the parent’s body in a carrier for the majority of the day; and b) co-sleeping.

In the Attachment Parenting model, this almost constant connectedness helps parents become attuned to their baby’s needs. The parent trusts the infant to indicate readiness to be independent of the parent’s arms.

RIE perceives infants as dependent but innately competent self-learners ready to actively participate in life and begin forming communication partnerships with their parents at birth. RIE recommends speaking to even the youngest infants directly and respectfully (“Now I’m going to wipe your back with this warm washcloth”), and suggests parents pay full attention to babies and engage their participation during “relationship-building” routines like baths, feedings and diaper changes. In between naps and care-giving routines, RIE suggests providing infants opportunities to move freely and initiate self-chosen activities in a safe play area. Parents practice observing sensitively in order to become attuned to their baby’s needs (including her need to be held).

So, one could generalize that Attachment Parenting’s focus is building healthy attachments through physical connectedness, while the RIE approach emphasizes the development of a mind connection. Their core recommendations might be summed up as: “Keep your baby close” (Attachment Parenting) and “Pay attention” (RIE).

These would seem to be mutually supportive, compatible practices. End of story?

Not necessarily, according to RIE founder Magda Gerber and Jean Liedloff, whose book “The Continuum Concept” has been an inspiration to AP advocates. Interestingly, both Gerber and Liedloff  expressed views on “keeping babies close” and “paying attention” that are not only divergent, they are diametrically opposed.

“Before attending RIE classes, I had carried my daughter everywhere. Starting from three months, I soon learned that I could let go and still stay profoundly connected. My daughter taught herself to roll over and sit up and walk, teaching me in the process that I could let her. She taught me that there are all kinds of things she can do without me”. – A RIE parent from Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

Magda Gerber agreed with AP founder Dr. William Sears and Liedloff that babies have an essential need to be touched and held, but she also believed the positive effect of touch was greatly diminished when there was little direct attention paid to the baby. “What is the value of being held or touched if it’s only the skin that is in contact?  What about your minds connecting, or to become more philosophical, your souls?” asks Gerber in Your Self-Confident Baby.

Profoundly influenced by her pediatrician Dr. Emmi Pikler, who was a pioneering advocate of unrestricted infant movement and unassisted natural gross motor development, Gerber also argued that the extended use of carriers was too confining for babies and impeded them from moving “according to their readiness”.

“Most animals can show affection only through touch, be we humans have an extensive, varied and refined repertoire of ways to demonstrate love. To me, a mature, evolved person shows love by respecting the “otherness” of the beloved. You become a good parent not only by listening to your instinctive messages but by paying close attention to your baby, by observing the infant. Sensitive observation flows from respect.” - Gerber

Like Gerber and Pikler, Jean Liedloff’s opinions were shaped through extensive observation. While Pikler and Gerber observed babies interacting with caregivers and initiating “child-led play” activities of their own in safe, enclosed play areas, the Yequana Indian babies Liedloff observed spent the majority of their day safely nestled in their mothers’ arms or attached to their bodies in carriers:

“…this in-arms experience had an impressively salutary effect on the babies and they were no “trouble” to manage. Their bodies were soft and conformed to any position convenient to their bearers — some of whom even dangled their babies down their backs while holding them by the wrist. The baby passively participates in the bearers running, walking, laughing, talking, working, and playing.” – Liedloff, The Importance of the In Arms Phase 

So Gerber and Liedloff disagreed about the value of the “in-arms” experience. Their views about “attention” conflict even more dramatically. Liedloff’s is a more adult-directed view:

“…it is also important that caretakers not just sit and gaze at the baby or continually ask what the baby wants, but lead active lives themselves. Occasionally one cannot resist giving a baby a flurry of kisses; however, a baby who is programmed to watch you living your busy life is confused and frustrated when you spend your time watching him living his. A baby who is in the business of absorbing what life is like as lived by you is thrown into confusion if you ask him to direct it.” – Liedloff

While Gerber believed “gazing” was crucial for bonding and attunement:

“As you carefully observe your newborn, you will discover her unique personality. You will see your real child as she is rather that the “imaginary child” of your own creation. You observe her so that, in time, you will understand her likes and dislikes, moods, and abilities. And understanding these things will help you to better care for her, communicate with her, and improve your relationship.” – Gerber

In Liedloff’s essayWho’s In Control? The Unhappy Consequences of Being Child-Centered”, she asserts that giving babies too much direct attention when what they want and need is to be passive “spectators” is what commonly causes them to become “terrible twos”, bossy, demanding, angry, rude and defiant. Whereas the Yequana Indian children never had conflicts with peers or adults; never interrupted an adult conversation; “rarely spoke at all in the company of adults, confining themselves to listening and performing little services such as passing around food or drink.”

“The crucial difference is that the Yequana are not child-centered. They may occasionally nuzzle their babies affectionately, play peek-a-boo, or sing to them, yet the great majority of the caretaker’s time is spent paying attention to something else…not the baby! Children taking care of babies also regard baby care as a non-activity and, although they carry them everywhere, rarely give them direct attention. 

Being played with, talked to, or admired all day deprives the babe of this in-arms spectator phase that would feel right to him. Unable to say what he needs, he will act out his discontentment.” - Liedloff

In Gerber’s view paying attention could never be a problem and is, in fact, the key to raising healthy, happy children:

The more you invest in those first early years of parenting, the easier your life could be later on. You won’t have to be a slave to a child who has been raised with aware, respectful attention. It can be the difference between nagging, neglected (withdrawn or aggressive) children and those who will make it in life independently, with strength and confidence. - Gerber

I offer these viewpoints as a discussion opener and really hope you’ll share your thoughts and experiences…



(Photo by Gemma Stiles on Flickr)

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153 Responses to “Bonding With Babies – Where RIE and Attachment Parenting Differ”

  1. avatar Janell says:

    I have many years of experience with attachment parenting as outlined by Attachment Parenting International (API), and have just recently discovered RIE which I find VERY similar in practice to the core ideals of API, so I was very interested in reading this article and the comments. I realize there are many interpretations of what AP is, and is not, however this is how API defines AP: Attachment Parenting International’s (API) core ethos is really a frame of mind that we promote as a habit or practice of mind ~ respect, empathy, compassion and reflection in thought, speech and action toward all (self, other adults, youth and children). I would like to invite anyone interested in checking out API’s website for information and support with the Principles of Attachment Parenting as outlined by API. http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/api
    I do not see AP as a checklist of do’s and don’ts, rather guidelines and tools to help foster a relationship based on mutual respect, so AP is not child centered, it is family centered, with an emphasis on balance in family life. If my only understanding of AP is what is offered in this article, and the comments, I would be opposed to AP as a practice, however, in my experience, I see AP very differently than forcing a baby to be contained in a carrier the majority of the day, quieting cries, and utilizing time-outs. And in actuality, these examples, in my opinion, are very non-AP practices.

    • avatar janet says:

      Janell – I would be interested to know your thoughts on this video, which was posted on an AP/Homeschooling Facebook page that also claims to promote “respectful parenting”: https://www.facebook.com/happinessishereblog/posts/432127393609450

      The way this baby/toddler is treated is the antithesis of the RIE approach… It is baffling to me that anyone could consider this respectful practice. Yet, the page owner and her followers lauded it as a helpful “tip”. To me, this brief illustration speaks volumes about the differences between RIE and AP.

  2. avatar Heidi says:

    I am going to start by saying that I don’t like all these names we give to parenting, although I understand the need for them. It gets confusing and more often causes ‘lines in the sands’ then community, in my opinion.

    Aside from that, my sister was very big into the Attachement Parenting and although I could understand her point of view I also knew that something was missing. I’ve carried all my children on me when it was convenient for me to do so and when I felt they needed some extra ‘mom-time’ but I needed to get stuff done. I enjoyed baby-wearing but didn’t go out of my way to do it all the time or often at home. I encouraged my kids to spend time on their backs, close to me so I could talk to them, play with them, while I did my work. I still think that the whole ‘tummy-time’ thing is a little wierd – my kids spent time on their tummies but more often on their backs until they could roll over by themselves. My son didn’t like being carried on my back at all and I either had to tie him so tight he couldn’t move or risk him pushing himself right out of the carrier – so for safety sake – we didn’t do this for very long and when he wants down I let him down, ( i listen to him)

    As for co-sleeping, I fought it with my second daughter, until I was exhausted because my husband wasn’t comfortable with it. Then in order to keep my sanity and get some sleep I gave in, she slept with me for about a month before I transitioned her to the bassinet, then the crib, then her own bed – all on her time and when she was ready. My son followed the same thing, I listened to what they needed but encouraged independent sleep because I have a few insomnia issues that co-sleeping doesn’t help with. But again I listened to them.

    I think the two styles can be meshed together by just being close and aware of your children and what they need, but also what you as a mother needs. The biggest thing these two ideals have in common – in my eyes – is their want to get away from the crime and punishement upbringing that is the norm and has been taught to parents for a long time.

    Both are trying to respect a child’s needs and are trying to understand how best to interpret and learn from those needs. We as parents can only trust our instincts, seek help from people with a like mind, and above all respect ourselves and our children.

    Thanks Janet for the great post!

    • Heidi – I agree completely with what you say. When I had my kids, I discovered Leidloff and many others whose ideas made so much sense to me. At that time, these labels weren’t really there. I took from all of these “experts” what resonated, and didn’t label my parenting. Both AP and RIE have really good ideas and inspiration. I don’t so much like the concept that parents “belong” to one or the other.

  3. I so love the concept of RIE. If you read Magda Gerber’s quotes it just feels so right. I do think attachment parenting is important, but I have seen a number of parents taking the baby wearing to extremes, apparently in the believe that if they carry their baby at all times they have AP covered. Good parenting is all about understanding as much as possible, so in reality AP and RIE are not that different. It’s nice for Janet to have managed to eke out the differences though. A great read, thank you.

  4. avatar Sara says:

    Jean Liedhoff inspired AP; but AP is much more than just her theories. This article is a good representation of RIE, but not a good representation of AP. AP parents are very attuned to their babies needs. They put babies down and pick them back up again according to their babies’ cues. My baby wanted to be in her carrier 100% of the time (except when taking long naps) until she was 3.5 months old. Then she wanted down, and started rolling over and over… :) AP parents are unlikely to spend all day doing chores and ignoring the babies on their backs. That is completely unlike anyone I know. I follow AP 100%, especially in regards to crying and attachment. But I love the respect and attention sides of RIE. To me, RIE is a good add-on to my AP style of parenting. I like the gentle discipline suggestions that I find in RIE. They work well with AP.

  5. avatar Isabelle says:

    Dear Janet,

    I’ve been reading your posts for a few months now. I agree with so much of what you write and feel like I could learn so much more from you. You are a great teacher of RIE.

    Unfortunately, a few of your posts have made me feel like unsubscribing. Specifically, it’s the way you talk about AP. I’ve read many other people’s reactions to your comments about AP, so I don’t feel the need to add mine, just that I feel completely turned off, enough that I want to unsubscribe.. :(

    I would love to continue learning about RIE. But maybe, if you could, just talk about RIE, the subject you are an expert on, and leave AP for others to talk about. Your comments on AP (and it could be anything else you disagreed with), only distract from the value of the teaching that you do and alienates people. I don’t feel like RIE needs to put down any other approach in order to be a good one.

    Thank you for listening.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Isabelle! I appreciate your feedback. It would be helpful if you could specify where (or how) I have “put down” AP in this discussion, because that has certainly not been my intention.

      I’m sorry you feel alienated by the comparison I have presented (which was only meant as a response to the question I was originally asked!).

  6. avatar Mary says:

    To me AP is modeled after life in a tribal culture in which the group is together all the time, people don’t wish alone time and people will continue to work alongside each other long-term. Our culture includes expectations of alone time, including in bed at night and that children will leave parents to go to school (at 5 or before) and that they will go to soccer games, to camp, and have very separate lives, over time. I think examining what we want: children who are dependent on adults to be physically present most of the time, including at night in order to sleep, prolonged night-time nursing, a need for constant interaction with an adult, a reluctance to play alone or to leave the parent, then AP is certainly a simple choice. However, AP, to me, makes it harder for children to self-soothe, learn to go to sleep on their own or without nursing, sleep through the night, choose to be apart from parents. I encounter parents who are tired of being waked up at night by children who do not know how to go back to sleep on their own, who are tired of co-sleeping, who are tired of night nursing, who are tired of having children who demand constant attention and interaction. These children may be 3,4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 years old! With each passing month, changing these expectations becomes more difficult, leading to the need for events like what is called “cry it out.” For these people, their understanding of AP has become a problem. For Western cultures, I believe that RIE balances the needs of the child and the needs of the parent, and creates clear boundaries in attention and dependence that can clearly evolve over time. I have been a Montessori teacher working with parents and children for over 20 years.

  7. avatar Isobel says:

    Just a few points to throw in : joan liedloff is to AP what Dr.Pikler is to Rie , So I think it would be fair to also have some quotes from Dr.Pikler’s book. dr. Pikler was also concerned about too much attention. Furthermore mrs liedloff observed native tribes deep in the rainforest , people going about their lifes as we all were thousand years ago As ” innocent ” One can be , unscarred by modern culture. I do believe that Dr.Pikler’s was observing mostly privelaged families from Hungaria perhaps the very oposite to the latter Both made conclusion based on what they saw and both of them dared to looked outside the box and found what was missing. They were both correct believe it or not if we just dare to look beyond the labels and think for ourselves . (I believe that mrs liedloff said herself that her book was never meant to be a parenting guide vs magda gerber who is an expert in the field ) … Any way all the best….you are doing a great job xxx

    • avatar janet says:

      Isobel – please share Dr. Pikler’s quotations about “too much attention” and the source. I have never heard of her having concerns. I agree that it seems Pikler is to RIE what Liedloff is to AP, although Pikler was a far more active mentor, who worked closely with Magda Gerber. I am personally very impressed by Pikler’s work and have no disagreement with it.

  8. avatar Erin says:

    I practiced attachment parenting, and have just been reading your blog since my son was a toddler. I wish I’d known your method when he was a baby. While I don’t disagree with anything in attachment parenting, it doesn’t put emphasis on setting appropriate personal boundaries. I didn’t realize that I had trouble setting boundaries, and though giving too much of yourself is not how attachment parenting is supposed to work, it also doesn’t teach you how not to, and I understand it’s not an uncommon problem.

    I like your emphasis on teaching babies to play independently, and setting firm, consistent boundaries, it has helped me immensely.

    I also agree with the above poster, that Liedloff’s theories are not quite synonymous with AP. Dr. Sears emphasizes responsiveness to the child more than the child being a passive observer.

    So I think RIE fills in what was missing in AP for me. The two seem to me to work nicely together.

  9. avatar Ali says:

    My 1 1/2 year old and I are delving in to RIE parenting. We did attachment panting for the first 6 months of his life and that was before I ever knew the RIE style existed. I know that RIE is pretty much dead set against baby wearing, but I don’t think we will be packing away our ring sling anytime soon. I was iffy on the childred play until I saw how much my kid was growing in independence and motor skills by having the freedom to explore and manipulate his toys the way he saw fit.

    Sometimes my son will bring me the sling when he wants to be apart of dish washing or any other project of mine that is out of his reach. I let him decided whether he wants to go in the sling or not, and I listen to his need to get back out and explore on his own once more. I am sure that is breaking some rule somewhere but it really works for us.

  10. I hear the rallying cry of 10,000 physical therapists over “tummy time.” :)

    Full disclosure: I know much more about the issues of common parents around AP than I do RIE because I’ve participated extensively on message boards. I agree that there are issues surrounding boundaries with AP, as it was a common theme on the message boards. However, I can see where there are potential issues with RIE, including forced independence at an early age.

    The core of both practices seem to be respecting the needs of a baby AND trusting that a baby knows what he or she needs to develop according to his or her own timeline. I don’t believe that one method is better than the other, and I’d go as far to say that they can truly complement each other when not taken to their extremes. AP recognizes that babies need close contact with their parents to learn that the world is a safe, secure place and learn the skills needed to live in the world and RIE seems to recognize that babies are individuals who need space to grow and explore on their own ways to live in the world (again, I’m not an expert on RIE here.) Expecting a baby to “self-soothe” before they are ready and able is equally as problematic as dropping everything the second the baby makes a single peep.

    I have to say a word about self-soothing, as it was mentioned in the comments and is a concept that has bothered me for some time. It takes time to learn emotion regulation (which includes self-soothing) and healthy emotion regulation needs to be modeled. (Side note: many adults do not have healthy emotion regulation skills.) Babies cannot learn this on their own by being left to their own devices. I’ve always likened this concept to expecting a child to add and subtract by giving them a worksheet and telling them to figure it out on their own without instruction. Here is a great article on the issue of self-soothing: http://evolutionaryparenting.com/educating-the-experts-lesson-four-self-soothing/

    • avatar janet says:

      Jennifer – with respect, you lost me at the end of your first paragraph when you said: “forced independence at an early age”. The RIE approach has nothing to do with “forcing” independence (or forcing anything else, for that matter). Nor would we ever “expect” babies to self-soothe. Those are common misinterpretations of RIE that stem from the common misperception of babies as mindless, completely lacking in ability, and without ideas of their own. It is from that outdated (soon, I hope) perspective that one believes that self-directed independent play or self-soothing would need to be forced on babies.

  11. avatar Cindy says:

    My daughter is 21 months old and I have raised her so far similar to the guidelines of AP but I have only recently learned of REI and have been reading as much as I can to try and learn the best way to take care of my daughter who is now a toddler. I find the article by Leidloff very interesting and I have been thinking a lot about it. Correct me if I’m totally off but I don’t think it’s appropriate for Leidloff to use her observations from the group of Indians to state that being child-centered causes issues with our kids. My reason is that, although I would love to raise my daughter like these Indians do their kids, it’s not possible as I am alone with her most of the time. Of course her father comes home in the evenings and we keep our days busy with play dates and park visits, however there is no one else at home to interact with her most of the time. I would love to live in a group like the Indians do and dream of moving off to join a commune of some sort, or even wish my mom would retire and we could all live in a big house together but this just isn’t the reality for us right now. I think the idea of not paying attention to your kid only works when there are other people around. Even when I have my niece and nephew once in a while when my sister works she drops them off, the kids play together well and I can go about my day completing tasks and not completely focused on the kids and I think that’s wonderful and healthy. However I’m afraid that the non-child centered approach is a terrible idea when it’s just one caregiver and child. If my daughter is looking for my attention and I’m the only one in the house I’m definitely going to pay attention to her and respond to her needs and to do otherwise I feel is neglect.

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