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 several 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 his or 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 and communicate respectfully” (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.
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 essay “Who’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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