Blue Sky Thinking

“Take the mobile off the bed, take care of their needs, and leave them alone.” This odd sentence was my introduction to Magda Gerber and the child care philosophy that would become my passion. I had given birth a few months before reading this quotation, the only one by Gerber, in an article in L.A. Parent magazine about raising a creative child.

I remember nothing else about the article, but I could not get Gerber’s unconventional advice out of my mind. I was, at that point, a lost and desperate new mother, who, in spite of reading books and getting plenty of well-meaning advice from relatives and friends, was miserable with the clueless, catch-as-catch-can feeling I had about the way I was caring for my newborn. I sensed that Magda Gerber held the answers I needed to understand child rearing. A few weeks later I called the phone number for Gerber’s organization, Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), and I attended a Parent/Infant Guidance Class with my three-month-old baby. But first let me backtrack a bit.

I was stunned that my natural maternal instincts didn’t suddenly kick in after my first daughter was born. I expected to know how to take care of my baby. I found that I did not, and the constant uncertainty was draining. I was exhausted and perplexed by my beautiful bundle of unrelenting demands. Besides fulfilling her physical needs, I felt I should entertain her in every waking moment, resting only while she slept.

In my quest to keep my baby duly occupied at all times, I made essential use of the modern contraptions commonly marketed for new parents. She had a musical mobile over her bed. (God forbid she should open her eyes without entertainment!) She had a mechanical swing that lulled her into a glassy-eyed, trancelike stupor and sometimes made her briefly sleep, but left her parents feeling uneasy. During the day, I hung a musical stuffed cow from a light fixture and played it again and again for her as she sat strapped in an infant seat on the dining table, and the mystifying fact that the cow played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” only added to my crazed confusion. I was overwhelmed, anxious, and panicked, and I wasn’t even sure why.

When I brought my daughter to our first Parent/Infant Class, the facilitator asked me to lay her on her back on a blanket on the floor. For two hours she lay awake, looking around a bit, sucking her thumb from time to time. I saw a unique person, separate from me in every way. I saw an infant with her own thoughts who didn’t need me or a musical cow–she didn’t need anything for two hours! It was a parental epiphany. I found new appreciation for my infant as a whole person, no longer seeing her as a needy extension of me. I was fascinated by watching her and trying to imagine her thoughts. On top of that, I was now able to envision time in my day to breathe, relax, and enjoy my daughter–and even leave her for brief periods of time while she was awake.

I continued to attend class with my baby once a week. Magda Gerber’s philosophy turned what little I knew about child rearing inside-out. I began to see the world from my daughter’s point of view. I began to understand Magda’s quote in the L.A. Parent article about a child’s creativity. Let’s start with her injunction to take the mobile off the bed.

Infants are individuals unto themselves. Artists and creative people, whether they are painters, musicians, writers, architects, designers, or philosophers, have by definition embraced and honed their individuality and express a unique vision to the world. If an infant can begin to spend time gazing at, listening to, and later touching and examining what interests him in his surroundings, rather than being forced to see and hear a mobile above his face every time he wakes up, or a rattle being shaken in front of him, then he has a better chance of staying in touch with his own unique essence. There are only a few choices an infant has the opportunity of making in his world, so let’s allow him to make those choices. If we have artwork or a wonderful mobile that we want to share with a child, then we can place it in his room somewhere for him to choose to focus on it, if and when he wishes to do so.

The second part of Magda Gerber’s quotation highlights the need for parents to take advantage of routine but important aspects of caring. If we give an infant our undivided attention when we feed him, bathe him, diaper him and prepare him for bedtime, then we fulfill both his physical needs and his needs for closeness. Magda encourages us to take advantage of these intimate, cooperative activities that are naturally conducive to togetherness, rather than rushing through them to make way for playtime. When a child can soak up a parent’s full attention during caring routines, he is then refueled and ready to play independently.

And this thought brings me to the last part of Magda’s quotation: “leave them alone.”

“Leaving an infant alone” sounds cold and heartless, but the freedom to self-direct “play” time can be best thing for a child. Giving a child (whose basic needs are met) uninterrupted time to “be” breeds creativity and self-confidence. A parent can quietly observe and enjoy the baby’s activities or be in a room nearby, ready to respond as needed. Second or third children in a family are usually given more of this free time because their parents are more relaxed and have less energy to stimulate and entertain. “Benign neglect,” Magda called it.

A recent article in the New York Times,Your Baby is Smarter Than You Think,” by Alison Gopnik stresses the importance of ‘blue-sky speculation,’ an opportunity to “imagine different ways the world might be.” A baby self-directing his activities in a safe place can begin to develop his own view of life. Time alone allows a child to commune with his inner-directed thoughts. He has the chance to absorb every interesting detail in his environment with all of his senses. He is fully in tune with himself; he is at peace.

And this basic insight first conveyed to me by the words of Magda Gerber can have life-long benefits for tomorrow’s complex world. As author Daniel Pink writes in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future our children need to be prepared to “survive and thrive” in the emerging world he calls the Conceptual Age. Nurturing their blue-sky speculation from the start can provide a strong foundation for developing creative and strategic thinking. “These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

Infants are big picture thinkers, if we can just give them time to think.


To learn more about Magda Gerber‘s life-changing approach and how to put it into practice, I recommend her books: Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby… and also my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Kathleen Mazzola says:

    Beautiful! What a great article! I’ll be reading all of them.
    The concept of leaving a child alone to observe and think for themselves, sings a song to my soul.

    My Mother believed in this concept also, and there is no doubt in my mind, that that is why I have such a creative and imaginative mind.

    I remember seeing my Mom bring out soft blankets, lay them on the carpet in the living room and hearing my mother suggest to the mothers of her 53 grandchildren, “Why don’t you lay the baby down so he ( or she) can stretch out, observe and have some private time while we visit.” I REMEMBER THIS! And Janet you brought this gorgeous memory up to me. It makes me want to cry it’s so beautiful.
    It makes perfect and loving sense.

    What a fabulous journey you’re creating for your life and for others. i’ll be checking in every day, darling woman! Hip-hip-horray!

    I send you love…..


  2. I know that the reason I can spend hours – days – alone and doing something creative is due to my mother.

    I always loved to color, draw, do beading, crochet, or something with my hands. I was never forced but I was encouraged. I would just go off by myself and “make something”. I also liked being alone and going outside by myself.

    I will always remember the day that I came home with a bouquet of dandelions that I picked for my mother(to me they were beautiful bright yellow flowers). She made a big fuss and took the special crystal vase from on top of the refridgerator and put them in water and placed them in the center of the table. I was so happy.

    I feel that encouragement is the most important thing for a child. Janet you make this point – so needed for parents today.

  3. What a wonderful article!

    It is so true – you think once the baby is born, you will know what to do and when immediately.
    A lot of mothers I have been arguing with about the Pikler/Gerber method have been telling me I should just use my instincts rather than read books. Well, I believe it can’t harm to read a book and learn something new which you then can adjust to your instincts and altogether make a good job in parenting.

    I am glad I have discovered it all right on time, still struggling from time to time but knowing that I am on the right path.

  4. Hi Janet, I love your articles. I love the concept of letting your little ones just be alone sometimes as sometimes I feel I am constantly trying to entertain my little 5 month old girl and I want her to be someone that likes her own company in the future and can be creative by herself. I don’t know if my LO is clingy (maybe I’m misunderstanding something) or just used to me being right next to her 24/7? For the last 2 months I have been trying to let her have as much floor play as possible(I hid away the big box of toys, musical swing, she hardly ever goes in a buggy or carseat) and just gave her space and a few open ended objects to play with. I stay in the room with her so I am within reach but try to let her have her own space. The only thing is that she seems to get very frustrated and complains a lot after a short amount of time. If I go over to her and engage with her she is instantly happy. I have not been denying her cuddles or interaction either but she seems much happier when I’m constantly entertaining her with singing, faces etc. Maybe I’m getting something wrong? Please help! The only other thing I can think of is that she doesn’t want to be restricted on the floor, she LOVES to be held up on her legs in standing position, she complains at tummy time and rolls but isn’t crawling yet and just seems to want to stand (with my assistance)for a large amount of time.

  5. Just lovely! I think my favorite bit was: “Infants are individuals unto themselves. Artists and creative people, whether they are painters, musicians, writers, architects, designers, or philosophers, have by definition embraced and honed their individuality and express a unique vision to the world.”

    This brought such a delightful new view of infants. I have always been intrigued and love with their innate curiosity and with just how individual each child is. But to also have a sense of a child as an artist…painting the moment perhaps with their unique attention and exploration. Well, I am not sure words do the feeling I have justice. But I am grateful for a glimpse of it that I have experienced through your writing.

  6. Lovely…I am learning so much more as a grandmother…it almost makes me feel guilty that I did not have references like this when my own children were babies.

  7. I just went to another baby shower, saddened by the overload of expensive products now considered basic for new parents. Mechanical swings, blinking buzzing toys, mobiles for crib and stroller, and many varieties of baby seats although, as you’ve noted earlier, a seated position is unnatural for infants.

    I feel like a curmudgeon giving a handmade quilt and board books. I want to mutter that babies mostly need diapers, some warm clothes, and love. It feels as if the principles of RIE, the basics of parenting in general, are being bulldozed by commerce and the “buy this!” mentality. See, I told you. I’m getting to be a curmudgeon.

  8. Hi Janet! I just found this sight and RIE along with it and have been reading articles on it for the last few days, trying to figure all of this out. I have a 2 month old girl and have been trying to figure out how to facilitate her independent play at this age since she isn’t even able to grasp toys or anything yet. I’ve wondered if I should just be leaving her on her back to stare at the ceiling or if I should be placing her on a playmat with toys dangling above her to bat at or what. This is what I have been doing up until now and she seems to enjoy it and will interact with the toys for quite some time. But, am I correct in how I am reading this article by saying that you advocate leaving her on the floor with nothing (but the ceiling of course) above her? I am certainly willing to give it a try. Is there anything else I should be doing with her at this age to facilitate independent play? Thanks!

  9. Hi Janet, i enjoy your articles but do have some questions: how can a two month old baby (your baby, as you say in this article) remain on her back happily for two hours, not wanting to have milk or her diaper changed or at least a cuddle during these two hours? I find that reading about this wonderfully successful experience that you and your daughter had when she was only two months old is terribly stressful for myself as a new parent who wants to instill the joy of independent play to my children. My three-and-a-half-months daughter can only stay by herself on her back for a few minutes at most until she starts complaing. Also, when my baby is crying yet i have to leave her in her crib for a few minutes (e.g. while I’m preparing the baby carrier to put her in and soothe her), why shouldn’t I stop her from crying by using a mobile or a rattle? Is it better to have my baby cry her heart out? I do appreciate RIE’s principles, but i am not keen on leaving my baby cry, not if I know that there is a way to stop it. Of course i have tried talking calmy to her as you suggest (“I see this is stressful for you, I will be right there with you in a moment”) but obviously it doesn’t work.
    Thank you.

    1. Trying to distract her from her emotions with a rattle might stop the crying, but it sends the message that negative emotions are not acceptable. If her basic needs have been met, the goal isn’t always to stop the crying. The goal is to make your daughter feel that all of her emotions are acceptable to you. Allow her to express her displeasure over the fact that you don’t have the carrier ready for her RIGHT NOW. She’s allowed to be mad about it! Acknowledging her emotions isn’t necessarily supposed to make her stop crying, it’s supposed to let her know that you know how she’s feeling and it’s ok.

    2. Lori Jonestrask says:

      I feel similarly. It is really hard with a baby who is so uncomfortable with independent play!

      1. Josipa Bicanic says:

        This is very interesting. All I wanted is to put my infant down and let him be a bit alone, so I could eat or pee…there was very little time my baby wanted to just lie there, especially on his back…lying there for two hours!? Not a chance ever in all his baby life – he was not that kinda baby. I think babies are so so different and have different needs and I wish someone had told me you have a baby that wants to be carried everywhere all the time and thats totally normal and just be in this. Some babies dont wanna lay down on their back bc it makes them feel like an abandoned turtle! Nobody ever tells you this and then people say leave your baby alone – I wish I could!!

    3. agreed that leaving baby to play by themselves for 2 hours does not sound realistic to me at all. A lot of RIE stuff is pretty aspirational. Most babies don’t like to be left alone for long periods of time, in my experience. I’ve found that they most enjoy just laying on their backs when they’re outside, or at least by a window. Staring at the ceiling probably isn’t going to work.
      FWIW, Montessori recommends using mobiles from a very young age. And obviously attachment parenting people will tell you that babies want to be held most (all?) of the time (which in my experience is closer to the truth). With so much conflicting advice out there, it’s hard to know what to do. My solution is to go with what works. I don’t think hanging a mobile over his playgym will squash your future Michelangelo’s creativity. And as any mom with a fussy baby knows, sometimes popping baby in a sling and going on a nice, long walk is the only thing that keeps them happy. Try different things. If baby is screaming as if in pain, that’s probably a sign that lying alone on the floor isn’t an enjoyable experience for them.

      1. I was with her for the two hours and, you’re right, it was rare experience for her to be content for so long.

        One obviously would address a child screaming in pain or communicating anything at all. It’s strange to me that people can only see such extremes and all the nuances are completely missed. And for sure, not everyone resonates with this approach. A surprising (to me) amount of people do resonate with it, though, and my resources are for them.

  10. Hi Janet,

    Thank you for all the work you are doing. Our son is 13 mo and unfortunately we haven’t allowed him free movement, especially in the first 6-7 months. We have put him into sitting position when he was 6.5 mo and now he walks when we hold his hand. Is there anything we can do now to encourage a healthy gross motor development?
    He plays while sitting, sometimes I find him on his tummy, he crawls backwards but gets frustrated because can’t get back to sitting position. Thank you.

  11. I find this very interesting and find myself agreeing with so much of this. However, I also am very much an attachment parenting mom and enjoy baby wearing. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on that and how they may fit together somehow.

  12. Amazing writing, amazing grasp of the big truth of life.

    Truth so big and so mathematically acurate that it’s mind-blowing. Janet, you see that truth so clearly and you relate it so beautifully for so many of us lucky ones. I had the chance of finding out about RIE when my firstborn was just a couple of months old. Mostly by reading your posts and books.

    I wasn’t like you though to begin with. Motherhood sang well with me from the beginning, starting even from early pregnancy. So I knew where I was going so to speak. But I had your posts to encourage and support me. Like a third parent. The other parent has learned through observing me to do his own mutually nurturing thing with our daughter and both him and the grandmothers are “applying” RIE without basically not knowing it. You’ve been my helping hand navigating through the blisfull two years of her life and I often wish you were there in the room to see how she effortlessly enjoys life, how easily she connects with the people in her life and how she can be fully inner-directed and outwardly positive at the same time.
    Thank you for taking the time to write so much, to repost so much. It encreases the chances of us stumbling upon your articles at the very moment we need them.

    And another tthing about RIE, told through your pen, Janet, is that it allows you the parent, to become your best self. It reopens windows in your own development. It’s a life-opening experience.

    Thank you so much!

  13. I just love the way your posts make me feel.
    Like I’m seeing a clearer way. It is a clearer way.
    They are new. Everything is new for them. The world is ample!
    I share you more than anyone on my FDC page! 😀

  14. Caroline Steer says:

    Hi Janet,
    I love this article and try to practise it at home (along with your other tips and advise). However, independent play is where I’m really struggling. My 18 month old daughter does not EVER want to play independently. However much I try to not “entertain” her and let her explore on her own. She may play for a few minutes but soon after (2-5mins) she starts asking for a hug. I always give them to her when she asks as I want to show her that she always has my love but it is draining. I am not lying when she might ask for a hug 5-10 times an hour and sometimes even more. She asks for them even when still eating! It can be only for a few minutes or sometimes we can hug for 40mins or so. I then explain to her that I need to put her down and encourage her to explore her toys or outside but she usually gets upset and simply asks for more hugs. She has a constant want for physical contact and attention. I breastfed her until 1, we bed share if she wakes in the night, I wore her in a sling constantly, never leave her to cry or want anything and always try to engage her our shared activities (nappy changing etc) but I’m starting to feel like these things have made her less independent rather than more. Any thoughts or advice would be so appreciated. I am feeling lost and hugged out! Thanks, Carrie. X

  15. Great article! I, too, with my first daughter, tried to give her as much attention as possible. But my grandmother said that the child must learn to entertain himself. The older generation, who raised their children without gadgets, is wiser in raising children.

  16. Wendy Caldwell says:

    I didn’t do this, I always felt the need to entertain my now seven year old daughter. It shows now in so many ways in her personality. She suffers from the anxiety of boredom of any kind. Is there any information about ways to try and help children with this when they are older? I Feel absolute desperation over it and wanting so badly to help her. It’s like she is also aware of something and uncomfortable in her own skin. I don’t want her to feel the way she does, I’ve tried so many things and I just don’t feel I’m getting anywhere.

  17. Lori Jonestrask says:

    I have tried to do this with my baby from the beginning. But far from happily playing for 2 hours, she inevitably is screaming within 10 minutes. (Side note: my first child was always comfortable self-entertaining, and I could easily give her lots of time to explore). My baby is 4 months old and I want to encourage independent play, but I don’t want to leave her to scream (nor do I want to sit with her for an hour of screaming, honestly). I end up holding her and interacting with her instead. My experience with my first child was so different— I am feeling very discouraged, and I don’t know how to support my second baby’s independence.

  18. I have found this article so reassuring as it fits exactly with my instincts when looking after my 11 month old. He is so content playing on his own and I love watching the games he had started to make up with the open-ended toys I have given him.

    However, I am starting to wonder if maybe I have taken it too far. He’s on the slow side with his gross motor skills and I’m starting to feel like urge to help him stand, like all the other parents I see. What I’m more worried about though, is that in a recent health check he was flagged as behind on his communication, which is making me feel guilty that I don’t talk to him enough while he is playing. I have also been advised to keep verbally labeling things he’s playing with. This doesn’t sit right with me as I don’t want to interrupt his concentration and risk his independent play skills! Any advice on how to balance the two?

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