Secure Attachment And So Much More – Magda Gerber’s Uncommon Respect For Babies

Yesterday’s 21st Annual RIE Conference proved a stimulating day of presentations by keynote speaker Sir Richard Bowlby, RIE Associates, and parents who have benefitted from RIE’s Educaring approach to child care, including a political scientist / foreign policy expert (Nina Hachigian) and a neuroscientist (Dr. Antonio Rangel). It was an exhilarating event, and I was once again invigorated by RIE’s hopeful message. But I was also left with more evidence of a disappointing truth — the Emmi Pikler / Magda Gerber approach to infants, their perception of babies as interesting people worthy of our respect is still the rare exception in the field of infant care. Will the world ever open its eyes to honor the infant as a person?

Sir Richard Bowlby lectured on Attachment Theory, which was founded by his father, psychoanalyst John Bowlby, and presents a view of infant care supported by the RIE principles. Clinical psychologist and RIE Associate Johanna Herwitz attested to the similarities in a subsequent lecture comparing the two theories. But Bowlby’s vision of the parent/ infant relationship is in some ways different to RIE’s, which led to a brief, spirited debate.

Bowlby spoke passionately about the importance of infants forming bonds with secondary attachment figures when entering child care. He presented video examples of 12 month-old infants in the famous “strange situation” experiment invented by John Bowlby’s student/colleague Mary Ainsworth to observe the quality of attachment between mother and child. (The child is playing in an unfamiliar room with his mother when a female ‘stranger’ enters and sits near him. The mother then leaves the room for several seconds and returns. The infant’s reactions both while the mother’s away and when she returns demonstrate the quality of their bond.)

Bowlby shared another especially dramatic video of an infant, first relaxed and engaged in the company of his mother, and then left in the arms of a pretty young caregiver who was a stranger to the baby. The baby doesn’t cry, but his body language and the chillingly vacant look in his eyes give the appearance that he is ‘shutting down’, disassociating.

The message was clear: parents must not only form responsive, healthy attachments with their babies, but also take great care to comfortably transition a baby into the care of another.  Bowlby shared his deep dismay that young children are left in this “terror state” for hours in daycare, or even days if they are in a situation like hospitalization where parental visitation is limited.

Differences in Bowlby’s view of infants were revealed when he discussed the “father’s role in healthy attachment”, which is to provide “excitement and exploration”. He provided a video example: a father tickling a child, then prancing around while carrying an infant in a bread basket, and finally pushing the infant down a slide which sent her rolling and falling. The father seemed to be having a jolly time, but…this is infant exploration?

When RIE Associate Elizabeth Memel asked Bowlby why a father stimulating a baby into an excited state was considered part of forming secure attachment, Bowlby replied, “Because it feels good.”  I imagined Magda Gerber asking, “To whom?”

It is so easy to cross the line from stimulation that satisfies babies into domination, and so easy to overlook the simple and delightful things babies do on their own.

Yes, it is difficult to know how to connect with a young baby at first. But if we open our minds, take a leap of faith, find trust and a bit of patience, we discover the joy of engaging with infants in a more receptive, responsive way. We can join with our babies on more equal terms by allowing them to initiate play with us, letting them lead rather than follow.  It brings a quieter, but no less potent form of joy, and it empowers our infants to be active participants in our relationship, a relationship that will be the model for the intimate bonds they have in the future. The is where the RIE Approach often seems unique, and why RIE babies (and parents) are so fortunate.

Imagine you are not only provided with food, warmth, rest, cuddles and comfort by your attachment figures, but that you are also observed with interest, even pride as you discover your body and explore your world in your own way and time. You don’t have to perform or smile. You are engaging in and of yourself. You don’t have to be tickled or otherwise provoked to laughter for daddy or mommy to find ecstasy in your company. And when you do laugh, it is rich, full and genuine. But you don’t have to do anything. You are enough. Just being near you and watching what you might choose to do fills your parents with pleasure and gratitude.  Just imagine the level of self-confidence this instills, the comfort with every aspect of self.

“Laughter should come from the soul and be a sign of happiness, contentment and joy.” –Magda Gerber


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

  1. Janet, Thank you for sharing your impressions of the RIE conference–I was sad to be unable to attend. I truly enjoy your commentary on infants! I hope that you can share a little more of what went on at the conference. Thank you for speaking so eloquently for babies!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      Thanks so much, and I will be definitely be sharing more about the conference in my future posts.

      And I just want to add that there will be videos of the conference available soon on the Resources for Infant Educarers website (

  2. I remember being tickled as a toddler, and I hated it. It was torture. Sure, I shrieked, and I’m sure it sounded like laughter (hysterical), but I remember it as being truly horrible.

    I am so grateful to have found your blog where I can learn how to let a baby and toddler find her own excitement and intrinsic motivation. That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of bliss!

  3. If you are interested in attachment you may be interested in the Richard Bowlby videos I’ve had permission to upload. Here’s the link to my playlist. I hope you enjoy them. ‘Secure Attachment and the Key Person in Daycare’ is the title. Please feel free to distribute reproduce and share with others

  4. Magdalena Palencia says:

    You make a very important point about “empowering our infants to be active participants in our relationship.” This is something that cannot be achieved through tickling or awkward handling.
    This sends a mixed message to the child.

    On one hand we act respectful and patient with the child allowing them the time to learn on their own and in their own way as RIE teaches, and now we are being told that in order to provide “excitement and exploration” we have to get a laugh to confirm that it ” feels good.”

    Then if the infant decides not to laugh, the performance begins with tickling and surely culminates with the most popular fatherly, “excitement and exploration” activity, of baby-throwing.

    From my experience with fathers trying to familiarize themselves with RIE, Sir Richard Bowlby’s approach to a fathers role of healthy attachment contradicts the core message of respecting an infant. How can we say that we are respecting the child to learn, play and discover their world in their own way in the amount of time they need and then decide FOR THEM when it’s time to laugh?

    1. Hi Magdalena,

      I completely agree with everything you say! I don’t agree with Bowlby ideas about “the father’s role” in an infant’s life in any way shape or form, and Magda Gerber wouldn’t either. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there to debate him.

      Thank you for your insightful commentary!

  5. Christina says:

    Why do fathers always feel the need to tickle little ones, I remember being tickled and never liked it much it was always this uncontrollable laughter and being told I must like it as I am laughing well most of the time I did not like being tickled at all. as an adult I still don’t like being tickled. I never really tickle my kids unless they ask me…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations