Babies And The Art Of Observation

Infant and toddler observation is a central element of infant expert Magda Gerber’s philosophy and is the focus of our parent/infant classes, but I haven’t written about it much. Why? “Observing babies” has always sounded a little cold and scientific to me, and I worry it might be misinterpreted, even off-putting.  But I’ve seen time and again how invaluable, fascinating and amusing it can be to get the bit of distance necessary to see our children more clearly. Observation helps us to understand what they are communicating, realize the difference between our babies’ needs and our projections, figure out what they’re really up to and know whether to intervene or stay out of their way.  

We are our child’s first teacher, but while we are observing, our babies do the teaching. In both my infant and toddler classes on a recent Friday, the babies were – as usual — providing humorous lessons. My take-away… “Observe, observe, observe.”

We’d had some “quiet observation” time in the toddler class and were engaged in discussion when a child, who had recently begun walking, stepped toward the doorway to the deck. I was sitting in the doorway, as I usually do, and reflexively moved my feet to clear the way for him to pass.

A moment later the boy turned around to go back through the doorway, but this time he carefully, deliberately stepped over my feet (which are admittedly gi-normous). Then…I got it! He had wanted to use my feet as an obstacle to help build and practice his walking skills.

How often I’ve observed toddlers challenging themselves in order to master new skills. They look for big and small challenges, or create them on their own, do things like trying to pick up many, many more objects than they could possibly hold, carry buckets full of toys up and down steps they’ve only just learned to climb empty handed, balance buses on top of each other or drag them up and over the climbing structure.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with our impulse to assist and accommodate babies, and it never hurts to model politeness, but my “foot-pas” made me smile, because it was such a perfect example of the different ways toddlers and adults tend to perceive situations. We understand a baby’s point-of-view best when we’re quietly paying attention.

Later that day in the infant class, Katherine, a 5 month old, rolled off of the soft rug onto the floor. Her dear dad, concerned for her safety and comfort, picked her up and returned her to her back on the rug. Almost immediately, she rolled back off onto the hard floor again. Katherine’s insistence on using the hard surface, and her father’s enchanting impulse to rescue her happened a few more times before we observed that Katherine (an impressively strong baby, who does her own abdominal curls while lying on her back) seemed to be using her neck muscles to lift her head off of the floor so she could land it gently when she rolled. She was using her strength and balance to work on falling safely, an invaluable skill for infants and toddlers, and she was already quite able at it.

I got a kick out of imagining a fast-forward —  this lovely relationship dynamic continuing years from now — Katherine’s dad just trying to help, Katherine insisting on showing him that she was quite capable on her own,  thank you very much.

Observing babies may not sound warm, cozy and inviting, and it’s certainly challenging, but it’s the key to understanding and appreciating our children, their intentions, learning styles, distinct personalities, needs and desires before they have the language skills to explain those things. So watch and enjoy, because when children feel understood they feel our love.


To learn more about RIE parenting and the power of observation, check out these resources:


Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber

My books: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (both available on Audio)


(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)

Please share your observations!


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

  1. This article is just what I needed. My 8 month old is trying to pull up and stand on his own and also learning to sit back down. I instinctively help him but some times I don’t get to him on time and he does it all by himself. Now I know to watch and learn. Thank you 🙂

    1. Tina, thanks for your great example of the way children show us what they are working on if we’re observant. Before intervening, Magda Gerber always said the magic word is ‘wait’. If we wait a little before helping, we allow our babies to do what they are capable of doing for themselves…which builds their self-confidence.

  2. Love it! We have to learn with them to challenge ourselves more often. We like to feel comfortable and not go beyond our capacities. Now, any toddler knows that if they don´t try harder than what they already can do, they won´t go further 🙂

    1. Marilia, thanks! Yes, toddlers have tons to teach us. They are brave, confident, and don’t mind a bit of struggle, unless we unwittingly teach them otherwise.

  3. This made me smile. My baby, now 11 months old, LOVES obstacles and has since she started crawling. She loves to go under the dining room table, weaving over and around the chair legs. I always think that she will get stuck, but she GETS it – she moves carefully and ducks her head intentionally. I read something online about “stimulating” your baby with an obstacle course, and had to laugh, since mine seems to seek out obstacles that I would never think of. She also loves to carry toys around while she practices walking. Seems like she has to do a particular circuit with every toy she has. With the fall weather, she is finding lots of things on the ground to collect, like fallen leaves and acorns. Once I have convinced her not to put the acorns in her mouth, she works on collecting as many into her hands as she can carry. Then there is that dilemma when she finds another one. Should I drop one I have so that I can explore this new one? I could go on and on. I love watching her work! Thanks for your sweet post!

    1. Alice, it’s so great of you to share these observations! You’re certainly right that babies don’t need us to stimulate them, coax them through an obstacle course, etc. The magic happens when we don’t do those things and, instead, just watch, learn, enjoy. Thanks again!

  4. I love this and it explains exactly what my 15 month son was doing last night! My husband and I were surprised when he starting dragging a large half gallon water bucket up our stairs. He was struggling with trying to crawl/walk up the stairs while also dragging this bucket but we allowed him to do it (my husband was carefully close behind him) and our son enjoyed it so much! We had fun watching him navigate how to get up the stairs and figure out how to drag the bucket with him. Thank you for this! Last week, I watched him figure out how to pull himself up some large stairs on a playground toy but finding a whole in the plastic wall and using it to pull himself up over the large step. If I had not found RIE, I would not have allowed my son these experiences but now I have so much joy in watching his figure these things out!

  5. Neeta Sood says:

    I am a nursery teacher and studying NVQ level 3…your site is very informative and helpful..

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