Infant expert Magda Gerber never shied away from controversy. She knew that her child care approach was an uncommon one, often misinterpreted. In fact, she invited conflicting opinions, would even inquire, “What do you disagree with?” She’d then argue her point of view with spirited enthusiasm, a gleam in her eyes and (always) respect for her challenger.
I was reminded of Magda’s appreciation of a good debate when I happened upon a parent’s question about the RIE approach on Dr. Laura Markham’s “Aha Parenting” Facebook page. As an admirer of Dr. Laura’s passionate support of parents, I was curious to read her response. And, of course, I couldn’t help chiming in… Here’s the conversation that ensued.
I was just reading something about the RIE approach. And at first I thought it sounded interesting — letting children develop at their own pace, not hovering, etc. But then I did a little more research and I’m seeing a lot about it not being compatible with an instinctual style of parenting. Curious if you’ve heard of RIE and your thoughts on it?
That is a great question. I like many things about the RIE philosophy, especially around respect and play:
1. Respect for the baby as a real human with opinions, perceptions, needs. This includes talking to the baby, observing, saying what you see (“You don’t like it when I change your diaper”), empathizing.
2. Seeing myself as an assistant during play, rather than a director.
3. Showing up with full presence with our child and giving her our full attention.
4. Sensitivity to meeting each child where he is, and supporting him to explore and grow from there, rather than pushing him to meet some external model of milestones/ achievements.
HOWEVER, Magda Gerber lived at a different time and did not have the information we have today. So, for instance, she believed that babies will “learn to self soothe”… “if she isn’t picked up at the slightest expression of discomfort.” We know from brain research that this is simply not true. Babies learn to self-soothe by being soothed by parents, that is how the neural networks develop that are necessary to deliver the soothing biochemicals.
Gerber says that if a baby’s needs have been taken care of, she should be allowed to express her feelings through crying. I agree completely. BUT she thinks the baby should be left alone to do that crying, which I think is barbaric. Babies don’t want to be left alone to cry, and we know that because it sends their body into a stage of emergency, with their cortisol levels through the roof. Of course babies are allowed to have and express their feelings as Gerber says, but they need us with them or they get the message that they are all alone with those big feelings.
Also, I find it surprising that Gerber was so rigid about some things. For instance, she felt strongly that babies should be left to play on their backs while they are awake. Some babies will love that. Many will not, they insist on being held. Some like a mixture. Obviously, I would listen to the needs of my individual baby, which I am surprised that Gerber did not.
Gerber was also against the family bed, concerned that parents would not get enough privacy. All I can say about that is that it shows a lack of imagination which I assume came from her age. I think I speak for a lot of family bed moms when I say that for me it was actually exciting to find new places in the house to enjoy some privacy with my husband when our bed was occupied with small children!
So what you read about RIE being at odds with instinct might be about what I would call Gerber’s cultural resistance to what we think of today as the practices of Attachment and Continuum parenting, which are basically instinctual in nature. Does that sound like what you meant? –Laura
p.s. Janet Lansbury (http://www.facebook.com/janetlansburyElevatingChildCare) and Lisa Sunbury (http://www.facebook.com/regardingbaby?sk=info) are both RIE advocates, and I admire them both. So you can also check out their pages for more info on RIE as well.
Yes, that’s exactly what I meant! I almost purchased a book on RIE, but started to become concerned pretty quickly as I read the few negative reviews the books were getting. The rest were so positive, but the few negatives all voiced concerns that I personally would have with the theory as well, if they were true. And it sounds like they are. I will check out the links you sent, as I’m curious for a more modern take on RIE. I’m a big believer in fostering children to be independent, but I also believe that comes from a close bond with their families — not from just letting them “figure it out” on their own via CIO and such. Anyway, thank you so much for responding, I very much appreciate it!
Dr. Laura, I appreciate your detailed response to Shannon’s questions…but there are quite a few misinterpretations here…. The one I want to clarify immediately is that Magda Gerber would NEVER advise being unresponsive to a baby’s cries. Like Aletha Solter, she believed that babies should be listened to, supported and allowed to cry when they want to cry, when their other needs have been met.
The RIE philosophy is all about tuning into the individuality of the baby, perceiving a newborn as a whole and separate person and beginning a mindful connection from the start. Magda offered specific suggestions for doing that, like *observing*, and always communicating verbally before picking a baby up and giving the baby the opportunity to subtly communicate readiness. She believed that our “person to person” connection needed to begin right away.
Yes, babies need to be held, and Magda Gerber advocated “attentive” holding, holding a baby with the mind and heart, not so much as a passenger while our focus is elsewhere. (And, yes, this is different from practices in some primitive societies, like the one the Continuum author wrote about). Gerber and Dr. Pikler were unique in that they advocated time for infant free movement as well, so that the baby can begin to explore “self“. Babies are able to move most freely on their backs, but this is never something to be FORCED on a baby when a baby doesn’t want it! Babies let you know quite clearly when they need to be held…but it’s almost impossible for a young infant to let you know she needs time to move on her own. In fact, that isn’t something a baby knows she needs the way she knows she needs contact with us. It’s up to us to recognize self-initiated play as valuable, and provide opportunities for it, while closely observing the baby’s response.
And that reminds me of something else that Magda Gerber recognized (that I don’t hear other experts acknowledging). Babies become accustomed to our choices for them. The habits we create (like pacifiers for soothing, constant carrying, etc.) can then become our child’s “needs”. This can be confusing for parents as they try to recognize the difference between an individual baby’s true needs and the “parent-created” ones.
Dr. Laura, once again, I so appreciate all you do. Thank you for your support and the opportunity to engage in this conversation.
I’m enjoying your response a lot, Janet. I have a fairly “AP”-ish outlook on child-rearing, but for me, that means more than anything knowing your baby, responding to their needs, and using intuition over anything else. For instance, my son hated being in a carrier. SOOOO many people told me to let him get used to it — but that wasn’t his thing. It still isn’t. He doesn’t like being held close. He wanted to be held all the time as a baby, but only so he could see and look out at the world, and as soon as he could play in any sort of bouncer that let him sit up and be independent, he was suddenly the happiest baby ever. At 19 months, he is a never-ending bundle of energy who doesn’t stop — holding is out of the question, unless he actually “needs” me for comfort and such. He also totally rejected co-sleeping early on. He likes to sleep where there’s lots of room to move. I had a lot of guilt over that at first. But I realized finally that that’s his temperament. He’s his own person and I respect that. Son #2 is on the way in a few months — I can’t wait to see how this one differs from his brother. 🙂 It’s all part of the journey! Thank you for your very thoughtful response, I appreciate it!
Thanks, Shannon. You sound like a great mom to me…and, as I’m sure Dr. Laura would agree, you shouldn’t ever feel guilty about listening to your baby and doing things that work for both of you!
Dr. Laura and Shannon, thank you again for this exchange and for allowing me to share it. Since I wasn’t able to take the time to address all of Dr. Laura’s issues with the RIE approach on Facebook, I’m hoping to continue the discussion with everyone here…
(There are more exchanges with Laura Markham in the comments.)
For more about RIE parenting, please check out my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
(Photo of babies enjoying a RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class is by Jude Keith Rose)