100% Fool-Proof Parenting (7 Key Ingredients)

“You know what I have found- NOTHING works all the time.  I hear people saying that peaceful parenting doesn’t work and I hear people saying that spanking doesn’t work.  Frankly, I can’t think of anything that is 100% fool proof and works for every child all the time.”
Mama Birth

I hear (or read) statements like Mama Birth’s all the time.  It doesn’t matter what school of child care thought or the specifics of the discussion, someone always concludes “there isn’t a method that can work for every child because each baby is unique.”  And that usually ends the discussion.

Although I couldn’t agree more about each child being unique, I disagree about there not being a universal, one-size-fits-all child care approach — because I know one. It’s summed up perfectly by RIE Associate Elizabeth Memel when she welcomes new parents to her Parent/Infant Guidance Classes: “I’m not your teacher — your child is your teacher.” (Wish I’d said that.)

Our unique babies are the only people on the planet who can teach us all we need to know about raising them. So one-size-fits-all parenting is about learning how to become better students. Here’s infant expert Magda Gerber‘s foolproof way to do that…

1. Trust

We need a basic trust in our babies as capable communicators and initiators — fully human and active participants in life. The expression “seeing is believing” has to be reversed. Young children, especially the most immobile, pre-verbal ones can’t show and tell us unless we believe they can and give them room.

2. Observe

Sensitive observation, focused attention, really taking the child in without interference is the key to understanding babies and responding appropriately. Through observation we can detect everything from the early stages of tiredness (and be able to prepare children for sleep ahead of the curve) to what they might be learning while they play, when not to interrupt.  Magda Gerber’s story illustrates…

“Once many years ago, I saw an infant lying on the floor who was trying to catch something in a very dreamy, beautiful way. I didn’t see anything, but I knew that the child saw something. Only as I walked around did I realize that the dust in the air was creating a rainbow, and that’s what the child saw. That experience stayed with me as a symbolic reminder, so that now when people do things, I want to say, “That child may just see the rainbow — don’t interrupt. Wait.”

(from Dear Parent, Caring For Infants With Respect)

This story is also about trust, trusting that our baby’s choice of activity has value and is “enough”.

3. Listen

If I had it to do over, I’d definitely try the Dunstan method for decoding baby language…it fascinates me! I know, I know, someone’s bound to tell me it doesn’t work for every baby. But listening does. True listening means finding the strength to hear babies when they cry, since that’s the way they communicate a variety of needs and feelings. It means making the effort to understand before responding, especially when those responses mean placing something in the baby’s mouth, because that discourages further communication.

Lu Hanessian (from Parent2ParentU) provided a vivid illustration recently when she suggested substituting the word ‘communicate’ for ‘cry’.  And yet, there are experts who will tell you not to let your baby ‘communicate’.

When our goal is to prevent babies from crying, we end up assuming needs, doing well-intentioned but misdirected things like feeding them when they’re tired or playing with them when they’re over-stimulated.  Observe and listen. Really listen. Your baby is listening to you, and she deserves the same respect.

Keeping the lines of communication open becomes even more vital as our children grow. These lines are delicate. They can easily become blocked and even “downed” when we routinely ignore or respond judgmentally to our baby’s cries; lose patience with our toddler’s tendency toward overreaction; or say just about anything to our teenagers (!).

This lesson was brought home recently when my husband and I went through a rough patch with one of our children. We were alarmed and confused as to how to handle it, seriously doubted ourselves.  Once again, the answer turned out to be listening and trusting our daughter to know herself.  (Thank you, Magda, for guidance that keeps on giving!)

4.  Talk, long before they do

Encourage communication by talking to children respectfully.  Tell infants and toddlers before you pick them up (better yet, ask first). Show children through your actions and words that you want them to communicate with you. Let them know you understand what they’ve communicated and they’ll keep letting you in.

5. Slow down

Tuning in to young children is impossible without slowing down to their speed.

6. Get outside!

Moving your life outdoors as much as possible has nothing specific to do with learning about babies, but communing with nature is a one-size-fits-all, foolproof ticket to enjoying life and parenting.

Here’s inspiration… Observe this 6 month old baby’s discovery. Listen to his joy. Trust that his inner-directed activity is not only enough, it’s just perfect. (This is a 30 second snippet from a long, uninterrupted play period.)

And that reminds me of another thing…

7. Revere play




Thanks so much to Kerry and Kobe for this enchanting video!

(Photo by Nina Matthews Photography on Flickr)


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

  1. The words that say it all for me are ‘let go’. I used them in my very first blog post and I find myself using them over and over. Successful parenting is a process of letting go of your child, and it’s the very hardest thing for many parents to understand. But if you let go, gracefully and kindly, they can choose to come back- and they will.

    1. Aunt Annie, thank you! I believe “letting go” is a huge and constant aspect of parenting, but I’m not sure parents would agree that it is “one-size-fits-all”. There are some, including a prominent parenting blogger who mentions that her daughter needed constant physical contact for the first years, who believe that they have a clingier child and that the child needs constant carrying. I’ll probably get attacked for this, but in my experience this is a reflection of the parent assuming a need (constant physical closeness) that then becomes a “parent-created” need for the child. Babies form habits readily; they generally want to continue doing the things they are used to doing and each baby has unique sensitivities in this respect. In other words, one baby might “need” a pacifier until 5 years old, while another might naturally grow out of it at 2. But neither baby “needed” a pacifier before it was introduced and became habit.

      Here’s Magda Gerber on letting go: “Dear parent, we all agree that babies need love. Most people associate parental love with the easy solutions of holding, nursing, cuddling. What is much more difficult is to find the balance between holding on and letting go. It is a lifelong struggle, and maybe the hardest part of parenting.”

      1. Love this! It reminds me of a question I’ve been pondering for a few days…. During independent play time, my daughter (5.5 months) will often crawl over to me and indicate she wants to be picked up. Sometimes it is because she is hungry, or beginning to get tired. Other times she just seems to want to sit with me for a while. She may climb back onto the floor to play more, but many times when she does this, she seems to quickly change her mind and want back up. Also, now that she is crawling she comes to me almost any time she gets upset about something. Is it alright that I am picking her up any time she asks? Or should I be promoting more independence somehow? Thanks as always for your wonderful insights and guidance!

        1. Hi Sara! I would be sitting on the floor there with here and let her go to you as much as she wishes. If you are not sitting with her at that time, I would sit, rather than lift her up. Lifting a child into the air can become this magical “fix” when all the child is needing is some contact. Coming to you while you sit is much less interruptive to play.

      2. But babies needing human contact is not a habit, it’s a part of their psyche and as key to healthy development as parent-child communication. It can’t be put in the same category at all as something like using a pacifier, which is a habit (although also one based on a need, simply one that is being transferred).

        Some needs can be taken too far, of course, but it’s like saying drinking water is a habit. Well… yes… and it can be taken to extremes in some circumstances, but it’s both an essential habit at some extent and a valid need.

        1. Gwen, I agree that human contact is a need. To me, “contact” means attention along with physical contact. But being carried while parents are doing chores, etc., and NOT paying attention, is not a need, it is a habit.

      3. Thank you for mentioning what I believe in your excellent current blog, Janet! When parents don’t see (take the time to observe and self-reflect) how their choices can be conditioning their baby in dysfunctional patterns, the teaching is probably going nowhere fast in the wrong direction. Once an 8 month-old was brought by her mother to observe my RIE class and the baby was extremely uncomfortable trying and failing to move with ease, lurching off and on her mother’s lap over and over again as she attempted separation. At the end of class, believing the Educaring Approach was not for her, the exhausted mother said “My baby needs to be held a lot, and I need to hold my baby.” Because I didn’t want to undermine her confidence, (a major cautionary point taught to me by Magda), I didn’t remark that her statement needed to be reversed to reveal the true cause and effect status of her child’s needy state, having to adapt constantly to being held and thus prevented from freedom of expression. And this was so many years before “Attachment Parenting” came into vogue. Oh my, sadly I lost her, knowing RIE’s universalities that you cite so very well might have transformed their relationship, although truly, as Magda said, “RIE is not for everybody.”

  2. I don’t normally leave a comment, but I’ve been reading (and benefiting from) your website since my two year old was about four months old! Just wanted to say thank you, I think our lives are much better for putting into practice the ideas I find on this site.

    I would add to the list a certain degree of ‘consistency’, but possibly that’s already covered under ‘trust’. Being consistent makes our lives easier and happpier anyway.

    I recently discovered the Dunstan Baby Language idea too – with another baby on the way, I also find it very facinating! I’m willing to give it a try anyway.

    1. Melissa, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to comment and for your kind words! I’m so glad the blog has helped you.

      Consistency is a great addition to the list. Are you referring to a consistent person (or persons) caring for the child or a consistent daily routine…or both? I don’t really equate this with trusting the child, but it definitely is about the child being able to trust the environment.…and that’s a biggie for building self-confidence.

      Whoa…another baby on the way? Congrats, Melissa, and please check in again!

  3. Wow! What a great post! You know I agree with you completely. When I hear people say there is nothing that works all the time for every baby, I always think to myself, “Well you can’t go wrong listening to the baby, and following her lead.” One other ingredient I would add is to encourage adults to create flexible, but consistent daily rhythms and care routines that include babies from early on. It’s been my observation most babies thrive, and can participate fully when they know what to expect and can predict what will happen next…

    1. Lisa, thanks! I hoped you’d agree! I wholeheartedly agree about the flexible, but consistent routines… However, I hear parents argue that one. There are parents who feel that any kind of routine or scheduling is too restrictive. It’s too restrictive for them personally and/or they believe that their baby will be more adaptive if they take her everywhere. From what I understand and have experienced it is actually the other way around. The security that babies gain when they can usually predict their environment, makes them better able to adapt to occasional disruptions.

      This post was a bear to write (always happens with the ones that I think will be a cinch) because I kept thinking of more things to include! But I tried to limit the post to ideas that would be unquestionably universal. But this is even better…a great opportunity to discuss some of these more controversial aspects of Magda Gerber’s approach. Thanks again, Lisa!

  4. PS About the Dunstan Method for decoding baby language: I just recently learned about it too, when someone sent me a video recording of an Oprah segment that featured the Dunstan Method. I too find it fascinating, and think it can be a good place for parents to start to begin to understand their babies, and to begin to understand crying as communication. My one question and reservation is this: What if the baby isn’t “saying” one of the five or six things Dunstan has decoded? Also, as it was depicted in the Oprah segment, as soon as the baby’s message was decoded, it seemed like the baby was either given a pacifier, burped, fed, or bounced- in order to stop the crying, and there wasn’t much back and forth communication between baby and parent. I guess what I worry about with any “method” like this one, is that the baby will be left out of the process of communication. It can become too much about the adult “knowing” what the baby needs and responding in some prescribed way, without a true back and forth exchange between baby and parent.

    1. I didn’t watch the whole segment… I watched another video in which Dunstan (she seems amazing) explained each sound. Hmmm…that’s too bad that it became about fixing the baby immediately. I just loved that it was about listening to babies, but I agree that babies have a wider range of things to say than those 5 or 6 sounds!

  5. Amazing post, Janet. You so perfectly summarized what I’ve learned about understanding my baby. I only wish that I’d read this when she was a newborn. I would definitely second Lisa’s addition that routines and consistency are important. I know they helped my baby feel more at ease in her day, and they also helped me, as a new mother, to have some idea what to expect from my day. Some days, the routine would fall apart, and that’s when Aunt Annie’s “let go” comes in handy.

    I think we use the “every baby is different and nothing works for every baby” line more when we’re talking about specific “techniques” or “practices,” which we might hope will provide some kind of silver bullet to make parenting easier. The key ingredients you provide are so basic (but not always easy), that they can be the foundation of all that we do as parents and allow us to let go of the “techniques” – which of course don’t work for everyone.

    1. Thank you, Alice! It’s great to hear about your experience with routines and consistency. I felt exactly the same way. I needed that clarity of knowing what to expect almost as much as my children did (if not more so).

      I’d like to hear more about the specific techniques and practices you’re referring to…because those are really the issue here. We choose practices because we believe our babies need those things, right? Or are there practices that we adopt only to make our lives easier? I’m seriously curious about this…

      1. I guess I when I wrote about “specific practices,” I was thinking about co-sleeping vs. crib, breast vs. bottle, babywearing or not, CIO or nursing to sleep (some of what Mama Birth was talking about in her post). I think we spend far too much time debating these practices. If we go back to the basics of respecting baby, following your tips here, then I think we can agree this is the fool-proof way to parent our children. Trusting, observing, listening, playing outside, etc – I would argue that if we do all of these things then it really doesn’t matter where the baby sleeps or how she is fed. These “practices” are much more about what works for an individual family, which is important in its own right, but your recommendations transcend all of that, in my opinion.

  6. Bence Gerber says:

    Janet, this is a fantastic post!

    A perfect and solid introduction to Magda Gerber’s approach to parenting. Clear, concise and easy to understand for those who are new to the concepts; an ideal elevator speech for RIE aficionados.

    While not as important as the 7 Fool-Proof Parenting Ingredients, another gift to parents is having a child-proof environment that is safe with only objects that the child can move, drop and put in his/her mouth.

    1. Thank you, Bence. Your feedback means a lot to me.

  7. I love the idea of being outside much of the day, however, being in Minnesota I’m struggling to get my son (10 months old) out and about.

    There’s currently no snow and the temperatures are frigid! He seems to sleep much better after we go and play at the park, just go for a walk or I pull him in his sled. The fresh air is just so great for him and we’re losing our minds being indoors.

    Any ideas on an outdoor [simulated] solution?

    1. Yes, most babies do sleep better after being outdoors… Perhaps you can bundle him up and make brief forays outside on a warm blanket. Maybe you could even put the blanket in the dryer to warm it and then place it on the ground for your son to play on…Does that sound crazy?

  8. This post is fantastic.

    For me it has been listening, responding, rituals (for my son it was washing his feet and at 13 he still remembers), and modelling.

    Modelling respect breeds respect, modelling response breeds response, modelling listening breeds listening and modelling self care and self control breeds the same.

    We are our child’s first hero or heroine, we teach them about relationships, primarily with them and then with our partners, ourselves and others.

    I have also recently discovered Circle of Security Parenting, it is absolutely beautiful and helps parents to really understand the cycle of attachment and exploration that children go through, (we all go through). It’s reminded me that my 13 year old still needs his emotional cup filling up.

    Out of all of your tips the number 1 for me was learning to listen, REALLY listen and be therefore be able to be responsive rather than reactive. This meant getting to know myself better and being kinder to myself.

    I often say to myself ‘what is the kindest thing to think in this situation’. Whether it’s about myself or my child, it softens my approach.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful posts.


  9. Nele from Belgium says:

    So why is it OK in your eyes to ‘submit’ a baby to a routine when you are the one who needs it, and not OK in your view to hold a baby a lot when it’s mom needs that, too? I think that’s rather inconsistent. Baby’s need lots of skin contact, so I really don’t see what is wrong with holding your baby a lot. It’s beneficial for both baby and mom and doesn’t mean that you aren’t listening to your child.

    When I say that nothing works for every child, I also mean that parents should find out how their child ‘ticks’. My daughter resembles me a lot, and she has a strong natural ‘rythm’ and routine, my son is the opposite. He’s 8,5 months old now and I’m still trying to find a routine that works for him and fits in with our family routine. Not that I’m desperately trying or trying to force him, but unfortunately it appears that he doesn’t really need it! And I must say, a baby with a routine is easier than one without. The only routine he accepts is his bedtime and he finally has a fixed naptime in the morning, but during the rest of the day his naps are always at different times and he refuses to sleep in his cot. Right now he’s sleeping in his buggy in the hallway, when he’s supposed to eat his fruit :-).

    1. Nele, you must be confusing me with someone who says “It’s not okay to ____”. I didn’t say that it’s not okay to hold a baby a lot, although I do believe babies need free time as well. And I’m not sure what you mean by “submit” a baby to a routine. Every infant and toddler I have ever known thrives with routines developed in accordance to his or her natural rhythms. Babies are growing and changing rapidly; their lives are often mysterious and overwhelming to them. So, a predictable day is one of the best gifts that we can give our very young children and it’s far from selfish!

  10. Great compilation of ideas! I was really intrigued by the intro of this post because it’s a valuable reminder that no single approach will work 100% of the time for every kid. Honestly, I’ve had a hard time fully believing that “wisdom.” You’ve reminded me why! For me, it often boils down to listening: listening to my child and listening to myself. As the quote above so beautifully states, he is usually the one who helps me figure things out.

  11. Thank you, Janet, for including me in this terrific summation of The Educaring Approach! So many key points that open the “believing is seeing” (I love that!) to a preventive path – one that helps develop more functional and authentic family relationships while fostering optimal mental and physical wellness of babies with a healthy balance of independence and interdependence.

    One story brought to mind is an 8 month-old and her mother who came to observe a RIE class with me. The baby was very unsteady in her body, kept attempting to move stiffly from her mom’s lap onto the floor with other moving babies, but stumbled uncomfortably and awkwardly turned around to be picked up most of the class time. At the end, the mother told me “My baby needs to be held a lot, and I need to hold my baby.” I knew that statement was true but could be more accurate if reversed. “What babies get, they come to expect and eventually they need,” said Magda. As you said, Janet, “Babies form habits readily”, so it seems to be a case of choice for the mother to continue being needed instead of wondering if her growing child could learn to find and grow more independence. Parenting goals are what’s not one-size fits all, and there’s the rub!

  12. I while ago I was thinking that maybe the positive parenting wasn´t working with my daughter, but the truth is that it takes a lot of focus and intention to practice it. So what doesn´t work is that I´m still learning to practice it, and I consider that we are in a transition. I hope the transition doesn´t take years to pass…

    Although my daughter is 4,5 I always find useful information here that I can practice. These ideas work with people of any age 🙂 Thank you Janet for all the passion you put into this blog.

    1. Marilia, thank you for your kind words! I love your consciousness about parenting… that makes you a wonderful mom…and person.

  13. I loved the Dunstan Baby Language videos! My babe said 3 words predominately right from day one – Neh (hungry), Eh (burp), Ow (tired). My LO is two now and still nursing and she still using the Neh part to ask for “nursing-neh” 🙂 I always thought it was so cool when other mom’s in the momma circles I went to would be trying to figure out what their baby wanted and I asked them to stop so I could listen to the cry for a sec then I would say what it was and ask mom to listen for the same noise to see if she could hear it too. I had to listen to the DVD’s at least 10 times before I really tuned my ear to the sounds.

  14. Well I was skeptical at the start but I think you may have done it! Great list 🙂 .

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