The intense performance pressure many of us feel as new parents combined with all the physical challenges — sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, recovery from the birth, etc. — can easily launch us into a cycle of anxiety. This is compounded in cases where our baby faces health complications, colic, or other issues.
I’ve been there and was so grateful to find my way out through the wisdom and support of infant expert Magda Gerber. Through Magda’s teachings, I learned that an anxious, panicky, high-intervention approach will tend to create even more distress for our babies. In turn, their discomfort will amplify our anxieties, and so the cycle begins. In other words, a key to raising a less stressed, more self-confident child and enjoying our experience as parents can be as simple as calming ourselves.
Simple, of course, does not necessarily mean easy, but Magda suggested that parents start by shifting our perspective and essentially trusting our children’s innate competency. In practical terms, this means:
Instead of feeling responsible for preventing or fixing crying, we first accept it so that we can understand and accurately address what is being communicated.
Instead of perceiving feelings as a call to action, we work on staying calm and listening so our child can share and feel truly heard.
Instead of assuming that every complaint our baby shares reflects an intense need, we understand that babies cry to express a wide range of thoughts and feelings, like “Ugh, I have a bit of a tummy ache,” “I’m tired,” “Being in this car seat is so annoying,” “Help! I’m hungry again!” While all of our child’s communication deserves a prompt response and acknowledgement, an urgent and immediate resolution of the issue is only occasionally required.
Instead of distracting and entertaining, we trust our children’s innate ability to play and amuse themselves.
Instead of acting out of fear, we lead with trust in our child’s basic competency.
Maxine’s story illustrates these points better than I ever could, and I was so touched when she shared it with me:
I wanted to share this video with you because it means something important. After 12 months of high-anxiety, high-intervention parenting (in part because of the horrible health issues my son suffered in infancy with severe reflux and breathing difficulty), I found your website and books, and things are changing. I have a diagnosis of adult ADHD, and even though our son is still tiny, we were beginning to fret about his temperament already. He needed constant intervention, could not amuse himself for even seconds, constantly complained… I, of course resorted to using the TV to pacify him, despite knowing this was not what I wanted to do. I was desperate and needed a break. Many things were a struggle. Car journeys would involve me shhh-ing, cranking up music, and singing nursery rhymes like a lunatic, all to stop his complaints.
Reading for the first time statements like “you need not take on your child’s emotions as your own” has transformed our lives. All I had previously read was attachment parenting philosophy involving parents who believed that leaving a baby to cry for any length of time was cruel and would damage him. So, naturally I was working all day every day to prevent crying. It was Fear Central. He obviously picked up on it all.
Now, finally, I’m just listening. Just watching and listening. The TV has been off for a week. If his complaints give me a headache, I take paracetamol and get on with being there with him through what is bothering him. I’m not scared of his feelings any more. And now we have things like this happening: My boy concentrating. My boy playing independently for up to 10 minutes. My boy knowing it’s okay to express himself and I won’t cry or get impatient or try to shut him up. And it’s amazing. Thank you
When I asked Maxine if I could share her story and video, she replied:
Please do. More people need to experience this connection. I’m seeing everything more clearly, and it’s only been a week.
Just now we came back from a shopping trip. Often he would moan the entire journey in his stroller, and I’d end up stressed and upset. Today I paid close attention to when he was moaning. Guess what? He doesn’t like going over bumps! So simple, so obvious… I told him every time a bump was coming and said sorry it was bumpy. Happier than he’s ever been. Decided the cars were more interesting than complaining after a few times, and that was that!
I feel like you’ve helped me to meet my own son. Now I’m excited about the journey ahead instead of worrying and feeling helpless.
I can’t thank you enough.
To learn more about Magda Gerber’s RIE approach, please check out these resources:
Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber
The RIE Manual
Pikler Bulletin #14 by Dr. Emmi Pikler