When scientist Anya Dunham was expecting her first baby, she decided to take a deep dive into the science behind various parenting techniques and philosophies. She was particularly drawn to the ideas Janet shares from the work of Magda Gerber and Emmi Pikler, because they complemented her own intuition. Anya joins Janet to discuss her research, how it supports the tenets of respectful parenting, and how parents can trust both science and their own intuition in the parenting experience.
Transcript of “What Science Says About Respectful Parenting (with Anya Dunham, PhD)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m joined by Anya Dunham. Anya is a parent of three, a PhD in biology who works as a scientist studying ecology. And she has done extensive research into the concepts recommended by Magda Gerber and me, respectful parenting. We’ll be describing these concepts in detail and speaking to some of the evidence-based theories on what babies need most from their environment and from us to thrive. Anya shares her findings in her book, Baby Ecology: Using Science and Intuition to Create the Best Feeding, Sleep, and Play Environment for Your Unique Baby. And I’m really looking forward to hearing more about Anya’s research and experience.
Hi, Anya. Thank you so much for being here.
Anya Dunham: Hi, Janet. I’m so glad to be here today. Thank you.
Janet Lansbury: So you’ve been doing extensive research on different aspects of parenting, particularly, or at least quite considerably, the type of parenting that I teach, which is Magda Gerber’s RIE approach, or I call it respectful parenting. And I thought it would be great to hear a little about what made you want to do all this research and write a book about it. And of course then I would love to hear more about your findings and how they’ve helped you and can help others with the parenting decisions that we’re all making, which is way too many. In the beginning it feels like a constant flow of decisions, right? So can you tell us a little about how you got into this and what you found?
Anya Dunham: Yes, of course. So I found your work when I was pregnant with my first baby, so just over 12 years ago. And then through your work, I discovered and learned about the work of Magda Gerber and Emmi Pikler. And the thing is that even though I always turn to research, I think of myself as a science-minded person, I actually embraced what I feel is at the very core of RIE without needing to see any science behind it. I felt that respect for children and delight in who they are, believing in that and accepting that as one of my core parenting beliefs, came very naturally to me. It was almost the same as believing that our children need our love and they need safety. And I felt that in the same way, they also need to be respected and to be delighted in.
And so that was how everything started for me. But what I thought that science can help us see and understand is the mechanisms and sort of the “why” between some of the challenging parenting questions. And sometimes it can give us a little window, a little glimpse into the babies’ minds, which is one of my favorite things. Because of that, I wanted to find out all about it, everything I could. And so what I did is, I started an almost 10-year-long journey into reading the science about baby’s first year. And I looked at the research through the lens of my research field, ecology, because I wanted to find out what do our babies need most from their physical and emotional environment. So from their surroundings and the experiences they have and from people in their lives. And then the process, as I read over many hundreds of papers, I came across many findings that support the core principles of RIE and respectful parenting. And so I thought that maybe I could share a few of the highlights today.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, I’d love to hear about that.
Anya Dunham: One of the first things that came to mind when I was thinking about it is just this large body of research, that so many studies have found just how sensitive, but also how capable and ready to learn and connect our babies are when they come into this world. And I think most people know that in the first trimester of pregnancy, babies are able to hear our voices, and especially the mom’s voice if she’s the one who carries the pregnancy. But I think what I find quite interesting, and what not everybody knows about, is how if a mom reads a familiar story to the baby, even in that first trimester, the baby can already recognize that story. And then after the baby’s born, within hours of birth, if they can see their mom’s face and hear her voice, they learn to recognize their mom right away. So what it shows is that babies not only hear and see enough to connect with us and interact with us, but also that they can pay attention, they can learn and memorize things, and they connect the voice that they’ve been hearing with the face that they’re now able to see. And I think that just really underscores and supports the principle of basic trust, that we can fully trust our babies to be initiators, explorers, and self-learners.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. For some people that don’t know, that’s the first of Magda’s RIE principles.
Anya Dunham: Yeah. And so just how ready they come into this world to learn, that we absolutely can trust in the process.
And then another principle that of course comes to mind is that babies can be active participants in care routines. For example, a study recently looked at how two-month-old babies respond to being picked up. And what was really interesting is that when adults approached babies in a way that was slow and visible, and when the adult’s intentions to pick the baby up were clear, the baby would respond and help with the smoothness of pickup. They would look at the adult’s face and they would sort of tense their body a little bit to help the adults. So it shows that they really can, from this very young age and probably earlier, as Magda Gerber said, from the very start, they can join us in meaningful ways.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. And those of us that have tried this and practiced it, get to see that with our own eyes. And what Magda added there was to actually verbalize it as well, “I’m going to pick you up now.” So that becomes connected to not only our body language and the child anticipating what we’re going to do physically, but also hearing the words connected with that. So absorbing the language at the same time.
Anya Dunham: Yes. And that was something that I found initially difficult to do when I first became a parent myself. Being an introvert, I found it somewhat challenging to speak to my baby from the very beginning. But once I did, it certainly became second nature. And what was very sweet is that when my daughter was about two, I caught her talking to her stuffed animals in the same way that I talked to her. And then eventually when her sister was born, she would speak to her in the same way that I would speak to her as a baby. And I thought that that was just such a lovely thing to see. For her, it just became second nature right away.
Janet Lansbury: I just have to say, I guess I’m an introvert as well, but everybody has a hard time talking to babies and believing that it matters, because they don’t talk back. Well, they do, but they do it in these very subtle ways that are hard for us to discern, especially at first. And they’re learning how to communicate. So they’re learning how to show us different signs with different sounds that they make that may all sound like crying, but there’s a very different tone to them or a different pattern to them. And they don’t know how to do that in the beginning either. So we’re trying to learn from them and they’re trying to learn how to teach us. But it does take this leap of faith. And it sounds like you sort of took the leap of faith before you did the research. That’s what it takes, because we’re not going to see the proof of our baby’s awareness until we try these things. Not just once, but regularly, predictably, so our baby learns them. It’s an interesting process.
It definitely takes more than just studies, even. Because I feel like all of these studies in the past decades that have validated the work that Magda and Pikler did through lots and lots of hours of observation of babies behaving naturally. But even with all of this research that’s been done that supports this, it’s like we’re not getting the implications of it yet, as a society. We may have heard about these studies, Oh, babies are learning language. They’re really aware. They’re really capable. But what does that mean? We still want to toss ’em around and pass ’em around and not speak to them. It’s really hard, it’s hard when they’re not proving it. But they can’t prove it until we take the leap of faith.
Anya Dunham: Yes, I absolutely agree. I think most people now have heard about the idea of attachment and how our sensitive responses help us bond with our babies. But there is one aspect of attachment, and something that really helps secure attachment, that is I would say a little bit less well known. And it’s this idea of “mind-mindedness.” In the scientific literature, it’s described as a way of seeing babies as people with minds of their own. So not just as bundles of joy and cute little things, but as people with their minds open to the world. And so parents who are mind-minded, even though they may not call themselves that, but they might be practicing this intuitively, they tend to be more insightful and they want to learn about what might their baby be thinking or feeling in the moment.
And of course, we never know for sure because the only person who really knows is the baby. But we can try to see the world from the baby’s perspective and that allows us to adjust how we are with them based on what they are doing, what they’re working on, and what they might be thinking about, as opposed to what we want or some preconceived notions we have or some general ideas of what a baby of that age should be doing.
Janet Lansbury: And that’s very hard to discern, by the way. Again, because the baby’s not speaking clearly to us about what they are thinking or need or want. The inclination to project, I’ve never met a parent that didn’t have it. I mean, I certainly do. So this idea of opening up to, Oh, but this person is totally separate and they have their own point of view that’s totally different from mine. And what is that about? It’s this constant question that we have to keep asking so that we stay open to it. But yeah, I mean that sounds great when you’re saying it, but I just wanted to add how hard that is.
Anya Dunham: Yeah, I certainly found it challenging myself. And it even comes down to simple things like, if I’m cold, does that mean the baby’s cold? Or if I’m enjoying a gathering but the baby might be getting overwhelmed, and things like that. And so it’s not relying on how I feel in the situation and thinking about, Well, how is my child experiencing this?, being their own little person, like you said. And so I think this really underscores the value of seeing babies right from the start as unique human beings. And also the value of sensitive observation, as Magda taught us and as you have been teaching us, which really allows us to get to know and understand our babies.
So where did this term first come from, mind-mindedness? I had never heard it until I read your book.
Anya Dunham: I believe it was Elizabeth Meins who coined this term. She has a number of papers looking at how mind-minded parents are with their babies and what impacts that this approach has on attachment security. Some of her work, for example, found that babies whose parents are mind-minded or who grow up in mind-minded environments, they tend to have a stronger physiological capacity to regulate their emotions. So it’s a little bit easier for them to stay calm or to return to a calm state. And they also tend to develop stronger bonds with their parents. And then it’s a little easier for them to recognize and understand emotions and needs of others around them as they grow.
Janet Lansbury: Which is the theory of mind. That was one of Alison Gopnik’s terms that she used, theory of mind, the way that babies can be like little psychologists sensing our moods and our thoughts and our feelings right from the start as well.
I think what you’re speaking to seems like the power of that —to help a child be more able to self-regulate and to thrive in the relationship and how it promotes attachment and bonding— I feel like that really speaks to the power of feeling seen, which is something that we all need. We want that in the world, in life, that there’s at least one person that really gets us. And definitely in our relationships, closeness is all about feeling listened to and seen as a separate person.
Anya Dunham: Yes, absolutely, I agree. What I found interesting from this research but also from my own experience and from reading your wonderful work, is how we can become more in tune and develop that mind-mindedness and mind-minded mindset through sensitive observation and through slowing down. That is something that I have found so incredibly helpful on my own parenting journey, is that permission to just observe my babies without the need to jump in. Seeing the incredible value that there is in just being with them. I believe Magda called it the “wants nothing” time. That was something that I found very freeing and very helpful, personally.
And something that I also learned through reading the research is that mind-mindedness and sensitive observation also helps us nurture our intuition. Sometimes intuitive knowledge, that gut feeling we might get in thinking that something is wrong or something is right, is sort of the opposite of science. And we start thinking, should I trust my gut or should I trust expert knowledge and advice? But what science shows is that we actually do best when we do both, because our intuition is a form of knowledge. It’s sort of our brain’s way of immediately, within split seconds, really, accessing the memories that we store within us and using those in that I just know kind of way. But even though it’s subconscious and automatic and it doesn’t require this sort of analytic reasoning or comparing options, it’s still a very real form of knowledge.
Janet Lansbury: Because it’s based on something that no research can give us, which is our experience and what we sense coming from this unique individual, our baby.
Anya Dunham: Exactly. So when it comes to our babies, the best source that our intuition can draw from is our observations of our unique child that we accumulate day by day by being with them and getting to know them better and better. That’s something that we cannot ever read in a book or learn from scientific papers. It’s something that we learn by being with them and nurturing our intuition. That’s a very powerful thing.
But sometimes what we think of as intuitive knowledge could be coming from another place. The intuition could also draw from maybe fears that we’ve been storing in our memories, maybe some biases we might have. And so what is really interesting and helpful, I think, is that science has found that deliberately considering evidence-based knowledge and accessing our intuition at the same time is possible, and that our brains can combine both even when we are not fully aware of the source of intuition. And so considering the science, the evidence-based knowledge, can help us filter out the irrelevant pieces, that are maybe our fears, maybe some old disproven psychology, maybe some memories that no longer serve us, and then use our observations of our unique babies wisely and hear our truly intuitive and unique knowledge that we have.
Janet Lansbury: I love that. That’s cool. I want to, though, ask you as the parent of three children, and I have three children as well— I’m just imagining myself listening to this podcast and saying to myself, Well, I have a busy life with three kids, or two other children, now I have this baby. How am I going to sit around blissfully observing and connecting with my intuition and doing all these things that sound very slow and lovely? I mean, how do you do it?
Anya Dunham: Oh, I know. I think that’s such a good question and it’s so hard. And I would say it’s hard to have that slow, kind of “wants nothing” time even with our first because it’s just something that we may be not as used to. With my first, I wanted to do the best I could. There was always some sort of worries running through my mind and, Well, how can I do best? and things like that. So eventually I learned to let go of some of that and just have slow playtime, just watching my baby play. And then, when my second and then third babies came along, it’s certainly so much busier, so much more challenging. And my third baby was born early in the pandemic, so that everybody was home. And it was certainly much harder to carve out that slow time and giving him the space.
And I think one of the gifts was understanding how important that space and free movement and uninterrupted play was to his development, and sort of setting aside the space where he could do that. And then also seeing the value of the family being together. And also we don’t necessarily have to spend large amounts of time specifically thinking like, Well, this will be the time when I will nurture my intuition. I think it comes organically through the day when we spend time with our babies changing diapers, feeding. It comes in these little tiny glimpses, sometimes, tiny snippets, but they accumulate over time into this very unique knowledge.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, I feel like in my experience, I was just realizing— well, I was all over the place with my first baby anyway, I didn’t know any of this stuff. But then with the second and third, realizing that your baby’s getting this whole different experience growing up as a sibling. That’s so valuable and incredible, right? And you just take your moment when you can, no pressure. You take those moments.
And you also take advantage of the caregiving routines, because there’ll be plenty of days where that was the only time that you connected one-on-one with your baby, when you have other obligations and children or anything. You take advantage of that. And there are moments there where you’re observing, you’re trying to slow down to be present in that moment. Maybe you’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding and your baby’s stopping to look around and you’re noticing how they’re enjoying a view of something that’s in the room. You’re giving them that time. And maybe those times are the only observation times and that’s beneficial as well for you. Any time that you have is going to add up. And it’s really about our openness to the idea that our baby has a perspective that’s totally unique and we’re just generally trying to be aware of that because we realize our baby’s a person and all these things that science has shown for a long time, but it’s just not quite gotten into the culture yet. It’s so interesting to me.
Also, when I was asking you that question and you were answering it beautifully, I was thinking about just this moment when your baby is maybe waking up from a nap or in the morning and you sort of come close because you’ve heard them make a sound, maybe. You come closer, but instead of just coming right in, Let me pick you up, you wait until they look towards you. Because they’re sensing that you’re close, they’re so aware and sensitive. And maybe they’re involved in something. Just not rushing that. And there’s often moments there where you catch a glimpse of what your baby could be thinking or interested in.
Anya Dunham: Oh, that was such a lovely description and it just brings me right back into those stages. I can remember that so well, when they wake up and then if I enter the room and then maybe they don’t see me for a moment. And so it gives me that sense of, Okay, maybe they’re looking at their hands or looking at the ceiling. And then when they see you, right, then they just light up. It’s a really wonderful memory.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, for me too. So what were some of the other surprising things that you discovered in your research?
Anya Dunham: One of the surprising things was just how connected everything is in the baby’s life. For example, the connection between sleep and learning is something that I think not everybody knows. We all do know that sleep brings physical rest for adults and babies alike. But for babies in particular, sleep is also important for learning because when they sleep they sort and consolidate the memories of events and people and experiences that they’ve had when they were awake. So the well-rested baby is more likely to notice new things and then when they go to sleep, they remember, they remember that experience better. And I quite like the analogy of a baby’s brain being like a librarian who only gets a chance to carefully sort and organize the books and the materials in his care after all the patrons go home and the library closes for the day and that’s their time to really get organized.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, but how do we get a well-rested baby? That’s the thing parents are going to worry about listening to this, because I know everybody worries that my child’s not getting enough sleep. And then of course our worry makes it harder for people next to us, that are absorbing our moods and feelings, to feel calm and like going to sleep. So it’s a tough one. And that could be a whole other conversation that you and I have, I know.
But Magda always said you can’t make another person fall asleep. And, what can we do? We can create the environment. Which of course is what your book is all about, creating the right environment or creating an ideal environment, let’s say, for nurturing our babies. But what does that mean in regard to sleep?
Anya Dunham: Yeah, so exactly. So the way I’ve looked at things in my book, and I explored the question of how can we create those most nurturing environments, physical and emotional environments, for sleep and also for feeding and for care and play. For sleep, in particular, it was exactly that. What I found is that, similar to responsive feeding, our best role as parents and caregivers would be to create the most sleep-conducive environments for our children. So that would be the physical spaces for sleep, but also a balanced daily rhythm that helps their bodies relax and develop the circadian rhythm and then kind of relax into sleep when the time is right. So we can think about our role in sleep as working on the environment. Because of course we cannot make our babies sleep, but we can provide the best conditions that we can, again, based on the science of sleep, but also based on observing our own unique babies and their unique needs for sleep and rest.
Janet Lansbury: There are even details, right? Yeah, there is science, because I remember reading it a long time ago when I was writing a post on this, how the free-movement aspects of Magda’s approach that she recommends, especially outdoors whenever possible, that the baby is in a position, usually on their backs, to be as free as possible to move their limbs, move their trunks, move their heads, and that that, just like with us when we get exercise, that helps a baby to sleep rather than being in a container the whole day.
Anya Dunham: Absolutely. So they get to that place where they’re physically tired in a good way. And also they’ve had experiences exploring and experimenting with what they can and cannot do when they’ve been able to move freely. And that helps them get to that place where they’re tired, just the right amount, not perhaps too tired, but full of experiences that then they’re ready to physically rest and then integrate those experiences into memory. And certainly free movement and being outdoors in the natural light, those are very, very helpful things for sleep.
Janet Lansbury: And did you look up any research on certain methods for instantly calming a baby? There’s an expert that talks about it, there’s this calming reflex and you have to do all this type of stimulation to put your baby into that. Is that healthy sleep or is that a baby kind of cocooning or shutting down to escape the stimulation?
Anya Dunham: Yeah, several papers that I’ve read talk about how sometimes young babies and even older babies might use sleep as an escape because that might be their only way to escape a really overstimulating environment. The only other way for them to voice their discomfort with environment would be to cry, but sleep sometimes might be their way of sort of escaping from this environment where they go like, I just can’t take this anymore. And so what sometimes happens is with very young babies, especially if it’s our first, sometimes we want to maintain that sort of on-the-go lifestyle because it feels good, it feels like, Okay, we have an easy baby. So maybe we can just be out and about just as we were before. And it might seem like the baby is sleeping great in their car seat or maybe in the stroller. And it might work for some babies or for some babies for a certain amount of time. But if it happens too much, for some babies it could lead to them being overstimulated and tired because they really couldn’t quite meet their sleep needs, especially if they’re moved from one device to another throughout the day.
Janet Lansbury: So is there actually science on that, that the quality of sleep that they’re getting is not as good or not as restorative or is there not science and we’re kind of guessing or wondering?
Anya Dunham: I tried to find studies that look at the quality of sleep in motion sleep environment versus stationary sleep environment, like in the crib versus maybe in the stroller or on the parent. And I actually couldn’t find any studies that empirically measured sleep quality, but there were studies that noted that aspect, that a baby might escape into sleep and sleep for a shorter period of time because perhaps the sleep rhythms were not quite aligned at the time. So it wasn’t maybe the right time for them to have that rest. And so they might have a little cat nap just to calm themselves down, but it wouldn’t be as restful and restorative.
Janet Lansbury: That makes sense. So overall, it seems that you mostly found science that supports a lot of the things that Magda taught and Pikler taught. Were there things you found that didn’t really jive with it or that were counter to those practices?
Anya Dunham: You know, I find that all or most parenting philosophies or approaches, they often are thought of as an approach plus a set of techniques. Sort of very specific ways of doing something. And then when I looked into science, there usually is more than one good way of doing things. There’s a range of good —and quite often a wide range of good— options. And so sometimes I see RIE misunderstood and misrepresented as just a set of techniques. And sometimes very specific don’ts and maybe nevers. Like, never carry baby in the carrier or never use the high chair or never breastfeed for comfort, things like that. And so I haven’t found scientific support for the very strict don’ts and the nevers.
Janet Lansbury: But that isn’t what it’s about at all.
Anya Dunham: Exactly, because there is strong research to support the benefits of free movement and sensitive caregiving and free exploration. And there are many ways to create those environments. And RIE, to me, if I understand it correctly, it’s not at all about the techniques or the don’ts, it’s the way to think about children and to see them. And that’s what’s really beautiful about it.
Janet Lansbury: And even in the principles, the seven principles, it’s not about, Do this! It’s presented as make time for this, you know, time for uninterrupted play. Because at the time that Pikler started observing babies behaving naturally, free to move, and saw how they developed their motor skills naturally the way that animals do, without being positioned or propped and all of these things, the whole point was that wasn’t happening in that time. And I think still being in containers is a fact of life for a lot of babies for most of their day. And they get used to that, you know, they like what they know, right? So what Magda said, and Pikler before her said, was, Make time for this, too. Make time for trusting your baby. Make time for an environment that’s physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing. Make time for uninterrupted play. Make time to involve the child in a person-to-person relationship with you when they’re being cared for. So it’s with them, not to them. Make time for sensitive observation whenever you can. Make time for consistency. So it’s just an opening up to see ways that weren’t normally thought of in those days and still probably aren’t typically considered as part of baby care.
Anya Dunham: I love that. I love the “make time.” This is a beautiful way of saying it and I think it goes back to what we talked about a little earlier, about how sometimes it’s challenging with a bigger family and our busy lives and working parents, but not putting it onto ourselves as this immense pressure, but thinking about it like, this is what we can do to create that environment and make time for all those good things that really help babies be who they are and learn and grow.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. And by doing so, opening ourselves up to this gift that babies have to offer us: This gift of rediscovering what we had when we were babies or when we were children. Which is, what matters is I saw a leaf that was blowing in that breeze and what matters is the clouds had an amazing formation or the smell of my mother’s shampoo is incredible. You know, slowing down ourselves, our own life, to enjoy life more, enjoy our baby more.
Anya Dunham: Absolutely. It’s like we grow and relearn right alongside them, in a sense.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. And I think especially today with all the— you know, I’m on my phone all the time, looking. And you know, not just standing in line, I’m always doing something. It’s even more challenging but maybe even more of a gift to take those moments, it’s just moments, where all I’m going to do is be with my baby in this diapering experience right now. Even if it doesn’t work well and they’re crying and they don’t like this or that, I’m just going to have an honest time together and just do this. It does nurture us. It nurtures the real joy that we have in us, I think.
Anya Dunham: Yeah, I agree. It does.
Janet Lansbury: Well, you’re wonderful. Thank you so much for all this information and I feel like we could probably have a new discussion on each of these topics. There’s so many juicy ones here. But thank you so much Anya. And what are you working on these days?
Anya Dunham: So, I guess in the year or so since my book Baby Ecology has been published, I’ve had opportunities to dive a little bit deeper into some of the topics. Because putting the book together felt a little bit like putting together a big puzzle, connecting all these pieces of knowledge from different studies and seeing that puzzle put together, it just made me see the wide range of good options for sleep, care, feeding, and play. And so I call that the optimal nurturing environment, or “the ONE” for short. Which is not at all prescriptive, but it’s a range of these good options from which parents can choose what works best for their babies and their families. And they can choose what reflects their cultural backgrounds and then honors their specific family situation.
So over the past year I’ve spent some time diving deeper into what I call the 10 elements of the ONE, the optimal nurturing environment. For example, I looked into small pieces, but important pieces, like choosing and transitioning into daycare and then into applying that whole concept of the ONE, of the nurturing environment, to daycare settings.
And then I’m also always working on spreading the word about all the research that went into Baby Ecology through my website, kidecology.com. And I love hearing from readers, answering questions or just when people share their thoughts on any of the research that went into the book.
Janet Lansbury: Sounds great. Well thank you again and enjoy those three children. How old are they now?
Anya Dunham: I’ve got a 12-year-old, an eight-year-old, and a just-turned three-year-old, so life’s been busy.
Janet Lansbury: And it stays busy, but it’s sure fun and surprising to discover what new things you’re going to learn about your child as they grow and all the surprises. I love it. Alright, talk to you again, I hope. And thank you again.
Anya Dunham: And thank you for all your work and for the honor of being your guest today. It’s been wonderful. Thank you.
Also, please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.
Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. You can get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. And you can even get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.