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Respecting Babies: A New Look at Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach

Freedom of Movement and Self-Awareness

At the same time that an infant is learning about herself while being spoken to, caressed, and handled by adults, she is also learning about how to operate her own body, how it moves, what she can cause it to do, and how to live peacefully within it. If respectful interactions during care are the first way she learns about her body and its various parts, the other equally important aspect of learning on the physical level is autonomous movement.

The seminal research on natural movement development, done over many years by Emmi Pikler with the infants at The Pikler Institute, shows that typically developing infants do not need to be taught how to crawl, sit, stand, or walk. These milestones are only a few of the rewarding and fascinating physical skills infants who are allowed to move freely show us. Giving infants, even if they have developmental delays, the freedom to move in accordance with their innate impulses may seem radical, but it is essential to their becoming persons with uncompromised self esteem.

In this chapter, I discuss what is required from adults and the environment to assure infants and toddlers the benefits of free movement.

The RIE approach to gross motor—or psychomotor—development is very easy to sum up with Magda Gerber’s caveat, "Never put a baby into a position she cannot get into or out of all by herself" (M. Gerber, personal communication, November, 1986). It sounds simple enough, but it actually challenges many assumptions that people have about babies, and makes adults question some of their basic coping strategies. This applies first to how adults hold a young baby. The cultural norm here in the United States is to get them vertical as soon as possible without ever even thinking about it. Just about everyone I know holds babies upright against their shoulders. However, in The Pikler Institute, and in some RIE homes and centers, infants are transported in the arms with the head and spine fully supported in a supine or mildly tilted position until the baby has learned to sit up on its own, usually not before 6, 7, or more months of age.

Only when the baby has demonstrated that its musculoskeletal infrastructure
is strong enough to fully support the head atop a straight back is the baby carried in an upright position. These babies are allowed to develop a deep sense of bodily security; they are not asked to struggle to hold
up their heads with muscles that are unfit for the job. Making a baby wobble and strain to stay upright is not a good use of his energy and effort. When a body is required to do compensating work, movement habit patterns are formed that may cause other problems and compensations down the road that may then seem inexplicable. Allowing infants to develop their movements naturally and in sequence, without rushing past interim stages, provides them with a solid psychomotor foundation, which will support them for life. Infants have not yet divorced the mental from the physical senses of self, and if adults are careful, perhaps infants will always remain wholly integrated.

I have to admit that when my children were babies, I held them upright, too, and they really were only supine for breast-feeding. They would fuss and cry when held flat if no breast was offered because of this association. However, when a baby is always carried in a supine position, this expectation does not result. As Magda often said, babies come to expect and "need" whatever they become used to, whether or not it is the best thing for them.

The inner drive to be upright is hard to turn off once it has been turned on, but when babies are allowed to "hang out" on their backs until they can do otherwise without help, eventually they can do so many things through their own initiative that they love being on the floor to play. They look like little Martha Graham dancers with incredible grace and balance as they move through many transitional positions on their way to genuine upright posture.