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Parenting is hard work. There’s the feeding, diapering, bathing, bouncing, shhhh-ing, and — of course — the tantrums that require some swift and gentle discipline.
You may not even be thinking about how you approach your child and certain behaviors. And with needy newborns and testy toddlers — sometimes it’s just all about survival.
But if you’re shopping around for new techniques to try, some parents have found success something that’s called RIE parenting.
RIE (pronounced “rye”) stands for “Resources for Infant Educarers.” This approach was founded in 1978 by Magda Gerber, a Hungarian immigrant and early childhood educator who lived in Los Angeles.
“Educarer” is a term coined with the idea that parents and caregivers should have respect for even the youngest of infants. According to Gerber and others, babies should be treated as capable and understanding of the world around them, able to learn and flourish if given safe space and freedom from too much adult direction.
The ultimate goal with RIE is to nurture what’s referred to as an “authentic” child. This means your little one should move about in daily life feeling secure, competent, autonomous, and connected to their environment.
“I discovered RIE via Janet Lansbury’s ‘Unruffled’ podcast when my daughter was about 12 months old,” says Carolyn Sweeney whose child is now 2 1/2 years old. “It was a game-changer for me. I narrate what’s happening and how she’s acting/feeling and just offer a lot of acknowledgement.”
Gerber outlined several basic principles to RIE, but communication is perhaps the core to this type of parenting. Parent educator Janet Lansbury explains that “we communicate authentically” — speaking in a normal adult voice to babies and children. This dialogue is all about:
- showing respect
- communicating about real things going on daily
- acknowledging the child’s responses, thoughts, and feelings
1. Provide a safe environment
Fostering a home that’s safe for baby is also of key importance. Your child’s environment should allow them to move about in a natural way without too many restrictions.
Beyond standard baby-proofing, this means paying attention to your little one’s emotional and cognitive needs when it comes to things like toys.
Example of method in action
RIE encourages independent play for babies, so the environment should provide toys and furniture that would be totally safe if an infant were left completely alone.
You may want to create a designated area or simply gate off certain areas that don’t have age-appropriate things. Toys should also be age appropriate and not pose a threat, like choking hazard.
Thing is, a safe play space in your home may look different from someone else’s home. Deborah Carlisle Solomon, author of “Baby Knows Best,” explains Gerber’s approach by sharing “if your baby was left on her own all day, she would be hungry, upset, and need a new diaper when you returned but she would be physically unharmed.”
2. Allow time for solo play
With RIE, the focus is on giving even very young infants opportunities to play alone and uninterrupted by caregivers. As a parent, you can sit and marvel at what your baby is doing and learning through play. Lansbury says that caregivers should “trust that [their] child’s play choices are enough” without redirection.
Example of method in action
RIE values simple and uncomplicated toys that allow for open ended play. Think simple wooden blocks versus overstimulating battery operated toys (and yay for less noise!). It may feel unnatural at first, but the goal is to get your child engaging with play on their own.
For how long? Lansbury says that anywhere between 15 minutes and 3 hours or more is great. There’s definitely a range.
To start, try sitting with baby, giving them your full attention. After a little while, communicate that you’ll be nearby, perhaps in the kitchen cooking dinner, and that it’s their time to play. Then let them go at it with whatever he wants (safe from hazards, of course!).
Gerber also outlined that babies should have time to interact — on their own terms — with other babies and children their own age.
3. Involve your child in their own care
Sounds wild, right? But in RIE, you actually want your little one to actively participate in things like bath time, diapering, and feeding. How can a baby help do these things? Well, at first it’s about clearly communicating the process.
Example of method in action
Blogger Nadine at the RIE-focused blog Mamas in the Making explains that instead of swiftly picking up your baby and changing their diaper, you first want to communicate what’s going to happen.
Say something like “I see you’re playing now. I’d like to change your diaper, so I’m going to pick you up and take you to the changing table now.” Then continue on with something like: “I’m going to take off your pants now so we can change your diaper. I’m going to take off your diaper and wipe you clean. Now I’m going to put on a clean diaper.”
As your child gets older, you can give them small tasks to do, like getting diapers and wipes, undressing themselves (with help), and continuing these small processes.
4. Observe your child to understand their needs
RIE-focused website Educaring explains that the method behind this parenting technique is all about “sensitive observation.” Caregivers watch and listen to their infants and children to discover their needs. This means less talking and directing and more silence and listening.
It’s through observation, too, that parents can see the tremendous amount of learning and change that happens in the first 2 to 3 years of their child’s life. And since RIE proponents believe that much of a child’s learning is self-directed, parents can spend less time setting up learning opportunities and more time soaking in all the growth their child makes on her own. Sounds almost too good!
Example of method in action
Sometimes observing your child means letting them cry. Experts in RIE see crying as communication. Instead of stopping crying at all costs, parents and caregivers should tune in to what baby is going through or trying to share. Provide comfort, yes, but resist popping in a pacifier or immediately turning to the breast or bottle.
If baby is hungry, of course, the food may help. Otherwise, try calmly saying something to your little one like “You’re crying — what’s wrong?” Be sure their basic needs are met, like a clean diaper and food.
RIE followers believe that sometimes babies need to cry to express emotions. It’s the parents’ job to respond, but not necessarily stop the crying with extreme measures like bouncing a baby for hours or nursing all night long.
5. Be consistent in everything you do
Consistency, consistency, consistency. It has overarching importance with all these principles. Keeping a child’s environment, communication, and general day-to-day life consistent lends to a feeling a safety. And beyond that, keeping discipline and limits consistent sets up expectations for children.
Example of method in action
When it comes to winding your child down to sleep, try creating a predictable pattern that you follow each and every night. Gerber explains that “the easiest way to develop good [sleep] habits in general is to have a predictable daily life. Young babies thrive on routine.”
So, keeping a consistent waking, eating, and sleep schedule may help your little one learn a good rhythm — in the day and night.
Related: What is mindful parenting?
You can take formal classes in RIE parenting. In fact, there are currently more than 60 RIE specialists living in different regions of the United States and throughout the world. Most seem to be focused in California or New York.
If you don’t live in an area where classes are offered, don’t worry. There are plenty of opportunities to learn more about this approach online and through reading.
Magda Gerber’s organization maintains a list of resources that include sites like Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care blog. There are also several Facebook pages you can follow and groups you can join:
- Magda Gerber
- Resources for Infant Educarers
- Baby Knows Best (Deborah Carlisle Solomon)
- Create Peaceful Places for Children (Polly Elam)
- Respectful Parent (from RIE 3-Teen)
If you’d rather hit your local library or curl up with your Kindle, here’s some recommended reading:
- Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect by Magda Gerber
- The RIE Manual for Parents and Professionals by Magda Gerber
- Baby Knows Best by Deborah Carlisle Solomon
- Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting by Janet Lansbury
There are a number of pros to RIE parenting. One that isn’t seen in other methods is room for parents to take care of their own needs without guilt. (Can we get an amen?!)
“[RIE] has helped me feel confident in boundaries I set for myself, like my own personal needs,” says Sweeney. “For example, [I use the bathroom] when I need to use the bathroom, even if my [toddler-age] daughter is playing with stamps [in another room].”
Along with this, RIE parenting takes off the pressure parents may feel about needing to entertain their kids 24/7. Since young babies are encouraged and expected to engage in solo play, parents are off the hook when it comes to providing hours of entertainment each and every day.
Other benefits include things like allowing your baby to set the pace for their own life. Instead of you directing their activities, they have some say and can, as a result, feel empowered even at a very young age. They can also have more autonomy to choose the things they’re interested in versus always being directed.
And there’s a clear benefit to giving your baby your full attention. Observing them and tuning in can help with your bond and your feeling of closeness. And that’s something really special.
Not everyone agrees that the RIE approach is gold when it comes to parenting.
In general, RIE treats babies as independent from birth. Some critics say this goes against the idea of the “fourth trimester,” where infants still crave the closeness and soothing of the womb.
Others feel that Gerber’s ideas may be somewhat outdated, specifically when it comes to crying. Gerber believed that babies can self-soothe, but some say that infants may learn to soothe themselves by being soothed by caregivers.
Another criticism is the RIE seems to be generalizing or even “rigid” when it comes to things like play. Gerber felt that babies should be left on their backs to play during their waking hours. While some babies may like this, others may find this position uncomfortable or want a variety of positions.
“While I’m not perfect, a toddler gives us lots of chances to practice,” says Sweeney. “My biggest takeaway is to stay curious by watching and observing when she’s having strong emotions.”
If this approach makes sense to you, give it a try. Start by making sure your little one’s environment is safe — and then take a step back to observe. You may be surprised what your baby can teach you about their preferences and needs if you take the time to listen!