Parenting With the RIE Approach
Simple toys – just cups and balls made of plastic, wood or metal – are scattered about the room, while nearby a 6-inch-tall ramped platform serves as a safe climbing structure for an intrepid crawler.
Even with so many babies, ranging from two to nine months old, the room is quiet. The mothers whisper a few words to each other, then turn back to observe their infants, who are either lying on their backs looking back at them, crawling to meet another baby or, in the case of one very mobile child, continuously walking away from and back to her parent. Class director Lee Fernandez watches in silence and offers an occasional, hushed tip, such as advising one mom not to help her baby, who is trying to pull herself up to her feet.
This class is practicing a parenting approach called Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE (pronounced “rye”) for short. The simple approach has a Hollywood following and is getting noticed across the country. A new book by RIE’s Executive Director Deborah Solomon, Baby Knows Best, is fueling the interest. RIE was founded in 1978 by early childhood educator Magda Gerber and pediatric neurologist Tom Forrest, M.D. Gerber called it Resources for Infant “Educarers” because she meant it to offer guidance to anyone responsible for the care of young children.
At its core, RIE is about respect, developing a relationship with one’s child and giving children space to discover things on their own. “Babies should absolutely be treated like babies. But most importantly, they should be treated with respect,” says Solomon, who trained with Gerber. Solomon adds, “We see the infant as a human being with its own point of view.”
Nora Caruso, program director at the Santa Cruz Toddler Care Center, which has been practicing RIE for more than three decades, expands on this. “Respect for children as competent individuals is the cornerstone of what we do. Young children are extremely capable beings when they are allowed to interact with their environment,” she says.
Click next to learn more about the RIE Way&pagebreaking&Another Bay Area childcare center that uses the RIE approach is the Yerba Buena Gardens Child Development Center in San Francisco.
RIE practitioners outline concrete things parents should do to get to know their babies, build a relationship with them and allow them to thrive as individuals. The most critical part is creating a safe space for your child, says Solomon – such as a bassinet, crib or gated-off area.
The next ingredient is observation. Solomon says parents should take the time to get to know their child, much like the mothers were doing in the Redwood City class. Two other key steps are slowing down and always letting the child know what you are going to do.
“Moving slowly creates a sense of peacefulness for the adult and the child. For a young baby to be moving at an adult’s pace is jarring,” says Solomon. If you are going to pick up your baby to, say, change a diaper, “Tell your child what you’re going to do. Then wait. We want to give the baby time to process what’s been said.”
This may seem like commonsense advice, but it’s not what we’re often taught in our competitive, fast-paced society, says Fernandez, the director of the Redwood City class, who ran RIE-based childcare services for the U.S. Army for several years.
“It’s really hard for parents to slow down. Babies need you to be slow. Parents in our area are go, go, go, always multi-tasking. Babies need you for at least part of your time to be quiet and focused,” says Fernandez.
Fernandez notes another tenet of the RIE approach: babies don’t require complicated toys with bells and whistles. With noisy, electronic playthings, babies become passive and are merely entertained (until they get over-stimulated), but they don’t engage with such toys.
“We need baby-activated toys, not battery-activated toys,” says Fernandez. That’s why all you’ll find in her class are cups and balls of different colors, shapes and textures.
RIE’s uncomplicated approach resonated with Redwood City mother Harmony Younes. When her baby Noor was born, she felt bombarded with messages about parenting that didn’t fit her own values. “There’s so much stuff the media and others say you need. It can be overwhelming.”
When she learned of RIE parenting, she was drawn to its simplicity. “It’s nice to step back and really focus on respecting your baby. You can keep it simple,” says Younes. She has taken time to slow down and observe Noor, who’s now six months old, noticing that Noor prefers to take in new situations carefully before taking action.
“Observing her through RIE has helped me identify those aspects of her personality,” says Younes. She says the RIE class also made her feel more comfortable giving Noor independent playtime each day. “She’s developed a capacity to entertain herself. She enjoys it,” says Younes.
Click next to learn how REI encourages you to worry less.&pagebreaking&
Caregivers and parents all agree that RIE allows them to step back and worry less. Solomon says parents can relax and let go, feeling confident to let their baby explore. “It’s the antidote to helicopter parenting,” she says.
Which brings us back to Fernandez in the Redwood Shores Public Library when she told a mother not to help her baby stand up. Fernandez explained that if the mom helped her baby get to her feet, the infant could get off balance. By letting her child do the work herself, the mother was helping that child build up her own muscles.
As Caruso from the Toddler Care Center explains, “Magda (Gerber) believed children should never be put into positions they can’t get into or out of themselves.” RIE says babies should never be put in bouncy chairs, exersaucers and similar devices. And they shouldn’t be propped up to sit before they are ready to do so on their own.
RIE also does not recommend giving infants awake “tummy time” because they can’t roll onto their bellies themselves. Yet when Gerber first developed RIE in the 1970s, many babies were still put to sleep on their tummies. Now that the AAP has advised that we put babies on their backs to sleep, fewer babies overall are spending time on their tummies.
San Francisco pediatrician Lisa Dana, M.D., agrees that “artificially propping babies up into a sitting position is not appropriate.” When babies are propped up in exersaucers, Bumbo chairs and the like, their core muscles are not engaged, says Dana, a fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Dana does believe, though, that awake tummy time is important. Babies learn to move from the tummy position, and they develop arm strength when they are on their tummies. It’s a critical part of developing their fine motor skills and strength, says Dana.
“RIE has a lot of great ideas,” says Dr. Dana. She embraces their philosophy of talking with children, letting them know what’s coming up next and giving them space to develop their own skills. She just notes that awake tummy time should also be part of an infant’s development.
Ultimately, RIE’s advice to slow down, respect and build a bond with your child, and then let him or her amaze you with what they can do, is valuable to anyone who is embarking on the road to parenthood. Parents and caregivers who use RIE all say that this approach has made caring for young children feel so much more enjoyable and easy.
That’s the feedback at the Santa Cruz Toddler Care Center. Director Caruso says, “We hear every day that parents are so grateful for learning a technique that makes sense and is so easy to apply. Parents feel so much more competent and at ease.”
Noelle Salmi is a freelance writer and mother of three in San Francisco.