rie parenting

What Is RIE Parenting?

RIE parenting could be summed up as an awareness of our babies. We perceive and acknowledge them to be unique, separate people. We enhance our awareness by observing them — allowing them the bit of space they need to show us who they are and what they need.

RIE parenting also makes us more self-aware. Through our sensitive observations we learn not to jump to conclusions; for example, that our babies are bored, tired, cold, hungry, or want to hold the toy, they seem to notice across the room. We learn not to assume that grumbling or fussing means babies need to be propped to sitting, picked up, or rocked or bounced to sleep. We recognize that, like us, babies sometimes have feelings that they want to share and will work through them in their own way with our support.

We learn to differentiate our children’s signals from our own projections. We become more aware of the habits we create (like sitting babies up or bouncing them to sleep), habits that can then become our child’s needs. These are artificially created needs rather than organic ones.

In short, RIE parenting asks us to use our minds as well as our instinct, to look and listen closely and carefully before we respond.

Sensitive observation proves to us that our babies are competent individuals with thoughts, wishes and needs of their own, and once we discover this truth, there’s no turning back. Then, like Alison Gopnik, one of several psychologists on the forefront of an exciting new wave of infant brain research, we might wonder, “Why were we so wrong about babies for so long?”

Practised observers like RIE founder Magda Gerber weren’t wrong. More than sixty years ago, Gerber and her mentor, pediatrician Emmi Pikler, knew what Gopnik’s research is finally now proving: infants are born with phenomenal learning abilities, unique gifts, deep thoughts and emotions. Pikler and Gerber dismissed the notion of babies as “cute blobs” years ago, and understood them as whole people deserving of our respect.

RIE (pronounced “rye”) parenting was the brainchild of Magda Gerber, an early childhood educator and former orphanage medical director who emigrated to Los Angeles from Hungary. She believed that parents not only care for and educate their children but learn from them as well. “What we teach is ourselves” is one of the movement’s mantras. This belief in a more relaxed and connected form of parenting led her to found the nonprofit Resources for Infant Educarers in 1978.

RIE, short for resources of infant educators, has attracted the attention of many celebrities, including Tobey Maguire, Penélope Cruz and Felicity Huffman, which helped bring it into the limelight, including an infamous Vanity Fair article that poked fun at the adult-like way babies are treated as part of this parenting ideology.

The RIE philosophy is drastically different from several other popular ones. Helicopter parents, tiger moms and attachment parents are all more focused on the parents guiding or controlling their children. Free-range parenting, which lets your child lead the way toward his own passions and interests to foster independence, is probably the most similar parenting style. However, free-range parenting takes it one step further with even less involvement and observation than RIE.

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Benefits of RIE parenting

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 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.

How RIE works?

The RIE parenting system focuses on a simple, baby-centred philosophy that frees up both parent and kid to just be and interact when needed. Some basic tenets:

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You don’t go crazy trying to entertain baby

RIE parenting is about letting your child find his own interests and pursue them—you’re there to observe, not be the source of all entertainment while he passively sits by. “There’s this fallacy that babies get bored,” Lansbury says. “But in reality, everything is too brand new and amazing to them. If they’re the ones deciding what they’re looking at [or playing with], they go for a long time.” RIE parenting means your child gets to take a more active role in everything, from helping with his diaper changes (even babies as young as infants can learn to “help” by lifting their legs, according to RIE proponents) to figuring out how he’d like to play.

You communicate a lot with baby

RIE parenting involves a lot of discussions—even giving a play-by-play—”sportscasting” everything you do. So as you go step by step through a diaper change, you’ll be telling baby what to expect. “The narration of events, behaviours, feelings, wants and wishes (past, present and future) is the most valuable aspect of the RIE method,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a child, couple and family psychotherapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, California. “I would hope and recommend that all parents incorporate a talking-through process into their daily life.”

You encourage baby to express emotions—even if that means crying it out

RIE parents don’t rush to stop a crying baby. Once they’re sure all the baby’s needs are met, they simply support and hold them, and don’t go overboard trying to stop them from crying. “We have to try to stay in a conversation with a child who is crying,” Lansbury says. “What typically happens is panic, and now we’re overstimulating—rocking, bouncing, dancing with them—to get them to stop crying.” RIE parents believe that by trying so hard to calm a crying baby, you’re teaching the baby it’s not okay to feel upset. “If we treat it as an emergency every time we feel something, it’s an emergency to change it,” Lansbury says. “That’s not a healthy set up for life.”

You forge a new path toward discipline

Forget about time-outs or punishments. RIE parenting is about setting boundaries for your child and sticking to them. “This is a very strict approach in discipline,” Lansbury says. “It’s not about being mean, but being very certain in your boundaries.” That means the child learns she needs to sit down to eat—and if she decides to get up, the food is cleared away, and the child is told, “I see you’re starting to stand up, so I see you’re done with your food.” You’re the leader in this relationship, and you’re showing your child by example how to behave. “Children learn mostly through modelling—they learn good manners, generosity, empathy through us,” Lansbury says.

Is RIE parenting safe, and does it really work?

Lisa Asta, M.D., a pediatrician in Walnut Creek, CA, says that in the first 12 months of life, infants go through many stages — which makes it difficult to make a blanket statement about if and how this parenting theory can be applied. However, there are some tenets about infant development that don’t change, and kids thrive with touch and limit-setting and clear boundaries.

Unlike horses or cows, which walk from the day they’re born, human babies aren’t toddling around on their two feet exploring the world on their own until many months later. Until then, infants are relatively helpless. They experience the world through their parents — which means they rely on you for survival and nurturing. “We teach that by speaking and make eye contact to show we’re there for them and present and love them,” explains Asta.

In the first three months of life, newborn babies are adjusting to the daily rhythms of life outside of the womb, including day and night. That means unlike adults — who get completely thrown by jet lag, for example — newborn babies have a fairly irregular schedule and their bodies haven’t established habits for basic functions like eating and sleeping. “Parents might cycle through many things a baby needs and not find exactly what it is due to their lack of a clear circadian rhythm,” she says. “Newborns need to know in first three months of life that someone will be there, so if they have a need and they cry you will attend to them or that someone is there because they are rather helpless.”

After about four months of age, most babies have settled into a more regular rhythm. At this point, babies are only beginning to understand receptive language — and they do so at different rates. But it’s now that doctors generally begin recommending parents explain to babies the actions they’re taking. “We as pediatricians tell a baby, ‘We’re going to have food now,’ to help a baby know what’s going to happen next,” she says. “Parents should always speak with their kids. Babies thrive on predictability.”

As babies get older, the permission theory gets a bit more complicated. At around nine months of age, many babies begin to have separation anxiety, where they fear new people, including family and friends. At that point, Asta says, you may want to keep your baby in your lap when friends and family come over and encourage other visitors to talk to you before immediately picking up your baby.

And toward the end of the first year, toddler negativity or independence kicks in — and asking for permission from kids can get complicated. “You’re not going to ask an 11-month-old, ‘do you want a diaper change now?’ because the child may want to play and not realize it’s time for a change. If you ask a 12-month-old, ‘Do you want me to put you in your crib?’ it would make life challenging,” says Asta. “With toddlers, it’s about setting limits with health and safety. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t set physical boundaries for your child — that’s good. The spirit of what she’s promoting is quite good. There are just developmental stages where it might cause problems.”

Asta says she recommends not asking yes or no questions of a toddler in order to create what she calls a win-win situation. Instead, she recommends what she calls the “medical ‘we'” for babies. So while you should definitely tell your child what you’re doing, you’re not necessarily asking for permission: “We’re going to put you in your car seat and go for a ride,” or “We’re going to brush your teeth,” for example.

That said, there are benefits to teaching kids about boundaries and respect for their bodies. “Everyone wants to have boundaries,” says Asta. When they’re well established, kids may be better at sharing and keeping their hands to themselves at, say, the phase when their peers are biting and kicking.

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Criticisms of RIE parenting

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 could 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.

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RIE pros and cons

PROS

  • RIE parenting isn’t focused on rules. With other parenting styles, a lot of emphases is placed on following a certain parenting path and certain ways of caring for a baby. You may feel judged by others if you don’t follow these ideas to the letter. For example, bottle-feeding instead of breastfeeding or putting baby to sleep in a different room rather than co-sleeping. But the RIE method is less defined. “There are no hard-and-fast rules—it’s a way of perceiving things,” Lansbury says. “There’s no, ‘you’re doing it right,’ ‘you’re not doing it right.'” Essentially, whatever works for you (and baby) is the best route.
  • You’re in for less parent guilt. Let’s face it: Many modern parenting styles are pretty focused on baby’s needs, not yours. That means a lot of moms and dads feel guilty when they take time away to meet their own needs—even if it’s to eat in peace or to use the bathroom. The RIE philosophy encourages moms to look at their parenting role as a relationship and to make a commitment to take care of themselves too. “In the relationship between you and baby, you have boundaries right from the beginning,” Lansbury says. “Baby has a right to their feelings, and you have a right to take care of yourself.” So if your child starts wailing when you go shower, take your shower without rushing, but you acknowledge her feelings by saying, “I hear that you’re upset about it, but I need a shower.”
  • You encourage your child to be in touch with his emotions. RIE philosophy allows your child to own his feelings; not always trying to make things okay for him. “A lot of psychologists consider this preventative medicine for mental health because it is encouraging the flow of feelings that we all have and normalizing them,” Lansbury says.
  • You may save money on gear and toys. You’ll have a pretty short baby registry list if you go all into RIE parenting. RIE proponents only use bouncers, swings and other equipment that could overstimulate baby sparingly. And you won’t have to spring for toys with bells and whistles either—simpler toys are best. “I found RIE when my daughter was 18 months old, so I had already introduced a pacifier and way too many toys,” says Natalia Palda, a mom who blogs about RIE at The Current Essential. “Once I started learning more about RIE and how all of different gadgets and toys weren’t necessary and, ultimately, hindered her innate ability to play, we consciously scaled back on the battery-operated, one-use type of toys and only kept the multiuse toys [like blocks and play dough].”
  • Your child will develop independence. You’ll be supporting your child but allowing her the space to develop her skills—and that can lead to a more confident, self-directed child. “My daughter’s ability to develop independent play was huge for me,” Palda says. “Before I learned about RIE, I thought I should be engaging with my daughter all of the time. I’ve learned that allowing self-directed play in a safe environment will spark my daughter to play without being directed or placing my own judgment on what to do next.”

CONS

  • You may be in for a tough transition. If the baby is used to you providing all the entertainment and stimulation, he may need some time to learn how to find his own ways to have fun—and that may mean putting up with a few extra tantrums or other forms of acting out while you’re implementing the RIE method.
  • Your role as a parent and caregiver may feel diminished. If you like taking a role as an active teacher or guide in the baby’s life, RIE’s focus on simple observation and connection may not feel like enough for you. “It doesn’t jibe with people who want to be more active teachers for their children,” Lansbury says—for instance, “the moms who are looking to create the smartest baby.” RIE parenting is more about being present with baby and encouraging her emotions, interests and passions without pushing your own agenda on them.
  • There may be more crying. Rather than trying to minimize crying with rocking, dancing, singing or other techniques, RIE parents make sure baby’s needs are met, then are simply present and supportive while the baby cries it out. “Crying is a natural, healthy reaction to a situation that doesn’t feel right,” Palda says. “Toddlers aren’t able to fully verbalize their feelings to us. Crying is their language.” So if you’re a parent who can’t take the tears, this may not be for you.
  • Talking to the baby like a peer may feel awkward. RIE parenting involves a lot of communication—even with your newborn—but we’re not talking about goo-goo baby talk. It encourages communicating with a baby like you would any other person you respect, and perhaps talking them through what you’re doing together, like, “now we’re putting your pyjamas on.”
  • Critics say RIE is all talk, no action. “The biggest drawback in RIE is the lack of taking ‘action,'” Walfish says. “The parents say all the right things, but do nothing to enforce making their child comply with appropriate demands and expectations.”

For parents looking to connect with their kids and get to know them, RIE parenting principles may help them achieve that. “I honestly feel like my daughter, and I have a deeper relationship,” Palda says. “We have a beautiful unspoken understanding of each other. And I know that this foundation of understanding will only deepen as she grows.”

If you’re interested in RIE parenting

If you’d like to try out RIE parenting, talk to your pediatrician and read up on baby and toddler development (Asta says the What to Expect the First Yearbook is a great resource) to understand what stage your child is in now and how various parenting strategies might work in practice. Asta adds that talking to a child behaviourist in addition to your pediatrician may help.

It’s also important to pay attention to your own child’s needs and avoid getting stuck on a theory that might not work well in practice for you. “There are many ways to parent kids successfully, and kids have different temperaments. One strategy is not always going to work well for every child,” Asta says.

No matter how you choose to parent, there are certain common-sense situations when your child definitely shouldn’t be calling the shots. “We don’t want to be invading a child’s space. But you’re also not going to ask an 18-month-old, ‘Can I hold your hand in a parking lot?’ In many situations that involve your child’s health or safety, you’re not going to ask permission since kids can’t think through the consequences,” says Asta.

Ultimately, while there are many theories about how to raise your kids, one thing we do know for sure is that what babies need are your love and attention. Pediatricians are most concerned with distracted parents who get so sucked into their cell phones that they’re not actually paying attention to their little ones. “I don’t personally know the science or know that there’s enough research to support these strategies. But as a pediatrician, I can speak to what we do know: hold your baby, sing to them, love them,” says Asta.

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