“May I pick you up?”
DeAnna Englezos, a Park Slope mother, knew that question, delivered to her pre-verbal infant, sometimes drew stares. But she also felt that asking permission was crucial to their relationship — even if the baby couldn’t possibly answer, or even comprehend, what she was saying.
“Even when she was a newborn, I felt that my daughter was a complete and sentient person,” Englezos says of her now-13-month-old.
The new mom practices an unorthodox parenting style known as RIE — Resources for Infant Educarers — in which respecting infants as individual people is paramount.
“To me,” she says, “it just felt natural to start speaking with her like she was a person.”
‘It’s about … perceiving a newborn baby as a capable, unique individual, and building a relationship based on trust and respect from Day 1.’
The methodology, which focuses on children 18 months and younger, eschews baby talk in favor of conversation. It also discourages many common registry items, including swings, bouncers, baby carriers and even high chairs, which are thought to be detrimental to development because they contain a child and don’t allow them full use of their bodies. It also advises against light-up toys and mobiles, since they allow babies to be passively entertained rather than encouraging them to actively explore.
Long popular on the West Coast — and with celebrities including, reportedly, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tobey Maguire, Hank Azaria and Felicity Huffman — it’s becoming increasingly trendy with New York parents. An NYC RIE Meetup group boasts more than 200 members, and the Nurtured Child, a permanent RIE-specific playspace and classroom, opened in DUMBO late last year. While critics say its tenets ask too much of infants, advocates of the approach believe it helps babies become confident, secure and independent.
“It’s about … perceiving a newborn baby as a capable, unique individual, and building a relationship based on trust and respect from Day 1,” says Janet Lansbury, a Los Angeles-based educator and one of the leaders of the RIE movement.
Parents praise the simplicity of RIE, which was first formulated in Los Angeles in the 1970s by Magda Gerber, a Hungarian-born, early-childhood educator. She was inspired by Emmi Pikler, a pediatrician who worked with orphanages in Hungary’s Budapest.
“I don’t think I’ve bought a toy for my daughter since I started thinking about RIE,” says Jessica Crystal, a nurse and mom to a 21-month-old in Hoboken. Although RIE doesn’t outright ban toys, it suggests babies younger than 6 months simply entertain themselves with nothing more than their hands and feet. Older infants should amuse themselves with simple objects, such as used water bottles and deflated beach balls.
“It’s not as if she doesn’t have [toys], but it’s more realizing that, for an infant, everything around them is interesting,” says Crystal. “They don’t need you to make it more exciting for them.”
Lansbury stresses that the approach is not only good for babies, it’s also healthy for moms and dads.
“A huge component of RIE is self-care [for parents],” she says. “It’s not being a martyr. If you want to take a shower, you put your infant down in a safe place, and tell them, ‘I know you don’t want me to leave, but I’m coming back.’”
Some parents learn the concepts through RIE classes, like the ones at the Nurtured Child. There, 3-month-old infants are placed on their backs in the center of the room. Lights are low, quiet voices are encouraged, and moms and dads are supposed to avoid immediate intervention if their child begins to cry. Instead, they should listen for a few moments before swooping in.
“Babies cry and parents need not feel stressed or embarrassed about it,” Lansbury writes on her Web site. “When we follow our impulse to quickly stop the crying, we aren’t taking the time to listen to and understand our baby’s cues and are less likely to validate the baby’s communication by giving her what she really needs.”
This approach to crying can be especially controversial.
“I’ve brought my parents to this class and they’re horrified when my daughter starts to cry and I don’t do anything,” says Jennie Monness, a mom of a 4-month-old who writes about her RIE experience at MoMommies.com. “But, for me … part of life is experiencing emotions. I want to give my daughter a second to feel how she feels … I just always think: ‘How would I want someone to treat me?’ And I know I don’t like when my husband immediately says, ‘Everything’s fine,’ if I’m complaining. To me, it’s treating my infant the same way.”
When it comes to sleep training, RIE takes a more moderate approach. Instead of advocating the “cry it out” method, in which babies are allowed to sob for hours until they learn to sleep on their own, it suggests offering measured, delayed comfort when needed.
Some detractors, however, worry that the philosophy expects more of infants than they are psychologically capable of handling, leading to unnecessary distress.
“A newborn’s cognitive ability is limited, and much of what they learn comes from modeling and touch,” says Tracy Cassels, a parenting coach based in Ontario, Canada, who has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.
“Touch, in particular, provides a lot of valuable information to infants, including helping regulate temperature and stress response, and I sometimes worry that a strict RIE approach, or the way a parent may interpret the RIE approach, may make a parent second-guess picking up and soothing an infant, when that may be what they need … it overlooks some key points in attachment theory and evolutionary biology.”
Doctors advise parents to not be too dogmatic with any child-rearing philosophy, however comforting strict guidelines can be.
“There are so many well-meaning parents who just want an instruction manual for their kids, which no one has,” says Rachel Biller, a pediatrician with Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, a member of Westchester Medical Center’s Hospital Network.
“If your goal is to respect and love your child, there are many great parenting methodologies and whatever one you pick — it’s a guideline. You may not follow it to the letter and that’s OK.”
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