The RIE Approach: Is It Right for Your Family?

by Vicki Santillano

The RIE Approach: Is It Right for Your Family?

In an ideal world, newborns would come with a “How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Me” pamphlet attached to their tiny wrists, complete with a baby-talk translator and a guide to what every wail means. In the real world, parents consult every source available, from fellow parents to doctors to self-help books, for some semblance of insight into raising these elusive little humans. Unfortunately, they’re often inundated with contradictory advice in the process. One might suggest a steady diet of Baby Einstein goods, while another feels a diaperless existence is key. It’s enough to drive an already sleep-deprived adult into utter madness.


Most parenting methods have their moment in the spotlight, especially if celebrities jump on the bandwagon, too. Recently, the RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) approach made headlines not only because stars like Tobey Maguire and Jamie Lee Curtis supposedly attend its classes, but also because of its main goal: to “raise authentic infants who are competent, confident, curious, attentive, exploring, cooperative, secure, peaceful, focused, self-initiating, resourceful, involved, inner-directed, aware, and interested,” according to its website.


Using terms like “authentic” and “inner-directed” to describe a baby is puzzling, to say the least. Plus, some critics feel the RIE method is too severe in some respects, claiming that practitioners aren’t allowed to comfort their babies or sing lullabies to them. But others find it a welcome relief from helicopter parenting. So what’s the real deal with the RIE approach?


The Pause That Refreshes?
RIE is hardly a new approach to parenting; it was developed in the late 1970s by Magda Gerber, an infant specialist, and Tom Forrest, a pediatric neurologist. While it started in Los Angeles and is still based there today, RIE-affiliated training courses (for both instructors and parents) are offered in other cities around the United States and Canada. What sparked the recent discussion about a method that’s existed for over thirty years was Daily Beast writer Gina Piccalo’s reporting, in late October 2010, that Early Head Start programs in the United States will soon receive RIE teaching materials. She also explained the basic tenets of the method—some of which are true, others of which Deborah Solomon, executive director of RIE, will tell you are misleading.


For example, Piccalo wrote that parents who follow the RIE approach don’t sing lullabies to their kids—a statement Solomon says is false, along with the ideas that RIE advocates prohibit stroller use and comforting crying kids. But all of these misconceptions do relate back to guidelines inspired by the method’s core rule: treating babies as developing people, rather than as helpless creatures. That means observing them, learning to pick up on their communicative cues, and allowing them to develop and gain knowledge at their own pace. “Our approach to growth motor development is that we don’t put a baby into a position that he can’t get into on his own, so we’re not going to put a baby in a sitting position,” Solomon explains. “When they’re ready to roll over, they will, and when they’re ready to sit up, they will.” Solomon says that strollers are okay, but forcing the baby to sit up or have “tummy time” is discouraged.


What’s encouraged is narrating activities for the child, such as when the parent changes his diaper or picks him up. “One thing we ask parents to practice is telling the baby what you’re going to do before you do it, so it won’t come as a surprise,” Solomon shares. Talking calmly to the baby is a big part of the RIE process—particularly when he or she is crying. Instead of immediately picking him up, RIE parents ask themselves questions first to figure out what the baby is trying to tell them. “Is the baby overstimulated? If the baby is well rested, has been fed, and just woke up from a nap, then I might wonder, Maybe the baby just needs to be held for a few minutes,” Solomon explains. “Just taking that pause to reflect before we respond, and to observe, slows us down a bit … and creates more peacefulness in the moment.”


Back to Basics
Such peacefulness is also discussed in the book Authentic Relationships in Group Care for Infants and Toddlers. “A basic principle [of RIE] is to respect and trust a baby’s inborn capacities … Our role is to create an environment in which the child can best do all the things that the child would do naturally,” the editors write—in other words, an area that allows for exploration without parents’ having to hover over the kid so he or she doesn’t get hurt or knock something over. Each ninety-minute class RIE instructors offer attempts to create that environment, as well as show parents the importance of setting up a similar space in their own homes. “When people manage to create a safe space, it really creates a lot of freedom for everybody. Babies can explore and adults can relax,” Solomon says. And that goes back to another underpinning of this parenting philosophy: slowing down.


The latest parenting trend is to enroll kids in as many preparatory classes and extracurricular activities as possible. RIE seems to be the antithesis of that movement, championing a return to basics so that children build self-reliance and self-confidence on their own by playing and exploring naturally. The aforementioned book explains, “Nowadays, people find it hard to believe that this uninterrupted absorption is learning. However, if you watch babies who are allowed to move freely and without interference you will see that they learn to move gracefully and securely …” It’s all centered on trusting babies’ natural instincts and finding a way to work with them—by interpreting cries as communication, rather than alarms; by making a safe, quiet environment filled with simple toys that promote active imaginations (no mobiles or TVs); and by taking a backseat instead of steering the baby toward a certain place or goal.


Different Paths for Different Parents
The RIE approach might be appealing to some parents, while others may prefer an approach that’s more hands-on or has fewer rules. Certain aspects of RIE are particularly challenging—setting aside baby-only space in a home, for example, or not immediately soothing a crying infant. And maintaining the baby’s peacefulness by excluding her from errand runs is nearly impossible for the average parent. But that’s why parents tailor plans to fit their specific needs—not every guideline of any parenting method is going to work out perfectly. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual families to decide what’s best for them.