How to calm a fussing child? Even babies need boundaries

My first baby cried vociferously and slept very little. Consequently, so did I.

I was 37 years old, after what obstetricians call a “geriatric pregnancy,” and smugly assumed that age and experience would imbue me with the kind of maternal wisdom my siblings had to learn for themselves, since they had become parents earlier. Jeni shredded those notions on the way home from the hospital, her needs unreadable behind a wall of wails.

In the early months, my husband and I took turns swooping her up at the first hint of distress to forestall the gathering storm. We adored her. So I eagerly consumed Heidi Murkoff’s “What to Expect the First Year” and Dr. William Sears’ “The Baby Book,” where the famed pediatrician promoted a concept called attachment parenting. We became so attached that if she sighed, one of us would wear her like a necklace.

I wasn’t alone. Long before I fumbled my way through motherhood, bewildered new moms and dads had fueled the rise of an industry, with professional parenting guides replacing the examples once set by one’s own folks and aunts and cousins.

The gospel of the “good-enough” mom a la Dr. Donald Winnicott gave way to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s notions on all-consuming nurturing, with a succession of others like Sears offering new takes. New parents earnestly shared successes and failures with strangers in parenting classes that later gave way to online classes, podcasts, blogs, social media pages and prepared talks. Today, a mouse click can take you to Julie Lythcott-Haims’ TED Talk caution that with “overprotection, overdirection and handholding, we deprive our kids of the chance to build self-efficacy.”

As we learn to parent, we adopt a style: tiger moms and hovering helicopters, snowplows clearing a path, drones taking down obstacles. The process starts in those first unsure interactions with our own small human, sometimes as wobbly as a toddler’s steps. And it happens whether we’re aware of it or not, driven in part by the fear that we might get it wrong. But what if that fear is self-imposed?

The late Magda Gerber was worried like other mothers raising her daughter in Hungary through World War II, but a kind pediatrician shared an idea that changed the entire experience. Dr. Emmi Pikler taught her that even babies could communicate their needs if adults would slow down and pay attention. Gerber came to believe that parents could do a lot less and enjoy their children more — a notion that launched another parenting movement, one that imposes calm, sets boundaries and treats an infant as a partner, rather than an experiment waiting to go wrong.

Gerber brought those ideas to America, where she co-founded a parent training program focused on the idea that newborns deserve respect and already have their own skills and inherent knowledge. Los Angeles-based Resources for Infant Educarers — shortened to RIE and pronounced “rye” — teaches parents to interact with children wholeheartedly but interfere minimally as long as the child is safe.

Research backs Gerber’s notion that babies are capable in their own right. A textbook published by the National Academy of Sciences says that babies pick up cues when someone is teaching them. “From very early on, children are not simply passive observers, registering the superficial appearance of things. Rather, they are building explanatory systems — implicit theories — that organize their knowledge.” Babies even “perceive the unfulfilled goals of others and intervene to help them.” In her own research, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik found that children are master learners from birth, as part of their natural development.

Former actress and model Janet Lansbury, a RIE associate since 1994 and author of two books published in 2014, including “No Bad Kids,” says children even exercise creative, big-picture thinking. “They’re also building confidence in themselves as learners because they’re very inner-directed and self-motivated naturally,” she adds. But that drive can be undermined. When parents insist on redirecting their attention and choosing their toys and providing endless distractions, children may become passive about learning. Kids are born with a love of learning, she says, but we get in the way by deciding what we think they should learn.

RIE associates — who undergo intensive, lengthy training — describe the approach as slower, less demanding, more respectful parenting. Lansbury says RIE is a gift to parents in particular because it defuses their stress.

When RIE program director Melissa Coyne first encountered the philosophy in action, she already had a bachelor’s degree in child development and experience working in child care. What she saw at the RIE-aligned center where she eventually worked for 22 years looked odd at first. Staffers talked to babies as if they were older, involving them in their own care. “I’m going to pick you up and change your diaper. The cloth might be a little cold when I wipe your bottom.”

One caregiver asked a mom how the baby’s night was, then turned to the baby boy: “I’m talking to your mom about how your night was.”

“I thought it was a little strange at first,” says Coyne, who later earned a master’s degree in child development, “until I started to notice that the children would respond. Even very young infants.”

A worker squatted by a baby who was exploring a stream of light on the floor and told him she was going to change his diaper. Then she gave him a few seconds before she picked him up. Coyne watched the baby get ready, as if he was thinking, “Oh, here’s this thing she’s going to do where she picks me up and flies me through the air.” The baby readied himself because he’d been told what to expect, she says. No surprises, no unexpected grabs. Though he was too young to speak, she could see him engage with his eyes and body language.

RIE parents were learning to focus intensely on their child, while deliberately withholding action — something I as a new mother often could not figure out how to do when my children fussed. I asked how such an approach might have played out for me those many years ago.

“It depends,” Coyne says — a favorite Gerber phrase. Gerber, who died in 2007, often answered questions with a thought-provoking question. Coyne says parents have varied reserves in a given moment. She would have told me to breathe deeply and pause, then talk to the baby but accept I might not always figure out why she cried. “I hear you. I am trying to understand what you’re telling me. I just changed your diaper. You ate. Maybe you have a gas bubble. Maybe you want to be put down.”

Gerber’s counsel, passed down by those she mentored, including Lansbury, is to always acknowledge a child’s feelings, but not necessarily try to change them. Babies need to experience their emotions. When a baby cries while trying to roll over, a RIE-trained parent watches to see if the baby can do it, calming her by simply engaging but not helping. “In our best-intentioned manner, we can take away that inner drive by being overly helpful,” says Coyne. The “educarer” intervenes if the baby’s too upset or needs help regulating emotions. After soothing the baby, Coyne says she’s put back in the same position, to again work on rolling over.

Both Coyne and Lansbury sprinkle their explanations with Gerber quotes, delivered reverentially. “Magda said to offer the infant or child the least amount of help necessary for them to take over the task on their own,” Coyne says, because “‘a little bit of struggle is good.’”

When parents help too much, even babies learn they can’t be trusted to do things for themselves or solve their own problems. “Be present and responsive, but trust the baby can do things,” Coyne says.

Slowing down extends to letting a child develop at his or her own pace. Gerber believed parents should allow young children to move freely and naturally, instead of forcing gross motor development. Letting a child set their natural pace extends to potty training and other tasks, absent worries about developmental delays.

That’s contrary to American culture. “We are very racehorse driven,” Coyne says, launching into a staccato: “Is he rolling over yet? Does she talk? Is he standing? Are you feeding him solids? Go, go, go! Magda said, ‘Why rush when nature has a perfect plan?’”

In nearly 30 years with RIE, Lansbury has worked with hundreds of families, following infants into their toddler years. She’s repeatedly seen different parents deal with the same issues, she says, which inspired her as she developed her books and her popular podcast, “Unruffled,” where she answers common parenting questions.

She says even babies need boundaries, first set by having a predictable trustworthy routine, which provides them with structure. Newborns have entered a world that can seem overwhelming. Boundaries help them feel secure, while also keeping them safe and protecting parent-child relationships. Gerber said absence of boundaries isn’t kindness but neglect.

But in the end, how much difference do different early parenting styles really make? Lansbury thinks it’s probably a lot, but notes that studies can’t capture the nuances or measure how well parents implement the skills they’ve been taught.

For her — and for Coyne, too, though she started with RIE when her children were somewhat older — the proof is in the strong relationships they have with their children.

“Our relationship is amazing. They’d say that, too,” Lansbury says. “And that’s really all I wanted in the end.” 

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.