Allowing babies to move freely, according to their own inner schedules and dictates, is a hallmark of Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy.When babies are allowed to develop naturally, in their own time and their own way, they learn to move with ease and grace. They tend to have excellent body awareness and posture, and a good sense of where their bodies are in space.
Allowing a baby’s gross motor development to unfold naturally means avoiding placing babies into positions they can’t get into or out of on their own. Ideally, young babies are placed on their back not just for sleep, but for play time as well, because this is the position that most supports their bodies, and in which they are most relaxed, and free to move. This means no tummy time for babies until they spontaneously begin to roll first to their sides, and then unto their tummies. It means not pulling or propping a baby with pillows into a sitting position until he can move into this position on his own. It means avoiding all baby “containers” like bouncy seats, exersaucers, and baby swings, and using car seats judiciously. It means not lifting a toddler onto a piece of play equipment, like a slide, that she can’t yet scale herself.
There are untold advantages for babies who are allowed to develop their ability to move on their own without adult assistance or interference. For instance, they are safer, and less likely to fall from playground equipment and injure themselves, because they develop good judgement. As Magda Gerber said, “If they can climb up by themselves, we can trust that they can climb down safely.” (For an excellent description of how children learn to sense where their bodies are in space, see: Learning to “Sense” Space:Why Kids May Fall Out of Bed, at Moving Smart.)
It turns out nature has a plan, and it’s a good one. All children develop gross motor skills in exactly the same sequence, and all that varies is the timing. If children are given the opportunity to practice moving freely, they will be in tune with, and strengthen their ability to listen to their own body wisdom. At every stage, in every way, they will be doing exactly what they need to do to prepare themselves to achieve the next milestone. Their gross motor abilities will unfold before our eyes- no adult help or intervention needed. They will not attempt to use equipment or take risks that they are not yet ready for.
When we place babies in positions that they are not yet able to achieve on their own, we may place them at risk of injury, of developing poor co-ordination and posture, and equally importantly, we risk cutting off their own inner agenda, and their self initiated exploration.There are recent studies that show that babies placed in baby walkers and exersaucers, actually develop their ability to walk at a later date than babies who have not been exposed to such devices.
Magda suggested that babies know best how to be babies, and there are just some things we should not rush.The message babies might get when we “help” them, by pulling them to sitting before they can do it on their own for instance, might be this one: “I don’t value and appreciate what you can do, but I expect you to do what you can not yet do.” Is this the message we want our babies to get? What implications do you think this has for a baby’s developing sense of self, his ability to learn, or her ability to trust herself?
Another thing to consider is that when we put babies into positions that they can’t yet achieve on their own, we make them dependent on us, because they have limited mobility, and are stuck until we come to rescue them.
Most young babies are very uncomfortable, and protest loudly when they are placed on their tummies to “play”. They can’t yet lift their heads, or hold them up for very long, so they can’t see much. The ways in which they can move their arms and legs are very limited. All they can do is learn to endure the discomfort they feel, or cry, and hope someone will come to move them into a more comfortable position.
I learned from infant specialist Magda Gerber, who learned from her friend and mentor, Hungarian pediatrician Emmi Pikler, who learned from carefully observing and documenting the development of hundreds of babies over many years.
And if seeing is believing, all you need to do is watch this short video montage of baby Liv , which follows her development over the course of her first year. This four minute video, produced by Irene Gutteridge, as part of a project called The Next 25 Years speaks volumes about how babies learn to move easefully and gracefully, from back, to side, to tummy, and back again. Just look at Liv’s face when she achieves her goal of turning onto her tummy. Priceless!