Expert: ask baby before changing nappy

21:12, Nov 28 2009

Parents should be treating babies and toddlers with more respect, a visiting academic says, and that means talking to infants as if they are adults, never putting them in high chairs or leaving them in car seats, and steering clear of many popular toys.

From day one, early childhood expert Polly Elam says, parents should also consult their baby before picking them up, changing their nappy or taking them on outings. That means talking the baby through what you are about to do, before you do it – and waiting for their response.

If parents skip this consultation, they should later apologise to the baby and explain why they acted hastily.

Critics say the strategy, called Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), is a waste of time for busy parents. But Elam says it leads to confident, happy children with high self-esteem who can solve problems.

California-based Elam travels the world teaching parents and childcare staff about RIE, which first took hold in Los Angeles in 1980 after being developed by Magda Gerber, an early childhood expert and paediatrician who ran an orphanage in Hungary. Gerber based RIE on earlier work by paediatrician Emmi Pikler.

RIE is now taking off in New Zealand, with more than two dozen early childhood centres here already using aspects of it, or its sister philosophy, Pikler. These centres are receiving glowing Education Review Office reports, and aspects of RIE have also been written into New Zealand's early childhood curriculum Te Whaariki.

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Elam is in Auckland this month to spread the word further, and is one of four RIE specialists holding a day-long seminar with Kiwi parents and early childhood staff on December 5. Participants will pay $125 a pop. She says the philosophy, which can be applied at home and daycare, is all about learning to respect and understand infants at their pace.

"We want to help people to see the baby, to see how they really are and understand that the babies are so competent – truly remarkable beings."

The strategy, which covers the infant and toddler years, builds children's self-esteem and independence because it lets them progress at their own pace, she says. Elam's key message to parents is to slow down to the infant's pace – give the child time to respond to you, and let them solve their own problems. For example, she says, if you are waving goodbye and urging your baby to wave back, don't expect baby to react as quickly as an adult would. Wait until the baby responds before leaving. She says parents should not treat their baby like a doll. Instead, they should try to explain to the baby, using normal adult language, what they are doing before taking the baby for a nappy-change or bedtime.

At other times, babies and toddlers should be allowed to explore at home, rather than being restrained in high chairs, or left to sleep in portable car seats. Parents should also avoid pushing them to start rolling over, crawling or walking.

If the infant learns a new skill, such as picking up a toy they have dropped by themselves, the philosophy says parents should not praise them. Elam says: "We try not to praise the child for things that they would do naturally ... a little bit of struggle is what a child enjoys doing. When they have accomplished something, we want them to have the intrinsic feeling of, `I did it!', rather than looking for the external praise." Likewise, if an infant falls and hurts themselves, parents should not just shush them and tell them they are fine. "They're not fine – they're frightened, and so we'd rather say what happened: `You fell down the steps, and that was frightening for you'... We don't deny the child the feeling. We often want the child to stop crying because it makes us feel more secure, but we've got to allow them to go through the crying and come out the other side knowing `I can get hurt, I can cry but I can also come out'. That's a life-long lesson that we want them to learn."

Education Review Office reports on centres using RIE or Pikler strategies emphasise how happy, independent and confident the children are.

www.inspiredbypikler.org.nz; www.rie.org

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