Balancing the Needs of Adults & Babies

Dear Magda,

You may remember that my daughter Rachel (who is now four years old) was eight months old when we started RIE® Parent-Infant Guidance classes. Well, here I am back again with my 8-month-old son Tobias. Both in the classes four years ago and this class I’ve heard you say many times “try to switch to the infant’s point of view.” I didn’t understand you then, and I still don’t. Would you please explain what you mean by switching points of view?

Old-time RIE Parent

Dear Magda,

After having taken your classes with Ryan, I became a RIE student and am now the Demonstrator of the RIE Parent-Infant Guidance class, and soon will be ready to teach RIE to mothers myself. I thought I had learned it all, but now feel confused.

I still remember how often you said years ago that the breast or bottle should be given when a baby is hungry, not every time the baby cries. Yet I see nursing mothers use the breast every time the baby winces—sometimes five, six times during our two-hour class—and you say nothing! Why?

A RIE Parent/Demonstrator

Dear Parents,

I chose both your letters to answer because many RIE II students as well as repeating mothers bring up similar issues. I will call it orthodoxy vs. individual considerations. As time goes by I tend to bend toward individual considerations. That means to apply to adults the same principles I have developed for babies. I make information available and the parent will use it when ready for it. No matter how healthy my “food” is, I do not believe in force feeding.

I think of mothers of newborn babies as tender and vulnerable. Never before did you have to cope with so little sleep, constant tiredness, the burden of always being on duty, and an array of nagging doubts about your parenting competencies. You cannot rehearse for those first months. So much is new—the baby, the situation, the reaction of the father and most of all your own feelings.

Sleeplessness and crying are the most difficult issues to contend with. (See my article on crying in the RIE manual, page 100.) The fastest, easiest and most pleasant way to stop the crying is to give the breast. The baby almost always accepts it, calms down and often falls asleep. It gives a mother a good feeling, physically, and reassures her of her ability to know what the baby needs and that she is able to provide it. It would be cruel and ineffective to take that away from her, or even to point out how often she offers the breast as an automatic reaction, rather than trying to find out why the baby is crying.

Slowly, as a mother feels more secure, a process of mutual adaptation develops. By that time parents are more open and ready for advice. That is when I offer other ways of responding to the baby. Ways I know will make life easier in the future. There is no right way.

And, even if there was one perfect “how to” for everyone, I must consider your personality characteristics, those of your husband, your family’s living conditions, how much help you can get. In other words, what can you hear? What are you ready for, and when?

That requires compromise. I do present my knowledge and experiences hoping that eventually you will try to implement some of it, and keep trying even if the new approach does not bring miraculous results right away (although sometimes it does).

I believe that by coming to the classes you learn to observe and to “see” your baby, and eventually other babies, other mothers, and other options. I hope you will learn an attitude which can help you as a mother and a person, now and in the future.

The crux of the attitude is learning to switch to the infant’s point of view. Once you can understand that and learn to switch, you develop techniques and gain insight used by most therapists.

This understanding is a golden key to living together with others. What makes this approach difficult with children is that you are the only one who does the switching. You must be able to see and understand both your child’s and your own “points of view.”
This is the role of the parent. Very young children cannot yet do it, and some children will never learn to see a situation through their parents’ eyes.

I’ll give you an example. After spending many hours peacefully with your 8-month-old Tobias, you would like to visit with your friend on the phone. Tobias, who had looked peacefully absorbed, stops playing and starts screaming. You feel it is unfair. Have you not just spent leisure “quality time” with him?

Now, try to switch to Tobias’ point of view. He does not have the capacity to think “My mommy gave me so much attention for so long, she now needs time for herself.” All he feels is “I want her, and she is not here.”

Would it be good then for you to stop doing anything for yourself and only consider what Tobias wants? Many “good” mothers try to do just that until their resentment of their babies becomes so strong that it scares them.

Resentment does not help any relationship, least of all a parent-child connection. If you switch back to your own point of view, you can tell Tobias, “I know you would like me around you all the time,” (acknowledging his point of view), “But I want to talk on the phone now”, (validating your own feelings). “I’ll be back with you in twenty minutes” (giving hope).

Of course, Tobias will still want you to do nothing else but be available to him. Remind yourself nobody can or even should have everything they want whenever they want it. So, do not feel sorry for him. Nor does it help to get angry with him. Learning to wait, to not have your own will is a task, part of the curriculum of early childhood. The more mature capability of switching points of view is the task of parents. In the process parents learn to sensitively assess both their babies’ needs and their own needs and how to balance them.

My best wishes to you in this switching/balancing exercise.


Magda Gerber

Dear Magda/Dear Parent – Balancing The Needs Of Adults & Babies

Educaring® Volume VIII / Number 1 / Winter 1987