Reflections Upon My Work with Dr. Pikler

Who was Dr. Pikler? In many countries she would not need an introduction at all. She and her accomplishments are well known. She was my children’s pediatrician and my professor. Later, I had the privilege of working with her in Budapest, at the National Methodological Institute for Infant Care and Education2 (which I will refer to as “Lóczy,” named for the street on which it is located).

I was an average, anxious mother of two daughters, ages six and two, when Dr. Pikler became our pediatrician. What an eye-opening experience that was! So profound and far reaching was Dr. Pikler’s influence upon me that I decided to make the study and care of young children my own life’s work. To be trained directly by Dr. Pikler cannot be compared with any other kind of training. For years I observed hundreds of infants—in homes, in parks, in institutions. I experienced firsthand how to raise a “Pikler baby” from scratch when my son was born. 

It was said in Hungary that if you went to the park and observed the children playing there, you could easily tell which ones were the “Pikler babies.” They were poised and graceful, alert and friendly and so confidently independent. What, then, is a “Pikler baby”?

The first one was the Piklers’ own daughter. The next one hundred grew up in their own homes with their parents instructed by Dr. Pikler as their pediatrician. She visited the newborn baby daily in its home at first, then weekly, spending long hours observing and facilitating the mutual adaptation of the infant and its family. The next “Pikler babies,” now numbering over two thousand, spent their first three years at the Lóczy Institute. Though raised in a residential setting without their parents, the “Lóczy babies” showed the same basic characteristics as the family-raised “Pikler babies.” 

Pikler babies are brought up under special conditions. They each develop without interference at their own rate. No one worries about the date of the “milestones.” No one places them in a sitting position before they’re ready to sit up alone. No one tries to teach them to stand or walk. No rattles or other objects are put in their hand. Not even a pacifier is put in the mouth. Are they abandoned? Neglected? Ignored? By no means. Their daily lives provide plenty of natural stimulation to keep them interested. Well-selected objects are available to the infants to climb on, to look at, to touch and manipulate; and of course, all the other moving, babbling babies are there to watch and touch and imitate. And naturally, there is space—lots of space in which to move freely and explore. But the infant makes the choices of how to move and what to play with.

At Lóczy, the babies have freedom to “do their own thing” in a carefully structured environment. Dr. Pikler believed (and it has been reinforced by research) that infants living in an institute derive security from permanency, constancy, and anticipation. Time to sleep, time to eat, time to be outside, to explore inside. Within this predictable rhythm of daily life, the infant has time for uninterrupted exploratory play activities, and the careperson has enough time to give individualized, loving attention to each of the Institute’s 70 infants during routine caregiving. Even the smallest infant is looked at, handled, and talked to as an active, participating individual worthy of respect. This is unhurried quality time.

Why did Dr. Pikler choose this unusual approach while the trend was to stimulate more and teach more? It was the outcome of her studies, observations, and experience. 

After receiving her medical degree in Vienna while working at the famous Pirquet Clinic, she became particularly interested in the physiology of gross motor development (as it occurs in a healthy, well-cared-for infant who is neither restricted nor taught) as contrasted with the usual artificial motor development which is the result of propping, positioning, and using restrictive devices (bouncer, infant seat, walkers, etc.). Dr. Pikler postulated that not only do these two different practices affect motor development, but they influence all other areas of growth—social-emotional, cognitive, and even character formation.

After having successfully raised her own daughter and her private patients by this approach, Dr. Pikler adapted it to the Lóczy Institute, founded in 1946, where she was the executive medical director. More than two thousand infants, many orphaned or with difficult family situations, have been reared at the Institute and their growth carefully documented and studied to date. The World Health Organization made a grant available in 1969, making possible a longitudinal follow-up study of 100 infants raised at Lóczy.

Dr. Pikler received many awards and honors; among them was the candidacy for Medical Science in 1968 for her work on the physiology of gross motor development in infancy and early childhood. Yet she was most gratified by letters sent to her from all over the world from “Pikler babies,” now grown up, who ask her advice because they want to raise their infants in the same way they were brought up.

Dr. Pikler authored numerous articles and was the consultant on nine films made at Lóczy. Her books, translated into several languages, range from popular ones for parents to textbooks for professionals and scientific monographs.

Magda Gerber, RIE Founder.

1 [Article circa 1979]

2 [Pikler Institute]

“The human being, at all times, from the first kick in utero to the last breath is organized into groupings of geographic and historical coherence: family, class, community, nation.”

Erik Erikson

A guiding principle of RIE is trust in the infant’s competency. RIE sees the infant as a capable learner who can be trusted to be an initiator, problem solver, and collaborator. In an environment where infants are trusted, they learn to trust. Early twentieth-century psychologist Erik Erikson believed that humans form their orientation toward the world during infancy and that trust, in particular, forges the foundation of an infant’s healthy emotional development.  The first step in the long road to social-emotional health comes when an Infant begins to see the world (and themselves) as trustworthy or untrustworthy (Erikson, 1963). 

Trust grows from respectful care accounting for individual needs rather than simple “demonstrations of love” (Erikson, 1963).  Mindful care offered by a calm, consistent caregiver allows the infant to manage their emotions . Erikson believed that an infant’s first expression of trust is the ease with which an infant eats, sleeps, and eliminates waste (Erikson, 1963). 

Trust cultivates a child’s sense of identity, security, and their own ability to be trustworthy (Erikson, 1963). The adult’s view of the infant shapes their image of themselves. Their trust in their own parenting figure forms the blueprint for their worldview.  A trustworthy caregiver becomes the model for a trustworthy world. 

A defining feature of this foundational trust is a shared belief between parent and child in the importance of parent’s “prohibitions and permissions” (Erikson, 1963). Erikson believed that parents “must be able to represent to the child a deep, an almost somatic conviction that there is a meaning to what they are doing” (Erikson, 1963). This conviction in their choices is critical to the growing child, as is the explanation. Explaining the reasoning behind limits made on their actions nurtures a child’s trust. The informed child understands why a boundary is necessary, making it easier to accept limitations (Erikson, 1963). 

The development of trust allows the infant to grow self-efficiency, worth, and esteem in years to come. Erikson believed that the mastery of these “crises” as he called them, builds on each other. Healthy development in one stage creates a solid foundation for the next stage. 

An infant who realizes that their needs will be met trusts this will happen in the future. This knowledge secures the belief that the world is fundamentally a trustworthy place. Trust births hope (Erikson, 1963). 

The RIE Approach cultivates the development of this foundational trust. RIE principles echo Erikson’s understanding of early childhood development. RIE caregivers trust the infant’s innate competency and capabilities, and invite the infant’s involvement in their own care. RIE’s practices of designing safe spaces for exploration, considering an infant’s stage in development, and allowing self-initiated movement and self-directed play foster both the caregiver’s trust in the infant and the infant’s trust in themself. 

Erikson, E. H. 1. (1963). Childhood and society. 2d ed., rev. New York, Norton.