Fixing your “Problems with RIE” – a response to Tracy from Evolutionary Parenting


Tracy over at Evolutionary Parenting wrote a piece titled Problems with RIE. She openly admits that she is not well versed in the RIE philosophy, and her article highlights four things that she particularly does not understand. As she claims to have readers who also have these questions, I have gone through her article point by point to clarify the nuances of RIE that can be easily misunderstood.

Tracy’s first problem is: [RIE is] Based solely on observation

Observation is the heart of science. In order to do research, we make a hypothesis, try to control as many variables as possible and then OBSERVE the outcomes. The extensive research done by Drs. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth was done by carefully observing many infants. Other people built on their observations and created their own interpretations. Magda was one of those people, and she strongly believed the best way to meet your child’s individual needs is by observing them from the time they are born. By paying attention to their cues, you will know when they are crying because they’re tired, or hungry, or overstimulated. Instead of asking you to rely on someone else’s observations in order to determine what is best for your child, RIE puts the onus on the individual parents to pause and observe the child, in order to deem what is the appropriate response. This means that instead of answering each cry like a Level 3 fire alarm, and running down the list of what good ol’ Dr. Sears suggests, the parents are asked to stop and observe the child and their environment. Is it cold in the room? Is his arm stuck? Is he hungry? Wet? These are questions to ask yourself as you calmly reassure your child, instead of immediately picking him up and rocking him or breastfeeding him. The goal is not to just stop the crying, it is to figure out what is wrong, and assist the child in fixing it.

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Tracy’s second problem is: [RIE is} Ignoring the importance of touch in favour of the mind

The human body is an incredible machine. The physiology of what happens when we touch one another is fascinating. RIE does not argue that fact, or attempt to diminish the importance of touch between mother and child. To the contrary, it elevates it. RIE asks the parent to make touch a special experience. It urges parents to slow down and connect with their child when touching them, so that the touch is a positive and meaningful experience. It connects the mind and the body, by asking you to engage with your child when you are engaging their body. That said, RIE also asks parents to discern when touch is necessary. It disputes the belief that an infant needs to be touching its’ parent at all times in order to survive. It argues that there are other valuable ways an infant can spend time, such as lying on the floor observing their surroundings, learning to move their limbs and focus their eyes. If a parent is sensitively observing in the way that RIE recommends, when an infant needs the touch of her caregiver, she will be easily and effectively able to alert her caregiver to that need.
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Tracy’s third problem was: [RIE has a] Belief of Independence from Birth

The issue of a fourth trimester is not moot. If we needed a “fourth trimester” then we would have evolved to have one. A true biological need is one that must be met or will result in death. We need to breathe. We need to eat. We don’t need to be worn against our mothers for the first few months of our lives.
I will agree that your problem is one of interpretation when it comes to independence. Nowhere does it state that babies are ready to be fully independent beings from day one. Nowhere does it give you a laundry list of things your infant is able to do from day one. RIE simply asks you to view your child as a capable, whole human being. Pause, and observe to see what your child can do before you assume they need your help. The reason that there is not a RIE-produced How To Read Your Baby book is because RIE puts the onus on YOU, the parent, to sensitively observe your child and figure out what their needs are and how to meet them. It asks you to be patient and wait to see what the problem is, before swooping in and trying six different soothing methods. Nowhere does it so much as insinuate that parents should spend less time with their babies. It simply redefines how the time you are ALREADY spending with your child should be spent.
I think that we can also agree that RIE is still a very small community. Janet has stated multiple times that she understands that RIE is not for everyone, and that’s ok. The sort of parents who are going to actively seek her advice on respectful parenting are probably not the sort of parents who are neglecting their children. Suggesting that RIE and Janet Lansbury are advocating practices that encourage criminal neglect is hyperbolic, and excessive.
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Tracy’s fourth problem is: [RIE has] A Belief in “Supported Crying” or That Babies Cry for No Reason

This issue is probably the most nuanced and most misunderstood aspect of RIE. I am not surprised in the least that this one made your list.
RIE does not EVER state that “babies cry for no reason, that there’s no communication happening, and therefore you don’t need to look for the cause of the crying.” Quite the opposite, in fact. RIE calls you to stop before you fix, and attempt to figure out what is wrong BEFORE you do anything. Communicate with your child. Ask, is my child hungry? Cold? Wet? Observe first, then act. RIE also acknowledges that sometimes a parent is unable to discern a reason for crying. At that point, we can only speculate what could be wrong (releasing stress is one guess that is thrown around a lot). That is where the supported crying comes in.
Another form of crying that is easily misunderstood is the “struggling cry”. This is the cry of a child who is attempting to do something and is frustrated. This is where the parent comes in to encourage, or comfort. Perhaps the child is struggling to fall asleep on their own. Perhaps the child is struggling to get a toy. Whatever the reason, RIE recognizes this as distinctly different from the “suffering cry”, which is the wail that screams “Mommy, I need you.” A sensitive observer would be able to discern the difference and respond accordingly.
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6 thoughts on “Fixing your “Problems with RIE” – a response to Tracy from Evolutionary Parenting

  1. Omg! I had written a long response and thought it had posted, except for my last thought. Sorry! Just THANKS for this 🙂 RIE is wonderful, and I hope others will gain insight from your post!

  2. I was confused by the mention of good ol’ Dr. Sears in this context. I found his book just at my wit’s end with my very highly sensitive child. I learned from him to observe the child, pay careful attention, and *not* to rely on a book (even his!) in order to determine what is best for my baby. He advocated putting the onus on the individual parents to respond with observation of the child, their environment, etc., and look for answers to why the child is crying. He did probably make some kind of “checklist” for new parents if I remember correctly (some new parents can be quite clueless, understandably!) as a way of helping them to become good observers and good responders. Though personally, when it comes to infants who are crying, I can’t seem to find any “fault” with picking them up and holding them (whether that involves breastfeeding or rocking or not).

  3. One more thought: How do we know that a newborn does not have a need to be worn (the “wearing” is just a convenience for the mother’s sake… we could substitute “held”) against his mother? This physical body connection/affection seems like a biological need to me, without which a child would die. Am I way off? What am I missing?

    • Newborns are very adaptable to their environment, many things such as “wearing/holding”, needing a soother, needing to feed every time they’re upset to calm them, are needs that have been created by the parent, for their child. (This can often be a result of not waiting and responding mindfully, and by making assumptions about what your infant may want). Of course closeness between you and your child’s bodies/holding your child is important, but so is being close to your child’s mind. Like previously mentioned, RIE is not trying to advocate for no holding of children, it’s just trying to help caregivers be more mindful of the child, allow him/her their own space to gain confidence in and an understanding of their own bodies and the world around them; to be allowed the opportunity for developing independence. It’s important for us as caregivers to think about whether we’re holding an infant for our sake or because it’s what’s best for the infant at that moment in time. It’s all about being respectful, curteous, mindful.

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