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Who was Dr. Emmi Pikler and what are the principles of her approach?

Dr. Emmi Pikler (1902-1984) was a Hungarian pediatrician known for revolutionizing how we think about and care for babies and small children.

How often do we pick up, touch, or try to entertain a baby without observing what the little one was engaged with already. How often do we interact without announcing what we intend to do? We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, because it doesn’t occur to us to value what they are doing. How would we adults feel if someone, for example. grabbed our face or put a pacifier in our mouth without telling us what’s going on?

Dr. Pikler’s fundamental attitude was that we should respect the needs of children, however young and recognize them as individual and complete people. She showed what a newborn needs in order to be able to grow up satisfied and at peace with himself.

The 3 main principles of the Pikler Approach:

  • Respectful Daily Care

  • Autonomous Motor Development and

  • Self-initiated Exploration and Free Play

# 1 Respectful Daily Care

All daily care routines such as breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, changing diapers, bathing, dressing and undressing are the adult’s best opportunities to satisfy the child’s need for security and affectionate attention. This care should inspire the child’s trust, meet his fundamental need to feel seen, and leave him feeling untroubled and joyful. As we care for our child, we can give her our undivided attention, using this time to get to know her better.

Dr. Pikler writes: “Getting to know each other is of course reciprocal. While we get to know our child, our child also begins to get to know us, and particularly our hands. Our hands form the first relationship of a baby with the world (apart from breastfeeding). Our hands lift up the baby, lay him down, wash and dress and perhaps feed him, too. What a difference: how different is the picture of the world that is revealed to a baby when calm, patient, caring, but also secure and decisive hands take care of him – and how different the world looks when these gestures are impatient and rough or hurried, agitated and nervous.”

Respectful and empathetic care routines offer a beautiful opportunity for the baby to interact with us. This is a foundation for her ability to cooperate and form relationships, as well as for her social development.

When a child has had enough mindful interaction while being cared for, she feels protected in her environment and free to investigate herself and her immediate surroundings.

“Before I learned about this approach, how often did I, for example, pick up my daughter or dress her without telling her what I intended to do or without observing her physical reactions? How different do I feel, for example, when I’m worried and insecure about a visit to the doctor if I feel totally seen, empathetically and gently touched by my caregiver? Babies and toddlers experience the same thing!” Pia Dögl, Parent Coach & Founder, Beginning Well Everyday

# 2 Autonomous Motor Development

As a primary care physician for families with young children back in the 1930s, Emmi Pikler recognized the value of children’s independent activity and autonomous motor development for the unfolding of their personalities. She made it clear that children are naturally capable of sitting up on their own and of learning to stand up and walk by themselves. In this learning process, any kind of support from adults is not only unhelpful but can actually have negative consequences. For example, she describes what happens when a baby is brought into a sitting position too early, when the musculature and the spine are not yet strong enough.

“The whole torso sinks down flaccidly, the spine is curved, the stomach and rib cage are pushed together, and therefore the inner organs and breathing are also hampered. It is most indicative that we fear that the child could topple over at any moment.”

A baby who sits up on his own does not sit hunched but noticeably straight (see picture below).

Children themselves attempt things in the course of their motor development when they feel ready. The child has an intuitive knowledge of his own motor capabilities, and out of this he knows what he can attempt as he develops motor skills. Of course, the child still requires an attentive adult in case she gets into a situation which could be dangerous.

# 3 Self-initiated Exploration and Free Play

In free play, children develop dexterity and stamina. They use their various skills and feel that they can have some effect on the world.

Dr. Pikler writes: “It is important that children discover as many things as possible for themselves. If we help in solving all tasks, we rob them of precisely what is most important for their mental development. A child who achieves something through autonomous experiment gains a completely different kind of knowledge than one who has the solution served ready-made.”

Reduce stimulation and entertainment whenever possible!

hasIt’s tempting for us parents to entertain and interact with our babies, but our participation often has the tendency to take over. The more we play, the more our child waits for “what’s coming next” and follows our lead, rather than initiating and creating plans of his or her own.

And one of the many benefits about self-initiated, independent play is that parents can usually leave their engaged, content child alone briefly while they do chores, use the bathroom, check email, etc; of course you can only do that if the child is playing in a safe spot.

More about Dr. Pikler’s work

In 1946, Dr. Emmi Pikler founded a residential nursery in Budapest, Hungary, the Pikler® Institute, where the focus was to preserve the competence, autonomy, and integrity of young children, ages 0 to 6 years. Thousands of participants from around the world have attended trainings onsite at the Institute, which is now known as the Pikler® Daycare Center. In those trainings Early Childhood experts, health professionals, and parents learn about the practical applications of the Pikler® pedagogy – to bring up infants and young children with empathy, gentleness, and respect.

In addition, there are a number of Pikler associations worldwide, including throughout Europe, Asia, and North and South America, where certified Pikler® trainers lead workshops in this groundbreaking pedagogy.

More information about Pikler trainings can be found under:

  • How can I handle daily care routines so that my child feels appreciated and happy? Find out more here.
  • A rich conversation with Pikler Expert Dr. Laurin about: Respectful Diaper Changing – How different do we feel, when someone is truly empathetic with us when we are in a vulnerable situation? Watch here.

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