Who is Emmi Pikler and why are we influenced by her work

Dr Emmi Pikler lived and found her life’s purpose, working with infants in her homeland of Hungary. Pikler, a Hungarian paediatrician, was asked in 1946 after the war by local authority, to set up a residential nursery in Budapest. This residential nursery took babies that the war had left behind. It was set up in a large house with generous garden space and has always been fondly referred to as “Lóczy”, named after the street address. Selecting staff carefully, Pikler trained them in ‘a new way’. Its role as a residential nursery ended in 2011. However, during those 65 years, more than 2000 infants lived at Lóczy, most of which were between the ages of 0 – 3 years old. One whom she mentored was Magda Gerber, also Hungarian, who took Pikler’s philosophy to the USA and introduced it to her new homeland.

Emmi Pikler died in 1984 and Magda Gerber in 2007. Their work however lives on, in so many ways and places.

Pikler set an example that the world is just beginning to wake up to. She knew that in order for babies to develop perfectly in the way that nature had intended, certain things must be heeded.

These included:

  • The long-term impact of free movement on a baby’s spirit, intelligence and physical being.
  • Respect being shown to babies at all times – and clarifying what that entailed.
  • The importance of a way a baby is touched and supported in the important birth to two years period.
  • That no babies need ‘help’ to reach their milestones in life. We can however support them with patience. Pikler said, “As a matter of principle, we refrain from teaching skills and activities which, under suitable conditions, will evolve through the child’s own initiative and independent activity.”

Key Principles of Dr Emmi Pikler’s Practices

  • Full Attention – especially when involved in caregiving moments:

Many mums these days believe that multi-tasking is a great skill and a necessary one. Pikler realised, that in fact, it does not show respect to our babies when we multi-task, any more than when adults multi-task when we require their attention. 100% full attention focuses us in such a way that babies receive and interpret this as the embodiment of Love. It also brings more stillness to the lives which have become overwhelmed with speed and ‘productivity’. It is much wiser for us to divide our time than our attention!

  • Slow Down:

In today’s ever-increasing speed of life – it may benefit us and our babies if we slowed down a little and more often! As we whisk ourselves and our babies through tasks, and jump from activity to activity, a sense of turmoil can be created. Over stimulated babies are often fretful, and their mothers/caregivers stressed. Creating calm around babies is relaxing as well as peaceful – and allows them to be in an environment where their sacred ‘unfolding’ can take place respectfully.

  • Build Trust, and your Relationship, during caregiving moments:

Pikler believed that parents and caregivers need to take time to make nappy changing, feeding, bathing and dressing, an unhurried and pleasant quality time – with the baby being an active partner. With natures built-in ‘choreography for growth’, if given security and freedom, a baby will spend their time learning just what they need to be learning at any given stage.

Magda Gerber – a student of Emmi Piklers and the original ‘transporter of the philosophy to the U.S.A. stated, “When you approach your baby with an attitude of respect, you let him know what you intend to do and give him a chance to respond. You assume he is competent and involve him in his care and let him, as much as possible, solve his own problems. You give him plenty of physical freedom and you don’t push development.”

  • ‘With’ – and not ‘To’:

Building a cooperative relationship with a baby requires that you work together on things. We tend to radically underestimate a baby’s willingness and capability in this area. Pikler saw babies as active participants rather than passive recipients in their care.

All of this requires us to talk to our babies a lot more about what we would like to work with them on – and being patient, giving them time to respond.

For example: Chloe was nannying a 12 month old Angus. His mum said to Chloe – “He has a runny nose today Chloe – and he hates having it wiped – just do your best.” Chloe noticed that Angus’s mum would (gently) hold the back of his head with her left hand whilst she wiped with her right hand. Understandably – Angus struggled to escape this ‘lockdown’. When Chloe noticed that his nose was running, she held out a tissue in her open hand. She showed it to Angus and quietly said, “Angus…your nose is runny…we’ll have to wipe it together.” And she waited. Angus looked at the tissues – then looked at Chloe. She still waited. He looked at the tissues again…and then placed his face down into them so that they could wipe his nose together. To be in the presence of a baby who is given the chance to work cooperatively is a beautiful thing!

  • Babies are never put into a position which they cannot get into by themselves:

The reason for this is that they become trapped – and are no longer free in their movement. In essence – a baby becomes a prisoner of his/her own body. Pikler understood the myriad of positive outcomes of Free Movement when she said:

“Whilst learning to turn on the belly to roll, creep, sit, stand and walk, (the baby) is not only learning those movements but also how to learn. He learns to do something on his own, to be interested, to try out, to experiment. He learns to overcome difficulties. He comes to know the joy and satisfaction which is derived from this success, the result of his patience and persistence.”

Take a look at the ‘parent bling bling’ on the market today which restricts a baby’s movement. Prams, walkers, high-chairs, swings, baby propping apparatus, baby hammocks, ‘safety’ sleeping equipment and car seats are commonly used items. Whilst some of these have valid uses (e.g. car seat while travelling in a car), many are used for extended periods of time allowing a baby no freedom of movement. These items are usually more about convenience for the parent – and not about what is good for a baby’s development.

  • Allow babies uninterrupted time for play:

Magda Gerber firmly believed that parents don’t need to entertain their babies because given a nurturing environment and freedom to explore, babies are quite capable of entertaining themselves.

Not only that, but what if our ‘help and support’ that we give (with love and good intentions), was actually interference with a sacred process? The unfolding of who they are truly meant to be.