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Reflections Upon My Work With Dr. Emmi Pikler

Introduction by Cara Wilson Granat:  A lot of you are curious about Madge Gerber. We thought that this being the beginning of a new year – before we got into any more new discussions, we might answer some of your questions by reprinting an article Madge wrote in which she introduced her teacher – Dr. Emmi Pikler. By understanding who Emmi Pikler is, we feel you will far better appreciate where Madge Gerber is really at.

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Who is Dr. Pikler? In many countries she would not need an introduction at all. She, as well as 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 Education (which I will refer to as “Loczy” named for the street it is on.)
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. Pikier’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” spent their first three years at the Loczy Institute. Though raised in a residential setting without their mothers, the “Loczy babies” showed the same basic characteristics as the family-raised “Pikler babies”.
A Pikler baby is 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 hands. Not even a pacifier is put in the mouth. Are they abandoned? Neglected? 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 to watch and touch and imitate. And naturally, space – lots of space. Now stop and think for a moment of the studies you read about “institutionalized” infants; confined, immobilized in cribs, in a drab surrounding, with lack of toys, etc.
At the Loczy this big freedom the babies have “to do their own thing” occurs in a carefully structured environment. Dr. Pikler believes (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 enough time for uninterrupted exploratory play activities, and the careperson has enough time to give individualized, loving attention to each of the Institute’s seventy infants during caretaking, by looking at, handling and talking to even the smallest infant as an active, participating individual worthy of respect.
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 (bouncers, infant seats, 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 at the Loczy Institute, founded in 1946. More than fourteen hundred infants, many motherless, have been reared at the Institute, and their growth carefully documented and studied to date. Acknowledged as a model center for the study of infant development, Loczy has attracted visitors from all over the world.
Of all the honors she has received, Dr. Pikler herself is most gratified by those letters coming 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.
In this country we are just beginning to study infancy seriously and on a large scale. When I arrived in the U.S. in 1957, I had hoped to continue working with infants and parents and training infant specialists. It was not the right time then; not until 1968, when at the Dubnoff School we initiated a Pilot Infant Program, could I practice the principles and techniques I learned. Between 1957 and 1968 I studied child psychotherapy with Dr. Rudolph Ekstein at the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center and worked as a child therapist with young disturbed, mostly autistic children. These years of work with “atypical” children complimented and reinforced my knowledge of “normal” infants. Though these children were “different”, extremely difficult to communicate and live with, they responded amazingly well to the patient but consistent and always respectful approach that I use with infants. This influenced me in designing programs where “normal” and “disturbed” or “at risk” infants are grouped together. It provides a unique learning experience for infants, parents and professionals.
I see my task to demonstrate how this approach can be adapted here in the United States, in families as well as in other environments for infants.
In the next article, we will briefly touch on “Loczy” and how the institutionalized children there are flourishing in a most uninstitutionalized way.

Copyright@Magda Gerber and Cara Wilson-Granat

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