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Who was Dr. Emmi Pikler and what is the Pikler Approach?

Dr. Emmi Pikler, (1902-1984) was a Hungarian pediatrician known for revolutionizing how we think about and care for babies and small children. Her fundamental attitude was that children, however young, should be recognized 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 three main principles of the so called Pikler Approach are: Respectful care, Autonomous Motor Development and Self-initiated, free Play.

Respectful Care

All daily care routines such as breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, changing diapers, bathing, dressing and undressing are opportunities to satisfy the child’s need for security and affectionate attention. This care should inspire the child’s trust and leave her 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 foundation for the baby to be able to participate. This is a foundation for her ability to cooperate and to 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.

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. 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. A baby who sits up on his own does not sit hunched but noticeably straight.

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.

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. When a child is put in a sitting position before he is ready, 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.”

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 the young child, ages 0 to 6 years. Thousands of participants from around the world have already 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 the Pikler approach and trainings can be found under:

  • 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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