Magda Gerber, an infant education expert who taught thousands of parents and caregivers the importance of respecting babies and following their cues as the best way to foster their growth, died of natural causes Friday at her Silver Lake home. She was believed to be in her 90s.
In 1978, Gerber founded Resources for Infant Educarers, known as RIE, in the Silver Lake duplex where she lived with her family. A diminutive woman with twinkling blue eyes and a halo of snowy white hair, she was known internationally for her teachings, which she also presented in several books, including “Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect” and “Your Self-Confident Baby.”
She coined the term “educarer” to convey her belief that children should be both educated and cared for.
“What she did so brilliantly was show how to convey respect to an infant,” said Ruth Anne Hammond, president of the RIE board and a master teacher in the Infant/Toddler/Parent Program at Pasadena’s Pacific Oaks College, where Gerber taught for 20 years. “Her idea has permeated the whole field.”
Gerber’s approach was unusual 30 years ago, when most experts believed that parents and other adult caregivers should set the course for what and when babies learn. Some experts disagreed with her approach, calling it too hands-off and dismissive of cultural differences. But the field of infant development gradually began to echo her beliefs.
When Gerber began teaching three decades ago, “people were saying we need to stimulate infants, do things to make sure they learned and developed well,” said Peter Mangione, co-director of the Center for Child and Family Studies at WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonprofit agency particularly concerned with early childhood development.
“What Magda was saying was that we have to start out by respecting who babies are, look at their responses and then work with them in a way that is consonant with their self-initiated development. In that way she was a very important voice.”
A Budapest native, Gerber (who was not related to the Gerber baby food family) was the daughter of well-to-do parents who had high ambitions for her. They hired French- and German-speaking nannies to take care of her. She later studied linguistics at the Sorbonne in Paris and was fluent in several languages, including German, French, Hungarian and English. She married at 18.
When her first child was born, she followed her parents’ example and hired a nanny for her child, even though the practice went against her own instincts. She fired the caregiver one day after seeing the woman try to put something in her daughter’s mouth. “There was a struggle,” she recalled in a 1983 interview with The Times. “I got deeply upset. I pushed her and said, ‘Leave! Leave! And don’t touch her again.’ ”
When her husband, a factory owner, came home that evening, she told him she would take care of their baby herself but quickly realized she didn’t know how.
Over the next few years she studied early childhood development and thought herself an expert until she met Dr. Emmi Pikler, a Hungarian pediatrician who was the mother of one of her children’s schoolmates. One day when her daughter Erika was sick, she could not reach the child’s pediatrician and asked Pikler to examine the girl.
The encounter changed Gerber forever. When Pikler asked what was wrong, Gerber began to respond, but the doctor cut her off. She wanted to hear what the child had to say. Erika, who was no more than 4 or 5 at the time, proceeded to deliver a concise summary of her symptoms.
“That was my ‘aahha,’ ” Gerber said.
Pikler became Gerber’s friend and mentor. She studied under Pikler in Hungary and worked with her at a Budapest orphanage, where she helped the pediatrician carry out what were then revolutionary concepts in the care of babies and very young children.
Foremost was the idea that the time spent caring for babies -- changing diapers, feeding, dressing and bathing -- should be interactive and an opportunity to teach essential skills, including listening, cooperating and participating. Pikler believed that infants should be allowed room to explore on their own in a safe environment, unimpeded by adults.
At RIE, which Gerber co-founded with Dr. Thomas Forrest, she offered six-week classes for parents and infants and toddlers up to age 2. With everyone on the babies’ level -- literally on the floor much of the time -- she engaged the parents with her gentle humor and often provocative statements. She said all equipment designed for babies, including swings and bouncers, were bad, that thumbs were better than pacifiers, that a bucket or a scarf were better toys than gizmos and gadgets that pop up, flash and make noise.
Always, she urged parents to observe their babies and wait for their cues, never rushing them into sitting, walking, eating, or talking before they signal their readiness to do so.
Her goal, she once said, was to help parents let go. “If you always do what the child wants, it’s not good,” she said. “A child wants a 24-hour slave for the first six or seven years. Then they accept a little reality. Then they want you out of their life and never need you again. Parenting is an ongoing letting go. We try to make it easier.”
Gerber is survived by a son, Bence, of Castro Valley; daughters Erika Mayo Nagy and Daisy Gerber of Los Angeles; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Memorial donations may be sent to the California Community Foundation/Magda Gerber Fund, California Community Foundation, 445 S. Figueroa St. Suite 3400, Los Angeles CA 90071-1638.