Emmi Pikler and Primitive Reflexes

The work of Emmi Pikler is a source of inspiration. Emmi showed caretakers ways to allow orphan babies to learn and explore on their own, instead of helping them do things, like when we put a baby in a walker or prop them up with a seat or keep them contained in a crib. When babies are allowed to move freely and discover things for themselves, Emmi found that this had a long term affect on their spirit, intelligence and physical being: “they grew up to have amazing abilities of posture and awareness of themselves,” I said “they had a sense of inherent truth.”

Below you’ll find an article written by Jane Swain on Emmi Pikler’s findings with infants.

Pikler and the Primitive Reflexes
by Jane Swain


Emmi Pikler (1902-1984) was a pediatrician who founded the Pikler Institute in Budapest, Hungary.  Early in her career, she lived in Triest, Italy for a year, where she spent time on the beach observing parents with their infants. Pikler witnessed parents teaching their infants to sit, stand and walk before they were able to do so on their own. She asked the question, does this communicate to the child that what he is doing is not good enough, and that he should be doing something of which he is not yet capable? Essentially Pikler’s answer was, what the infant is capable of doing at a particular time, is the perfect thing for him to be doing then.

Pikler saw this teaching gesture of the adult as a distrust of the child’s inherent ability to guide his own motor development. It was then, and still is, considered the adult’s job to teach the child to sit and walk. Pikler strongly disagreed with this, and saw each infant as a unique individual, capable of guiding his own motor development, in fact, infinitely more qualified than any adult.

For the infants in Pikler’s care, there was no propping the child up into a sitting position, no holding the child’s hands and helping him learn to walk, no use of exersaucers, johnny jumpers, or baby seats. Instead, Pikler allowed each infant to come into the vertical positions of sitting and standing entirely through his own efforts, and in his own time. Pikler wrote a book describing this process entitled, Give Me Time to Do It Myself. Anna Tardos, Pikler’s daughter, who is the current director of the Pikler Institute, says, “What’s the rush, we have our whole lives to be vertical!” The gesture of letting infants take their own time goes against our “get ahead, sooner is better” culture. However, based on my thirty years of experience and study, I believe there is no correlation between early walking and later athletic ability.

The infants at the Pikler Institute are given a protected, safe environment for self-initiated motor exploration. Of equally critical importance, Pikler recognized that self-initiated motor exploration is a function of the relationship with the primary caregiver. This relationship is tended to and developed during the caregiving activities of feeding, dressing, bathing, and diapering, whereby the child is treated as a competent person capable of participating in each activity.


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