Montessori Baby

The author, trained as a Montessori primary teacher (AMI), documents and analyzes her efforts to raise a "Montessori" baby.

Monday, August 14, 2006


A few nights ago, my husband and I left Alex with a babysitter to go out to dinner for our anniversary. It was the first time we had left him with anyone for quite some time, and as we drove to the restaurant I worried about whether or not she would be able to get him to sleep. Though we had gotten Alex to take a bottle early on, we had not done so in quite some time and Alex usually nursed to sleep.

This worry prompted me to think about a larger concern; was Alex developing sleep "problems"? Though he generally sleeps a solid 10-hour stretch at night and takes several naps a day, I began to wonder about some of our techniques. Was nursing him to sleep making him dependent on me? What about my responses to Alex's occasional late-night feeding demands and our habit of pulling him into bed with us if he woke up early? Were these creating problems as well?

Sleep is clearly a huge issue for parents of young children. It is almost always a topic of conversation among the parents I know. "How is today going?" is often followed by a report that includes the previous night's sleep and the length of today's nap. Friends, relatives, and even strangers ask us whether or not Alex is a "good" sleeper, and I have even caught myself walking into Alex's room after a long nap and saying "What a good nap you took!"

This all makes me wonder where the normative aspects of sleep came from and whether or not I should be buying into them. Are we concerned about babies' sleep habits because of concerns for their health and happiness or because it is convenient for us?

The answer, I am sure, is a mix of both. Just looking at our own family, there are clearly times when Alex is fussy or sick and has trouble getting himself to sleep. These are the times when I help him get to sleep because I think he needs it, and the times when I pray for a long nap for his sake. More often, though, I find myself wishing for a long nap so that I can enjoy time to myself or I realize that I'm trying to put Alex to bed because "it's about that time" when he is clearly content to continue playing or just needs a change of scenery.

In one of her earliest books on education and parenting, The Secret of Childhood, Montessori chastizes parents who put their children to bed for their own convenience. She cites this as one of the many examples of parents thwarting their child's developmental needs to serve their own ends. While I truly believe that parents have, in general, become much more sensitive to their children's needs, I also believe that her admonishment stills bears weight today. At times, I do see sleep as a vehicle to meeting my needs, and this more often than not creates frustration for us both.

What, then, is the alternative? In her writings, Montessori clearly states that the child becomes "normalized" through appropriate, meaningful work. Unfortunately, many of the terms in this phrase have become so laden with negative connotations that it is easy to quickly reject it without understanding its genius. Montessori means that, if we provide for a child's emerging developmental needs, most problems will disappear.

Thinking about Alex and sleep, I find this to be generally true. If I provide for his physical and developmental needs between naps - feed him when he's hungry, offer diverse activities, and provide sufficient stimulation - he will generally "tell" me that he's tired and go down for a nap quite easily. We've taken the "Montessori" approach to room arrangement and have given Alex a low bed in a child-proof room. Hopefully, then, once he is mobile he will be able to tell us he's tired by going to his bed, and will be able to entertain himself once he wakes up. The room has already had its perks for solving the "parent need" aspect of sleep problems - I feel comfortable leaving him there for short period while I throw in laundry or grab something to eat.

Still, there are times, as with the babysitting experience, when sleep doesn't come easily and I wonder about the best approach. Recently, I perused a host of Feberian "cry it out" websites and sites on the other end of the spectrum to get some ideas on how to handle those middle-of-the-night wails or to see if nursing Alex to sleep is "ruining" him. The answers aren't clear, but I think Montessori would agree with the Feberians that we need to assist children in getting to sleep independently and she would agree with anti-Feberians that allowing a child to scream endlessly in the dark does not serve his needs.

In a recent rereading of What Every Parent Should Know, a long-held Montessori concept jumped out at me as a guide to handling sleep questions. In short, she says we must "help the child to do it himself." Lately, I've focused on giving only that help which is necessary for Alex to get himself to sleep. This is where the parent role as observer and interpreter comes into play. Is that cry insistent, or is it just a fussing that he can work through on his own? Is he truly tired at this moment, or does he just need a change of activity? Is trying to fall asleep in a strange place with a strange person too much for him to handle at this age?

Unfortunately, this conclusion isn't a "simple sleep solution" and there is certainly room for error. However, I find that it makes the most sense to me as a parent. Alex knows what he needs, and we can work with him to promote his independent fulfillment of those needs. Still, we're human, and there will be times when we misinterpret his behavior or attempts at communication and there will be times when we do what is self-serving. Neither of these things will ruin him. In fact, I feel pretty confident that, in the long run, our efforts to focus on Alex's needs and to assist him in becoming an independent sleeper will work out best for the whole family.


At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Rebecca said...

I do not believe that Maria Montessori would agree with the Ferberians at all. To allow a child to cry itself to sleep, thus ignoring his only means of communication, is not respectful of the dignity of the child, (of which Maria Montessori was a strong advocate).

I do not think MM would promote teaching an infant to fall asleep alone any more than she would promote teaching a six month old to do pouring exercises or an eleven month old to cut with scissors. If the timing is not right, all effort is lost. In order to help the child to "do it himself", it is necessary for the child to desire to learn the task at hand. If one does not have the cooperation of the child, then the effort expended is futile. To surmise that an infant or even toddler would have a need to fall asleep independently is not logical. The infant would perish without it's mother on all counts; lack of food, lack of protection and lack of affection. No infant would willingly desire to be taught to fall asleep alone.

My oldest child, who had a bed similar to your son's, was a very needy baby. He nursed extensively and cried when I set him down at any age before one year old. I decided to allow him to "cry it out" twice, both times he vomitted in emotional frustration. In time, I no longer needed to nurse him to sleep and simply layed down with him to keep him company while he fell asleep. After a few months, I no longer needed to lay with him but could sit and rub his back. Then, after another few months, I was able to simply tuck him in and kiss him goodnight. He is now an amazingly independent 10 year old who no longer nurses or desires his mom to keep him company while he falls asleep. :) Could I have forced this process to happen more quickly? Yes, though to what effect? What effect does ignoring the child's only means of communication have on the child?

The child cannot become independent and disciplined without first being allowed to be dependent.

Maria Montessori wrote:
"Discipline must come through liberty...We do not consider an individual disciplined when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is individual annihilated, not disciplined."

I agree that some mothers might rely too often on nursing when perhaps there might be another solution. This can become a habit when the mother does not want to take the time to determine the baby's reasons for crying.

I think becoming an independent sleeper comes naturally to the child, with the help of the parent. Help does not mean coercion or doing it against the child's will. Maria Montessori would not agree with that. JMHO FWIW.

At 11:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a Montessorian who is now a stay-at-home mom to a 10 month old. I agree with "Montessori Mom" in that I think we should teach the child to be able to fall asleep by herself, and as supportive and gentle manner as we are able. I used the Sleep Lady Shuffle, which taught my child to fall asleep by herself and sleep through the night in three days.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. My question is Montessori child bed related. My child can crawl, and sometimes fights taking her naps (usually I've missed her early cues and she is overtired - my fault). In those situations, she just crawls off the bed and bangs on the door (and cries). Today my husband and I took turns putting her back on the bed, over and over, and after 45 minutes she finally fell asleep.

I suppose if I were using a crib, she would be standing up holding on to the rails and crying for 45 minutes.

But has anyone else dealt with this issue? I love having her be able to play in her room when she wakes up at 5:30 am, but when she truly needs to nap and is fighting it, I'm unhappy with her ability to leave the bed.

Any advice?

At 7:48 PM, Blogger Meredith Cornett said...

I've had the exact same issue with my now eight-month-old, and am struggling to figure out a solution. We love her child bed, and there are so many advantages. She seems so empowered by it generally. However, she has taken to crawling to the door after going down for the night, crying mightily, and finally falling to sleep on the hardwood floor in front of the door on the other side of the room from the bed. She'll sleep there all night before waking in the morning but the falling to sleep part is heartwrenching and slow.

At 8:28 PM, Blogger Meredith Cornett said...

Incidentally, we did end up moving our daughter back to a crib, and she's been sleeping blissfully ever since. She has not had any protests over 5 minutes in length after we put her down and we're all doing so much better. She is free to roam her room/the house during all her waking hours, of course! After trying patience, new ways of settling her down, lying down with her, further darkening her room for naps and light summer nights we just were not having any success. Given the importance of sleep for short and long term health, we decided in favor of the confined sleeping. We hated giving up the floor bed, but figure we'll come back to it later. We've finally made our peace with this move - she is asleep after all while confined! Ah, they are all individuals, are they not?

At 9:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We use a Montessori child-bed for our 8-month-old, as well. We also are having trouble dealing with her conflicting need to crawl (it often seems like a compulsion when she is so tired and "trying" to fall asleep) and need to sleep. Two things seem to offer a bit of help.

1) I started swaddling her arms again. She does not really fight it, although she does still need help to stay on her back. She seems compelled to roll over at times, and then compelled to crawl. At these moments I simply rest my hand on her chest, shoulders, or arms to keep her on her back. Once she is asleep, I loosen the swaddle so she can easily be free upon waking.

2) We received chamomile crystals from our baby's health practitioner...

I would love to hear more on this topic.
From, Montessori at Work and at Home

At 10:41 PM, Blogger Mary Poole said...

Hi! I know you posted this back in '06 but it's really helping me raise my 11month old baby now! I had no idea Montessori suggests co-sleeping or putting a mattress on teh floor! People tell me I'm nuts for wanting to do that with my baby! It's great to hear I'm not the only one and there's a whole philosophy about it!

Can you tell me what happened in the "afterword" story? How did your baby's sleep adjust? Is your child sleeping well now? Alone or with you? Is the bed still as it was before or in a raised frame now or what?


At 3:54 PM, Blogger Renee said...

I was so glad to find your blog as I was setting up my son's room almost a year ago. He is now 10 months old, and using his floor bed. We are still in the throes of the crawling/climbing when dog tired phase.

We will put him down, lay or sit with him until he is asleep, then creep out of his room as quietly as humanly possible on our hardwoods. For a while we had no door on his room (considering that to just be a larger version of the crib), but put his door on a couple weeks ago to prevent him from crawling through the hall fussing when he was sleepy. He would be so tired that he'd just sit up in the hallway and fuss. I'd sometimes put him back on his bed and he'd fall immediately to sleep.

Today for his second nap I put him down on the bed with his bottle, returned his few toys to the shelf, picked up his blankets, and sat down with him. Took the bottle when he'd finished and left the room (while he fussed and crawled after me). He fussed a bit at the door, but within a minute he was playing again in his room (I could hear him babbling away and crawling around). Another 30 minutes later his room was silent, and I assumed he must have fallen asleep on the playmat or hardwood floor. I peeked under the door and saw that he had crawled to his bed and fallen asleep, just as Montessori intended.

As I mentioned, I have been struggling with this crawling and playing, and today with very little fussing he proved to me that he actually will go to sleep on his bed when he is tired. I was very impressed. I think the mobile stage is the hardest stage of using the floor bed, but with enough support our child has finally figured out how to go to bed on his own. He may still struggle with it for a while, but I am impressed that he's made this leap in his sleeping habits.


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