As Montessori is all about giving as much independence to your child, an accessible bed…
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The way our babies and toddlers sleep is something that intrigues most parents. We wonder when our baby will sleep through the night. We wonder if we have to train our children to sleep independently. We worry that we might spoil our child by breastfeeding her to sleep or by rocking her to sleep. We ask “is it safe to bed share?” or “Is it OK to let him cry out?”.
Sleep issues are the ones I’m asked to offer support about.
In this blog post, I want to focus on the Montessori ideas about sleep.
Some Montessori parenting books and some Montessori teachers are against bed-sharing and against breastfeeding to sleep. However, those “opinions” are not based on anything Maria Montessori has written specifically. What did Maria Montessori said about sleep? Was she against co-sleeping? Was she against breastfeeding to sleep? Did she encourage parents to use cry it out?
It concerns me that parents are put off the whole Montessori method after they have read some Montessori advice saying that we must encourage independent sleep.
There are many preconceived ideas about Montessori and sleep. Some Montessori ideas about sleep were in line with the recommendations given in the 50’ and 60’. Nowadays, we have so much more information about sleep and children’s development. I believe that many ways are valuable when it comes to children’s sleep. Safety is paramount and informed choice should always be encouraged.
In the same way, I have addressed some misconceptions about Montessori and breastfeeding, I will address here what Montessori said about sleep and what the AMI 0-3 training that I have undertaken says about sleep.
Let’s check each of those statements in detail.
Maria Montessori talked about sleep in several of her books. She said in "the Secret of childhood":
“The design of the home environment is tied to the protection of the adult's sleep, not always keeping the child's own needs and desire in mind" "who would deny that children need sleep? But if a child is so alert, so capable of observation, he is not primarily a sleeper".
She said that children were made to sleep for longer than they needed. She said that if we were giving them a choice, they would self-regulate and sleep when they needed to. She was against all kinds of strict schedules for children.
But what most “modern” parents understand under “independent sleep” would be that Montessori or her successors were against “helping our children to fall or to stay asleep” so more about “promoting self-soothing”.
During my AMI training, several of us asked our trainer about Cry it out and self-soothing. My trainer was clear that babies have needs and each cry is a way of communicating. She encourages parents and practitioners to respond to the baby’s needs and to always check on their children. However, responding to your baby’s needs doesn’t mean that you have to introduce “some aids to sleep”. That leads me to the second and third statements…
While living in India (from 1939 to 1946), Maria Montessori had the opportunity to observe babies and toddlers. She observed as opposed to Western cultures, babies were everywhere. While in Europe and the US, they were kept in cribs and cradles, in India, extended families lived together, all generations from oldest to youngest, sharing a bedroom and a home. She observed that babies were kept at the center of family life and not taking care of by a nanny, away from their parents. She observed that the young baby was often at her mother’s breast. At the time, in western families, mothers were encouraged to weigh the baby before and after breastfeeding him, to not feed more than a certain amount, and to feed on a schedule. This was something she had observed in 1936 and was against the practice, believing that surely the baby knew best. She was at the time an early believer in “feeding on demand”.
I will assume here, knowing that Maria Montessori had observed babies in India, she has observed how they were taking care of “traditionally”. In India, it is still common to co-sleep. Parents also use a traditional baby hammock or rocking cradle instead of a cot and a parent spends time rocking the baby. Therefore, Maria Montessori had observed babies being close to their parents and parents helping children to fall asleep. It was common in India and all over the world at the time, to have grandparents or aunties, older siblings to be around the baby, to carry the baby, or to put the baby to sleep for the mother.
In 1946, after her time in India, Maria Montessori in collaboration with Adele Costa Gnocchi started to elaborate ideas about babies and toddlers which led them to create the first “Nido” and the first Assistant to Infancy training.
In 1955, Dr. Silvana Montanaro joined their team, after discovering Montessori for her child. She will continue to lead the program after Maria Montessori passed away. Her book “Understanding the human being” is the basis of the 0-3 program.
In this book, she discusses the floor bed. While she doesn’t specifically talk about co-sleeping, she does encourage weaning from the breast from around 6 months and she discourages mothers to use breast for anything else than nourishment.
So I am wondering if Dr. Montanaro moved away from some observations made by Maria Montessori. I cannot imagine Dr. Montessori denying what she was observing in traditional families to adopt another way with children in Europe. But I can understand that modern medicine had some safety concerns about co-sleeping and even breastfeeding in the 50 to 80’. We have now more data about Sudden infant death syndrome and the importance of breast-milk. Health practitioners are now more supportive of breastfeeding and co-sleeping when it is done safely.
In my opinion, co-sleeping is a great way to cope with sleep in the early years. Babies and toddlers need reassurance, if you breastfeed, it’s easier to co-sleep, and believe me, they will stop! Co-sleeping and floor bed were a perfect combination for us!
Do you need a floor bed? In a nutshell, as Montessori is all about giving freedom to your child, the floor bed is a great option. If your child is still in a cot when he starts to move, that will restrict his movements and he will be less able to decide when to sleep and when he has had enough sleep.
In Maria Montessori speaks to parents, a collection of lectures aimed at parents, Montessori described her godson bedroom:
“Before he could talk, when he was only 10 months old, he was given his own room, where he was free to engage in his own activities. Perhaps you will be surprised when I tell you what the room contained: in the centre of the floor was a carpet, in one corner was Felicino’s bed – not a cot with high railings to keep him shut up in a cage, but a low bed – and in another corner his mother’s bed, which consisted of a mattress on the floor”.
Note here, that his mother was sleeping in the same room. As it was in the 40’, she was likely breastfeeding. So I would describe that as a co-sleeping situation with likely some cuddles and nursing going on during the night.
The child’s cot is a cage on high supports, so that the grown-up can handle the child without stooping, and so that he can leave the child alone, sure, that though, he may cry, he cannot hurt himself. The room is darkened so that no light, not even the light of dawn, may shine to waken him.
The child must go to sleep early in the evening so as to leave his parents free, and he must sleep late in the morning till they have had the sleep necessary for grown-ups who have gone to bed late.
In her 1946 London lectures, she also said:
The child must be free during the day but also at night.
She said that after 2 years of age, the child should have a mattress on the floor to sleep on. It is safe to say that you can adopt the floor bed earlier if you wish.
The aid to life initiative (recognized by the Association Montessori International) recommends a low bed from the beginning.
Sleeping on the floor is common practice in many parts of the world such as Japan. If you are afraid to expose your child to draught, consider this; we are happy for children to sleep in the fresh air. Children have their naps in the garden in many nurseries in Northern countries. However, we are afraid of a little draught that comes inside through the crack of the door. We are also happy to sleep with a window open no matter the weather. So why all this fuss?
In Understanding the Human being, Dr. Montenaro said:
Whenever such a bed is suggested to future parents preparing for birth, the typical objection is that the child is likely to fall from the bed. However, after many decades of direct experience, we can confidently report that this never happens and cannot happens if the bed is used from the very beginning. This is because the infant’s movements are very slow.
Having said all that, depending on when you discover Montessori, you may have a child who is happy in his cot. By all means, do whatever works for your family. Respect your child and respect your needs.
If your child is in a cot, ensure that you answer when your child calls you as he cannot come to you or explores his bedroom when he is done sleeping. You will also need to observe when he is ready to go on a toddler bed as your child could start climbing out of his cot sooner than you think.
In my AMI training, there was a great emphasis on the need for closeness and safety. Our trainer encouraged us to respond to our baby’s needs. And it might mean staying close by, comforting the child, nursing, rocking, or whatever else is needed.
In an article describing the “nido” or Montessori infant community, the author said “A question during tours of the Nido is, “What is the daily schedule for nap times during the day?” I always enjoy the facial expressionof the parents when I respond with, “A ten-week-old is going to have a different nap schedule than an eight-month-old. We believe in following the child and as the child grows we will work with your family on what nap time will look like in the toddler program"
Further, in the same article, she explains what will be needed in the sleeping area of the nido, and he included a fan for white noise.
What my AMI trainer also recommended was to pay attention to the cues. Sometimes we use a sleeping aid such as a dummy, breastfeeding to sleep, or rocking even when the child has started to show us his ability to fall asleep without it. In the Montessori world, we talk about "obstacles to grow". Most of the time, our inexperience, our false expectations, our needs, our lack of observation prevent us to allow our child to progress.
With my first child, I was inexperienced and could not identify her cues. I was feeding on demand and breastfeeding became the solution to everything. Even when she was not falling asleep on the breast, I would insist again instead of observing her and see if she could lay down calmly next to me and then fall asleep. I had become dependent on my initial way to make her sleep and was worried to move away from it. In retrospect, I know that she did show me that she was ready to stay on her floor bed or ready to cope for a few hours without me. And that would have helped me on the long run.
With my son, I was better at observing him and he had more tools at his disposal to feel comfortable on the floor bed with or without me. Although we co-slept for a few years and he was nursed to sleep most of the time the first 2 years, he was also able to stay asleep for longer periods, he was able to fall asleep with a rub on the back or while listening to a story. When he was 3 years old, he asked for his own bed knowing that I would not be able to sleep in it. It was a more peaceful transition to independent sleep.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with breastfeeding to sleep (why does breast milk contains sleep inducing substances?), to rock a baby or to co-sleep. But these sleeping aids are there to comfort your baby for as long as they need them. You might be surprised that they don't need as long as we think they do.
If you give your child a floor bed, then you need to accept that he will decide when he is done sleeping. Both my children stopped napping around 2 years and a half. They would occasionally fall asleep in the car or when they have had a very busy day.
But as Maria Montessori noticed in the Secret of childhood:
If a child is so alert and so quick to observe, he is not a “sleeper” by his very nature. He needs of course, and certainly should get, a normal amount of sleep, but it is necessary to distinguish between what is suitable and what is artificially induced”. She finished by saying “an adult who forces a child to sleep more than he needs is unconsciously forcing his own will upon the child through the power of suggestion.
She also said in that same chapter:
A child should be permitted to go to sleep when he is tired, to wake up when he is rested, and to rise when he wishes.
Respecting our children’s sleep patterns doesn’t mean that we cannot encourage a healthy sleep routine. Each day has a rhythm and that helps children to wind down at the end of the day. But being strict about a specific time to sleep, or an amount of hours is unrealistic and probably not in line with your child’s natural needs.
In the Montessori world, many ideas are circulating about sleep. I hope that connecting with what Maria Montessori said, what the Montessori trainers said, can help you to make up your mind about what your family needs regarding sleep.
It is not the end of this sleep series. In an upcoming blog post, I will discuss more in-depth how-to promotes healthy sleep for you and your child!
You may be interested by my other blog post about where to find a Montessori floor bed.
So what do you think about Montessori and sleep? Do you have a floor bed? Are you worried about how your child is sleeping? Leave me a comment!
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Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.
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