Using Montessori principles at home with an infant can provide simplicity, independence, and confidence in family life.
Throughout my pregnancy, I researched a wide array of information about healthy pregnancy and natural birth options. I had a mostly healthy pregnancy and a natural, intervention free, and out-of-hospital birth. Upon the birth of my first child, I didn’t follow any major philosophies about child rearing or home learning for infants and toddlers. Mostly, I was caught up in the day-to-day struggles of trying to survive alone each day with an infant since my husband returned to work a week after she was born. We planned on following attachment parenting principles of baby wearing, breastfeeding on demand, and co-sleeping. But what philosophies would we discover to guide us as infant teachers? I use the phrase “infant teachers” because as parents we are our babies’ first teachers. Home learning begins from the time a baby is born, and babies are naturally programmed to explore and learn about their environment. Learning about the world commences even before we are born, as babies gather information about their environment in-utero.
If you have ever breastfed a newborn, you know that it involves a lot of sitting or lying around with your squishy bundle of amazing goodness. However, I spent a great deal of time reading while my baby slept on my chest. I discovered Montessori principles and realized that those ideas resounded with what I knew intuitively about my baby. I am not a “Montessorian,” but I do believe that many principles of Montessori theory are highly applicable to the natural ebb and flow of infant learning and family life. I have narrowed this philosophy down to three big ideas that I gathered and applied to our daily life with an infant that have helped us thrive.
Three Montessori-Inspired Ideas
1. Preference for Order
From the early stages, infants are rapidly absorbing information about their environment. The baby studies their mother’s face, the sound of their voice, the smell and taste of their milk, and the warmth of their body. These are early preferences for order in infant life. The term “preference for order” refers to the need to organize sensory information into predictable routines and sequences to place daily happenings into order. A sense of order provides a feeling of safety and security for an infant, and later helps to build their confidence as they begin to learn and explore more of their world. Order refers to daily routines and physical surroundings such as the organization of the home.
2. Freedom of Movement
There are a wealth of videos available on you tube that illustrate a newborn’s ability to slither up towards their mother’s breast and latch on to nurse. For some reason in American baby culture, we take away an infant’s natural ability to move freely. Think about how active babies are in the womb. I remember my baby was incredibly active, with kicking, twisting, and jabbing seemingly all day and night. Once babies are born, most parents cover them up and restrict their movement immediately through baby mittens, swaddles, and highly restrictive and overly elaborate clothing. Babies are the world’s most kinesthetic learners. They learn through movement and interaction with their environment. Leaving a baby’s hands, legs, arms, and head free (with common sense applied for weather) allows them to experience their world and use their senses to learn.
Later, this philosophy applies as babies start to discover their hands and then their feet. Parents often place their infants into devices that seriously restrict their ability and motivation to move using their own will and skills. This includes bouncers or baby seats that sit an infant up before they are ready to sit on their own. A wealth of information has been presented by physical therapists that explains how these seats are detrimental to babies. Essentially, infant seats such as the bumbo place infants into a position that their body is not ready to do independently. The muscles of the back, hips, and torso are not able to support baby properly in this position and it can lead to challenges in the back and core[i]. This also applies to the use of walkers, jumpers, and exersaucers, which can often be outright dangerous for babies. These infant contraptions also take away the pure joy and confidence the baby receives from being able to move their body independently. When we constantly sit a baby up, we rob them of the joy of learning to do it themselves.
Freedom of movement also means that it is very important for the physical environment to be prepared to allow the baby to explore. This means childproofing areas of the home to enable the baby to safely access their environment. Cribs, playpens, and play yards often keep babies safe but restrict their learning to a very small space.
3. Follow the Child
The term “follow the child” refers to watching your child closely and meeting them where they are at with their interests and learning. Let the child lead the way of their learning and exploration. This means resisting the temptation to teach a baby how to crawl or walk, as they are programmed to learn to do these actions and will meet these milestones in their own time according to their own developmental rhythm. Babies can have a variety of materials available to them for play and learning around the home, and their space can accommodate these materials. The child can choose their own activities of their own will, rather than having their toys thrown into a toy box for a parent to initiate activities.
“Follow the child” also means that it is important to respond to your baby’s needs throughout the day and night time as well. The baby will have a need for independence while working and exploring, and it is valuable to avoid interrupting them when possible. However, the baby will also come to the parents for a need for closeness, connection, and love. It is important that we respond positively to the needs of the child for independence, learning, and connection or attachment.
Practical Applications: What do we do at home?
I know that it may seem like these philosophies are really fantastic and idealistic, but how does this actually apply to daily life? There are very simple ways that we try to live these ideas to the fullest in our everyday lives. We certainly aren’t perfect and don’t always follow these ideas, but that is because they are simply ideas, not rules to live by. Any philosophy can become dogmatic when applied too rigidly when it no longer makes sense or creates hardship. So yes, occasionally we “cheat” but we mostly follow these guidelines. Here are some ways in which we apply these Montessori-inspired principles in our daily family life:
-We do not use infant seats, exersaucers, jumpers, or walkers of any kind. We have found these to be highly unnecessary in our daily life and produce plastic clutter in the home. We give baby as much time as possible on their tummy, or held snugly in a wrap, to strengthen neck, core, and arm muscles. Many people believe these devices teach babies how to sit or walk, but there is no evidence that these items help babies meet milestones. There is significant evidence that they actually can cause milestone delays because they prevent infants from using their muscles in developmentally appropriate ways[ii][iii]. Meeting milestones early is somewhat insignificant. However, to disprove this idea, I’d like to offer that my daughter sat unassisted at 5 months and was walking around the house at 10 months. Many people feel that they need these items because they are alone with the baby without help throughout the day and need to keep them entertained. I promise, there are many other great ways to keep your child engaged while you work around the house when needed.
-We minimize clutter around the home and only put a small selection of toys out for our daughter to access. We place these items on low shelves in baskets so that she can access them independently. We don’t buy many toys, but rotate them. I find that every time I reintroduce an old toy, she sees it in a different way and interacts differently with the item.
-Our daughter sleeps on a floor bed in her own room for naps during the day and we co-sleep in our room at night. The floor bed and co-sleeping promote a positive breastfeeding relationship. The use of a floor bed also allows her to wake independently from naps and choose toys to play with or books to read until she needs me. She rarely ever cries when she wakes up from a nap and usually will do quiet activities in her room until she is ready for me. It has been a great opportunity to build independence and confidence.
As our daughter has grown in her first year, she is becoming more and more confident in her abilities and is learning every day. I’m offering these suggestions and ideas to illustrate how the overarching Montessori principles can be applied simply in the home environment for infants. Do you use any of these principles with your children? How do you accomplish this in your family life?