If you have an infant in the home, you might be thinking predominantly about two things: Your child’s eating and sleeping.
This can be all-consuming, but your child is coming from a place where he has an unpredictable and organic feeding and sleeping schedule, and these schedules are connected. When an infant’s stomach is full, he will sleep, and as he grows, his body will move in a direction where he can eat more and sleep for longer periods of time.
Even though we understand this growth pattern, dependencies can set in, so it’s important for parents to take seriously the need to teach their children how to go to sleep. From ages three months to 18 months, let’s take a look at what is being done in a Montessori infant classroom and what can be done at home to support a child’s self-directed sleep.
What is done a Montessori classroom
When a parent brings their infant into a Montessori classroom, the guide will begin this relationship by asking questions and understanding how they can best follow the child. They want to know what is being done at home and what the parent’s needs are and then reflecting exactly that in the classroom.
In the first few months, the guide will observe the child. When he is naturally hungry, he will be fed, and when he is tired, he will sleep. He will not have to wait for other children to sleep, because the guide wants to meet his individual needs whenever he has them.
Over time and as his stomach grows — once he can withstand more than 4 ounces in one feeding — the guide will work together with the parent to lengthen the amount of time between feedings. This is done in small, steady increments — waiting two minutes longer for the next feeding, then three minutes longer another day so that the feedings become farther apart and the child is more inclined to eat more in one sitting. This will help the parent settle into a more predictable feeding schedule and will help the child sleep longer on a full stomach.
In a Montessori classroom and beyond the newborn stage, floor beds are used for naps, which is the size of a crib mattress placed directly on the floor. When a child otherwise sleeps in a crib, he might cry upon waking up, dependent upon an adult to take him out of the crib.
But when a child awakes on a floor bed, it’s similar to the way we might wake up on a Saturday morning. We open our eyes, we lay there and maybe look around for a minute, then we sit up sleepily and get our bearings. For the child on a floor bed, he will begin to see and remember his surroundings, he will notice grown-ups nearby, and he will slowly crawl to them to let them know he is awake and ready for a diaper change. He is not alarmed or frustrated, because he gets to awake on his own time and move about the room when he is ready to do so.
Guides also notice that the child will begin to self-monitor when he is feeling tired, and he will crawl over to the nap area and onto a floor bed to let the adult know he is ready for sleep. While a crib can limit independence, sleeping on a floor bed elicits a natural, positive, and self-directed experience. This also helps the child develop his own awareness of when he is tired.
What to do at home
To support self-initiated sleep patterns at home, a parent can help the child learn how to self-soothe. Self-soothing is a skill that even some adults have not mastered. Many adults, for example, might have trouble falling asleep in a new place, because they are dependent upon their own familiar space, sounds, and levels of light to get them to sleep at night. When an adult who cannot self-soothe is in a new space, they cannot calm down their bodies without these dependencies.
For infants, there is a sense of urgency to learning the skills of self-soothing early on. If a child becomes dependent upon a pacifier, for example, it becomes increasingly difficult to wean them off of it.
It’s also important to help the child become less dependent on being rocked to sleep at night. Parents can still establish a bedtime routine that involves holding the child, feeding the child or snuggling before it’s time to sleep, but the contrast here is putting the child down while he’s still sleepy but awake. If this is done, the child can still have the experience of falling asleep by himself and without any dependencies.
Working to remove these dependencies at home and in the classroom creates a routine and expectation for the child.
If a parent is proactive in developing predictable feeding and sleeping schedules and removing sleep aids in the home, everyone in the family can achieve better sleep at night. And, when we choose to follow the child and observe his tendencies, we will be able to see with profound confidence that this is something he is capable of learning by four months old.
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