Parents pleased with the Montessori method are exploring how they can apply the ‘learning by doing’ approach to their children’s bedtime routine, in particular, sleep training. What does Montessori say about sleep training? Do Montessori parents sleep train?
Montessori believes that the child is their own person and knows what is best for them. Sleep training imposes a bedtime schedule and routine that may not come naturally to the child. So, while sleep training is enforcing independence – the manner in which it is carried out opposes Montessori’s principle of respect for the child, which includes listening to their needs.
How can parents then create a bedtime routine that is aligned with the Montessori approach? To answer this, let’s have a look at the different sleep training methods and what Montessori says about bedtime routines.
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is teaching your baby to fall asleep, and go back to sleep, independently. It has a few variations that involve leaving the child to self-soothe or cry until they fall asleep, with or without adult supervision. It usually is carried out from 4 months of age, in an attempt by parents to encourage the baby to start sleeping by themselves through the night.
Among the more popular sleep training methods are:
1. Cry it out (extinction) method – putting the child to bed without being cuddled or nursed and allowing the child to cry until they fall asleep
2. Ferber (graduated extinction) method – allows the parents to check on the child, but only after a timed interval of crying. This trains the child to get used to longer intervals where the parent does not immediately respond until they learn to self-soothe.
3. The Chair method – is used for older babies, where the parent sits on a chair by the child’s crib or bed and stays there without picking them up until the baby falls asleep.
4. Bedtime fading method – parents watch for the baby’s sleep cues instead of having a set time for sleep. The baby is put to bed once they show signs of being sleepy, and taken out of bed if they start crying. Bedtime is moved earlier every few days until the ideal bedtime is reached. Bedtime fading also involves the parent gradually lessening their stay in the baby’s room when they set them to bed.
5. Pick up, put down method – parents are advised to wait a few minutes to see if they will settle down before picking them up. If the baby doesn’t settle down, they are picked up and soothed by the parent until they are calm again. The process is repeated until the baby sleeps.
Is sleep training Montessori?
In the book The Child in the Family, Maria Montessori talks about how forced bedtime schedules are stressful for children, and how it hinders learning that can occur at night time.
“The prejudice that condemns children to sleep is very popular among northern peoples and is without any foundation, but we accept it without argument. One time a child came to me saying that he wanted to see something very beautiful, of which he had heard much talk–the stars. He had never seen them because he had to go to bed very early. It is easy to understand that the child condemned to sleep must find the inner work of construction extremely fatiguing because he is forced to struggle with the adult, who destroys the building process and for the most part condemns him to sleep.”-Maria Montessori
Thus, sleep training as such is not in keeping with Montessori principles. A way to approach bedtime within the Montessori purview is to have a clear night-time routine that includes getting ready for bed, without forcing the child to sleep if they are not yet ready to.
The Montessori Sleep Approach
There is no official Montessori sleep approach per se, but rather guidelines we can glean from the principles of the method and the writings of Maria Montessori.
“We must give the child an environment that he can utilize by himself: … a small bed in which he can sleep at night under an attractive blanket he can fold and spread by himself. We must give him an environment in which he can live and play; then we will see him at work all day … and (at night) lay himself down on his bed. He will …be gracious and tranquil, without tears, without tantrums, without naughtiness–affectionate and obedient.”— The Child in the Family by Maria Montessori
The Montessori method promotes independence by allowing the child to explore within a prepared environment. For bedtime routines, this means arranging a bedroom in a way that allows the child to explore and sleep when they need to. In the book the Montessori Home by Ashley Yeh, she notes that Montessori bedrooms are an environment prepared for safety, usually minimal in décor, and include a floor bed or mattress set on the floor, instead of a crib, so the child can get in and out on their own.
Montessori promotes independence so while they do not have a rule against co-sleeping, it is suggested that the child have their own room. However, Montessori believes it is important for the parent to recognize when the child wants to be in the company of adults. She encourages strengthening bonds between child and parent by accompanying the child as they attempt to sleep.
She explains the love a child has for their adults and how this affects their sleeping routine: “When the child goes to bed, he must do so in the company of someone he loves. But the person he loves thinks: “This nonsense must stop. We’ll spoil him if we stay close to him before he goes to sleep.”
What is the Montessori sleeping method for babies?
The following quote from Maria Montessori’s 1946 London Lectures is direct disapproval of the “cry it out” method of sleep training. It goes back to the principle of respect for the child and understanding their needs, and helping them grow up secure in knowing they are heard and valued.
“In nature, man takes the child into his arms because a child needs to be held. The child must not be left in a cot all the time, because it is a natural law that a mother should take the child into her arms. It goes further. It is a preparation for the personality that is being shaped for the future. “–The 1946 London Lectures, p. 53
This shows that Montessori does not support self-soothing as it is deemed against the natural law of caring for your child.
Adult vs child’s needs
The concept of sleep training is opposed to the Montessori approach in that adults impose their schedule on the child. Maria Montessori believes this is because they see the child as an extension of the adult, instead of their own person. She suggests that the act of forcing the child to sleep is the adult’s way of getting their time back and seeing the child as an inconvenience. She reiterates the need to pay attention to the child’s needs.
“The adult must acquire the sensitivity to recognize all the child’s needs; only thus can he give the child all the help that is necessary. If we were to establish a principle, it would be that what is necessary is the child’s participation in our lives, for in that period in which he must learn to act, he cannot learn well if he does not see how…
…But the extension of adult hospitality is opposed by the prejudice, supported tyrannically and cruelly by health science, that a child must get a great deal of sleep, like a vegetable. Why force him to sleep? If we allow him to stay awake as much as he likes and we keep him near us, we will see that he needs to sleep a great deal less.”–Maria Montessori, The Child in the Family
Some books on Montessori that have adapted modern approaches such as The Montessori Toddler by Simon Davies suggest using the Bedtime Fade Method or the Chair method as ways to support the child while encouraging them to learn to sleep independently. These methods are aligned with the Montessori approach in some ways because they enable the parents to listen and support the child’s needs as to whether they are ready for bedtime or not and adjust to the child’s readiness accordingly. While there is a component of setting a bedtime, the child is not forced to sleep or cry themselves to sleep and gives the child the opportunity to decide when they are ready for bed.
While Montessori principles are very clear about teaching, they are guidelines and not a one-size-fits-all approach as far as parenting is concerned. Be guided by the principles of Montessori in your approach to child-rearing. As far as bedtime routines, remember the main points about the child having:
– a safe environment to sleep in
– the availability of an adult who can listen and support their needs
– the opportunity to determine when they are ready to fall asleep, and
– a clear sequence of night-time activities
These are things you can adapt to help your child establish a regimen that works for them.
The Child in the Montessori by Maria Montessori
The Montessori Home by Ashley Yeh
The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies