When people associate the term "Montessori" with sleep, it often refers to developing independence around sleep and bedtime.
It is important to note that Dr. Montessori never wrote about sleep and that there is no single approach that all Montessori parents (or teachers) agree on.
Montessori approaches to sleep – is there a best way to encourage sleep habit formation in positive parenting? Some thoughts from a Montessori parent and teacher
The main concept is to trust that children can be empowered to follow their hormonal sleep pattern and allow them to self-regulate.
Montessori sleep methods can be successful with problem sleepers and light sleepers, as long as you choose a method that you are comfortable with and that fits well with your child's personality.
My top three tips when implementing any of the sleep methods described below are:
Stick to it for at least a week. Don't expect something to work in three days or less, some changes and some kids need at least a few weeks to adjust.
Don't make sleep a consequence or punishment. Stay positive. Lots of love, cuddles and comforting rituals and traditions make bedtime easier for children and parents alike.
The most frequently discussed Montessori sleeping arrangement is the floor bed, a cradle- or toddler-sized mattress placed either directly on the floor or on a low bed frame.
The idea behind this is that children can enter (or leave) their beds independently at any time, which requires that the bedroom is fully childproofed. For some kids this is a great arrangement and for others it's just too much freedom.
Playing to fall asleep
Another concept is "play to sleep," which allows children to have access to books and toys at bedtime and gives them the freedom to determine when they are ready to fall asleep.
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There are still some rules and for each family this is different. For us, Ella must choose her books and toys before she goes to bed, and not leave the bed after the lights are out. I also only allow "quiet" toys, those without batteries, buttons, etc.
I admit that it took Ella hours to fall asleep when we first adopted this approach (singing and playing until 10 p.m. some nights), but she slowly returned to an earlier bedtime.
I admit that this was perhaps the most difficult approach I tried – there were many times when I was tempted to limit her play or have her put a toy away.
However, when the method was trusted, the novelty wore off after less than two weeks and the toys did an excellent job of providing security and a point of interest that made bedtime attractive.
Night music is not generally considered Montessori, but I found it helpful in getting Ella to fall asleep on her own. It gave her something to focus on while also being calming and special for bedtime.
(It also allowed me to track how long the sleep process took!) Nighttime music should be instrumental and melodic – no singing or symphonies to possibly break the lull of the music.
Skin-to-skin and essential oils
This can start at a young age as baby massage and either remain massage as children get older, or adapt to something as simple as rubbing their backs or drawing on their hands with their fingers while a bedtime story is read aloud.
There is amazing evidence that skin-to-skin contact with loved ones is essential for children in emotional regulation and is incredibly calming before bedtime.
You can even add an educational touch by preferring to "spell" letters and words on your child's hand and have him guess what you are "saying".
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Some parents are big proponents of essential oils and this is a great time to incorporate them into your child's daily routine. I would love to incorporate these more as I only reach for them when we are sick, but I can't say enough how helpful peppermint oil was when Ella couldn't fall asleep.
For us, Montessori sleeping also means a choice – between my bed and her own bed. It is a very modern and westernized concept to have separate family beds for such young children, and while I don't want to get into a debate about (safe) co-sleeping, it has worked for us from newborn to preschooler.
Ella sometimes chooses to start the night in her bed, and sometime after I go to bed, she climbs into my bed with me.
I don't have a floor bed like I did when she was younger, but I have a stool next to my bed that she can easily climb onto. No matter where your child sleeps, the room and facility must be safe.
Choices may also include story choices, pajamas, etc. refer to. Remember that if you get children into their bedtime routine at a reasonable time, choice will be a smooth and positive thing, while children who are overtired may not be able to handle some degree of choice – it will be overwhelming.
A key aspect of Montessori-style bedrooms is that they are not inherently overstimulating. While children can play in them for hours, the rooms themselves should allow for rest and relaxation. Some items that might be appropriate for daytime may need to be removed or changed during the night, e.g. Stereo equipment, moving furniture to avoid accidents, etc.
Montessori is above all respectful and follows the child. We empower and teach children concepts and responsibilities when they show they are ready. Some children need help longer than others, and although it is each parent's individual decision, the Montessori way takes into account the child's needs and preferences.
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Children are not forced to adhere to sleep habits or expectations that make them feel insecure or upset. This does not mean that a child has a say in whether or not they go to bed – they don't – but rather if a child feels unsafe being present without lights or parents, etc.
We recognize that forcing the child to adhere to our (well-intentioned, well-informed) bedtime routine can be counterproductive and does not empower the child. It can be helpful to think of it like food:
We don't let children decide whether or not to eat, but we don't force a child to use a spoon who isn't ready yet.
We can provide the spoon for him to choose from and show him, but we won't sit and watch a child not eat because he's not ready (or doesn't feel ready) to use a spoon.
It's also important to build some routine into sleep – as into all parts of the day. Routine is reassuring, and when kids can predict exactly what's coming next, they feel safer and more comfortable going to bed.