My Mostly Montessori Approach: 3 Months

It's been three months since little Claire Josephine entered the world. I thought I'd take some time (as she's napping) to share about how I've incorporated a few Montessori ideas into our family.

I'm a first time mom. I haven't spent much time around babies since I babysat in my teens, either, so I felt pretty clueless about parenting when my daughter arrived. I spent so much time during my pregnancy reading books on natural birth and studying up on breastfeeding, that when those nine months ended, I suddenly felt overwhelmed, like I had no idea how to take care of a baby.

The basics do sort of come with instinct and a bit of common sense, and the hospital nurses and pediatricians were helpful, of course. But I relied heavily on Google (which I don't recommend when it comes to this topic; there's like a million conflicting ideas floating around out there, everyone contradicting everyone else). Those first several weeks we were in survival mode, everyone exhausted and crying and just trying to make it from one feeding to the next. But as the weeks passed, I felt it was time to work on establishing some sort of routine.

At two months old, if she wasn't eating or sleeping or being held, Claire was vegging out in her bouncy seat. The only movement she was getting at this point was a minuscule amount of tummy time. We tried it daily, working to extend the minutes, but she hated it. I mean, she screamed the entire time, from the second I put her prone until I gave in and rolled her over. I could only tolerate her misery for a maximum of two or three minutes, so that was that. Then back to the bouncy seat.

I remember observing her as she sat idly in her bouncer, already a little couch potato. I felt so guilty. And ignorant. There had to be something better for her that I could be doing. I downloaded apps, joined parenting groups on Facebook, and stalked mommy blogs. One common thread I found among them really spoke to me: the Montessori Method.

Everything I read about Montessori's child-centered approach made sense. I loved the simplicity of it, merely treating a child like a small person, because hey, that's what they are. Shouldn't we respect them, nurture them, give them the freedom they need, remove distractions, decrease overstimulation, and foster independence, from the beginning?

After repeatedly hearing its praises in my parenting groups and on the blogs I followed, I purchased an inexpensive used copy of Montessori from the Start: The Child at Home, From Birth to Age Three by Lynn Lillard Jessen and Paula Polk Lillard from Amazon. I delved into it immediately, and I couldn't read fast enough. My highlighter was halfway dry only a couple pages in.

I took notes. Literally. I wished I'd read it while I was still pregnant so I could have been more prepared. I consumed it as quickly as I could, not wanting to wait any longer to start implementing Montessori practices.

I haven't been able to go "all in" at this point (for example, Montessori uses a floor bed instead of a crib. We don't have space or finances for a mattress currently, so we're continuing to use the co-sleeper bassinet for as long as it meets our needs). I've had to DIY this on the cheap. But I think that's what Maria Montessori intended. Though Montessori schools today are expensive and geared toward the wealthy, Dr. Montessori herself served poor children, many of whom were abandoned or orphaned. There's nothing fancy or pretentious or frou-frou about her methods. If anything, they're the opposite. Anti-consumerist. They're simple, and they employ basic, everyday items.

Anyway, here are a few things I've done after reading the book and the changes I've observed as a result.

1. Freedom of Movement

The first thing I did was get Claire out of that bouncy seat.

The Montessori approach is all about freedom of movement. Babies need to be free to move in order to develop their muscles, to coordinate their movements, and to learn to roll, scoot, crawl, and eventually walk. That's pretty much a no-brainer, right? Yet all the products geared toward parents restrict a child's movement.

Bouncers. Swings. Bumbo seats. Strollers. Baby carriers. Cribs. Car seats. All the things you "need" to buy. Some of these are for safety purposes, of course, but if babies are strapped down in something all the time, how are they supposed to exercise?

Babies must be on in the floor, unrestricted by restraints and harnesses, to learn and develop properly. So that's what I did. I just put a clean blanket down on the floor and let Claire be free.

Before I tried this, I'd noticed the changing table was her "happy place." Now it was a blanket on the floor. It occurred to me that, before now, the changing table was the one place she wasn't enclosed in something and was free to kick and flail around as she wanted.

The changing table was also the one place she was naked. Freedom of movement also involves clothing. Everyone wants to bundle little babies up in layers, but as long as they're in a temperate environment, all that extra clothing only hinders their movement. Once I followed the book's instructions and let Claire's legs and feet free, I really saw her move. She started to grip the floor with her toes and scoot around on her knees.

2. Low Mirror

This one is a Montessori basic for infants. The purpose of a low-hanging, full-length, wall mirror is to promote movement, develop concentration, encourage independent play, and enhance visual development and coordination.

Claire was just over two months old when I went to Walmart and got this full-length mirror for $5. I placed it horizontally against the base of a wall and put a blanket down in front of it as a little playmat. When I placed her before the mirror for the first time, she transformed into a new baby. She was captivated by the reflection, and she suddenly became able to entertain herself quietly and independently for shockingly long periods of time. In a few days, she began to amuse herself by changing facial expressions, babbling to herself, and watching herself kick, flail, and roll.

But the most impressive effect of the mirror was its impact on tummy time.

Screaming facedown on the left. Looking pretty perky on the right- first use of the mirror for tummy time.
We've been using the mirror for a little over three weeks now, and in that time, Claire has gone from screaming helplessly for up to three minutes to being pretty content on her belly for up to fifteen or even twenty minutes at a time, multiple times a day!

Also, two days after doing tummy time with the mirror, she rolled onto her back for the first time. Since then she's also rolled from back to tummy and scooted toward the mirror (and off the blanket, around the loveseat, and under the Christmas tree. But that's a story for another day.).
Tummy time at three months old, December 14, 2018.
3. Hanging Mobile

Most mobiles on the market today are for parents. They're cute, bright, whimsical, and unhelpful for the infant. Babies need high-contrast images as their eyes develop, not bright colors (they can't even see a full color spectrum until five months). Placing high-contrast objects above them gives the baby something to focus on, developing concentration, encouraging independent play, and enhancing eye sight.

I made this simple one for Claire from 4 $0.33 pieces of felt from Hobby Lobby, a thin wooden dowel, and some string and twine we already had.

She's been pretty intensely focused on it from the start. These days, I often find her giggling and babbling to herself as she watches it.

The Montessori method involves changing mobiles out every two weeks. There's a week-by-week progression of what type of mobile you should use. I haven't found the time to make more mobiles and I can't afford to buy them on Etsy, so we are stuck with this one for now.

4. Simple Wooden Toys

Grasping well at three months old, December 14, 2018.
Matt and I have had a plastic ban for a long time, so we already didn't want to buy a bunch of plastic junk toys for our child. The Montessori approach employs simple, open-ended toys made of natural materials, like wood, which was right up our alley.

Again, young babies can't see color. All those bright and colorful toys that claim to enhance development are gaudy and unnecessary. The same goes for anything that lights up, beeps, and talks. They do nothing to aid development, they're annoying to the parents, and they are actually overstimulating to an infant.

Simple toys made for small hands to grasp and manipulate are the way to go. Soft colors, often monochrome, and made from natural materials are not only a more aesthetically pleasing addition to your home, they are more beneficial for your baby. Materials like wood connect the child to the natural world, offering textures and smells that are of the Earth (which is vitally important for ages zero to six; it is during this time that children construct an understanding of the real, natural world around them). And unlike plastic toys, which are indestructible and will sit in landfills forever, wood is biodegradable.

We borrowed a garishly colorful playmat with all kinds of hanging doo-dads and noisemakers from a family member. Like everyone else, we thought it would be "good stimulation" for Claire, but she cried every time we put her on it. I found a wooden playgym alternative online that was in line with Montessori principles, but it was about $100. Matt and I made our own version for a mere $10, and Claire seems to enjoy it.

She used to stare at it for long periods of time, like her mobile. She still focuses on it intently, but now she bats at it with her hands and kicks it with her feet.

5. Talk to Her Like She's a Person. Because She Is. 

Baby talk just comes out, doesn't it? Something about being around a baby makes you adopt a silly voice. Grammar goes out the window, and stupid, nonsensical words flow.

"Oh, der her is! Der her is! Ooooh, wook how cute her is! Goochie goo! Ahhh, goochie goochie goo! Her has big smiles! Wook at dis wittle girl's big smiles! Ruh-roh, her crying! What are her crying for? Is her gross? Does her have a gross booty?" 

It's ridiculous, right? You'd never talk to anyone like this. Yet it's surprisingly difficult to not do this when you're talking to a baby.

But Montessori focuses on respecting the child for the person they are, and who they will become. That means talking to babies like people, using appropriate grammar and "grown-up" conversation. While babies can't understand your meaning early on, they are developing an ear for tone and syntax. Being exposed to more words, real words, enhances language development and can only improve their understanding of how human communication works.

This is something I've been working on. I'm trying to talk to Claire like I talk to my husband or a friend. Sometimes it feels silly because I'll think to myself, She has no idea what I'm saying right now. But other times, I get the feeling she understands more than I think she does. So I just pretend she can understand me, and I babble away, telling her names of things and narrating how to do everyday things as I do them.

Just the other day, she was crying hard for no apparent reason, so I set up a blanket in the kitchen floor so I could talk to her as I worked. The crying stopped as she began to soak in a new room. I talked to her as I cooked, introducing vegetables to her, saying their names, letting her touch and smell them. She looked so interested and delighted the whole time. I don't know what she got out of it- maybe just extra attention from her mother. But she was a happy little girl and we were bonding, so that's really all that matters.

6. No Screens.

This one is huge. And a huge point of conflict with pretty much everyone I know.

This isn't just a Montessori thing. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children under the age of 18 months are to have zero screen time. This includes phones, tablets, televisions, computers, and anything else with a screen to stare at. (For the record, while I'm on my soapbox, ages 2-5 need no more than one hour of screen time a day. ONE. HOUR.) 

In a 2016 publication from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Drs. Jenny Radesky and Dimitri Christakis write:

Children younger than 2 years need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor, and social-emotional skills. Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interactions with caregivers, and they have difficulty transferring that knowledge to their 3-dimensional experience.     

They go on to say that screen use in young children has been linked to obesity, sleep difficulties, behavioral problems, and "cognitive, language, and social/emotional delays." This isn't even talking about violent or inappropriate content. It can be apps or programs deemed "educational."  

Plus, it even includes merely having the TV on in the background. If a parent is watching TV, face-to-face time with the infant naturally goes away, eliminating any exchange of eye contact, facial expressions, and verbalization.

As someone who grew up addicted to watching TV and playing on the computer, this is a hard one. I'll admit that in those newborn weeks, the only way I got through those miserable cluster feeds was by bingeing The Staircase on Netflix.

When we've watched TV with Claire around, I've observed as her entire body goes limp and she zones out, gazing at the screen hard. Unblinking. I've tried turning her away from the screen so she can't see it as I watch, but she cranes her neck, turning all the way around to stare at it. Not good. I also recall the first time I saw her scream-cry was after a loud noise on a movie we were watching, while she was in the room, terrified her (I felt like the worst mom ever and cried right along with her.).

Nowadays, if I want to watch something, I'm forcing myself to wait until Claire is asleep. And usually by the time I finally get her to sleep, I'm exhausted, so this is working to limit my own screen time as well.

As I said, I haven't gone "all-in Montessori" due to financial and space constraints; we're just working with what we have right now. But I'm looking forward to introducing more ideas from this method as Claire grows.


AMPS said...

I've never understood why nearly all baby/child toys are apparently required to have every color of the rainbow on them. What's wrong with monochromatic or a few soft colors? I agree a lot of the popular stuff can be overstimulating, and the "learning" aspects useless. Many toys claim they teach numbers, colors, animals, and alphabet.... all in one object! And it's so cluttered up there's no way anyone who didn't already know those things could sort it all out. I love the idea of a mirror for tummy time. I wish we'd thought to do that. I'm glad you've found some ideas that have really worked!

Jessica said...

I love all the toys you guys have made and how much money you have saved by doing so. She has grown so much in the past 3 months!

Anonymous said...

Tummy time is not free movement.

Christina @ said...

Love this! I'm so happy to have found your blog and can't wait to follow along.

Kate said...

One thing I disagree with is your description of baby talk - Motherese (sometimes now known as parentese) is a studied linguistic phenomenon that occurs across languages and cultures. It is instinctual and clearly serves some sort of evolutionary purpose. While I often also talk to my babies like people, when I feel moved to coo in a high pitched voice, I go with it