When people attach the term “Montessori” to sleep, its often in reference to developing independence around sleep and bedtime.
Its important to note that Dr. Montessori never wrote about sleep and that there is no singular approach that all Montessori-style parents (or teachers) agree upon.
The main concept is to trust that children can be empowered to follow their hormonal sleep window and allow them to self-regulate. Montessori sleep methods can be successful with problem sleepers and easy sleepers, as long as you choose a method that you feel comfortable with and that is a good fit for your child’s personality.
My top three tips when implementing any of the sleep methods described below are:
- Stick with it for at least a week. Don’t expect anything to work in three days or less, some changes and some children need at least a couple of weeks to adjust.
- Do not make sleep a consequence or a punishment. Keep it positive. Lots of love, cuddles, and soothing rituals and traditions help make bedtime easier for children, and parents.
- As with all things Montessori, follow the child. More on that below.
The most widely discussed Montessori sleep arrangement is the floor bed, a crib- or toddler-sized mattress either placed directly on the ground or upon a low bed frame. The idea behind this is that children can independently access (or exit) their beds at any time, requiring that the bedroom be fully child-safe. For some children, this is a great arrangement and for others, its simply too much freedom.
(And there is nothing saying that if you want to co-sleep, that you can’t make your own bed a floor bed!)
Playing to Sleep
Another concept is “playing to sleep” which allows children to have access to books and toys at bedtime and giving them freedom to determine when they are ready to fall asleep. There are still some rules and for each family this is different; for us, Ella must choose her books and toys before getting into bed and is not allowed off of the bed after lights out. I also only allow “silent” toys, ones without batteries, buttons, etc. I will admit that Ella took hours to fall asleep when we first embraced this approach (singing and playing until 10pm some nights), but she slowly returned to an earlier bedtime.
I will admit that this was perhaps the most difficult method that I tried — there were many times that I was tempted to limit her play or have her put a toy away. However, trusting the method, after less than two weeks the novelty wore off and the toys did a great job of providing security and a point of interest that made bedtime attractive.
Nighttime music is not generally considered Montessori, but I found it helpful while transitioning Ella to independently falling asleep. It gave her something to focus upon while also being soothing and something special for bedtime. (It also allowed me to keep track of how long the sleep process was taking!) Nighttime music should be instrumental and melody-based — no singing and symphonies to potentially break the lull of the music.
Skin-to-skin and Essential Oils
This can start off at a young age as baby massage and either remain as massage as children get older, or adapt to something as simple as rubbing their backs or drawing on their hands with your fingers while reading a bedtime story. There is amazing proof that skin-to-skin contact with loved ones is essential for children in emotional regulation and is incredibly calming before bedtime. You can even put an educational spin to it if you’re more comfortable “spelling out” letters and words on your child’s hand and having them guess what you’re “saying.”
Some parents are huge essential oil advocates and this is a great time to integrate it into your child’s day. 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 has been when Ella is congested and trying to sleep.
For us, Montessori bedtimes also involves 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 do not want to engage in a debate on (safe) co-sleeping, it has worked for us from newborn to preschooler. Ella sometimes chooses to start off the night in her bed and sometime after I have gone to bed she will climb in with me. I no longer have a floor bed, as I did when she was younger, but I have provided a trunk for her to easily step up onto. Regardless of where your child sleeps, the room and set-up must be safe.
Choice can also relate to choosing stories, pyjamas, etc. Keep in mind that if you are getting children into their bedtime routine at a decent time, choice will be a smooth and positive thing, whereas overtired children may not be able to handle any degree of choice — it will be overwhelming.
An essential aspect of Montessori-style bedrooms is that they are not over-stimulating in themselves. While children can engage in hours of play within them, the rooms themselves should allow for peace and relaxation. Some elements that might be appropriate for day might need to be removed or altered during the night, for example, stereos, moving furniture to avoid accidents, etc.
Above all else, Montessori is respectful and follows the child. We empower and teach children concepts and responsibilities when they indicate that they are ready. Some children need assistance longer than others, and while it is every parent’s individual decision, the Montessori way takes into account the needs and preferences of the child; children are not forced to comply with sleeping arrangements or expectations that they are insecure or upset by. That is not to say that a child gets a say as to whether or not they are going to bed — they don’t — but rather, if a child feels unsafe going to sleep without a light on, or a parent present, etc, we acknowledge that forcing the child to comply with our (well-intentioned, well-informed) bedtime design can be counter-productive and doesn’t occur as empowering to the child. It may help to think of it like eating: we don’t let children choose whether or not to eat, but we don’t force a child to use a spoon who isn’t ready. We may provide the spoon as a choice, and show them, but we aren’t going to sit and watch a child not eat because they aren’t ready (or don’t feel ready) to use a spoon.
Its also important to incorporate some routine into sleep — as in all parts of the day. Routine is reassuring, and when children can accurately predict what will come next, they feel more confident and comfortable settling into their bedtime.
I’ll be discussing hormonal sleep windows more soon, but I think its too much to add onto this post. What are your thoughts on children’s sleep?