Montessori’s thoughts on child sleep
Let’s talk about sleep. Having 3 children ages 4 and under; all early risers and one that still nurses at night, I am suffering a serious lack of it! I imagine many of you are, as well. It’s part of parenthood; possibly the least pleasant part. We are adults, though. We are aware of the negative effects of exhaustion on our health…we know this comes with the territory. This is the season of our lives and we accept it as such.
But what about our children? Dr. Montessori had some thoughts on children’s sleep habits. She fantasized that a child should sleep when they want and wake when they please. (Hold your laughter, please.) Here is where I part with the good doctor.
During the time she wrote these musings, parents were still being told by physicians to keep babies on a strict schedule, and to not spoil their children with too much affection.
My own grandmother told me that as a baby, she was picked up and held by the clock, fed by the clock, and put back in her cot by the clock.
It is very likely Dr. Montessori was raging against this particular machine. And she was right to fight it! I’m pro-schedule/routine, but this was extreme, in my opinion.
But, much time has passed since then and, although some parents do still adhere to schedules for their little ones, they are loose schedules; more like routines. Many of these schedules/routines are based on the cues of the child and the needs of the child.
Adequate sleep is a need.
How much sleep do kids need?
Much research has been done since Dr. Montessori’s words were printed. We know a lot more about the sleep needs of children than was known in her time. Something that we know for certain is that Dr. Montessori did not research child sleep habits, nor did she observe and record the consequence of a well rested child versus a child lacking in sufficient sleep.
Here is a current table of the sleep needs of children:
So, as magical as it sounds to allow a young child to self regulate their sleep, most cannot. And it isn’t healthy, for most children anyhow.
Sleep training and Montessori
There is much propaganda regarding the cortisol levels of children during sleep training, but elevated cortisol levels are only harmful over an extended period of time, such as with chronic sleep deprivation, extended maternal separation, and physical and emotional neglect.
Sleep training typically involves a few new nights of protesting at bedtime, then years of easy bedtimes and restful sleep. Many parents continue nursing their babies when they wake hungry; needs are not ignored. There is absolutely no evidence that cortisol levels remain elevated beyond the short period of sleep learning.
I have seen social media posts and even a heavily opinionated article in Psychology Today (It’s not a respected medical journal. It’s basically the Us Weekly of the medical community.) stating the opposite, but science is on my side on this one.
Also, something you should understand about the hormone, cortisol, is that it is a hormone associated with learning. Your child’s cortisol levels will elevate when they are learning to grab objects with their hands, when they are learning to crawl, walk, talk, ECT. Cortisol, in and of itself, is not a bad hormone, in moderation!
I respect Maria Montessori’s evidence-based findings. However, her conclusion on child sleep was not evidence-based, but rather an idealistic statement. Montessori was a pioneer in the field of early childhood education, but her lack of qualifications in child rearing and child sleep, cause me to disregard her statements about child sleep. She had no training in either of these things.
In fact, Dr. Montessori bore a son and did not parent him until his teenage years. While, I understand her predicament at the time, I wonder if caring for her son from the beginning of his life into adulthood would have shaped her views differently.
What are the effects of sleep deprivation?
I am a Montessori enthusiast, but I am a scientist, as well. Here is a little food for thought, for those of you that value science over idealism:
- Lack of sufficient sleep is linked to cognitive and behavioral issues.
- Sleep that occurs early in the night tends to be more restorative.
- Sleep schedules are healthy.
- “Crying it out” causes no damage to your child.
This is where we have to consider if being “Montessori” is more important than doing what is best for our children.
“Sleep training” has gotten a bad rap in certain parenting circles, but the long term effects of inadequate sleep may override the short term stress of sleep training in most cases. I have noticed a trend in certain circles of behavior issues occuring with children that set their own sleep schedules. I can’t help but wonder if sufficient sleep on a predictable schedule would help these children!
Following the child at bedtime
We are all different, though, as are our children.
If co-sleeping works for you and you and babe are getting adequate sleep, then keep doing it! If safe bed sharing is working out, do that! If sleeping separately is how everyone gets the best sleep, then do it that way!
Independent sleep without sleep training
Sleep training isn’t the only way to promote independent sleep, though, if independent sleep is the route you are looking to go.
I mentioned my 3 children earlier. One was “sleep trained” and is now a fantastic independent sleeper, the 2nd did not do any sleep learning and he has been an independent sleeper since about 2 months old, and my 3rd child sleeps in the room with me; part of the night in his cot and part of the night in my bed…3 different children, 3 different methods; all based on their needs!
That is following the child, not following a certain dogma.
I know this is a contraversial topic and I would love to hear from you on this! How do you follow your child when it comes to bedtime?
Looking forward to hearing from you!