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Montessori and Attachment Parenting

by Meghan Hicks,  At Home With Montessori

As a mother to two boys, and a Montessori educator, I am often asked by parents whether the Montessori approach is compatible with other child rearing philosophies. The most common query is about Attachment Parenting. I must admit that when I was first asked this question almost 10 years ago, I didn’t really know what Attachment Parenting was! After a bit of research, it became clear to me that Attachment Parenting was very compatible with my idea of parenting (my children had not yet been born, but my own parents parented me in this way with great results!). However as I progressed further into my training as a Montessori teacher at the infant toddler level, I realised that not every Montessori theorist would promote the principles of Attachment Parenting for use in the Montessori Home. However, the foundations of Attachment Parenting seemed, to me, to be very much in line with Dr Montessori’s vision for a peaceful childhood.

The first principle: Preparation for Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting
Become emotionally and physically prepared for pregnancy and birth. Research available options for healthcare providers and birthing environments, and become informed about routine newborn care. Continuously educate yourself about developmental stages of childhood, setting realistic expectations and remaining flexible.

The Montessori approach to parenting is also focused on preparing for the arrival of a new child in a thoughtful and careful manner. Assistants to Infancy work with families to prepare a welcoming home environment for their newborn; they help mother to prepare for a childbirth that is as close to the ideal as possible (a natural, drug-free, non-intrusive and peaceful labour and birth); they offer support during the symbiotic period (the first six weeks after birth) to help establish rhythms and routines for living; they work to protect the important emotional bonding that takes place between parents and infant in the hours, days and weeks after birth.

The second principle: Feeding with Love and Respect
Breastfeeding is the optimal way to satisfy an infant’s nutritional and emotional needs. “Bottle Nursing” adapts breastfeeding behaviours to bottle-feeding to help initiate a secure attachment. Follow the feeding cues for both infants and children, encouraging them to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Offer healthy food choices and model healthy eating behaviours.

Montessori too, recognises that breastfeeding on demand, particularly during the symbiotic period, is an important part of helping the infant to develop a fundamental trust in the world. The sensitive period for weaning begins between 5 and 6 months of age. As always, the sensitive period is marked by several signs of readiness which may be different for each child. Montessori practitioners recognise the need to be attuned to each child’s individual needs when weaning, and the physiological and psychological importance of the weaning process. Weaning marks the beginning of a process of separation from the mother, as the child becomes aware of his independence and of his self as a separate entity. When the infant is able to sit up, shows an interest in eating the food of the family, and has begun teething, he is ready to begin the process of weaning. If care is taken to introduce solid food in a positive manner and to encourage the child’s independence, she will take the natural step of decreasing and eventually stopping milk feeds without the need for this process to be arbitrarily determined by the adult. The need for the mother will naturally be replaced with the child’s desire for independence, if care is taken to support and nurture the child first steps towards autonomy. Anne McNamara, in an article written for the NAMTA journal puts it plainly…”Montessorians need to guard against being influenced by our society’s preoccupation with freeing the mother from the baby instead of allowing the baby to free himself from the mother. Mothers need to be supported in letting their babies determine when and how long they need to nurse.

The third principle: Respond with Sensitivity
Build the foundation of trust and empathy beginning in infancy. Tune in to what your child is communicating to you, then respond consistently and appropriately. Babies cannot be expected to self-soothe, they need calm, loving, empathetic parents to help them learn to regulate their emotions. Respond sensitively to a child who is hurting or expressing strong emotion, and share in their joy.

The importance of this sensitive parenting is highlighted in Montessori’s emphasis on the earliest weeks of life. Assistants to Infancy help parents to become astute observers of their babies and in turn, to be able to respond to their babies’ communications of need in appropriate ways. Sensitive parenting in a Montessori Home requires that the parent learn to negotiate the fine line between offering assistance and becoming the child’s servant. Parents learn to watch their child first, before hastily stepping in, so that they can determine exactly what kind of help to offer the child so that his needs can be met, without undermining his belief in himself as a competent, and capable person in his own right. Dr Montessori spoke of the adult as acting as a ”necessary support for the child who, having lost control of himself momentarily, needs a strong support to which he can cling.” Rebeca Wild, author of Raising Curious, Creative, Confident Kids, affirms the need for empathy saying “To the same extent that they themselves feel loved and respected, they gain the ability to pass on this respect and this love to others, and to feel and fulfil the needs of others.”

The fourth principle: Use Nurturing Touch
Touch meets a baby’s needs for physical contact, affection, security, stimulation, and movement. Skin-to-skin contact is especially effective, such as during breastfeeding, bathing, or massage. Carrying or babywearing also meets this need while on the go. Hugs, snuggling, back rubs, massage, and physical play help meet this need in older children.

Dr Silvana Montanaro writes about the importance of touch in her book, Understanding the Human Being. She says of the symbiotic period (the first 6 to 8 weeks after birth) “the body contact in holding tells the child about the mother’s acceptance and attitude, and can provide great reassurance which will facilitate the passage to the new environment.” “A child can understand, through repeated, direct experiences with a loving parent, that the external world responds promptly to his needs for contact, stimulation and food. There is always an answer to his call and he can trust the environment, as represented by the mother.”
And of the importance of holding the child, “proper holding must convey to the child our joy for this intimacy, in addition to our love, respect and admiration for its being.” She cautions against making the decision to restrict a child’s movements though, stressing that children who have freedom of movement develop a basic faith in oneself, have self-confidence, a sense of independence and autonomy, as well as persistence and high self-esteem. So it follows that Montessori parents must recognise that the child’s need for touch must be balanced with their need for freedom of movement. This requires sensitive parenting and a desire to follow the child, not placing the needs of the adult above those of the developing baby. Carrying a baby and giving her time in her own space should never outweigh one another, but should be balanced and offered in accordance with her needs which she will communicate readily. The key lies in understanding and responding appropriately to her communications.

The fifth principle: Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
Babies and children have needs at night just as they do during the day; from hunger, loneliness, and fear, to feeling too hot or too cold. They rely on parents to soothe them and help them regulate their intense emotions. Sleep training techniques can have detrimental physiological and psychological effects. Safe co-sleeping has benefits to both babies and parents.

Maria Montessori was clear about the need to provide the infant with “a low couch resting practically upon the floor, where he can lie down and get up as he wishes”. Her thoughts on co-sleeping were not explicitly articulated.
Mary Matthews, a Montessori Assistant to Infancy, writes in an article for the NAMTA journal that, “a mattress on the floor permits the baby to move freely on the bed and between the bed and the floor. Should the child need to, she can call her parents or seek them. The child who has enjoyed symbiosis is confident that her parents will respond if she needs them.” Mary goes on to say though, “The child who sleeps in the family bed needs the presence of a parent to sleep comfortably. This created dependence cannot assist her.”
My opinion is that if the child is given the freedom of movement provided by a floor bed, and then chooses to leave that bed to sleep in a shared bed, that this is in fact reinforcing the autonomy and freedom of choice that we wish to cultivate in him through the provision of the floor bed. Anne McNamara (who writes in an article of response) shows us that our focus should not be on whether the child sleeps in his floor bed, or in a family bed, but rather that it should be on respect for the child’s freedom of choice. She points out that shared sleep might be considered by some to be “created dependence. But conversely, the separate child’s bed is created independence.”

The sixth principle: Provide Consistent and Loving Care
Babies and young children have an intense need for the physical presence of a consistent, loving, responsive caregiver: ideally a parent. If it becomes necessary, choose an alternate caregiver who has formed a bond with the child and who cares for him in a way that strengthens the attachment relationship. Keep schedules flexible, and minimize stress and fear during short separations.

The Montessori approach is about developing the “whole” child. Montessori parents need to create environments that nurture every aspect of their child’s development. It is often easier to focus on intellectual development, since this involves things we can see and touch – learning objects. But creating safe spaces in which your child’s emotional needs are met, is vital to the development of healthy future relationships. Dr Jill Stamm, in Bright from the Start, says that “your baby depends biologically on your responsiveness. Though he was born with the capabilities for joy, sadness, fear and many other feelings, he needs help regulating these emotional states so that they don’t overwhelm his system.”

We should also take care in recognizing that the process of separation is precisely that, a process. It does not happen instantaneously on the first day that the child spends away from his parents. Separation viewed through Montessori philosophy takes place on a number of levels, beginning with birth, in which the child separates from the protected environment of the womb, and attaches to the world of life; weaning, in which he separates from the breast as a source of food and attaches to the food of the family and self-feeding; movement, in which the child slithers, rolls, crawls, cruises and walks in incremental steps away from the mother, and attaches to the immediate environment of the home; and the period of self-affirmation in which the child declares himself autonomous and capable of independent living.

The seventh principle: Practice Positive Discipline
Judi Orion, a Montessori Assistant to Infancy Trainer says, “What we have to be careful about here is not to confuse this need for independence, and our desire for them to be independent, with their simultaneous need to be nurtured. Just because they can do things doesn’t mean they don’t need nurturing. Sometimes we push independence at the expense of nurturing. I think we always need to keep that in balance.”

Positive discipline helps a child develop a conscience guided by his own internal discipline and compassion for others. Discipline that is empathetic, loving, and respectful strengthens the connection between parent and child. Rather than reacting to behaviour, discover the needs leading to the behaviour. Communicate and craft solutions together while keeping everyone’s dignity intact.

Dr Montessori spoke very eloquently on the topic of discipline. Her idea of discipline was not that of an external condition imposed on the child from outside, but that it is a natural state which grows and develops from within the child, just like any other conquest of development in childhood. According to Montessori theory there are three stages in the development of self-discipline. Stage one is when the child is only able to obey the internal impulses that drive him, even they put him at odds with those around him. (think of a baby who continues to reach out and touch something even when he has been told not to a number of times. The baby is not being deliberate in his ‘disobedience’, he is simply doing what he instincts are driving him to do – explore his environment – even if those drives don’t match up with the requests of his parents). Stage two is when the child is able to suppress his inner drive in order to comply with an external request – that is, he is mostly able to do what is asked of him since his desire to be part of the social group overrides his instinctual drives.

The third stage is when the child obeys joyfully. He has transcended the state of development where he obeys because of an external request – he does the right thing because it is right, not because someone has told him to do it. This stage of discipline is only reached under a specific set of circumstances – where the child is given the freedom to develop his will. Too often parents believe that in order to raise an obedient child, they must ‘break’ his will. But Montessori believed that in order to reach the third stage of self-discipline, the child’s ability to choose must be fostered – and this can only happen in a loving and supportive environment, where children are given freedom to act within clearly defined boundaries.

“Discipline and freedom are so co-related that, if there is some lack of discipline, the cause is to be found in some lack of freedom. To obtain discipline, it is quite useless to count on reprimands or spoken exhortations. Such means might perhaps at the beginning have an appearance of efficacy, but after a while cease to have any effect.” – Maria Montessori

Essentially, misbehavior is the expression of the lack of freedom to meet one’s needs. Authoritarian behaviour on the part of the parents is not likely to create a situation in which a child’s natural state of true self-discipline can be established. Children need loving guidance and a nurturing environment in which to develop their will – which will allow them to be in control of themselves.

The eighth principle: Strive for Balance in Personal and Family Life
It is easier to be emotionally responsive when you feel in balance. Create a support network, set realistic goals, put people before things, and don’t be afraid to say “no”. Recognize individual needs within the family and meet them to the greatest extent possible without compromising your physical and emotional health. Be creative, have fun with parenting, and take time to care for yourself.

I guess this one speaks for itself. Montessori theory has three essential components as it were: the child, the prepared environment and the prepared adult. She says that “The starting preparation demanded of a Montessori adult is that he or she should examine himself, and become humble, and to ask in what manner does he consider the child?” – The Secret of Childhood.
Dr. Montessori says that the child ‘must be protected by an external environment animated by the warmth of love, and the richness of value, where he is wholly accepted’ – The Child in the Family.
P. Donohue Shortridge says, “If it is the child’s job to construct the adult he is to uniquely become, then it is incumbent upon the adult to facilitate that growth rather than to impose her own will on him. The Montessori adult willingly relinquishes her own agenda for the child and instead learns from him what he needs next from the adult and from the environment and faithfully provides it. Fundamentally, the adult removes external obstacles to the child’s learning which are ironically often precipitated by the adults themselves.”
And in Maria Montessori’s words once again, “The truly great authority and dignity of parents rests solely upon the help they are able to give their children in building themselves. The child can only build well if this help is given in a suitable way.” – The Absorbent Mind

It stands to reason that parents can only offer suitable help to their children, and can only relinquish their own agenda, whilst maintaining a loving and wholly accepting environment when they themselves are nurtured, respected and part of a support network. I would encourage Montessori parents to spend time within their Montessori circles, building relationships with like-minded families so that they might have assistance in the important task of parenting. It takes courage to allow your child’s voice to be heard and to answer its call in a manner that can only feel right for you. A strong attachment between parent and child is very necessary and undoubtedly this is the aim of proponents of Attachment Parenting, but the potential that the Montessori philosophy has for nurturing those connections for life is untold.

Further Reading:

The author of this piece has also written a blog post, The Crises of Development. Please visit this page.