This article talks about the newborn in terms of a full-term birth. For premature birth, there are other situations and circumstances to consider as well.
In Montessori philosophy, we describe the first 6-8 weeks of a child’s life as the symbiotic period. We call it the ‘symbiotic’ period because the word describes a situation where two living beings need each other for mutual benefit, the relationship “is necessary for the continuation and the quality of each of their lives (Montanaro, pg. 28). New human babies depend on others for survival and the hormones released during birth and the postpartum period cause parents to be biologically prepared for a baby. This is a time designed by nature for bonding, attachment, and collaboration.
During this period, parents are getting to know their newest addition and are adjusting to life accordingly. Whether it is your first child or fifth, the symbiotic period still exists and is important to development! The most important part of a newborn’s environment is the humans around them.
So, how do we provide support to newborns in the Montessori pedagogy?
Building Trust through Respect and Response
We respect infants from birth by communicating with them and working WITH them during care routines. We speak to the infant to let them know what is happening, pause and offer processing time, and encourage them to help us with the care processes to show respect to the infant, treat them as a capable human from birth, and build trust.
Here is an example of how to use language when picking up or moving your baby: “I am going to pick you up now. (leave a few seconds for the infant to process) Ready... 1, 2, 3” And you can also add: “Can you help me move your body/turn your hips/lift your legs/etc.?”
Building trust also includes being consistent in the way we diaper, feed, hold, and assist the baby in sleep so it is predictable and comforting. Newborns don’t have consistent eating or sleeping schedules as their bodies initially hold a small amount of milk and circadian rhythms are not established. This means that newborns might nap for 20 minutes or 2 hours and both are typical. This begins to change as newborns have more world experience. Because there is not a consistent schedule, the way we do daily routines becomes one of the important ways to establish order. No matter when we are eating or sleeping, we are going through the same steps.
We also build trust through promptly and consistently responding to the infant’s cues and cries. When we respond to cries by gently speaking to the infant, rubbing their back, or picking them up (or a combo of all three), we are telling them that their words matter, people care about them, and the world is a safe place they can trust. Sometimes people believe by consistently responding to infants it can ‘spoil’ them or create a dependency. Science and attachment research has proved that consistent and positive responses to infants help them build secure attachments. Newborns are dependent on others for survival and need human connection for healthy brain development. You don’t have to ignore your baby crying to help them become ‘independent’, in fact, responding to your baby helps them feel safe and secure in their environment which will lead to later independence.
Newborns who enter the world able to hear are already attuned to the sound of voices compared to sounds of cars and animals. Because hearing is developed in utero, newborns enter the world prepared to absorb their language(s). We should read, sing, and speak to newborns because their brains are craving this kind of stimulation!
Points of Reference (POR)
Points of reference, which are consistent elements that are familiar to the newborn, which help with developing trust, a sense of order, and routine. Points of reference are initially both internal and external, as they offer the infant reminders of their first prepared environment- the womb.
External prenatal POR are the birthing parent’s voice, smell, heartbeat rhythms, and other things that remind the newborn of their experience in utero. If special books were read or songs were played for the infant in utero, they will recognize them after birth and find it soothing! Internal prenatal POR include the muscle memory of sucking the thumb, touching the face, and stretching/kicking.
Then the infant begins to establish new reference points as they adapt to their new environment (which is done through the consistent caregiving mentioned in the above support). Infants will begin to recognize and associate certain things and areas of the home with specific care routines. They will learn the voices of the other people around them and the sounds of things often heard in their environment.
When newborns are born, they have different sets of reflexes. Some reflexes have an evolutionary basis from when we lived as hunters and gatherers. These reflexes still exist because the part of the brain that develops first is our reptilian brain, which controls our most primitive instincts and desires. These reflexes will go away on their own over time. Some parents like to offer their fingers to their newborns so they can grasp it. This grasping is not yet intentional but can still be used for connection. The startle reflex is another one that can affect a newborn’s sleep and can sometimes be soothed by swaddling to mimic the closeness of the womb.
Even at a few weeks old, newborns enjoy spending time observing their environment and stretching their limbs. We can support this by offering the newborn a flat, firm surface to practice stretching and moving. A topponcino can be used as an added comfort during floor time, as it offers a sense of familiarity and closeness while infants are in open-space. Some families also choose to use a sheepskin rug for their infants in their activity space to provide warmth if the floor is cool.
We offer opportunities to stretch muscles and spend time on the floor when the infant is alert, awake, and content, in an area separate from where the infant sleeps.
Development of the Sense of Sight
When newborns are born, almost all their senses are fully developed! The last sense to fully develop is eyesight. The way sight develops is directly linked to the fact our brains are wired for social connection. At birth, newborns can see between 8-12" (about the distance between the nipple and face) and prefer to look at faces, even being able to map faces by 1-2 months old. I love sharing this picture with parents to illustrate what the development of eyesight looks like over the first year of life.
Photo from Laser Mom Blog via Tiny Eyes Website
Because newborns are still developing their eyesight, we offer black and white/high-contrast images so the newborn can begin to focus their eyes and practice concentration. The first Montessori material we offer to a newborn is the Munari Mobile and this material is offered from around 2 weeks until around 4-6 weeks. The Munari mobile is the first in a series of 4 visual mobiles we typically use in Montessori settings. In the newborn period, we also might offer the Octahedron mobile, which is 3-D diamond shapes in the primary colors to offer the newborn to practice tracking objects with a contrast more subtle contrast than black and white but still prominent. We offer these mobiles when the infant is alert, awake, and content, in an area separate from where the infant sleeps.
Aids to Development pictured for the Symbiotic Period: talking/singing to the infant, floormat, Munari mobile, Gobbi mobile
This picture is of the psychomotor timeline that I did in my Infant and Toddler Montessori Training. The timeline illustrates the development of the equilibrium (top blue line and babies) and the hand (bottom red line and hands). In the middle, there are different aids to development (materials).
If you would like to know more about materials for newborns, you can check out my links to materials page or these great resources below:
The Kavanaugh Report- http://www.thekavanaughreport.com/2018/12/montessori-friendly-play-visual.html
The Montessori Notebook- https://www.themontessorinotebook.com/montessori-activities-for-babies-toddlers-and-preschoolers/
This is the book I referred to, The Understanding of the Human Being. It is written by Dr. Silvana Montanaro, who is one of the creators of the Assistance to Infancy training. This book has some great information, all though some of it is outdated, reliant on gender norms, and does not consider diverse family structures. This is the only place I have been able to find it consistently- https://www.nienhuis.com/us/en/understanding-the-human-being-nienhuis-montessori-usa/product/5131/