Some of Montessori’s writings are poetic. Some are inspirational. Some are cautionary. When she writes about the life of the newborn child, she offers us both hope and criticism: hope in the transformative nature of this often overlooked window of development and criticism for the ways in which we sometimes receive it.
The newborn, lacking the capacity for coordinated movement or complex communication, is easy to romanticize, to simplify into syrupy descriptions of their cherubic nature. Montessori reminds us, though, that, while adorable and endearing, newborns are nonetheless hard at the work of incarnation, constructing their own conclusions about the environment around them and their role within it.
This is a period of development that requires precise observation. That a child may be sleeping (or appear to be sleeping) for hours a day does not mean they are not experiencing or processing their new world. That their cries are quieted by food or comfort does not mean that they are making equally simple conclusions about cause and effect. That we can carry them about and move them where we choose does not mean they are objects, waiting some later, second birth into consciousness.
The newborn’s mobility and communication skills (or lack thereof) are not proof of an absence of effort, but of the internal focus of that effort. Newborns, Montessori reminds us, are responding to the rapid and intense change in their physical environment, to the “terror” of birth, and learning, in the process of that recovery, whether the world in which they’ve landed is healthy for them, whether their needs will be met, whether it’s safe to “wake up.”
It is simultaneously the most important window of development and the easiest to get right.
We don’t need all the stuff.
We don’t need apparatus.
We don’t need expert interventions, or schedules developed by far-off-nutritionists or sleep-scholars. We don’t need mechanical furniture to move them or swing them or bounce them up and down.
We need only watch, notice and respond. Offer them a quiet place for recovery and stasis. Hold them when they need holding. Speak softly. Let them set the pace of the day. It is a fallacy to think that we need to “train” infants to a schedule. They have a schedule already, driven by their individual needs and agency. And when we force them into a system outside of that energy, we teach them early that the world is not made for them, but that their needs will be met as they are convenient to the adults around them. We teach them that sometimes they will need to eat when they are not hungry or sleep when they are not tired, that they will need to go hungry if their hunger isn’t on schedule or cry alone if their need for warmth conflicts with their parents’ alarms. We teach them that, in addition to the trauma of birth, the radical change in the environment that surrounds them, they will need to endure other noises and smells and touches, bright lights and brash colors. And then we are surprised when we struggle to console them.
Wee need only watch, notice and respond, to offer them a quiet place for recovery and stasis, to hold them when they need holding, to speak softly, touch them gently, and follow their needs, to assure them that, though there is, indeed, a new world to which to adjust, a new environment with new stimuli, there is comfort and response. There is love, demonstrated not through the oversimplification of their needs or the overstimulation of their minds, but through the simple symbiosis of parent and child, the only phenomenon from before their births that we can guarantee to them afterward, that they will be safe, warm, and loved, until they are ready to initiate what is next to come.
* A response to Chapter 7 The Psycho-embryonic Life The Absorbent Mind. M. Montessori