I Am Capable! Nurturing Independence in Infants

A look at Guidepost Montessori’s approach to helping infants from 6 weeks to 16 months old achieve independence, + 5 tips for nurturing independence at home

Infancy is a time of rapid development and change. From the moment a baby is born, she starts learning about her world and increasing her ability to be independent in it. Almost overnight, then, she makes amazing progress. She suddenly starts rolling over, goes from crawling to walking, or says her first words. It can be hard to keep up with all the leaps forward!

At the same time, she is greeted at birth with a whole host of sights, sounds, and experiences. The world and all of its complexity is completely new to her, and she is slowly working to make sense of it all.

Like toddlers and preschoolers, infants are most focused on building functional independence. They’re intent on building the basic skills they need to navigate the world as independent people. Infants, in particular, are interested in understanding and orienting themselves to their new environment and gaining mastery over their own bodies.

1. Independence in an intelligible world

From the moment a child is born, he begins taking in details from the environment and using them to craft his mind, character, and abilities. He has an absorbent mind and engages with the world—looking closely, grasping objects, crawling,and babbling—so he can orient himself toward it. And significantly,with each interaction and experience the child has, he begins to come to life-shaping conclusions. Gradually, he decides whether the world is safe, predictable, and interesting, and whether he is capable and can be successful in it.

In our Montessori infant environments, whether in an on-campus Nido or an in-home Picco, one of our most important goals is to help each child develop a basic sense of trust—in his caregivers, in himself, and in the exciting world in which he was born.It is based on this foundation of trust that the child can feel comfortable and confident enough to begin building his independence.

Each Guidepost classroom or home environment is designed, therefore, to provide the child with a sense of order and structure so that he can make connections and build a familiar frame of reference. The room is organized and simple, with objects for his exploration placed in a consistent location on shelves low to the ground where he can access them. These objects are designed to captivate his attention, inviting him to explore and pursue them—all the while communicating to him that the world is interesting and it’s worthwhile to be active in it.

Similarly, Guidepost guides create predictability in the daily routines. The child’s natural sleep and feeding schedules are followed, while the routines for where and how these activities occur are kept consistent and predictable. Over time, the child gains the ability to anticipate and predict the events in his world. And he delights in his new ability! He delights in knowing that, when his diaper is changed, it always happens in a particular place, in a particular way, and with guides who always use the same language to describe what’s happening. He delights in knowing where to find things in his environment and how to explore it freely.

With each experience, the child encounters a world that is intelligible to him, and this gives him the confidence he needs to begin acting independently in it.

2. Independence through coordinated movement

Infants are deeply fascinated with the work of learning how to coordinate their bodies. A child can find so much joy simply in discovering her own hands, feet, or a new ability to roll over or sit up on her own. Once a new way of coordinating is apparent to a child, she’ll want to repeat the action again and again until she has full command over her movements.

Infants are also eager to challenge themselves. They don’t just want to crawl, but to crawl on inclined surfaces and up and down stairs. They don’t just want to pull themselves up, but to shuffle from chair to chair while holding themselves upright.

In our Guidepost infant environments, infants are provided with ample space, opportunity, and freedom to move. Where possible, baby holding devices that restrict movement, like walkers, cribs, and highchairs, are avoided. In their place, children are given the freedom to move freely—to crawl in and out of floor beds, to walk unimpeded, and to sit on infant-sized chairs at infant-sized tables.

In addition, children are provided with objects that encourage movement and pieces of furniture that empower practice. Young infants that are just crawling, for example, are given objects like interlocking discs which roll in interesting ways and encourage the child to crawl after it. Older infants are provided with pull-up bars in front of mirrors that allow them to practice standing, and later on they’re provided with furniture, like the piece pictured below, which encourages coordinated walking.

Given the space, encouragement, and materials to empower practice,infants can use their eagerness to gain mastery over their bodies. And it is this hard-earned mastery that cultivates a child’s self-confidence and propels them forward to greater and greater achievements of independence.

3. Independence in recognizing and meeting one’s own needs

Just like older children, infants are eager to imitate the adults in their lives by completing practical tasks. It may not seem like they would be able to accomplish as many practical tasks on their own like older toddlers and preschoolers can, but they are far more capable than we often assume.

When we observe closely, take note of the gradual skill development we see, and think creatively, we can invite the child to participate more and more in the practical tasks that involve them. For example, when a child is able to sit up on her own independently, a whole host of new possibilities open up. At this point, it is possible to include sitting on a tiny potty as part of the diaper changing routing or sitting at a weaning table to learn how to self-feed.

In our Guidepost infant environments, children are supported so that, as soon as they’re ready, they are able to deepen their coordination and skill development in meaningful ways.For example,they are provided with floor beds so that, once they’re mobile, they can crawl into and out of bed on their own. Once they start eating solid foods and can sit up independently, they sit at infant weaning tables, drink out of tiny glasses, and use infant-sized silverware.Over time, they take an increasingly independent role in diaper changes and dressing themselves, learning how to pick out a new diaper, use wipes, pull apart velcro, and sit on the potty chair as part of their diaper routine.

An infant who is provided an environment that is consistent, orderly, and spacious, gradually learns to make connections and anticipate the things that will happen to him. An infant who is given ample opportunity and encouragement to move his body and coordinate his hands, gradually develops self-mastery and the confidence that comes with it. And the infant who takes a progressively expanding role over meeting his own needs, comes to see persistence as valuable and himself as capable. The independence and abilities that an infant gains in doing these activities helps him build a strong foundation which he’ll continue to build on as he progresses towards ever-greater and more ambitious challenges.

5 tips for nurturing independence in infants:

  1. Create a safe, organized environment. Many Montessori parents, for example, create a nursery that is simplified, beautiful, and completely baby-proofed so their child can begin to make sense of her space and explore it freely.
  2. Create consistent routines. Having a particular nap and bedtime routine, diaper change routine, and feeding routine can help your child feel more in control by allowing him to anticipate and predict what will happen to him.
  3. Sportscast your actions. Long before your child can speak, she can understand some of what she hears. By using rich language to explain what we’re doing as we do it, called “sportscasting,” the child can begin to connect her experiences to spoken language and understand what is happening.
  4. Invite participation as soon as they’re able. Once your child can intentionally hold and release objects, he can “hand” you a fresh wipe or diaper during the diaper change process. This involvement is incredibly meaningful, while also giving your child an opportunity to build independence.
  5. Provide opportunities for movement. Crawling across the room, climbing inclines and stairs, scooting from couch to chair are all deeply motivating activities for a young child and offer another opportunity for her to build self-mastery over her own movements.