Montessori for Babies: A Complete Beginner’s Guide
This guide provides a comprehensive overview of which Montessori principles can be applied from birth and why they're beneficial
Today, more families are discovering Montessori as a means to support children’s development with an evidence-based lens, adopting principles that prioritize respectful communication, meaningful engagement, and independence. In this guide, we will give a comprehensive overview of which Montessori principles can be applied from birth and why these principles bring both immediate and long-term benefits.
What is Montessori
Montessori is a 150-year-old method of education that is growing around the world to this day. Its founder, Dr. Maria Montessori, was a practicing physician, scientist, and educator. Her work dispelled the notion that children are “formed beings” ready to reel-off knowledge bestowed upon them by an all-knowing adult. Furthermore, she found that children acquire and retain knowledge far more meaningfully when the adult is no longer leading that exchange. Instead, she advocated for us to “follow the child” after uncovering how capable children are when provided with an environment that activates their curiosity, agency, and concentration.
She believed the first 24 years of life were crucial to support children in becoming well-adjusted citizens of their time and place. She called on parents and educators to more deeply respect learning as the natural process that it is – one that “must begin at birth.”
Why Montessori from Birth
To understand Montessori from birth, we must let go of traditional attitudes towards education. This is a model that honors learning as it intersects with living, where the goal is to help each child realize their full potential.
“The education of even a small child, therefore, does not aim at preparing him for school, but for life. – Maria Montessori ”
Babies are wired to learn through their senses: the scent of mom, the sound of the birds, the sight of bright lights, and the touch of the grass. Montessori advocated for us to recognize this sensorial processing with greater awe and intent. While it is true that babies are heavily dependent on our caregiving – from one diaper change and feeding to the next – it is also true that they are astonishingly capable. We see this with the rapid development of expressive language and movement skills – going from supine to walking, crying to speaking, all at their own lead.
The “why” is simply the acknowledgment that we as parents have a crucial role in our baby’s development – one that supports their capabilities, not just their dependencies. It’s not just our children who stand to gain; we do too. By learning how our children learn, we empower ourselves to move away from reactive overwhelm to proactive connection – achieving a state of peace, love, purpose, and respect.
The Role of a Montessori Parent
Montessori addressed parents during the 1930s when her method grew in popularity.
“It is tremendously important that we should understand the spontaneous way in which the child develops himself. We are so anxious to help, to us it seems the burden of growth and development is so great that we must do all we can to make the pathway easy. And so, our love may easily overreach itself, and by providing too many urges, too many cautions and corrections, turn the child from the natural path of his development and cause his energy to be diverted. – From the article collection Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents”
This still resonates. Offering our support with respect to a child’s agency is a timeless balancing act. Our role is to guide, not to direct.
Applying Montessori Principles at Birth
To better understand how babies are capable, we must acknowledge the human tendencies that Montessori wrote about. These are natural drives we all have, such as our most basic need for safety. But there are more that we experience from birth: orientation, association with others, communication, exploration. Our babies are biologically wired to adapt to their surroundings by acting on these drives that help them make sense of the world.
Montessori also discovered two distinct abilities of early childhood that work in tandem with these natural drives: the absorbent mind and the sensitive learning periods – both of which occur at birth but only until the age of six.
1. The Absorbent Mind: Infants and young children share a time-sensitive “absorbent mind,” where the capacity to learn is as effortless as it will ever be. Often compared to a sponge, babies can soak up knowledge around them just by being in their environment. Conscious learning doesn’t kick in until around age three, and before that, we are “unconscious learners.” We can’t remember learning during this time, but we know that it is foundational.
“The things he sees are not just remembered; they form a part of his soul. – Maria Montessori”
2. Sensitive Periods: These are times of intense interest in acquiring particular skills, like language, order, movement, and social relations. During these windows, babies and young children are intrinsically driven to master related skills. If we overreach with our own agendas or miss these windows, it can make learning – and parenting – harder than it needs to be.
Thus, when we talk about treating our babies as capable, this is what we mean. The power to learn comes from within – it’s not on us to lead.
Baby’s First Prepared Environment
If practicing Montessori is about respect for the child, and not the stuff, why is the Prepared Environment such a focal point? The Prepared Environment is the Montessori way of intentionally setting up a child’s space so that the child can feel purposeful, capable and connected.
Young children are constantly getting feedback from their surroundings. If your workspace is calm and organized, you feel more focused. The same relationship exists for babies and children but with even greater sensitivity due to their absorbent minds. Hence, preparing their space purposefully – free of excess and with a clear invitation for self-discovery – is the cornerstone for practicing Montessori.
This often gets conflated with needing to buy stuff, which is a misconception. Your baby’s first Prepared Environment is a framework to help them orient, explore, and act on those inner drives. You can achieve this goal without materialistic items.
A prepared Montessori space facilitates:
- Freedom within limits: the room is safe and accessible so that the child can be independent.
- Structure and order: the room is uncluttered, logical and age-appropriate so that they can orient to their surroundings and concentrate.
- Reality, nature, and beauty: the room is interesting, and it does not relegate the child to “pretend only,” but showcases elements of the real world.
A Montessori Nursery
Unlike a traditional nursery designed around the parents, a Montessori nursery is designed around the baby. Many Montessori families leave open floor space where the baby can safely play and move, rather than filling the walls with adult-sized furniture. Artwork and mobiles are lowered to the baby’s eye level. Even the sleep surface is lowered, with preference given to a floor bed in place of a crib.
A Montessori nursery is a flexible space that evolves with the baby’s capabilities. It typically entails:
- A floor bed
- Muted, calm colors
- Artwork hung low (with imagery that reflects reality)
- A rug or play mat for floor time
- A low mirror for visibility of the room and eventual care of self
- A basket or front-facing display for books
Freedom of Movement
We also need to prepare for baby’s wakeful space. While baby gear is the default today, it is too restrictive for their developing mobility. From birth, the desire to move is purposeful and is one of the sensitive learning periods. Motor milestones progress from head to toe as part of the body’s development with the nervous system. Though this process occurs naturally, cultivating opportunities for babies to move helps them gain related strength and coordination.
There are benefits to free movement beyond motor skills. Instead of placing baby into something that offers the same experience every time, like a jumper, you place baby in an open, but defined space called a movement area. Here, the baby gets to choose how to move and what to explore, all within the safe limits of what you’ve made available.
This self-directed exploration means the baby is an active participant – not just a passive observer. This builds their confidence and ability to concentrate, planting the seeds for independent play, thus, better supporting a parent’s need to be “hands free” in the long run. They internalize the message, “I can do this,” when we respect their first moments of play as their own.
A Note on Clothing:
In the womb, babies have free access to their hands and feet. Instead of immediately swaddling baby down, covering their hands with mittens and feet with socks, we can skip those restrictive clothing items all together. The outfits we choose throughout all stages of their motor development should be practical and properly fitting. Non-restrictive clothing minimizes frustration with their first movements and sets them up for success with respect to freedom of movement. If we place our baby down at a time when they are working to crawl, for example, but they are wearing a dress that catches their knees, then we have added an obstacle for them. Too many obstacles can lower their self-motivation.
A Montessori Baby Registry
A Montessori-compatible baby registry looks different than a traditional baby registry. The point of considering alternatives to purchase is to support free movement, independence, and meaningful engagement – but these purchases are not required to practice Montessori.
Some common items found on a Montessori baby registry include:
Topponcino: This is a thin, flat infant security pillow. Its purpose is to aid in the baby’s transition from womb to world. Consider how many different places a baby will go after birth –– from dad’s arms to a changing pad, bassinet, pediatrician’s office. These surfaces are unfamiliar and can be startling. This pillow helps the baby acclimate with a warm, consistent touch.
Movement Area: Montessori families will define a space in the home where baby can move freely as an alternative to baby gear. This consists of:
- A low shelf or baskets to hold toys
- A mirror to give visibility of the room
- A mat or rug to define the space. It’s helpful for the rug to be solid in color or with a simple pattern so that the baby can better focus on the toys that will end up on it
- A wall hook or play gym to hang mobiles
Montessori Mobiles: Montessori visual and tactile mobiles support baby’s developing vision and coordination skills during the first four months. While a traditional mobile is offered as a stationary decoration – out of reach over the crib – the Montessori mobiles are seen as baby’s first work. They are offered at the baby’s level during wakeful periods, generally in their movement area and separate from their sleep space.
The Truth About Montessori Baby Toys
Montessori developed learning materials that had specific characteristics to emphasize hands-on, self-directed exploration in the classroom, but the modern spin of “Montessori toys” is driven by consumerism and isn’t always authentic to principles of the pedagogy. That said, there are certain qualities you can look for that will support a Montessori approach with baby’s first play:
- Is it an “active” or “passive” toy? Montessori-aligned toys are “passive” in order to promote activity, as opposed to being “active” and promoting passive entertainment. Battery-operated, tech-enabled toys, for example, often ask the child to sit and watch – making the child an observer. The child should be the one playing; not the toy.
- Does it isolate the senses? Montessori found it important to isolate sensory experiences, not combine them. Toys like busy boards or activity centers that have multiple components can be overstimulating. The less busy something is, the deeper your child will be able to engage – just like how we close our eyes when trying to smell a flower.
- Is it realistic? Toys and books largely emphasize fantasy and cartoon-like imagery, but Montessori found that young children craved a strong exposure to reality due to those biological drives aimed at orientation.
- Is it breakable? Wood, metal, and even breakable glass are preferred over plastic. Montessori found that children more readily care for their belongings when given responsibility to do so. When we shield them from the natural consequences of damaging something, we also minimize the learning opportunity to respect valuables.
Baby Milestones to Know
Knowing what to expect in the first year can help both you and your baby thrive.
A newborn sleeps up to 18 hours in a 24-hour period, with no circadian rhythm to distinguish night from day. At birth, your baby’s movements are driven by automatic reflexes, and vision is limited. Crying and fussiness will peak around month two, but by three months, emerging rhythms bring more stability, as well as exciting new capabilities from improved vision and stronger motor skills.
What you can do: It can be helpful to think of those absorbent minds and simplify baby’s first experiences to prevent overstimulation.
- Offer high-contrast imagery and the Montessori visual mobile series, with understanding that engagement may only be a few minutes at first.
- By the end of this period, you may notice their ability to engage lasts longer. Try not to interrupt their increasing concentration.
- Slow down your daily movements. Looking at your face, listening to your voice, and studying home surroundings is likely far more interesting than any structured activity or toy.
Play emerges! Your baby can move with more intent and coordination. They can see greater distances and may enjoy bright colors and complex patterns. They can intentionally hold, grasp, and bring objects to their mouth. Toys like rattles, grasping beads, and various tactile items are ideal for practicing their new movements. Babies at this age also thrive with more predictable daily routines.
What you can do: Offer plenty of time and open space for uninterrupted movement.
- Replace visual mobiles with more challenging tactile mobiles, such as the “wooden ring on a ribbon” where they track and grasp the ring.
- They may express frustration when a toy or object of interest rolls just out of reach. Allow them time to reach it if they show determination rather than eliminating the challenge too quickly.
- Let them choose toys by placing options within their reach, rather than assuming what they want and bringing it to them.
Sensorial learning booms during these months, thanks to big strides in gross and fine motor development. Babies will often begin to sit unassisted. They can see better too, as their vision is almost comparable to an adult’s. By eight to nine months, babies gain more precise use of their fingers with the “pincer grasp,” or the ability to pick up objects with the thumb and index finger. Despite these strides, they may also react more cautiously with the onset of separation anxiety.
What you can do: Refresh and evolve their space to allow for increasingly challenging movements.
- Cushions or floor poufs can invite a new spin on gross motor movement, as well as a Montessori pull-up bar where they can begin to reach, pull up, and eventually stand.
- By eight to nine months, you can introduce toys that invite them to use both hands and engage in more hand-eye coordination, as well as toys that offer “object permanence,” or the notion that something still exists even if it goes behind, into, or under something else. The Montessori “object permanence box” satisfies this by inviting the baby to push a wooden ball through a hole at the top, only to find that the ball reappears at the bottom.
- Per your baby’s readiness, you can introduce first sips of water in a weaning glass as well as first solid foods.
Your baby’s drive for independence is increasingly apparent, and their fast-developing mobility is a reminder that toddlerhood isn’t too far around the corner. Many babies will be able to stand, crawl and even take their first steps during these months, while also taking strides in self-feeding skills with meals. Communication feels much more two-way, and they reciprocate socially with gestures like pointing, waving, clapping, and speaking first words.
What you can do: A baby on the move signals baby-proofing! This is a great time to evaluate overall inclusion in the family and ensure that they have new freedoms, not just limits. Where you may have a shelf or baskets prepared, the notion of a Montessori work cycle likely won’t be of interest until at least 18 months old.
- Their defined movement area becomes less important now that they are mobile, so consider ways to safely include them beyond that area.
- Ensure that their environment has not grown overstimulating now that they can reach things more readily. If they are dumping or beginning destructive behaviors, it may be a sign that too much is available.
- Cultivate ways for them to connect directly with the real, natural world while they are in this heightened stage of sensorial learning.
How to Engage with Your Baby
How we connect with our children is just as important as how they connect to their environment. There are several Montessori principles that can guide our interactions – ensuring we are not authoritatively overriding but also not permissively overlooking.
By pausing intentionally to notice our babies in different moments throughout the day, we will better understand where they are in their development. When do they seem ready to sleep? When do they seem most eager to move? Are they more interested in kicking their legs or batting their arms? What seems to frustrate them? What catches their interest? This kind of curiosity is the crux of following the child, as opposed to building your days together in a top-down, adult-led manner.
- Observation: “I noticed you started opening and closing your hand this week, and so I’m going to offer you this rattle now that I know you can grasp.”
Montessori emphasizes encouragement in place of praise. Praise is an external motivator, where the child grows accustomed to seeking outside approval on work that they’ve done. Re-phrasing our excitement over their work in a way that focuses on their effort fosters self-motivation. We can encourage our babies even if they aren’t able to talk yet.
- Praise: “Good job crawling!”
- Encouragement: “I saw how determined you were to move across the room! You must feel strong!”
Cooperation and Consent
Montessori invites us to emphasize our baby’s capabilities by treating caregiving needs as something we do with them, not as something that happens to them. When your baby is a newborn, this starts with slowing down and saying out loud what you are doing. As they get older, you can invite their participation and seek consent in what happens to their body.
- “I see you are crying, and I noticed that your diaper is wet. Let’s go to your changing mat. I’m going to take off your dirty diaper. Now, let’s put a clean, dry diaper back on.”
- “Would you like to help get dressed by pulling up your own pants?
- “May I pick you up?”
- “Would you like to try more sweet potato?”
Honest and Factual
Since we know our babies and young children are working overtime to analyze how the world works, we do not communicate with explanations that seek to distract, redirect, or “dumb down” the information available.
- “We are going to the doctor. Today, you will be getting a shot. It will feel like a poke on your skin. I will be next to you and can hold you when the nurse is done.”
Real, rich language
Since they are in a sensitive window for language, we intentionally use clear pronunciation and do not shy away from big words or rich descriptions. We would also avoid nicknames for body parts and everyday vocabulary, which only serves to confuse them.
- Water is not “wawa,” it is “water.”
A Note on Sleep
There is no specific Montessori way to approach sleep, but we can proceed with principles of respectful communication, structured routines and age-appropriate independence. In our Nido communities, Montessori guides observe sleep queues to help transition babies from play to sleep, and careful attention is given to preparing a calm sleep space. A baby is not trained to “cry it out,” because the concept of independence in Montessori is not adult-constructed – it follow’s the child’s readiness by meeting their individual needs.
A Note on Introducing Solids
You can support independence with meals from the first bite! Here’s how to setup a Montessori mealtime environment:
- A weaning table and chair. This is smaller than a toddler table and chair set, specifically designed for babies as young as six months old.
- If you prefer a highchair, consider one designed with steps where your child can eventually climb in and out independently.
- Try pull-over bibs instead of ones that snap or Velcro so that your baby can do it as they’re capable.
- Introduce open cups for baby’s first sips of water.
- Offer breakable plates and real silverware to provide the child feedback on how to use and care for these. It is okay to wait to introduce breakables until you feel ready to calmly guide the use of these.
When introducing food, the focus should be self-feeding rather than controlled feeding. Babies can learn to use a spoon independently, and they should have a say over what and how much goes into their bodies. They are allowed to dislike something, and they should not have to finish a serving if they are expressing that they are done.
A Note on Standup Diapering
When your baby can stand, you can try standup diapering! This is simply a way of more intentionally involving baby in care of self. You can define a space, preferably in the bathroom as part of their association with toilet learning, where you consistently bring them to change. Baby can stand against a wall or hold onto a small pull-up bar, and they can help un-dress, clean and re-dress. It’s helpful to have a low mirror, as well as a small trash can where they can place the dirty diaper.
In Montessori, learning to use the toilet is something that culminates after plenty of time spent gaining various self-care skills – which begins as a baby with steps to participate like this. These steps are not offered all at once, but rather, match the baby’s current capabilities and interests. For example, a baby who just mastered standing may simply stand and watch in a mirror, but by 12 months, they may be ready to do additional steps like helping to undress.
Where to Learn More
- A Master List of Montessori terms: The Montessori Glossary
The Prepared Montessorian Courses:
When all of these elements come together, Montessori from birth becomes less of an external thing we “add” and simply an intrinsic way of life. It fuses our love and adoration for our children with a deep respect and understanding for who they are as individuals. It gives us as new parents the means to keep learning, while giving our children trust to discover for themselves.
“To understand the child as a creative power, to realize that he is psychologically different from us, to perceive that his need is different from ours is a step forward for all human aspirations and prepares a loftier level for social life.” – Maria Montessori”
Jenna is a trained journalist and writer whose parenting journey transformed after implementing Montessori at home with her three children. She is a passionate advocate for bridging Montessori to the mainstream as a means to build community, empower parent-child relationships, and honor learning as the lifelong journey that it is.
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