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Holiday Gifting

Theresa Heiden

It’s that time of year again…and I will admit I’m someone who listens to Christmas music nonstop and gets WAY into the spirit. Shopping for presents, especially for the little ones, is one of the best parts. Though I used to browse through stores while slowly sipping my peppermint latte, shopping has become a bit more expedited these days. ;) If I can’t find it online, it probably won’t make it under the tree. Now I understand why my mom had so many catalogs… With so many options online now though, it can be quite overwhelming. For me, following (or mostly) the Montessori philosophy helps to narrow things down a bit. Here are a few things I consider when picking Montessori gifts for Dakota or her friends. If you are also hoping for a Montessori-themed holiday, these might help you too!

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Interest

The first consideration before buying or making a new toy/material for Dakota is what she is interested in or wanting to do right now. For example lately I’ve noticed she has been wanting to push furniture around, so I am looking for toys that she can push or pull around the house. I’ve also noticed that she has been taking my pens and pretending to scribble, so I’m starting to put together coloring and art supplies for her. It helps to observe your child when you are out and about, playing, or when they are digging through your own things, and think about what they are trying to tell you.

Purpose

One of the things that first appealed to me in the Montessori classroom was the sense of purpose the toddlers showed as they busied around the room. Each material in a Montessori classroom serves a specific purpose, whether it’s learning about size discrimination, practicing the pincer grasp for writing, catering to toddlers’ need for order, or learning first sounds. Before I purchase something new for Dakota, I try to ask “what need or skill is this serving?” and if I can’t find a good answer, I skip it. If the answer is just “pure enjoyment!” that’s ok too! Especially for the holidays.

Christmas shelf

Simplicity & Beauty

Often when I’m shopping in a toy store for a new toy or a gift, I’m overwhelmed by the blast of color, noise, and action. A lot of the toys marketed to babies and toddlers are incredibly overstimulating for their small hands and minds. Montessori materials tend to look simple, but beautiful, and that’s on purpose. The simplicity allows children to use the toy independently, more easily knowing how they are supposed to use it. The Montessori materials also try to teach just one or two concepts at a time, e.g. color, shape, or number, rather than throwing too many concepts in together. Lastly, providing toys that are beautiful and made of high quality materials invite the child in and are much more likely to last and be re-used as your toddler gets older.

Age Appropriateness

Sometimes as parents we want our child to be ready for a toy or activity before they actually are. It’s important to provide toys for our toddlers that are challenging, but not too challenging. If they are only given materials beyond their capability, they will feel frustrated and lack confidence to try again. If we give them toys that are too easy, they’ll grow bored and either ignore or throw things from their shelf. Sometimes we have to do a bit of trial and error with new toys to see what a good fit is. The more practice, the better you’ll be at picking something out at the right level. It’s still a work in progress for me!

With those considerations, here are the items on Dakota’s wish list (18 months at Christmas)…we’ll see which ones Santa brings!

Holiday Toy List
Winter Books

Introducing Language Work

Theresa Heiden

Dakota is 16 months, and soaking up language like a sponge. She points to everything, wants a name for it, and often tries to say it back to us. We’ve used baby sign since 9 months, and that is still her primary way to communicate her needs. (In video below, she is signing “help please”). But she also has so many more words in her head than she can say out loud (and that I know the sign for), so this month has been all about activities to help her expand her receptive and expressive language.

Montessori or not, some of the best ways to expand babies and toddlers’ vocabulary are books, songs, and simply talking through your day with them. While I try not to use too many words while Dakota is playing/concentrating on her own, I talk to her a lot throughout the day, whether it’s about what we are having for dinner, dressing after using the potty, or what we see while we’re out on a walk. She soaks it all in. There are board books for her throughout the house, and she loves to sit in her little chair and read to herself or have me read to her. Books are a favorite part of both our days. Her favorite language activity lately is her book of fingerplay songs. She opens the book and points to a song/rhyme and I do the fingerplay for it. It’s super sweet to see her start to mimic the movements on her own. Her other favorites are action songs that of course involve spinning and dancing.

fingerplays for toddlers

While books and stories are a very important component of language learning, Montessori also believed in starting with the concrete: “What the hand does the mind remembers”. Toddlers learn best through all their senses, especially their hands. When toddlers are first learning language, they get so much more out of holding an object than they do from a photo or picture of an object. Since Dakota was just a baby, and still today, I’ve given her lots of real objects to touch and explore, such as fruit and vegetables, kitchen utensils, household items and containers, and animal replicas. The more realistic, the better.

object labeling

Labeling/Asking

Dakota’s favorite items to explore now are any small replica objects (made by Toob), such as vehicles, animals, community helpers, and tools. I usually have at least one basket of objects (that fits in one category) on her shelf. To introduce this material, I start by taking one object out at a time and labeling it, for example, “delivery truck”. I repeat this with all the objects. Then I invite her to find each object to put back in the basket. If she doesn’t want to, that is fine! I also just let her explore the objects on her own, and provide labels if she asks for it. Below is an example of her exploring, and me labeling, real fruit.

Matching Object to Object

The next level up in Montessori language materials is object to object matching. Again, this involves tangible items for her to explore, but this time, pair together. When starting out, it’s easiest for toddlers to do this with identical sets of objects, rather than similar items. So I found a some inexpensive sets of animals at the local toy store to set up a “wild animal” matching activity. You can also use two sets of these Toob wild animals. When I first introduce the material, I take out one animal and label it, e.g. “elephant”. Then I find the other elephant in the basket, label it, and set it down right next to the first elephant. I repeat with the rest of the animal pairs in the basket (5-6 pairs max). Then I let her explore. Though she doesn’t line the animals up as I do yet, she has started to pick out two of the same animal from the basket, noticing the sameness. No matter how she plays with this material, she’s learning!

Object to Object Matching

Matching Object to Picture

Just this week I introduced object to picture matching, which is still quite a challenge for Dakota, but a favorite of hers to explore and have me help with. Instead of matching the animal/fruit/vehicle to an identical object, she has to match it to a picture of that object. For toddlers, the more identical the picture is to the object the better, so I created my own laminated cards using photos I took of the objects at home. You can find pre-made language cards or photos online but they it’s harder to match the objects in size and details. In the examples below, I used the Schleich farm animals (large replicas), and Toob vehicles (small replicas). I’m sure I will be making many more sets of these in the near future!

object to picture matching

As with all labeling, when I present this, I do so slowly and with few words, so she focuses on what my hands are doing and the names of the objects. I lay out all the cards first, naming each one as I set it down. Then I pick up an object from the basket, e.g. fire engine, label it, and put the object over the matching card, covering the picture, then repeat the word. I repeat this sequence with each object. I find 4 matches to be the maximum for young toddlers. Dakota enjoys covering up the pictures with the objects, even if she doesn’t always match perfectly! Again, it’s about the learning process rather than the product!

object to picture matching

Our Montessori Shelf at 15 Months

Theresa Heiden

Dakota is such a busy bee lately, it’s hard to keep up! She zooms around the house, exploring and working on one thing after another, with such purpose and determination. It is a joy to watch her discover new materials and master old ones. She now does the “I did it” clap and smile when she completes something, showing me how proud she is of herself. That is all I can ask for! :)

Montessori Shelf at 15 Months

With so much energy to work on both gross and fine motor, I’ve been having to rotate her shelves more often than I used to. This month I’ve been switching out toys about once a week. I always rotate only a few toys at a time, so as not to overwhelm her. Sometimes just moving a material from one shelf to another makes it new and interesting again! In total, I only have about 8 materials out at a time for her, not including books, her wagon, and practical life activities.

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Because we don’t have a designated playroom, I have placed her materials in various areas of the house, so she can get her gross motor practice in, moving from one station to another. She has two shelves on our main floor (one mostly books), across the room from each other. And in the dining/kitchen area, she has her sensory table and mini kitchen. This way she can be working wherever I’m working, though sometimes not!

Fall Sensory Play at 15 Months

The kitchen is one of her favorite places to be, and you can find her latest practical life activities in my last blog post. But today, I’ll focus on her shelves in our living room. I tried to find a theme to link these toys together, but her interests are pretty varied right now! Which is probably for the best. :) From car trackers to animal noises to hammering, here are her favorite materials at 15 months. You can find previous posts like this on the home page.

Montessori Shelf at 15 Months

Hammer and Roll Tower - she can hammer with her hands or the hammer and watch (and hear) the balls roll down the tower. This is good gross motor for her too, because she has to go chase the balls to put them back on the tower!

Rings on Dowel - this is a simple toy, but so great for fine motor and hand-eye coordination. Dakota has also been experimenting with putting other blocks on the dowel and realizing it only works with the rings! She gets a lot of satisfaction from doing and undoing this one.

Imbucare Box with Slot - this is great multi-step activity because she has to put the chip in the slot, flip the lid, repeat, and then flip the lid the other way. It comes with just one big chip but I added a few other chips from the color sort bowls below.

Drum Set - we brought this back out after many months because she has been so into her music class! She is much more coordinated now, and dances” along with her drum.

Grimms Stacking Cups - nesting/stacking cups never get old. Dakota loves to nest the small cups in the bigger ones, and lately has been pretending she’s pouring water from one to the other. A simple and beautiful material!

Color Sort Bowls - thought Dakota isn’t yet sorting by color, she loves to use these color chips in various ways. Lately her favorite thing to do on repeat is to pour the chips from one bowl to another. This entertains her for so long!

Schleich Farm Animals - we have various sets of these animals, and they are so wonderfully realistic and sturdy. She loves making farm animal noises with these ones. Soon I am going to get another set of the same animals for her to match.

Car Tracker - this is always a huge hit with toddlers of all ages. It takes some practice for them to get the wheels facing the right way, but then they get to watch the cars zoom down the track. It definitely fulfills their need for repetition!

Shape Puzzle - we were actually supposed to get a circle sorter puzzle, but this one arrived in the mail instead! I decided to keep it because it’s a nice variation to the shape sorter, and nice sturdy knobbed pieces. She is still figuring this one out so it’ll be a good one to rotate in and out as she gets a bit older!

Vehicle Puzzle - Dakota has shown a strong interest in vehicles and things that go this past month. She enjoys making the vehicle noises when she plays with this simple 3 knob puzzle.

Dakota also has several toys in rotation (shape sorter, pull toy, stacking, and hammering) that came from Elfbox. This is an awesome toy subscription box where you can RENT the toys for a month and then send them back for new ones! If you really love one of the toys you can keep it for a discounted price. They also don’t charge at all for missing or broken pieces! If you’re interested check them out HERE and use code ELFFRIEND20 for $20 off your first box!

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Next up: our intro to art and sensory exploration!

Our Little Sous Chef

Theresa Heiden

Dakota has always been a big fan of food and all things related. Now that she is 14 months, we’ve expanded on this “passion” by finding ways for her to be involved in the food making and clean-up process. She LOVES it. Dakota isn’t alone in this. A core element and toddler favorite in a Montessori toddler classroom is practical life, which are the activities of everyday life. This includes tasks such as setting the table, preparing meals, wiping the table, washing hands, dusting, watering plants, etc. Often the things we find monotonous toddlers find energizing. ;) Toddlers are natural imitators, and these types of activities give them the satisfaction of repetition, purpose, sensory experiences, concentration, and belonging in their family or community.

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Since Dakota is still a young toddler and not yet walking, I found it challenging at first to come up with appropriate activities for her. But when I introduced activities such as banana peeling and water pouring and watched her handle these tasks with such precision and care, I was reminded of just how capable toddlers can be. Not every activity has been so successful, and it’s important to remind myself that the important part for toddlers is the process rather than the product. Even if she isn’t successfully scrubbing dirt off of a carrot, she is concentrating and figuring out how things work together each time she practices or explores with her hands. And she is more interested in trying new foods. With practice comes precision!

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We have a few areas of the kitchen/dining area for her to work. One is the kitchen helper my husband made. He made a simplified version of this one I saw on Etsy. Dakota loves to stand up at the counter with me and both watch and participate in her food preparation. She also sits at her small weaning table to do precise work such as water pouring and peeling at meals. Lastly, she can work at her modified IKEA kitchen, where I fill a sink with soapy water for her to practice doing the dishes, and have a cutting board for her to practice chopping. Variety keeps it interesting!

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Here are a few of the practical life activities we have enjoyed in the kitchen:

Spreading - I found this pack of 3 tiny spreaders that are perfect for little toddler hands. She practices spreading mashed avocado, hummus, or nut butter on toast. Often the spreader ends up in her mouth! ;)

Water pouring - These small creamer pitchers are perfect for the tiniest of hands! She loves to pour water into her glass or just pour rice or liquid between two pitchers.

Transferring - Sometimes the simplest tasks have a purpose for toddlers. She always enjoys having two little plates on the table, and we practice moving the food from the “serving” plate to her plate before eating.

Mashing - This little masher is perfect for mashing avocado, banana, or even mashed potatoes!

Scrubbing - Dakota uses this scrubber to scrub vegetables such as carrots in her Ikea kitchen sink. She loves the feel of the bristles.

Chopping - This wavy chopper is the easiest way to start. Dakota has had some success with the banana, and next we’ll try cucumber.

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Washing - We have a set of these swedish dishcloths for Dakota to wash her dishes with. She especially likes to wring it out in the sink!

Sweeping - Dakota loves to sweep the floor with this little broom and dust pan!

Washing hands - This soap dispenser is simple and easy for little hands to push to get soap out. She still needs our help with this, but we keep it accessible at the Ikea kitchen sink.

Peeling - We started with banana slices with the skin on for her to peel off, and are now trying satsumas. It helps to cut slits in the peel to help them get started.

And there are endless more to come! What are your toddler's favorite practical life activities?

Montessori in the Kitchen @ 15 Months

Potty Learning

Theresa Heiden

Fourteen months old and on the potty! Pre-Montessori I would have thought this was crazy, but I now know this is a great time to start. Babies start to develop bladder & bowel control and awareness of their bodily functions around a year. Around that same time, they often begin to show interest in the toilet and how we use it. As with all things toddler, they want to imitate! So why not let them? Potty learning* at this age is a gradual process, but if we have the time, it's a pleasant one, without bribes or tantrums. For young toddlers, it's about learning their rhythm, letting them experience wet vs. dry vs. going on the toilet, and giving them opportunities for independence. 

Potty Learning at 14 Months - www.montessoriinreallife.com

* I call it potty learning rather than training because the toddler is just as involved in the process as we are. We, the adults, are not training, just guiding and helping. Some people prefer to call it toilet learning but I like to differentiate the small potty from the big toilet. 

We started Dakota's potty learning process last week, just after she turned 14 months. I had been waiting for her to walk, but she's taking her sweet time, so we just dove in! To encourage body awareness during potty learning, I let her wear underwear or be bare-bummed at home. We aren't strict about it, but having just a couple hours a day without a diaper is useful for her to learn the feeling of being wet vs. dry. It's hard to feel anything in a diaper! By allowing Dakota to be pantless/diaperless, I am also better able to learn her rhythm and patterns. When we are home, I aim to let her sit on the potty every 45 min or so. 

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Sitting on the potty is always an invitation, never forced. As I invite her and show her the potty (which she usually does), I make the sign for potty. We start by pulling down her underwear or diaper while she stands and then she sits down. She likes to look at books or dig through her "supplies" while she sits, and I let her. This week she started trying to put on her own underwear! This is too tricky for her now, but the more we do it together, the more confidence she'll have to do it by herself. I let her sit for a while and then if she goes pee or poop, I make the sign for pee or poop as well as potty. She can feel it when it's happening and proudly points to what she's made. :) Then I show her how I dump it in the big toilet and clean it out. We get her underpants or diaper back on and then wash our hands together. When she's walking, she'll participate more in this process (and hopefully have a hand washing station)! 

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After only a week, Dakota is already peeing and pooping on the toilet fairly consistently at home. She doesn't yet sign for it or go there herself, but when I routinely sit her on the potty throughout the morning or afternoon, she goes. She has also started to touch her underwear or diaper if she's going. If she starts to go pee or poop in her underwear, I just take her straight to the potty and she finishes there. Of course there are accidents but less than I'd imagined. When she gets tired or cranky, or we're headed out, we just switch to diapers. With no expectations or a set schedule, this slow potty learning is pretty pleasant for all. 

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A big part of this early potty learning is creating a bathroom space that is inviting for her to be part of stand-up diaper/undie changes and sitting on the potty. I found it easiest to set up two spaces; one downstairs and one upstairs, so we don't have to travel far. As you can see from the photos, the set-up can work no matter how small the bathroom! Here are our essential supplies: 

  • Small Potty - We like the simplicity of the Joovy Loo and the price is low enough to get one for each bathroom!

  • Diapers or training underwear - we are using both. She wears training underwear around the house and diapers for sleep and when we are out and about. As she gets more consistent, we'll switch to undies full time, but we aren't in a rush.

  • Wipes - these water wipes are just the best for sensitive little skin!

  • Laundry bin - a small basket or box for Dakota to help toss her wet or dirty clothes into.

  • Books - Potty and Once Upon a Potty are fun and great for starting the communication about the potty. We are actually getting a lot of reading in together these days, on the potty. ;)

  • Water - I find it helps her to go pee on the potty when she drinks a little water right before. We keep a cup in the bathroom. It also helps to model peeing or even have the faucet dripping.

  • Low mirror - This isn't a necessity but we have one in our upstairs bathroom and Dakota likes to look at herself when she's on the potty, and it is helpful for body awareness.

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As with all things, I am sure this is not going to be easy forever, and there will be plenty of bumps along the way. But it's nice to know what 14-month-olds are capable of, and that the potty can be a bonding time too! 

A Respectful Intro to Toddlerhood

Theresa Heiden

Despite my wishes for Dakota to stay a baby forever, she has other plans in mind. The toddler is emerging. It turns out you can have toddler 'tude without toddler steps. ;) The most recent "tricky" toddler behaviors we've been seeing are: throwing food off the table, pinching or hitting us, tantrums when something isn't available (like our dog's water bowl), or not getting what she wants (like being picked up right away).  

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Unsurprisingly, I've found that the easiest and best way to deal with difficult behaviors is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Providing a predictable schedule, making sure she's slept enough, eating frequently and nutritiously, and giving her plenty of one-on-one time to help her overall happiness. I also find she gets less frustrated when she is in a "yes" space (we've tried to make most of our home that way), meaning minimal dangers or off-limits, giving us little reason to say "no" to her. The more toddlers hear the word no, the more they say it right back. ;) 

Dakota is also more content when she is able to participate in our activities. Little things like giving her opportunities to pick out her diaper before changing, hold onto the grocery list in the shopping cart, or help unload the spoons from the dishwasher often (not always) prevent a meltdown. Limited options (just 2 at this age) also give her a small sense of autonomy which can be really helpful for both of us. Examples: "Do you want to read the truck book or the color book?", "Do you want to drink your water or start with your zucchini?", "Do you want me to pick you up or crawl over to me?" At this point she can usually point or nod to indicate preferences. 

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Of course even if all her needs have been met and we've given her opportunities for autonomy, she is still entering toddlerhood, where emotions are high, impulse control is low, and the need to exert her will is just beginning. She is at the age where she is learning to be her own independent person, and tantrums and testing are part of the process! And after working in a classroom of toddlers, I know this is just the beginning of a wild ride. She just needs to know I love her through it all. 

Most of my reading on this topic has been Janet Lansbury's respectful parenting philosophy and Positive discipline techniques we used in the Montessori classroom. No Bad Kids and Positive Discipline are both useful books if you're going this route. Based on these ideas, when Dakota does exert her toddler will, these are some of the steps we take at home. 

  1. Remain calm. I've found this is one of the most important (but difficult) components. I have to remember not to take Dakota's behavior personally. She is trying out behaviors with me because she trusts and loves me, and therefore feels safe to experiment. When I remember that, it's easier to stay calm and let the storm pass. We try to avoid reacting with "ow!" or "no!" unless she's in danger (or when she hurts us and it's instinctive!), because those give her the reactions she's hoping for. 
  2. If throwing/hitting/etc, stop the behavior with my hand or remove her from the unsafe situation gently. Let her feel her feels. 
  3. Acknowledge, accept, and respect her feelings and frustrations without trying to fix or distract. Keeping the wording simple seems to be best when she's worked up. We try not to focus too much attention on the negative behavior. I usually say something like "I know you really want to ______ and I couldn't let you _______ because _____. I see you are very upset/sad/frustrated about that." 
  4. Once she has (hopefully) calmed down a bit, provide comfort and offer safe/acceptable alternatives. See specific examples below.
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Respectful Ways to deal with Specific Tricky Toddler Issues:

Pinching/hitting: Again, I have to remember not to take this personally, because she is simply testing and looking for reactions. Toddlers want attention, good or bad. She often pinches when she's overtired and I'm holding her. When she does, I take her hand away and hold it. I say "I won't let you pinch me because that hurts", and leave it at that as to not draw too much attention to the negative behavior. I might demonstrate a nice pat or hug. If she keeps trying to pinch/hit, I'll ignore the behavior and place her down on the floor for a minute so she can't keep going. Of course this makes her upset but she soon gets the point. 

Throwing Food: This requires sitting with Dakota throughout mealtimes. When Dakota begins to throw food, I stop her hand and say "I can't let you throw that food. Food stays on the table." I then show her how to put her food in a different small bowl on the table, or let her hand it to me. She usually wants to throw food she doesn't want to eat, so offering an alternative place to put it can be helpful. If she throws and I don't catch it, I just try to ignore it. If she keeps trying to toss her food on the floor, it shows me she isn't that hungry so we sign "all done" and end mealtime. Additionally, we give her other throwing opportunities with balls, etc during playtime. 

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Tantrum over not getting to play with something: The most recent example of this is a large box fan we had in our living room. She really wanted to play with it, but it wasn't safe for her little fingers. When she started to touch it, I picked her up and took her away from it, saying "I can't let you play with the fan, it's not safe." She arched her back and squirmed and cried. I acknowledged that it made her upset when I removed her from the fan and let her be upset for a few minutes. I offered snuggles and a book. Then I showed her a couple of other toys to choose between. (I also relocated the fan so it wouldn't be an issue again. With objects that can't be removed, it might take quite a few reminders before they are able to stop trying to touch it, but it will eventually happen.)

Tantrum over wanting to be held: This is a really common one for us while I'm trying to prep food for Dakota. I start to cook or simply put food on her plate, and she throws herself on the floor at my feet, wanting to be held or eat the food immediately. I can sometimes prevent this by wearing her on my back so she can see the food being made. Better yet, my husband is going to build her a learning tower so she can watch and participate more, which will likely help a lot. In the meantime, when she starts to melt down, I let her feel the feels and explain that I need a few more minutes to finish prepping her food. (I hurry) and when I'm ready to pick her up or give her the food, I then remind her of the signs for "help", "up", or "eat", so she can at least learn to communicate in a more effective way than screaming. 

Who knows what the next phase of toddlerhood will bring! Luckily I love this one to the moon and back. 

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What strategies do you find helpful (or not) with the toddler 'tude? 

In & Out / Open & Close

Theresa Heiden

Dakota's first month of her second year has been all about in and out, up and down, open and close. So of course most of her toys are in line with this theme (see below). While last month she was constantly on the go, she is now back to work at her shelf. She has a few materials that she really loves to play with over and over, which has slowed down toy rotation, making my life a little easier. She also really enjoys combining her materials in different ways, especially when there are peg people to be moved from one box to another!

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In addition to new materials, I have also introduced trays for a few of her materials. Trays are a staple of a Montessori classroom, and now that we are nearing the toddler years, they are useful for home too. Toddlers LOVE order, and trays provide a sense of order for their materials. They can take the tray off the shelf, use the materials, then put it all back in one piece. It also allows for you to set up the activity "incomplete" for your toddler to complete it themselves. As a teacher, we noticed that if puzzles were set out completed, the toddlers didn't engage, whereas if the pieces were in a basket beside the wooden puzzle base on a tray, they would use it more often.

I am hoping that my husband can build a new shelf soon that doesn't have cubes so that we can fit trays more easily! Here is a great resource for Montessori Trays if you are looking to purchase some for your Montessori environment.

Without further ado, here are Dakota's favorite materials on the theme of in/out & open/close:

Pop-up Men - This is by far Dakota's favorite toy. Even when she's not pushing the men to pop out, or carefully putting them back in, she's toting these little guys around the house with her. I find them everywhere! 

Box with Bins - Dakota's aunt gave her this one and she loves to open the drawers and discover little surprises inside! My sister filled them with these button shapes. Often the pop-up men end up in here too. ;)

Imbucare Box - We have a couple versions of this one, and they are great for learning sequences (drop, open, close, repeat).

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Object Permanence Baby Box - This little box comes with a large wooden ball but you can also get little peg people from this shop, both of which Dakota loves to put in and take out of this cute little box. Perfect size for her small hands.

Hide & Seek Wooden Board - Another fun peek-a-boo game. I wish there were fewer doors than this, but it's still a fun one, and definitely one to grow with her in the toddler years as she begins matching.

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MontiKids Peg Board, Rings on Post, and Basic Shape Puzzles - These three (of six total) toys came from the Level 4 MontiKids subscription box. If you haven't heard of it yet, MontiKids is a Montessori quarterly subscription box that sends high quality Montessori toys perfectly suited to your child's development and age. In addition, each box comes with detailed video tutorials, lesson plans, and developmental info. This is a great opportunity for parents who want to provide a Montessori education for their baby or toddler at home! Use the code REALLIFE to receive $30 off your first order!

In addition to her many wooden toys, Dakota loves any simple box or container that she can open, fill, and empty! Look for ones in your bathroom or kitchen that you can clean and repurpose. Patterned duct tape can really come in handy. :)

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Cruising through a year, with some bumps

Theresa Heiden

How is my baby 1 year old?! The phrase "the days are long but the years are short" has never rung more true. What an amazing journey it's been! Our bond gets stronger each day. The way she says "mama", rests her head on my shoulder as I sing to her, blows me kisses, brings me books to read, and cautiously checks with me as she starts to climb the stairs just make my heart melt. I also love watching her interact with the rest of the world - not only is she a social butterfly who can charm the grumpiest of TSA agents - but she is observant, focused, and open to adventure. 

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While Dakota continues to get sweeter, mom life never stops challenging me. Over the past few days, with cross-country travel, Dakota getting sick, sleep loss, and house renovations underway, life with baby has been exhausting. It's reminded me of why I started this blog "Montessori in real life", because real life isn't always Instagram perfect, and Montessori-at-home can become Montessori-ish. And that's okay. Sometimes it's pack-n-play or carrier over floor bed, stuffed animals over object permanence box, and squeeze pack over spoon. Sometimes it's crawling all over tired mama lying on a floor without furniture in the house. ;) It always helps to remind myself that phases are called phases because they don't last forever! And in the meantime, I enjoyed the extra snuggles that the past few weeks brought me.

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Besides her beloved books, the one consistent interest that Dakota has shown through all these "routine disruptions" is gross motor. (Available anywhere!) In the past few weeks, she is busier than ever. She's pulling up on just about any surface, climbing stairs, and trying to wedge herself in any small space she finds. While sometimes I wished she would focus more on the beautiful new ball tracker, it has been a good reminder to follow her interests and stop pushing mine. Setting up spaces for her involved simple things like moving cushions to the ground for her to climb over, filling a couple of drawers in the kitchen with things for her to unpack, and exploring the outdoors. I also purchased this tunnel she loves to crawl through and a pool to splash around in. Dakota's grandma also gifted her this beautiful wagon which just began to "walk" through the house!

This week when we returned back from our vacation, and despite still being sick, she surprised me by returning to her shelf to play with her wooden toys. What's more, even with weeks of not using these materials, she all of a sudden knew how to use them, just from my demonstrations a few weeks ago. For example, she put the pop-up men back in the holes, and opened the drawer to find her hidden ball in her imbucare box. It just amazes me how much babies' brains are processing and working through all the time, even when we can't see it happening. Sometimes I miss it, but when I do follow her cues and give her time and space to work through a new skill or phase, we are both happier for it.  

Lesson of this month: Practice patience and enjoy the present, because even the hard days are so sweet, and so short.

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Cups, Straws, and Spoons, Oh My!

Theresa Heiden

This past month has been a huge leap in independence for 11-mo-old Dakota. Now that she can navigate our house quickly and efficiently, she wants to do everything on her own! Namely, eating and drinking. Whether it's the bottle or the spoon, she wants control. And while messes are made and patience (mine) is tested, I'm all for giving her this independence. By giving Dakota her own table, or a place at our table, and the same tools we use to eat and drink, she feels respected, trusted, and like an equal member of our family! 

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When we introduced the weaning cup around 8 months, Dakota enjoyed drinking from it but not holding it. Around 10 months, she began to show interest in using it independently - reaching for it on the table or whining when I tried to do it for her. I modeled how we use two hands to bring it to our mouth and set it back down. Gradually, she figured it out herself. While she still struggles with setting it back down upright, she has really gotten the hang of bringing it to her mouth and drinking from it. We just put water in the cup for now, but eventually she'll drink milk from it too. When she starts dipping her fingers or food in the cup, or tosses it, we just take a break from the cup and try again later. While she can play with her food on her plate, the cup is for drinking.

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Around the same time Dakota showed interest in drinking from the cup herself (10 months), she began to figure out how to use the spoon. Puree or not, she likes to hold the spoon and "dip" it in her food. When she does have a puree, yogurt, or chia pudding, she has actually figured out the sequence of dipping the spoon, bringing it to her mouth, and slurping - repeat. Video below. As you can see, it's not always a smooth sequence, or super effective. ;) The important thing is to let her practice, because she gets better every time. And it is obvious how much she enjoys feeding herself! There is nothing that makes me happier than her feeling proud of herself for something she has really worked hard on.

Side note: Though Dakota consumes most of her liquids via breastfeeding or bottles, I also give her a water cup with a straw when we are on the go. We have avoided sippy cups based on recommendations from feeding and speech therapists. (For a good article about straw cups vs. sippy cups, check this out: http://noahsdad.com/cup/.) I was also surprised how easy it was for Dakota to learn how to drink from a straw. I introduced the straw at 9 months with these take and toss cups. These simple, inexpensive cups were great because they allowed me to squeeze the cup, causing water to come out, showing her how the straw works. We recently graduated to this water bottle that we can take on the go. That being said, we mostly focus on the weaning cup for water at home, because it gives her a chance to learn how to drink with care, like we do! 

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Lastly, at 11 months, we introduced the placemat, so that she would have a place to set her cup back down. I expected her to toss this off the table, but she actually does quite well with leaving it be. These handmade Montessori placemats are great because they have outlines for where to put the silverware, cup, and plate. When I worked in the toddler class, a favorite part of the day was setting their place for lunch! All she's missing is the fork, but to be continued...

10 Months Old and on the Move

Theresa Heiden

Suddenly Dakota is 10 months old and crawling, pulling up to stand, and trying to climb up everyone and everything! Her version of crawling is my favorite. It started out as the "worm" and has graduated to a very efficient army crawl with intermittent planks. You do you, girl. She is loving the flexibility of getting from her tummy to a sitting position, from sitting to kneeling, and then all the way up to her feet. She seems to surprise herself sometimes! To assist and promote all these new gross motor skills, I've been setting up spaces inside and out for her get that energy out. She's now a pro at pulling up at the bar/mirror my husband built, and slowly figuring out how to pull up at her rolling wagon too. Slightly terrifying, stairs are her newest favorite, but I encourage her to climb cushions on the floor instead! ;)

With all this movement, she is often less interested in her shelves. To keep things exciting, I have been rotating the toys on her shelves more frequently (at least once a week). This doesn't necessarily mean buying new toys, but rather bringing back old toys or switching something from upstairs to downstairs. I've also set up more spaces in the house for her to play, because she is often following me from room to room! One of her favorites right now is two bottom drawers in the kitchen that are filled with tupperware, kitchen utensils (whisk!), and cups for her to pull out and play with while I cook! Beyond the kitchen, here are her latest favorites! See my last post for more toy ideas.

Ball Hammering - she is just getting the hang of this one, but makes such cute noises when a ball drops through the hole! She is equally happy to use her hands or a drum stick to hit the balls.

Musical Chicken - I found this one at a local children's store and think it's just beautiful! Dakota is a huge fan too. I have been so impressed how quickly she got the hang of using each part of it to make music! 

Rings on Post - We have this one, but for now am using simple wooden rings (see below) because they are easier for her to take off and put back on. For now, she is just taking the rings off. 

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Caterpillar Pull Toy - Dakota loves all animals, especially ones with wheels! This one is more fun as she has started crawling around with it. 

Family Friends Photo Book - I got this idea from a Montessori classroom and it's so sweet. She loves seeing the faces of her family, and I love that she is getting familiar with extended family who live out of town.

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Rolling Ball Cylinder - Another one that is much more exciting when she can chase after it on the hardwood floor! 

Wooden Drum - Dakota loves to make music and this one is great because the drum is double sided! 

Radio Flyer Wagon - She is still a little unsure about pulling up to stand on something that moves, but for now she enjoys pulling up to kneel and unloading sensory balls out of the wagon

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Why Our Baby Sleeps on the Floor

Theresa Heiden

One of my favorite elements of Montessori philosophy is the environment - the purposeful, aesthetic, yet simple space for baby (or child) to be, sleep, and explore. Everything is designed to fit the child's development and size, changing as the child grows. The purpose of the environment is to promote independence, respect, and freedom to move. One traditional (and sometimes controversial!) component of this environment is the floor bed, though it is most definitely not a necessity. 

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I was pretty excited to try the floor bed, but have always kept in mind that it doesn't work for every family, and it might not always work for ours. Dakota began sleeping in her floor bed around 5 months old, when she transitioned from a bassinet in our bedroom to her own room. We started with just the mattress on the floor, which worked for a while until she began to accidentally scoot or roll off in her sleep, sometimes waking her up. So my husband agreed to build her a floor bed frame, giving her access to scoot out, but enough of an edge to prevent accidentally rolling out. With the beautiful frame, she also loves to scoot to the corner of the bed, creating her own little nook. 

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They toughest part of having a floor bed is baby-proofing the room. Even though Dakota isn't crawling out of bed at night (for now), the shelves are low, the outlets are child-safe, and there are no heavy or large pieces of furniture or decor that could topple. We do still have a changing table but it is anchored to the wall, and the drawers are simply canvas, with the lowest one holding cloths that are okay for her to play with. As she begins to climb, we will adjust as needed, likely removing the changing table and nursing chair. We also always have the baby monitor to make sure she's safe!

Although Dakota isn't crawling during sleep hours, she does love to crawl around her room during awake hours. I find it so nice to have a room that I feel safe letting Dakota play in without saying "no". Before and after naps, she can scoot around her room, play, and explore. I try to keep the "quiet" toys (books, stuffed animals, puzzles) in her bedroom to make it a more peaceful space, which is important when she is playing in there pre-sleep. I save the music making for our living/play room downstairs

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As we wind down before sleep, one of my favorite parts of the floor bed is that I can sit with her on the mattress, tuck her in, and kiss her goodnight. She is (usually) happy to be placed down in bed, and babbles and wiggles to sleep. I think starting the floor bed pre-crawling has also helped her be comfortable with it as her place of sleep. My hope is that as she gets older, she continues to enjoy this bed, as she is given the freedom to move and to sleep when she is ready. Only time will tell!

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Baby-Led Weaning, a la Francaise

Theresa Heiden

How things have already changed since my first post about Dakota's introduction to food! While she enjoyed the simple purees her first couple months of eating, she shifted course around 6 months old. It seemed that she was most put off by the spoon itself. Since she already had 2 teeth, I cautiously gave her a little piece of banana and a couple of those dissolvable puffs instead of purees. She chewed and swallowed like a champ, and seemed to really enjoy it, so I decided to start baby-led weaning with her, with a few spoonfuls of mama's oats thrown in. This created a happier eating environment for both of us, and Dakota quickly grasped "grasping" the food, eventually mastering the pincer grasp. So while this hasn't been the exact Montessori weaning experience I had imagined, it has been the right path for Dakota, and given her more independence and satisfaction! (See links to her set-up at end of post)

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As someone who thoroughly enjoys both cooking and eating, I've been enjoying reading about various ways in which to help your child appreciate and enjoy a variety of foods. A few mom friends and I started a "book" club (yes, it is mostly a wine club), and our first read was French Kids Eat Everything. I had really enjoyed reading Bringing Up Bébé pre-baby, so I was optimistic about this book too. General synopsis: Canadian mom and French dad living in Canada move to France with their 2 picky-eating little daughters who (spoiler alert) soon speak fluent French and eat beet puree and fish stew (but don't forget the chocolate croissants). She offers 10 French Food Rules with lots of anecdotes and research. Overall it's worth a read to reconsider how we as adults eat too! *As I guiltily wipe crumbs off the couch* ;)

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As most parenting books go, there were quiet a few eye rolls, but there were also plenty of ideas that jived with my parenting style or inspired me. Such as... 

  • The focus of feeding babies should be on satiation and taste, rather than calories or fullness. I do think the author makes a good point that in America, we are so worried when we start introducing solids, that it takes away the pleasure of eating. Before the age of 1, babies are still getting most of their nutrients from milk, so eating can simply be a chance for babies to get used to lots of different tastes and textures.
  • Introduce real, unprocessed foods, particularly veggies. While the French introduce this in the form of purees, I've done this with whole foods (I'm okay with those messy fingers). Introducing food in its "pure" form helps to develop their tastebuds for a whole variety of foods. I do think giving Dakota a piece of broccoli has more benefits for her future enjoyment of broccoli than disguising it in a puff cereal or muffin. That being said, I believe snacks and pancakes always have a place in our life, in moderation. :)
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  • Your child doesn't have to like the food, or even eat it, but they do have to taste it. This is an easy rule to start with babies. I've heard it a thousand times but I still need the reminder that it can take a dozen introductions for a baby to like a new food. Variety and "eating the rainbow" is so important, and if we stick with only the food they immediately like, it'll be that much harder to deal with the picky toddler years! Now that the local farmers market is open, I'm using that as an opportunity to introduce new fruits and veggies, for both of us! 
  • Make mealtime a pleasant and relaxed place to eat. This is definitely one of those "easier said than done" rules for most families. I do find that when I sit and eat with Dakota at the table, she is generally happier during the process (though she does also love her weaning table, so we do both). This "rule" also incorporates the idea of setting the table before eating. We don't make it fancy, but giving Dakota real dishes gives her a sense of autonomy and a chance to learn consequences of throwing ("all done!").
  • A little (healthy) fat is good for babies. The French are pros at making vegetables taste delicious, and I'm pretty sure their secret is butter. The key is that they are cooking with high quality ingredients, including the fats they use. From what I've read, there is nothing wrong with adding a tiny dab of butter or olive oil to your baby's steamed veggies, and in fact, babies need healthy fats more than anything at this stage. Other good sources of fat that we've introduced are avocado, chia (sprinkled on fruit), nut butter (mixed into oats), eggs, and yogurt.

While I was inspired by the French way of eating, it was reassuring to remind myself of the "American" parenting tendencies that I am also very much on board with. Such as...breastfeeding on demand, letting Dakota make her own (limited) choices, eating with our fingers and playing with food (exploration!), snacktime, and giving kids power and ownership! In my opinion, childhood should still be a time for playing in the dirt, and eating it too. ;)

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8 Months Old, and Making (Some) Things Happen

Theresa Heiden

Somehow another 2 months have gone by and Dakota is getting closer to 9 months old! The past couple of months have been the best, and Dakota the sweetest, and honestly I haven't thought a lot about blogging. Though in all honesty, another factor in my blog hiatus has been self doubt. Is this blog providing anything original or interesting? Do I come across as a mom snob? Nothing can prepare you for the insecurity you feel as a mom, and the constant worry that you are doing things worse or lesser than other moms! The last thing I want this blog to do is make other moms feel bad about choosing a different path for their child. Because as much as I believe in the Montessori method, I also believe every child needs something different, and every mom does too. I started this blog as a way to journal my motherhood adventure with Dakota in our Montessori-ish way, and I realized this week that worrying about what other moms think shouldn't be what keeps me from continuing that! I hope other moms agree. :) As I always say, you do you. So I'm doing me.

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Back to the topic of the hour...Miss Dakota Mae. While no baby is happy all the time, Dakota comes pretty close lately. And I do know now how phases come and go, so I'm just enjoying this one while it lasts! I can't get enough of her many facial expressions, her hugs, "words", giggles, and how she "waves" at every person who smiles at her. Dakota just seems delighted with her world, meeting new people (and seeing the familiar ones!), exploring her surroundings, but also really concentrating on her "work" at home. You can really see her start to see her understanding, and more impressively, her desire to understand, her little world. 

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Because Dakota isn't crawling yet (lucky me, I know), she spends a lot of her day sitting or stretching out on her tummy playing with her toys. She is perfectly content doing this for up to an hour at a time, with or without me by her side. I try to make sure she has time each day to play uninterrupted, while I do my own work, to get her used to playing independently. This will be harder when she starts to crawl, but just this afternoon I finished the dishes and came back to find Dakota with her book open in her lap, "reading". My heart! While she still very much enjoys her toys from previous blog posts (especially teethers with her top tooth about to poke through!), I wanted to focus this blog post on her new favorites.

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Besides books and knob puzzles (both of which she LOVES), most of her favorite toys involve some kind of cause and effect. In the past month, she has really been figuring out that she can make things happen with her own two hands. When she shakes the eggs, she makes music; when she hits the bell, it rings; when she turns one gear, the other turns. Even if the toy doesn't make a sound, she bangs two toys together to create one. See below for some ideas! 

Montessori Object Permanence Box with Tray and Ball - we started this with me showing her, and now she takes the ball and attempts (occasionally successfully!) to put it back in the hole. She delights in seeing that ball rolling into the tray each time!

Melissa & Doug Farm Animals Jumbo Knob Wooden Puzzle - this puzzle, along with others that have pictures under the pieces, are super fun and easy for her to pick up, and good pincer grasp practice!

Egg Shaker Set - these entertain Dakota to no end. She loves shaking one in each hand and "entertaining" our dog!

Single Shape Puzzles - the more traditional Montessori route to first puzzles, and likely the first that Dakota will get the pieces back into the inset, but for now just exploring.

Sensory Board - Dakota's favorite toy! The noises and sensory experience of this board is amazing. Would be a fun one to make if you are handy like that.

Play Cube Activity Center - My sister had this one, and it's the perfect size for babies to reach on their tummies or sitting. I love how she reaches over and around to get to the different parts of the cube.

HABA Magica Clutching Toy - I kind of want this one as a stress ball for myself! A great one for babies to use two hands in coordination and teeth on too.

Hape Wooden Musical Instrument Set - Dakota is still trying to figure out how to really make noise with these, but she is enjoying trying!

Multi-Color Rhythm Scarves - So many uses! Dakota loves pulling these out of a box, playing peek-a-boo with them, and just runnings her hands through them!

Green Toys Stacker - a new favorite made from recycled milk jugs and oh-so-smooth and fun!

Sitting Pretty, with Confidence

Theresa Heiden

Time just keeps flying by, and our Dakota Mae is almost 7 months old! Six months has been my favorite age so far. Although not yet crawling, she is observing and exploring everything and everyone around her, and clearly fascinated by it all. Up until 6 months, I had just been giving Dakota time on her tummy and back on the floor to roll and play in whichever way she was interested. She has been quite content playing with her feet, gnawing on a teether, or batting at a mobile. In the past month,  she's also become a pro at rolling onto her tummy to grab a toy and rotating like a clock on her tummy. But since the 6-month mark, she's also been showing signs of wanting to explore, see, and do just a bit more. 

Which leads me to supported sitting. Traditional Montessorians usually advocate against supported sitting. They encourage parents to wait until their baby learns how to push up from their tummy into a sitting position on their own, which can happen as early as 7 months, but often later. In theory, I like this idea, but just as I placed Dakota on her tummy before she could roll on her own, I also helped Dakota sit up before she could get into that position by herself. I did this because she really enjoyed the different perspective, and getting to explore her toys and materials with both her hands in a sitting position. Sitting gives her a way to be closer to my level, and that in and of itself she loves.

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There are various forms and ways to start "supported sitting". I chose to wait until she showed signs of readiness to sit independently (holding her head back up fairly straight) to help her sit up, which for her was 6 months. Rather than Bumbo chairs or bouncers/walkers, I simply helped her figure out how to balance upright by sitting her between my legs on the floor, or with the Boppy around her. It really only took a week or so until she could sit up on her own without support - balancing her weight, albeit a bit wobbly. She toppled sometimes, and still does, but she's always on a soft surface and always on the floor to begin with, so never falls far. And this is how she learns her own body's abilities and limits!

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Though I can definitely see the appeal of the bumbo chair, walkers, bouncers, etc, the reason we haven't used these goes back to my Montessori training too. My issues with them (besides the noise!) is that they don't typically allow for free movement once the babies are placed inside. Babies don't get to learn how to balance if they are fully supported, and they can't reach in whatever direction they please. Instead, babies are essentially "stuck" which can lessen their motivation to sit and move on their own. I've also heard child PT's say that things like the bumbo chair put babies in an unnatural sitting position much earlier than they are ready. Lastly, some of these "supports" can lead to falls, more dangerous than from a sitting position on the floor. But to each his own, and if motherhood has taught me anything, it's "you do you" and what works for one family isn't what works for another.

So now that Dakota is sitting on her own on the floor, I typically place a small basket of toys in front of her, allowing her to explore freely. I try to keep just 3 or 4 toys in the basket at a time, to not overwhelm, and then rotate them every week or so. While playing in a sitting position, she gets practice using both of her hands, and transferring toys from one to another. She is also learning how to throw toys to her side, and then reach around to grab them. Sometimes she goes from sitting to lying down on her side, and unless she fusses about it, I just let her explore from there. With this independent sitting, she will eventually learn how to get into a crawling position from sitting, or down to her tummy and back up again! It is really fun to watch how she explores both her body and environment from this new perspective. It makes her so proud and happy! 

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Here are some of Dakota's favorite toys right now:

Deliciously Messy Food, Montessori Style

Theresa Heiden

As a foodie myself, I was eagerly anticipating Dakota's introduction to solid foods. Avocados, delicata, plums, oh my! As most things in child rearing, there are numerous methods for when and how to start solids, so you have to just pick your path and go with it. I leaned on my mama intuition, my fellow Montessori bloggers, and Dakota's readiness to figure out how to start this exciting food journey.

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Dakota started showing signs of readiness for solids a little after 4 months, so we started at 4 and a half months. Specifically: good head control, super interested in our food (and licking her lips accordingly), doubled her birth weight, and 2 early bottom teeth. Most importantly, when I tested out giving her a little spoonful of food, she closed her mouth around the spoon, swallowed, and smiled wide!

Though I was tempted to start with baby-led weaning (no purees - just small bits of whole food), I felt more comfortable starting with homemade single-food purees, to help her ease into solid foods and digestion. I purchased this all-in-one baby food maker to easily steam and puree my own veggies and fruits. I started with whole-grain cereal, followed by avocado, butternut squash, sweet potato, and then apple. I wanted to start with vegetables rather than fruits so that she didn't only want the sweet stuff! To make the purees extra creamy and digestible, I mixed in a little breastmilk too. Because Dakota's body still only needs the nutritions that come from milk at this point, she's really just tasting each of these foods rather than filling up on them.

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Although we have this awesome high chair that will grow with Dakota through the years and be perfect for family meals, we are starting Dakota off at this weaning table. This is a baby-appropriate table and chair that she can sit up in by herself and eventually get in and out of without adult assistance. The weaning table promotes independence, child participation, and a focus on treating infants as "real" people. Very Montessori. :) Already I can see that Dakota wants to do as I do, particularly when it comes to eating, and this is one step in that direction. 

My favorite elements of the Montessori "weaning" set-up is that Dakota gets her own spoon to self-feed. While I started out feeding her myself, she right away wanted to take hold of the spoon, so I began to let her. I was surprised at how good she was at getting the puree right into her mouth (or at least close)! We have some lovely bamboo & rubber spoons but they are still too big for her, so this week I purchased these sweet little espresso spoons for her to feed herself. You can see photos of her first experience with this spoon - not bad! For now, I'm scooping the puree with the spoon and then handing it to her. I still feed her too, so we each have a spoon and take turns. Obviously we are just embracing the mess. But with a bit (a lot) more practice, she'll be feeding herself like a pro.

Why the silver spoons, pictures above the table, and glass bowls? They all promote the feeling that our home is just as much Dakota's as it is ours. She is just as deserving of the kind of dishes and set-up we have ourselves, and she learns to care for them as we do. It's a way to show Dakota respect while also teaching her how to respect her environment. Obviously there are many ways to do this, and using plastic is totally fine, but this is one way to go about introducing food, Montessori style. I imagine we'll do some breakable and some non-breakable dishes depending on time and place!

In the next month or two we'll introduce a small glass for her to learn to drink water from and more whole food to explore and taste. There'll be breaks and messes, but also lots of opportunities for learning and enjoying glorious food! The beauty of an independent weaning table. But one baby step at a time. :) The food journey is only just beginning!

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Sleep, At Last

Theresa Heiden

As I've learned in parenthood so far, every baby has their thing (or things) that are tricky to solve. Dakota's big one has been sleep. While I have always loved how alert, curious, and motivated she is, the flip side is that she has always fought sleep hard. While rocking her or nursing her to sleep worked okay for the first couple of months of her life, and the pacifier soothed her for a couple of weeks after that, Dakota reached a breaking point at 3.5 months where nothing worked. She resisted our assistance but cried when left alone. The books said "put her in her bed when she's drowsy but awake"... sure, except when you put her down she isn't drowsy anymore! Or she would fall asleep with a pacifier or a hand on her chest and then wake up screaming 30 minutes later, unable to fall back asleep. I was spending hours in the day and night by her bedside. I was at my wit's end, having tried seemingly everything and admitting defeat.

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A couple of weeks ago, we had Dakota's 4-month checkup - I was in tears from sleep deprivation and feeling like a failure of a mom - and both our pediatrician and my husband, Chris, urged me to consider the thing I had fought so hard to avoid, at least this early on - sleep training or CIO. Just those phrases made me shudder. Which I suppose is ironic, given that as a Montessori teacher, I had always preached "self soothing" techniques. Now I get just how much easier that is said than done. I never quite realized that hearing your own baby cry makes your entire body tense, your heart ache, and your brain turn to goo. But with reminders of how much Dakota was crying at bedtime with us trying to help, and knowing deep down that self-soothing would indeed help her in the long run, I finally agreed to give sleep training (I like to call it sleep learning) a go. Enter our new bible: The Sleepeasy Solution

This book's philosophy is based on "the least-cry approach", which at least made it more appealing to me. While it is definitely still a CIO method, it allows for check-ins, and caters to various family situations and sleeping arrangements, including room-sharing. The "no-cry sleep solutions" hadn't worked for us despite my best efforts, and this book helped explain why. "All children protest change, and the way they let us know they don't like the change is to cry." For many babies, constantly intervening when they are trying to sleep only frustrates them more and prohibits their ability to figure out how to self-soothe. This was definitely the case with Dakota, my headstrong little girl. I had to let her work off her own steam at the end of the day, and accept her struggle instead of trying to fix it.

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When I finally agreed to give this thing a go, Chris told me the only way it would work is if I left the house after I did the bedtime routine with Dakota. I fought him, but then did a reality check, and realized I would most definitely not be able to hear her cry and not go pick her up. I recognized that I was skeptical she could really put herself to sleep, without a pacifier, swaddle, or any other aids. Being the amazing guy that Chris is, he sent me out for thai food and wine while he did the check-ins, on his BIRTHDAY. In return, I left him with beer and donuts and a crying baby. I think it's clear who won here. But in the end we all won, because Dakota only took 30 minutes to fall asleep on night 1, and really just cried off and on for that 30. I felt SO proud of her. As much as I knew going in to this parenting thing just how smart babies are, I still felt amazed and relieved that my 4-month-old really could self-soothe.

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Since then, we've been sticking with our bedtime routines, and Dakota has been putting herself down for bedtime and naps. She typically takes about 10 minutes to suck on her fingers and look around, and then drifts off to dreamland. Sometimes she fusses but never for more than a few minutes. She no longer wakes up crying at the 30-minute mark, because she is just as she was when she fell asleep for the first time - on her own, no mama arms, no pacifier - and continues on to her 2nd sleep cycle. Our lives have improved drastically - Chris and I get to spend time together in the evening (like watch the Great British Baking Show...) and Dakota is much happier overall! I like to get outside and meet up with friends most days, so we've been doing some naps at home and some out and about. Since starting our sleep learning, it has only made her fall asleep more quickly in the carseat and carrier, without all the bouncing and singing I had been doing before!

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This past week, Dakota and I traveled to California to visit my sister and nephews, and I was worried she wouldn't be able to put herself to sleep in a new environment. But with the same bedtime song, white noise, and sleep sack, she had no problem at all! I was so impressed. It made for a much more enjoyable trip with her cousins! That being said, as all things in parenthood, it is a gradual process, and this coming week I am going to start a little night weaning to hopefully cut down on some of our night feedings. But our sleep learning already feels like a victory, and most importantly, I have more confidence in her and she has more confidence in herself. Next stop: the transition to her floor bed! To be continued...

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Learning by Hands, and Mouth

Theresa Heiden

"He does it with his hands, by experience, first in play and then through work. The hands are the instruments of man's intelligence." - Maria Montessori

Dakota is now 14 weeks old! She has grown and changed so much, but one of the biggest developments recently has been her fascination and use of her hands. These past few weeks, Dakota is all about grabbing objects, fabric, or often just her other hand, and bringing everything to her mouth. As a former developmental psych student, it has been so fun for me to geek out and watch her gradually develop this grasping and holding on skill.

Although babies are born with the palmar reflex (when you touch their palm, they close their fingers around your finger), they don't voluntarily grasp until closer to 3 months. In fact, newborns keep their hands clenched in fists for the first couple of months. But around 11 weeks, Dakota began to open her hand in response to seeing an object (or more often my hair) to grab. Once she could hold on to an object, everything just started going to her mouth (that need to suck is so real). There doesn't seem to be a reason for Dakota to touch an object if she can't also get it to her mouth. Let the germs begin...

When I began to notice Dakota's interest in grasping, I started with simple objects for her to grab at, such as ribbons dangling from her wooden play gym. She especially enjoyed this when one of the ribbons had a bell to make noise! As she started opening her hand more, I helped her grasp a wooden rattle and other thin, lightweight toys to hold onto. Over time, she began to grasp the toys on her own when I held them out to her, and bring them to her mouth. She'd often just grab onto her onesie or burp cloth and bring that to her mouth. Now she has "advanced" to occasionally picking up a toy that is next to her, and holding on to the toys for longer stretches of time (we're still talking a couple minutes max). She is also starting to test her balance by grabbing a rattle or cloth in front of her during tummy time. Who knows where those little hands will take her next! In the meantime, I will just enjoy being Dakota's favorite grasping toy. ;) 

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Here are some of the toys we have enjoyed in this early grasping phase:

 

Baby-Led Tummy Time

Theresa Heiden

All parents have heard the "back to sleep/tummy to play" advice on based on the AAP on repeat. Now that babies must be put to sleep on their back (Dakota's swaddle even reminds me in case I missed the million memos), pediatricians recommend tummy time to strengthen the neck muscles and prevent the dreaded "flat head syndrome".

Unfortunately, now that we put babies on their backs from birth, they often hate tummy time. In addition, some Montessorians and RIE proponents argue that we should skip tummy time until our babies can roll onto their own tummy from their back on their own. They argue that the back is the only natural (unaided) position for baby. I think they have valid arguments, however, I also appreciated my husband's point that young babies don't really put themselves in any positions on their own, even their back.

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I fall somewhere in the middle in my view of tummy time. While I do not think it is crucial in the first few months, I think it can be helpful in gross motor development, and also provides an interesting new perspective for baby. I like the idea of following Dakota's lead, and only placing her in tummy time when she is content to do so, and only as long as she indicates is enough. If Dakota really disliked it after a few tries, we'd probably skip it until she could roll over, but for now she enjoys it and sometimes even cozily rests on her tummy.

I think it's important to note that tummy time doesn't have to be on the floor, or without comforts. While Dakota probably spends a few minutes once or twice a day in tummy time on a rug or pillow, she also spends much more "tummy time" while resting on my chest after nursing, allowing her to look at my face. While sometimes this quickly turns into a boob snooze, more and more she is now lifting that big head of hers to take a look around.

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Here are some of the other ways we've made tummy time more enjoyable for Dakota these first 2 months:

  1. Place baby on a super soft surface (her favorite is the sheepskin rug)
  2. Use a boppy or small pillow to elevate her head and hands
  3. Lie down next to her on the ground so she can see us
  4. Place a mirror or pictures in front of her or to the side
  5. Try different areas of house, to vary light and scenery
  6. Let her rest or suck on her fingers on her tummy
  7. Give her a chance to struggle a bit (but end when she's clearly getting upset)
  8. Talk to her and encourage her (note our dog helping with this!) 

And that is how we are doing baby-led tummy time. For now at least. ;)

A Baby's Focus

Theresa Heiden

The set-up of a child's environment is a key component of Montessori's philosophy. For an infant, a main feature of this environment is the movement area, where they can move freely in their natural position while absorbing their surroundings. Pictures and objects are placed nearby at the baby's eye level and be specifically designed to tap into their visual and cognitive abilities at each developmental stage. For the first couple months of a baby's life, this includes high contrast black and white mobiles, images, and a mirror for self discovery. The idea is that given time and space here, babies will work on concentration, visual tracking, gross motor skills, and develop an appreciation of quiet, alert time.

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Following this, I've set up various movement areas for Dakota around the house. My husband likes to tease me by calling them "cognitive development stations". ;) In these areas, I usually lie her down on a soft blanket, rug, or the Montessori topponcino with plenty of wiggle room, and then provide some kind of visual stimuli appropriate to a newborn's sight and reach. This has been a big success for both me and Dakota. Several times a day, she lies on her own on the floor (up to 30 minutes at a time!), content and focused on the black and white animals, herself in the floor mirror, or the munari mobile. I recently added in a bell on a ribbon that she enjoys kicking and swatting as she wiggles. Each set up is simple, but just interesting enough to capture her attention.

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It has been really fun to see her interest, concentration, and movement develop over the last month or so, as she "plays" on her own. It gives me a chance to really appreciate all those new baby sounds, expressions, and jerky movements. Seeing her happy in these movement areas gives me hope is that the time she spends in these movement areas now will give her an appreciation of independent play as she gets a bit older. It's nice to have that balance of social and independent time. Because it is equally fun to lie down next to her or cuddle with her, and these days, occasionally be rewarded with a smile! In these short spurts of Dakota's alert time, we are finding that balance of quiet time and mama time, both equally sweet.

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The Elusive Sleep

Theresa Heiden

Maria Montessori didn't provide any clear cut rules on sleep, but the most common method among Montessori parents seems to be independent sleep via the floor bed. The idea (which I completely agree with if it works) is that the floor bed promotes positive sleeping experience and self-soothing early on. Unlike cribs, floor beds allow the infant or toddler to go to sleep when they are ready. (This also requires fully baby-proofing the bedroom.) But if the child isn’t initially tired or they wake up in the night, they won’t necessarily cry because they are in trapped in their crib. Instead, they can look around and even explore a bit and put themselves to sleep when ready. Importantly, the child's bedroom is kept simple and separate from their main “play/movement” space, so they quickly learn their room is a place of rest. With time and consistency, infants learn how to self-soothe on their own.

Janet Lansbury of RIE parenting emphasizes self soothing too: “Supporting a baby to self-soothe can mean listening to her complaints for a minute or two while she finds her thumb, rather than immediately giving her a pacifier. It can be about remembering to offer two teethers and allowing the baby to choose one and grasp it herself rather than automatically placing something in her mouth. It might mean allowing our baby to cry in our arms to release her feelings at bedtime instead of rocking, patting, or jiggling her, etc., as explained in “Helping Young Children Sleep” from Hand-in-Hand parenting. As I say so often, “Observe and wait.” Sometimes you may even find out that what you believed the infant wanted was only your assumption. Being sensitive to the possibility of self-soothing is the beginning of believing in your baby.”

Those are my #goals. But in these first 6 weeks of having a new baby, I feel more like I'm in a sort of sleep survival mode. The big question is always what will help little Dakota to sleep on her own so I can sleep too? I can see that reaching the point of independent sleep is definitely a slow and gradual process, and I have to remind myself that I can get there eventually. And that sometimes (or all the time in the beginning) you just have to do what you can to get sleep to prevent becoming a momzie/zombie. No judgment allowed!

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Our plan starting out was a simple bassinet in our bedroom where baby would sleep unswaddled at night, and maybe even in the day! Ha. After 1 week, we admitted defeat with the flat surface of the bassinet and crazy baby moro reflex. The only way our baby would sleep more than an hour was in a carrier or on one of our bodies. I learned (thanks pinterest) that booby-trapped has a new meaning: when your baby has fallen asleep on the boob and you're too scared to move them for fear they will wake up. ;) My husband rushed out to Target to get a rock-n-play and a swaddle pod. For the first time since Dakota came home, she slept 2-3 hours at one time. No matter the aids to sleep, I considered this a win.

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It has by no means been easy since then. She still only sleeps max 3 hours at a time. I still spend hours helping Dakota sleep in her little bed. The number of times I've sung Baby Beluga and All the Pretty Little Horses while bouncing on my pregnancy ball is staggering. My back hurts from leaning over her with my hand on her chest until I think she's in a deep sleep in her bed (I'm often wrong). I can never quite figure out the timing of nursing before sleep. The number of different swaddles and sleep sacks I've purchased is embarrassing. And then sometimes just when she's gone down, my dog barks and we start over.

Dakota is still changing patterns every day, so I just remain flexible with our sleep. During the day I often "wear" Dakota so I can actually be a bit productive (and eat with 2 hands!), but we are also working on her taking naps on her own. We've even weaned off the rock in the rock-n-play, and occasionally sleep without arms swaddled. Tiny victories! I try my best to help her nod completely off to sleep in her bed, but I am not above nursing to sleep. And I am okay with the fact that a full-body swaddle is the only route to a few hours of sleep. Baby steps I remind myself. She's only 6 weeks. So for now, for my own sanity and mothering abilities, Dakota often calls the shots at bedtime. Montessori said, "follow the child" and I can at least say I'm doing that. :)

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