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Montessori at home: Choosing holiday gifts that encourage independent play in kids

Some children are naturally more content to play independently than others. I vividly remember my sister playing contentedly by herself for hours, while I would choose to play with someone every single time if given the choice.

Temperament aside, there are definitely things we can do to help our children learn to play independently, and part of this is selecting certain toys and leaving others in the toy store.

What to avoid

Certain toys actually hinder a child's ability and desire to play on their own.

Electronic toys

They teach a child to be entertained, rather than actively engaged in their own play. Children may gravitate toward them because they look fun and exciting, and they are also easier than active play, in the same way that watching TV is easier than reading or pursuing a hobby.

It is passive and requires no creativity or active participation. These toys tend to lose their appeal quickly and make it harder for children to develop their creativity.

One-time kits

These are another example that almost always requires adult direction. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a kit that shows a child how to create a specific craft or build a certain model, but after it's built, the kit is often useless and the child cannot engage with it independently.

Too many toys

No matter what they are, having too many choices also hinders creativity and independent play, as children become overwhelmed. That doesn't mean you can't shower your little one with gifts this holiday season if that's what you want to do, but try putting most of the new toys away in a closet so your child can fully appreciate them as you rotate them throughout the year.

What to look for

In contrast, certain toys invite children to become lost in their own play, to the point where they may seem to forget that you're even there. This is hugely beneficial, not just for you and your ability to get things done, but for your child.

When children are deeply engaged in play, they are exercising creativity and concentration, which both grow and develop with practice. These are skills that will transfer over to their academic lives and serve them forever.

Here are a few things to look for:

1. Open-ended

Open-ended toys, like blocks, have nearly infinite uses. Children can use them to build towers or cities or can make patterns from the shapes or colors. There is no one right way to use an open-ended toy, and so it invites children to be creative and explore the many possibilities their minds come up with.

Try:

2. Artistic

High-quality art supplies encourage creativity and also provides many interesting sensory experiences as children explore what paint and glue feel like, and how different writing instruments feel in their hands.

Painting and drawing can also be excellent for fine motor development as the child strengthens their hand and becomes increasingly exact in their creations.

To support your child's confidence in engaging with art materials independently, try not to show them how to draw something specific. They might become discouraged when their own picture doesn't look the same. Instead, expose them to all sorts of art, from completely abstract, to impressionist, to surrealist so they learn that artistic expression can look all sorts of different ways.

Try:

3. Exploratory

Toys that help your child explore the natural world and the way things work show them that they don't need anybody else to learn. They teach them to be an explorer in their own world, to be their own teacher.

Whether the toy explores magnetic fields, gravity, or the intricate details of butterflies, these scientific toys encourage deep learning as well as independent play.

Try:

4. Imaginative

Children really don't need anything other than free time to use their imaginations, but there are some great toys that can help them along and add variety to their games. Items like dress ups and costumes invite children to become someone else, to create a different world in their minds.

Model toys, like animals, figurines or train sets, also invite imaginary play and many children can play with this type of toy for quite a long time on their own.

Try:

5. Problem-solving

Toys like puzzles that encourage problem-solving skills, can suck children into deep concentration if they are just the right level of challenge. Completing this type of activity also gives children a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Try:

Every child is different. Watch your child. Notice when they're lost in play and seems to forget you're there. That is when the magic is happening.

Make note of what they're playing with when this happens and keep that in mind as you select toys for him in the future. Encouraging this type of deep engagement and independent play will serve your whole family well beyond the holiday season.

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When you become a parent for the first time, there is an undeniably steep learning curve. Add to that the struggle of sorting through fact and fiction when it comes to advice and—whew—it's enough to make you more tired than you already are with that newborn in the house.

Just like those childhood games of telephone when one statement would get twisted by the time it was told a dozen times, there are many parenting misconceptions that still tend to get traction. This is especially true with myths about bottle-feeding—something that the majority of parents will do during their baby's infancy, either exclusively or occasionally.

Here's what you really need to know about bottle-feeding facts versus fiction.

1. Myth: Babies are fine taking any bottle

Not all bottles are created equally. Many parents experience anxiety when it seems their infant rejects all bottles, which is especially nerve wracking if a breastfeeding mom is preparing to return to work. However, it's often a matter of giving the baby some time to warm up to the new feeding method, says Katie Ferraro, a registered dietician, infant feeding specialist and associate professor of nutrition at the University of California San Francisco graduate School of Nursing.

"For mothers returning to work, if you're breastfeeding but trying to transition to bottle[s], try to give yourself a two- to four-week trial window to experiment with bottle feeding," says Ferraro.

2. Myth: You either use breast milk or formula

So often, the question of whether a parent is using formula or breastfeeding is presented exclusively as one or the other. In reality, many babies are combo-fed—meaning they have formula sometimes, breast milk other times.

The advantage with mixed feeding is the babies still get the benefits of breast milk while parents can ensure the overall nutritional and caloric needs are met through formula, says Ferraro.

3. Myth: Cleaning bottles is a lot of work

For parents looking for simplification in their lives (meaning, all of us), cleaning bottles day after day can sound daunting. But, really, it doesn't require much more effort than you are already used to doing with the dishes each night: With bottles that are safe for the top rack of the dishwasher, cleaning them is as easy as letting the machine work for you.

For added confidence in the sanitization, Dr. Brown's offers an incredibly helpful microwavable steam sterilizer that effectively kills all household bacteria on up to four bottles at a time. (Not to mention it can also be used on pacifiers, sippy cups and more.)

4. Myth: Bottle-feeding causes colic

One of the leading theories on what causes colic is indigestion, which can be caused by baby getting air bubbles while bottle feeding. However, Dr. Brown's bottles are the only bottles in the market that are actually clinically proven to reduce colic thanks to an ingenious internal vent system that eliminates negative pressure and air bubbles.

5. Myth: Bottles are all you can use for the first year

By the time your baby is six months old (way to go!), they may be ready to begin using a sippy cup. Explains Ferraro, "Even though they don't need water or additional liquids at this point, it is a feeding milestone that helps promote independent eating and even speech development."

With a complete line of products to see you from newborn feeding to solo sippy cups, Dr. Brown's does its part to make these new transitions less daunting. And, for new parents, that truly is priceless.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Many parents begin looking into Montessori when their children reach preschool age, but there is so much you can do at home even with the youngest babies. Montessori is much more than a method of education or academic system. It is a philosophy and a certain way of approaching children, whether at school or in the home.

Here are five simple (and free!) ways you can begin using Montessori with your child from birth. And if your child is older, don't worry—all of these principles apply to older children as well.

1. Provide freedom of movement

From birth, we can give children the opportunity to move freely in their environment.

For a newborn, this simply means providing plenty of time when they are not being held or constrained in a carrier, stroller or other device.

You might spend time siting next to your child while they lay on a soft blanket, either inside or outdoors. They're clearly not able to move around the environment on their own at this point, but can practice moving their arms and legs and supporting their head, without their movements being limited.

For an older baby, freedom of movement might include letting them pull up on objects and edge their way around the room at their own pace, rather than putting them in a jumper or holding their hands while they walk.

Freedom of movement is excellent for gross motor development, but it is also a great confidence builder. It sends a clear message to your child that you believe they are capable of developing their muscles and abilities in their own timeframe.

Another aspect of freedom of movement is comfortable clothing that supports a baby's growing ability to move. Dressing your baby in a onesie or loose fitting pants and shirt maximizes their ability to move. Providing young babies plenty of time unswaddled and without mittens or shoes also helps them learn to use their muscles.

2. Use respectful communication

Respectful communication is a hallmark of Montessori for children at all ages, and this can certainly begin at birth. It may feel silly at first, but try telling your infant each time you're going to pick them up. Let them know when it's time to eat or time for a diaper. It will begin to feel more natural each time you do it.

You might try asking permission, such as, "May I pick you up for a diaper change now?"

While they, of course, won't be able to answer you in words yet, they will understand your tone and if you ask regularly, they might start to respond in other ways, such as reaching for you or smiling.

We can also show respect through our communication by always using real, precise language. For example, rather than telling a baby a picture is a "doggie," try telling them it's a "dog," or maybe even the type or name of the dog if you know.

This type of communication lays a wonderful foundation for a relationship of mutual respect, and also exposes your child to a rich vocabulary from the beginning.

3. See caregiving as bonding

Caregiving tasks, such as feeding and changing diapers, can seem endless and can be truly exhausting, especially in the first few months. In Montessori, we try to view these activities as a time for bonding and connecting, a time to give a child our undivided attention.

In a classroom with multiple babies, or a home with older siblings around, this can be an especially important time to take a few moments and be present with the baby you are caring for. It can be so tempting to scroll through social media while breastfeeding or rush through diaper changes to get to the more fun stuff, but these are truly opportunities to slow down, make eye contact with your child, and simply be with them.

Montessori also views these activities as collaborative. We always try to do things "with" children, rather than "to" them.

For the youngest infants, collaboration might just be talking them through what you're doing, or following their lead for when they need to eat and sleep.

For older babies, you can include them more through asking them to crawl to the diaper changing area or bring you a diaper, or offering them two shirts or two foods to choose from.

Reframing these caregiving activities not only makes them more enjoyable for us parents, it ensures that we have regular check-ins where we're fully present with our babies. It makes them feel cared for, and never like a burden.

4. Allow time for independence

How can a baby be independent? They rely on us for so much—warmth, nourishment, safety, love—but we can actually help infants develop independence from the very beginning.

We can look for times when our baby is calm and alert and let them "play," or lay on a blanket, without being held. We can give them time to look around the room and visually explore their new world without interacting with or distracting them.

We can respond to mild fussing first by talking to them, by gently touching them or holding their hand, rather than immediately swooping them up into our arms. Sometimes all they need is a little reassurance that we're there.

Every baby is different and every baby's tolerance for these moments is unique. Some babies might be content to lay on their own for quite a while, while others seem to want to be held constantly. Follow your own child's lead, but look for little opportunities to help them stretch their independence from the start.

5. Practice observation

Observation is one of the most important principles of Montessori for all ages.

Each child is on their own developmental path and the only way we can really know what they need, what challenges they're ready for, is through careful observation.

Naturally, you spend tons of time watching your new baby. Observation is just a slightly different mindset, watching with intention, to see what new skills your baby might be working on, what parts of the room they stare at with captivated interest.

This type of observation will help you know what toys to offer your baby better than any developmental timeline. It will also help you get to know them in a deeper way.

Montessori can seem a bit mysterious or even intimidating, but so much of it is really so simple. It is much more about how we view and interact with children than about academic achievement or beautiful materials.

No matter what type of school you plan to send your children to, incorporating these principles at home from the beginning can add so much to your parenting journey.

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There are so many firsts we get to experience with our baby in those precious 24 hours after birth, but experts suggest that a first bath should not be one of them as waiting could help mama and baby with breastfeeding.

This week a study published in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing links delaying newborn baths with increased in-hospital exclusive breastfeeding rates.

The study's lead author, Heather Condo DiCioccio, is a nursing professional development specialist for the Mother/Baby Unit at Cleveland Clinic Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. She told TODAY her research was promoted by patients, who have increasingly been asking staff to hold off that first bath in recent years.

Part of this is likely due to the World Health Organization's stance on newborn bathing. The WHO recommends babies should not get a bath for 24 hours, but the recommendations don't really explain why the organization suggests this.

DiCioccio's study involved almost 1000 mama-baby pairs. Around half of the babies were bathed within 2 hours of birth, as per the hospital's previous policy. The rest saw the first bath delayed for at least 12 hours. The researchers found a link between delaying a bath and exclusive breastfeeding, but they could not precisely answer why. DiCioccio thinks it might have something to do with baby's sense of smell.

"They've been swimming in the amniotic fluid for 38, 39, 40 weeks of their life and the mother's breast puts out a similar smell as that amniotic fluid," she told TODAY. "So the thought is maybe the two smells help that baby actually latch. It makes it easier for the baby to find something comfortable and normal and that they like."

For DiCioccio, anything that can help mamas with breastfeeding is a welcome intervention, but the nursing link is not the only benefit to delayed bathing. She notes that keeping the vernix (that white stuff) on the baby for longer allows the baby to benefit from its antimicrobial properties and can help with lung development.

However, sometimes babies do need a bath soon after birth. When mothers are dealing with health issues that can see babies exposed to blood-borne pathogens (like HIV, active herpes lesions or hepatitis B or C), a bath sooner after birth is still best, DiCioccio explained to TODAY.

Even when blood-borne pathogens are not a concern, cultural preferences might be. Not every parent wants to delay baby's first bath, and that's okay—during DiCioccio's study the wishes of parents who wanted their baby bathed shortly after birth were respected—but it's good to have all the knowledge we can get when it comes to postnatal best practices.

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Ayesha Curry has three kids, a husband with a super busy career and a super busy career herself. It would be so easy for her priority list to be: 1) kids, 2) career, then 3) Steph—but the TV host, chef, Honest Company ambassador and entrepreneurial #bossbabe says her partner still has the number one spot, even after all these years.

Speaking to HelloGiggles, Curry explains that she and her Golden State Warrior husband have seen how partners prioritizing each other can benefit a family as a whole. That's why she and Stef don't prioritize the kids above each other.

"Both of our parents are still married and have been married for 30-plus years, and the one thing that they both shared with us—some through learning it the hard way, some through just making sure that they do it—is just making sure that we put each other first, even before the kids, as tough as that sounds," she tells HelloGiggles.

For the Currys, that means making time in those very busy schedules for date nights where they don't have to be mom and dad, they can just connect as partners. Curry admits that it's not always easy to break her brain out of mama-mode and prioritize something other than time with her kids, but she recognizes that when she and Stef put each other first, the kids benefit.

"That's been very important, as hard as it is. Because when you become a parent, you want to put your kids first, and we do, but we do it second to our relationship. Because ultimately, when our relationship is good, the kids are happy and they're thriving and our family life is good. We have to put that into perspective and realize that it's not us being selfish, it's making sure we set a strong foundation."



Experts back Curry up

Family therapist Raffi Bilek, director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, tells Fatherly that while putting each other first may seem counterintuitive to parents, it's important. "I think that the question of when to prioritize your partner over your kid is best answered with 'always,'" Bilek says.

David Code is a therapist and the author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First. He wants parents to lean on each other more because when we don't our kids can end up shouldering some of our emotional needs, and that's not fair. It's also not fair for parents to put their relationship and themselves last every time. He believes the "greatest gift you can give your children is to have a fulfilling marriage yourself."

According to Code, "families centered on children create anxious, exhausted parents and demanding, entitled children. We parents today are too quick to sacrifice our lives and our marriages for our kids. Most of us have created child-centered families, where our children hold priority over our time, energy and attention."

Therapists like Code and Bilek are calling on parents to put their partners first, and stop buying into the myth that we don't have time for our spouses.

If the Currys can find time for each other in their crazy schedules, so too can the rest of us.

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This morning I left my 4-year-old sobbing in the arms of her Pre-K teacher. As I turned to leave, the sight of her little face crumbling, trying to be brave but not quite managing, tore right to my core. I walked away feeling like I was wading through treacle, my chest aching and my arms heavy and useless where my child should have been. It felt so very unnatural to leave when she was crying out my name.

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