by Delila Olsson
Toileting, like every step new learning in a child’s life, begins with recognition of the child’s readiness and then requires the support of adults and an environment that fully meet the need for independence.
Supporting your child’s toilet learning process requires your patience, trust and consistency. It’s important to establish a routine, provide the necessary tools of independence, and follow through consistently until toileting becomes a familiar aspect of your child’s daily routine.
Once the routine and preparations are set up, the key is to allow the child to learn toileting on his/her own with only as much adult help is truly needed. The purpose of this article is to provide you with proven tools and tips that will help to assure your child’s success in toileting, and lead to the self-confidence that mastering the process will bring.
When to begin Toileting Practice
Physiologically, a child is ready to begin using the toilet as early as 12 months old, but because most children in our culture wear disposable diapers as infants the process is often delayed until 2/12 to 3 years old. In our Montessori Toddler community, children as young as 15 months are in the process of toilet learning with the use of a real toilet. However, toilet learning a natural process that unfolds in a unique way for each child and it’s important to take a relaxed and supportive stance as your child becomes aware of his/her bodily functions and learns the necessary skills to manage toileting needs. Some of the most common signs of toileting readiness include:
- Curiosity about adult toilet habits – the child may want to go to the bathroom with you
- Staying dry (in a diaper) for longer periods of time
- Recognizing the body’s urge to urinate or move the bowel
- Interest in the toilet – child may want to throw things in and/or flush
- Climbing on and off of the toilet
- Asking to wear real underwear
Prepare a child-sized Changing Station:
When you notice your child beginning to shows signs of readiness, it’s time to set up a bathroom ‘changing shelf’ at their level – to include:
- A stock of cotton training pants
- A supply of cotton cloths or wipes
- A hamper for soiled underpants and wet clothes
The Basic Toilet Learning Routine
- First thing upon waking, help your child to sit on the toilet — “soon after we wake up, our bodies usually need to urinate and sometimes our bowels need to move.”
- Put on a fresh pair of (padded, cotton) underwear
- Regularly check in with the child, “Do you need to sit on the toilet? Does your body need to release anything?”
- After eating, take the child to the toilet – “After we eat a meal or snack, our bodies often have to urinate or our bowels may need to move.”
- Before going out, take the child to the toilet, “At the park/museum/library there might not be an easy place to change clothes. Please sit on the toilet now, in case your body needs to release anything before we go.”
- Before bedtime, take the child to the toilet, “It’s good to use the toilet last thing before bed in case our bodies need to release anything before we sleep.”
- If the child wets their clothing, “Oh, I see you urinated in your underwear. That happens sometimes. Please sit on the toilet now to see if your body has anything else to release.” Then invite the child to put on a dry pair of underwear, and place the wet pair in the dirty laundry hamper. (always carry extra clothing and plastic bags when you’re away from home, and allow your child to be independent in changing clothes)
- If the child soils their clothing, “I see you released your bowel in your underwear. That happens sometimes when we’re learning to listen to our body’s messages. Please sit on the toilet now to see if your body has anything else to release.” Then invite the child to use a wet cloth or wipe to clean his/her own body. Allow as much independence as possible with the cleaning process; it can take time. Demonstrate the motion of reaching back to clean, and checking each time to see if the cloth or wipe is clean. Then, invite the child to put on a dry pair of underwear, and place the place the soiled pair in the dirty laundry hamper. (always carry extra clothing and plastic bags when you’re away from home, and allow your child to be independent in changing clothes)
- Once your child is staying clean and dry for long periods of time and using the toilet often and with independence, you might offer to let them choose a new set of underwear with special patterns and without the extra padding of the training underwear. This can be a special “rite of passage” to the next stage of independence and confidence in the life of the child.
How to talk with your child about toileting
Using the toilet is an everyday part of life. Therefore, it’s important for you (the adult) to be comfortable explaining and discussing the process – including the use of proper names of body parts and processes. It’s also important to maintain a calm and positive demeanor, including (especially!) when child doesn’t make it to the toilet or doesn’t remember to go to the toilet and urinates in clothes. Here is some suggested phrasing, in the positive, that conveys your calm confidence in your child’s readiness and ability to be successful with toileting:
- “You may go and sit on the toilet when your body needs to release something.”
- “I notice your clothing is wet/soiled. That can be irritating for your skin, so we need to clean up and change to a dry set of clothes.”
- Before an outing: “At the park there might not be an easy place to change clothes. Please sit on the toilet now, in case your body needs release anything before we go.”
- “That’s wonderful that you remembered to use the toilet! It’s so much more comfortable when our clothes are clean and dry.”
- “I hear that you are upset about your wet clothes. Sometimes as we’re learning to listen to our body’s messages, we might not make it to the toilet in time. That happens. Please sit on the toilet now, in case your body needs release anything else. Then you can clean your body and put on a fresh set of clothes.”
How to talk your child through the clean-up and changing process
- “I notice your clothing is wet/soiled, let’s get you changed into a fresh set of clothes”
- “First, take off your soiled pants and put them in the hamper.”
- “Now, please sit on the toilet in case your body needs to release anything else.”
- “Here is a cloth/wipe you can use to wipe your bottom, like this” (demonstrate)
- “Wipe your bottom with the cloth one more time.” (Until the cloth is clean)
- “Now you can throw the soiled cloth in the hamper.” (or wipe, in the wastebasket)
- “Now you may choose a clean pair of underwear from the shelf, and put them on.”
- “Lastly, it’s important to always wash your hands before leaving the bathroom.”
Clothing choices that support toilet independence
Natural cotton fabrics are gentlest on children’s tender skin and likewise allow the child to sense wetness and begin to make the connection between the wetness they feel and the biological impulse to empty the bladder or bowel. Disposable underwear like pull-ups prevent children from making this connection, and also contain chemicals which are toxic.
Also, for those new to toileting it’s enough of a challenge to get to the bathroom in time without facing the added obstacle of fussy clothing and difficult closures. Elastic waistbands and easy fitting, pullover shirts, are the best choices for little ones learning to be independent with dressing and toileting.
Avoid bribes — Independence is its own Reward!
Learning to use the toilet is the child’s work, not the parents. Rewards and incentives are neither necessary nor helpful. The acquisition of independence is both the child’s intrinsic motivation and lasting reward. No external reward (or punishment) can provide the confidence that is born of a child’s discovery that “I did it myself!”
Most of all, try and appreciate every step in the process of your child’s growing independence and self-esteem.