Are you currently in the throes of potty training your toddler or preschool child? Or are you wondering if it might be the right time to start potty training?
Potty training (or Toilet Learning, as some refer to it as) can be one of the hardest stages of development for both the caregiver and child.
At times it can feel like navigating a mine-field; and trying to research and gather info on it can be just plan overwhelming! It seems everyone has a "theory" - their own personal "secret to success". Yet, you read the next person's "secret to success" - and it is the polar opposite to the first! So what's the secret?!? Which will support you and your child through this process?
Well, at the end of the day parents need to decide upon a strategy and plan that best suits their family.
What I can say is - based on my 17 years working with toddlers and preschoolers I have had the PLEASURE of assisting hundreds of children through their potty training education; and it has shown me some tried and true things that really do work - as well as things that do NOT work!
So, I will do my best to share my many experiences with Potty Training, to hopefully assist anyone going through the potty training journey - Instagram Follower @montessori.mumma asked for info via a recent IG post asking if any of our followers had questions about the preschool years!
How To Know When To Start:
Parents need to understand, and ACCEPT, that there is no universal golden age that a child is ready to potty train. Each child is different, and their bodies grow and develop at their own pace. This means some children will be physiologically ready at age 18 months (super rare!!). Others, around 24 months (still rare!). Most, between 2.5 years through 3.5 years. And some children can be later still - I have worked with preschoolers who truly were not ready until 4 years old.
So with this much age range - how can you assess when your child is ready?
There are signs you can watch for, including:
- Can they go two+ hours in their diaper without peeing?
- Are they showing interest in washroom routines (talking about it, noticing when others use the washroom, etc)
- Are they verbalizing (telling you) right after they have peed or had a BM? Are they letting you know they need a diaper change?
- And though this is less common - are they telling you that they need to pee?
If you have said "yes" to any of the above, your child may be ready for potty training!
If you said "no" to all of the above, but you just have a feeling that your child may be ready, then I recommend also starting - but while carefully observing for any signs that it is not what their body is currently ready for as the first two weeks go. BUT - if your child is showing signs that they aren't ready in the first two weeks - STOP!! Forcing potty training before a child is physically ready can cause severe delays in achieving potty training - and add MONTHS if not more to how long it takes your child to become potty trained!! (See below for signs your child is not ready for potty training).
Starting Potty Training:
When you make the decision to give potty training a try, make your Plan of Action - and make sure all of the adults in your child's life (partners/spouses, child care centre, grandparents, babysitters, etc) know what the Plan is. It is CRUCIAL that EVERYONE follows the same Plan, so there is CONSISTENCY for your child! Nothing can derail potty training faster than inconsistency for a preschool child!!
How To Make Your Plan:
You need to decide the following key pieces:
- Will you use a diaper, a disposable potty training diaper (like pull-ups), or potty training underwear, or regular underwear?
- How will you adapt the toilet for your child? Will you use a potty seat on the toilet? Will you get a travel potty? Will you get a sturdy step stool for your child to climb up onto the toilet seat?
- What language will you use with your child, as "cue words" for them to say when they need to go?
- How often will bathroom trips be? Every hour? Two hours? Ten minutes?
- How will you explain potty training to your child? What language are you comfortable with using, to refer to body parts?
- Are you going to use any type of tracking system, or reward system, along with your child's potty training journey?
Every family will answer the above questions, based upon their own core beliefs, values, child rearing philosophies, and opinions. And that is each family's right - it is their child, their choice.
But I can share what I believe, based on my years of potty training experience with all types of children:
1. I recommend using the special potty training underwear (see picture) that have extra padding to "soak up" accidents (which helps with clean up). The reason I prefer these to diapers or pull-ups-type disposable trainers are: the sensory experience of "having an accident" is one of the BEST learning tools for a preschool child, to be able to learn the cause and effect of urination. As accidents occur, the child begins to link the sensory feeling of urinating, with the physical sensations PRIOR to urinating - the fullness of bladder and need to empty. When diapers or pull-ups are used, they inhibit this sensory experience, which means it takes longer for children to make this "connection" in their minds - the need to pee. And with the extra padding of these underwear, it makes clean up so much easier!!
2. I recommend using a potty seat - that can be either installed with the regular toilet seat (picture A), or one that can be placed on and off the toilet (picture B). The reason is - many children do have a fear from the lack of stability they feel while sitting on the toilet - as it is so large for their body - and of "falling in"; the smaller seat makes them feel more safe. Some even come with two hand holds on the sides, which increases the child's feeling of stability even more! And, you can take them with you when you're not at home!! Which means consistency for your child, no matter where you are!! Note: most children will only need these smaller seats during the beginning of potty training - after getting comfortable with using a toilet, and achieving "full potty training" (no more accidents) you will most often be able to forgo the small seats, and just use the regular toilet.
When it comes to the "travel potties" (see picture below), I am not a huge fan. I do believe they have merit in SOME situations (such as road trips where bathrooms are far between), or camping (when there are no toilets available). But for everyday life, I am not a fan of these potties. I am a firm believer that in order for a child have healthy developmental grown, they need to have access to real materials from everyday life. And for families that use these portable potties in random parts of their home (living room, dining room, bedroom, etc) - please stop!! This is so unnecessary, and actually detrimental to your child developing functioning body control. Our goal as educators to children (whether we are parents, caregivers, or child care/teachers) is to assist them in gaining REAL LIFE SKILLS. Real life does not include bathrooms in the middle of the dining room. If your child has an accident while rushing from the living room to bathroom - so be it! It's all part of potty training. Part of this process is their body learning to control its physical functions (like bladder control) - this will happen in time.
3. When it comes to language, this is so specific to each family - and rightfully so. No matter whether you use nicknames for bodily functions, say "peepee" or "pee" or "tinkle" - or the actual names ("urinate") as long as your child knows the words, you are fine! I know many ECE's advocate for the use of anatomically-correct use of words with children - but to me, I'm not that concerned with it. As long as the wording is consistent, respectful, child-appropriate, and known by all - go for it!
One thing I do advocate for during potty training is - continual conversations with your child to help them feel "cues" - for example, when I'm speaking with children, I will often say "do you want to go to the bathroom and try peeing? Do you 'feel' like your body has pee that needs to come out?", or in the washroom while a child is sitting on a toilet "think about your body - push the pee out". These types of conversations get the child to be more aware of their body's functions and cues.
4. At the start of potty training - be ready to take bathroom trips every 15 minutes with your child!! This may seem extreme, but it really does help with their understanding of their bodies!! After the first week, lengthen the trips by 5-10 minutes, depending on how potty training is going. This will help build your child's bladder control. And watch for timing of accidents (if you have time for it, jot them down in a notebook, so you can check at night for patterns from the day/week) - if you notice accidents 20 minutes after every meal - plan bathroom trips 15 minutes after every meal!
Make bathroom trips fun! Have a basket of books by the toilet for your child, and encourage them to look at a book for five minutes, while "trying"! The key here is "encourage" - never force. You can also sing songs, talk, and just enjoy your time together! Please note: "sitting and trying" should never be longer than 5 minutes at a time. Longer is not healthy for your child, and can be counterproductive to potty training.
5. Last is the most controversial of all potty training strategies - and also happens to be the one I advocate MOST against - reward systems. I am a FIRM believer that children navigate their life stages naturally, and that there should never be any sort of positive or negative external system of rewards/punishments tied to the learning of life skills. Children learn to use a toilet because it is a BODY FUNCTION. It is not a trick, ability, skill, or performance - it is part of being a functioning living being. I am fully against all types of sticker charts, candies, treats, or rewards for peeing/pooping. It is an intrinsic life skill, a basic body function, and when we start imposing rewards (or worse, punishments) on a child's bodily functions, we are doing severe harm to their self-image, self-perceptions, and self-esteem. Can you imagine the feelings of sadness a two year old would feel if they "fail" at a body function? Even if they can't/don't express it, they feel it. And on the other end of the spectrum - it can teach children that they DESERVE rewards for performing basic skills of life - and when that ideology is imprinted into a preschoolers brain - it can cause a whole HOST of problems down the road, where they are making choices based on EXTERNAL motivators instead of INTERNAL motivators. In my opinion, reward and punishment systems for potty training is used for the adult's ease, not the child's. Just my opinion.
Now that you've made your Plan of Action, it's time to start potty training!! Here are some Tips and Suggestions that I have found useful over the years:
- Start healthy sanitization habits off RIGHT from the start - show your child how to wipe properly, how much toilet paper to use, how to flush, wash their hands with soap - and for the young gentlemen who stand and pee - to put the seat back down for the ladies of the house!! Grace and Courtesy!!
- Learning to urinate vs. bowel movements are almost ALWAYS on different timelines for preschool kids; don't be surprised if your child has gone weeks or longer without a pee accident - but still poops in their underwear regularly. There's many reasons for this - too many to list. But be patient - it will happen eventually!
- Have MULTIPLE changes of clothing (socks, underwear, pants, shirts) with you EVERYWHERE YOU GO!!!! Accidents will happen frequently at the start! And please - make sure you send lots to preschool too!!!
- Do not give up! It can be super frustrating, going through accident after accident - but keep at it! When parents "quit" or "take a break" from potting training out of their frustration - and go back to diapers - it really disrupts the entire process for the child. And can extend the time frame of achieving potty training by MONTHS!!! This is so true - so please, if your child is still showing signs of readiness, stick with it! Don't give up!!
- Network with other parents going through the potty training journey!! Be each other's strength, shoulder to cry (or scream!) on, share tips and ideas - there is so much positive strength given from having this kind of support system!! Look for other parents via your child care centre, online local parenting groups on social media, church, community centres!
- Talk to your child's child care centre - your program's staff can be the best resource to families! Believe me - we have seen and heard it all, and there is NO need for embarrassment!! And don't forget - many of us are parents too! So we understand where you're coming from!!
- Purchase some easy-clean shoes (something like Jelly Shoes, rubber sandals, or Crocs) that can be quickly washed and then worn! Save the "special shoes" until potty training is done - or be prepared to wash a LOT of shoes in your washer/dryer!
- Nightime: this is the one area that I DO recommend using diapers or pull-ups; as the physical ability to wake up due to needing the washroom does NOT usually happen during potty training - this is usually mastered around ages 4-7. If you do want to try underwear at night - I recommend getting a plastic fitted-sheet (sold in children's sections for potty training) to protect your mattress - accidents WILL happen, and happen often!
- SUPER IMPORTANT - be positive!!! Potty training can be the most frustrating stage for adults, it is absolutely true - but your child is doing the best they can. Acknowledge their hard work and progress, and avoid showing them your own negative feelings - this can cause real anxiety and stress for some children - and for others, can open the door to them learning they have POWER via potty training - and not the good kind! The kind that turns into behavioural issues and power struggles!! We will talk about this down further.
- Celebrate the successes!! Be your child's cheerleader!! When they pee on the toilet - SING! DANCE! HUG!! Show them how big their success is!!! Show them your pride in their accomplishment!!
- Accept that accidents will happen - and make your child be part of the clean up process (in a positive way - NEVER as a punishment). Have them take off their soiled clothes, put them in the laundry bin (or bag if you're not at home), have them clean their body (don't forget legs and feet!), put on their new clothes, wash their hands, etc. By participating in the process of cleaning up, it helps the child feel in control, feel empowered, and is a great opportunity for some "encouragement pep talks" to your child - remind them of how well they are doing overall, reassure them that you are not upset, and that accidents happen sometimes!! Children can feel very real and visceral emotions of failure, guilt, and disappointment when they have accidents - so be there to help ease their fears of failure. Remember - just because a preschooler can't express it, doesn't mean they don't feel it! And for the situations where accidents are Behavior-Based - the clean up is part of the logical consequence. Again, we will get into this further soon!
- AVOID going back and forth between underwear and diapers for adult convenience - throwing on a diaper because you are going out to dinner, or taking a vacation, is very detrimental to your child's potty training! It can undue WEEKS of success, through the mixed-messages and confusion it causes your child! Once you decide to potty train, you need to COMMIT to it!! No matter where, no matter the situation. Be prepared - bring lots of changes of clothes if accidents happen, scope out all bathrooms for quick trips, and have cleaning supplies like wipes in your bag.
- A handful of children I have met over the years have found sitting backwards on the toilet (and hugging the toilet tank) much more comforting - and took a lot of fear and anxiety out of sitting on the toilet!
- When teaching boys how to stand and pee: toss a few Cheerios into the water before they pee, and get him to aim for them! This is a really fun way to help your little guy learn aiming!! And if they "miss" - help teach them to clean it up!! You want your little guy to grow up into the man who cleans up his "misses"; and this is when that routine starts!!
- Get a STURDY step stool for in front of the toilet (not the tipsy plastic kind - something strong that can handle your child's weight) - this makes them feel safer climbing up onto the seat, and allows them to rest their feet when sitting!
- CLOTHING CHOICES!!!! So important during potty training!! Yes, there is undeniably the cutest outfits out there for preschool boys and girls - but select carefully during potty training. This is the time for easy on, easy off pants, skirts, and shirts - when your child is rushing to get to the potty in time the LAST thing they need to struggle with is buckles, buttons, zippers, jumpsuits, rompers, or long/fluffy dresses. Once potty training is finished - bring back all the cute outfits you want!! But for now - think utility and speed - can my child get this off in under a second flat? If not - put it back in the dresser until later!!
Instead, pick clothing that is easy on, easy off, and that your child can handle without adult assistance!!
What If Accidents Are Intentional?
So, your child has been potty training with success for a while now, and the end is near! Then all of a sudden, they begin having accidents again - and you need to figure out: why? Are they regressing? Did something traumatic happen? Or is it behavioural - meaning they are having accidents on purpose.
Regresssing: many children will regress (meaning go back to an earlier developmental state) out of stress or anxiety. This is very common - rest assured.
Some common triggers can be: moving, a new baby joining the family, the loss of a loved one, a loved one going on an extended absence, a loved one having a serious illness, or starting a new preschool. Many things can cause anxiety for a preschool child - and the key factor is they feel a loss of control in their world. If your child is suddenly having accidents, and you can note a source of stress (like the ones listed) in their life - the best way to support your child is to be there with love, compassion, and comfort. Don't worry about the accidents - they are a by-product of the bigger issue - the trigger causing anxiety. Help your child through the trigger, and the accidents will slowly disappear. The time it takes for them to disappear will be proportional to the severity of the anxiety and trigger.
Behavioural: to figure out if the accidents are behavioural, you need to look at the "whole picture". Is your child displaying power-struggles in other areas of their life? Are they fighting you on what clothes they want to wear, getting ready for dinner, cleaning up their toys? Brushing their teeth? If so, then most likely the accidents are just another version of a power-struggle; your child is using any means they can to try and exert control. To support your child in this situation, first you need to look for the "root cause" - why are they feeling a lack of control in their life, and why are they seeking negative attention? This is a WHOLE other blog post in itself; but if you believe your child is having accidents as a form of power struggle/control, I recommend using the same behaviour management strategies you use in all other situations. Think - Logical Consequences. If your child pees his pants, don't show a negative reaction. Remain calm, ask what happened, then guide your child to cleaning himself up and changing. Remember - in these situations, it is your REACTION your child is wanting - so stay calm, and it will show him/her that it did not work. They will eventually realize that purposely peeing their pants will not give them the attention (negative or positive) that they are seeking, and they will stop using accidents as a form of engagement.
But make sure while this is happening, you are investigating what the root cause is - otherwise your child will switch out accidents for another attention-seeking behaviour, like hitting, biting, taking toys, etc.
SIGNS YOUR CHILD IS NOT READY FOR POTTY TRAINING:
It is SO IMPORTANT to potty train when your child is physically and emotionally ready - forcing it before can really hinder your child's development, and prolong their potty training length.
If you have begun potty training, and are seeing the following signs:
- Your child is consistently not peeing in the toilet, while continually having accidents (and does not show awareness cognitively of the difference between the two);
- Your child is visibly fearful of sitting on the toilet or even going to the bathroom (crying, screaming, angry) ;
- Your child is showing strong anxiety or stress when accidents happen (crying, becoming withdrawn) ;
Then they are just not ready right now for potty training.
Remember, every child develops at their own pace - and potty training requires real physical, cognitive, and emotional readiness.
So if your child is showing you they aren't ready, then take a break. Give them more time. Make sure they understand they haven't done anything wrong, you are not upset with them, and that it is OK if it's just not time yet. Go back to diapers, and when you start to see signs of readiness in the future (could be weeks, or even months) then start back at the beginning.
If you ever have concerns about your child's potty training readiness, or concerns that you aren't seeing them (especially if your child is 4+ years old) then go speak with your pediatrician; they are the best person to look for any other medical barriers that may be happening for your child.
Potty training is exhausting, time consuming, and at times frustrating - but keep telling yourself - "my child only goes through this amazing milestone once in their life, and when I look back years from now - this will be a warm memory of when my little one learned to use the big kid potty!!"
And if all else fails, call in a grandma, a babysitter, your support system - then put in some ear buds, take a long bubble bath, have a glass of wine, and just breath!!