toilet learning
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Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor who developed the Montessori method of education over 100 years ago, once said, “The greatest development is achieved during the first years of life, and therefore it is then that the greatest care should be taken. If this is done, then the child does not become a burden; he will reveal himself as the greatest marvel of nature.”

The Montessori method aims to guide children on the path of their natural development toward independence. It is truly a marvel to watch very young people learn so much in such a short time! This holds true as well for the family experience of “potty training.”

In Montessori education, we call this process “toilet learning.” Why? Well, it’s a learning process! Just as infants and young children gradually learn to walk, talk, and feed themselves, they are also learning to care for their own bodies. Children are discovering their body’s needs and signals, like when they have to go! Their families have the joy, and sometimes immense challenge, of helping them on their continual journey towards self-care and independence. To describe this experience, I will use the term “parent,” but these tips and ideas are for any adult caregiver in a child’s life.

A Gradual Process

As their bodies develop, children are gradually becoming more aware of their senses and gaining more control of their bodies. Around their first birthday, or when they are walking comfortably, children typically develop the physical ability to control their bladders and bowels. Parents can do a lot from infancy to help a child in this development. They can begin by talking the child through the diaper changing process to better understand the experience. Self-care and using the toilet begins as a collaboration between a child and their parent.

As Simone Davies of The Montessori Notebook explains, using the toilet is a very natural and gradual process that develops at the child’s pace, rather than when the parent decides their child is going to be “trained.” Parents can look for signs that the child is growing interested or curious about the toilet or diaper changes, and for patterns in their eliminations (urine/bowel movements). Parents can also start to change them standing up, allowing them to participate in the process of dressing and caring for their body.

When children later become interested in dressing and undressing themselves, parents are encouraged to choose elastic waist pants to make dressing simpler and easier. Children can even wear underwear or training pants so they can begin to understand what it feels like to be wet and dry. Step-by-step, parents can show them how to pull down their pants, sit on the toilet/potty, use toilet paper, pull up their pants, flush the toilet and wash their hands.

There are many different skills to master on the journey to toileting independence!

Preparing the Environment

As your child shows more interest in the toilet, set up your bathroom to allow more independence. When children are involved in the process, they feel ownership and pride in what they can do. Through this preparation, the child is given the optimal environment for practice of self-care.

Suggestions for setting up your bathroom include:

  • Consider moving all or most diaper changes into the bathroom, changing the child standing up when they are ready and even move your changing pad/mat to the bathroom if that works in the space.
  • Keep a pile of cloths for cleaning, a bucket or basket for wet clothing and a pile of clean underpants nearby when the child begins wearing them.
  • Help build confidence by making the toilet environment comfortable. For example, give the child a stool for their feet. If you are using a child’s potty, keep it in the bathroom so your child always knows where to find it.
  • Add a stool to your bathroom so your child can reach the sink.

Supporting Your Child

Because this area of development requires so many different skills to align, it is essential to observe and listen to your child to meet their needs and help them be successful. Try to remain calm and neutral, rather than getting emotionally involved with the process. Here are a few suggestions when helping your child:

  • Observe for cues: What behaviors does your child do when they are about to eliminate? If you notice them doing “the potty dance” or looking anxious, offer to take them to the toilet. You can say, “Let’s try sitting on the potty” or “It’s time to sit on the toilet.”
  • Get consent! Try to offer the potty without forcing your child to sit. It is their body, and they are learning that they have control over it. You can be encouraging and positive with your tone to get them excited about trying. If you do offer it as a choice, accept their answer if they say “no,” and try again later.
  • Set up a routine: Help your child remember to use the toilet by offering to take them at predictable times. For example, always offer when they wake up, after breakfast, before snack, before lunch, before nap, etc. You will learn how often they need to go, so build potty breaks into their daily routine.
  • Approach “accidents” as neutrally as possible so as not to cause any feelings of shame or failure and avoid scolding. Instead say, “I see you are wet. Let’s go get some dry clothes.” Mistakes are a part of all learning and development, and toilet learning is no different
  • If you notice your child has wet clothes but they are busy, for instance playing with a toy, consider wiping up around them and then waiting a few minutes (or seconds) for a natural break in their attention before interrupting them. It will help them transition more easily and can reduce tantrums when they don’t feel like their play time is being taken away.
  • Celebrate with your child if they are feeling excited or proud of their accomplishments! Observe your child and meet them where they are emotionally. However, too much excitement/praise from an adult could cause them to feel pressure to succeed rather than to feel proud of what they can do.

Parents, It Will Be Okay

The process of toileting happens differently for all children and in their own time. Try to relax and observe what your child can do! A calm and matter-of-fact attitude shows your child that this process is a normal and natural part of life. Everybody goes potty! Some children will gain independence quickly, within a few weeks, while others may take a few months. Rest assured, your child will eventually master this life skill in their own time!

Additional Resources

For more tips, check out these articles:

Rachel Montgomery has been a Montessori teacher since 2011 and is a toddler teacher at Daycroft School in Ann Arbor.