It’s time to talk about potty-training or as I prefer to call it, ‘toilet learning.’ Within the Montessori approach, we call it toilet learning rather than potty-training because we know that toileting is a skill to be learned when your child is ready - not necessarily when you decide you are ready to train your child. Referring to it as a ‘learning experience’ helps frame the whole toilet learning process in a positive light that revolves around the child, instead of adult convenience.
Let’s start with the philosophy! Maria Montessori discovered that children go through sensitive periods of learning throughout their first six years of life. These sensitive periods are developmental windows where it is easier to learn certain skills. The sensitive period for toileting is from 18 months to three years and, therefore, it is easier for a child to learn toileting during this time. I know this surprises a lot of people. Most people wait until their child is older to start the toilet learning process because they think it will be easier, but they are making it much harder for themselves.
How and when should you start your child’s toilet learning process?
Although the sensitive period for toileting starts around 18 months, it is important to set your child up for success in their toileting journey by starting the preparations early.
Here are my favorite step-by-step tips for making your child’s toilet learning experience natural and as stress-free as possible:
The first step is to talk about your child’s bodily functions. When doing so, avoid any negative connotations that come along with these functions. Stay away from the typical ‘ewww, stinky’ and ‘yucky poo’ reactions. You need to remember that eliminating is a natural process. When you associate this natural process with negativity, it insinuates that it is something to be ashamed of.
I suggest introducing your child to a potty early, usually around 12 months. Doing this helps them get comfortable with the potty, setting them up for success when they are ready to use it for its intended purpose. Put a clean potty in your main living area and have your child practice sitting on it. I recommend using a potty instead of a regular toilet as a potty is child-sized, a lot less intimidating than an adult-sized toilet, and much easier for them to be successful with independently.
A Montessori secret: Buy a potty with a removable bowl. This will make your life much easier when it comes time to empty and clean it!
Once your child starts showing signs of readiness, such as staying dry for a longer period, vocalizing before or after they go, hiding away to eliminate or ripping off their diaper, it’s time to set up an optimal toileting environment. The secret to success when setting up a toileting environment is ensuring it encourages independence. To do this, you need to provide your child with their own mini bathroom setup, where everything they need to be confident in their toileting is readily available and within reach. Ideally, this should include a potty, wipes, toilet paper, clean underwear and pants, a laundry basket, a garbage can, easy-to-use soap, a stool for reaching the sink, and a couple of their favorite books for longer sitting periods.
Now it’s time to start adding toileting to your routine. Start small with something like toileting before bath time and add to the routine over time. The more consistent you are in your routine, the more success you’ll see.
Another Montessori secret: Help your child take ownership of their toilet learning by including them in the cleanup.
Children in this age group love mimicking adults and allowing them to help clean up themselves and their accidents acts as a motivator for them to use the potty. It helps them develop a sense of ownership of their toilet learning and confidence in their abilities.
Now it’s time to make the switch to underwear. Diapers are designed to keep your child comfortable, even when full. The quicker you make the switch from diapers to underwear, the more success you will see. At the beginning, this transition can be a little tricky for some kids. I find the best way to help them be successful in transitioning to underwear is to allot bare bum time for a few days before you make the switch. When you have some extra time to spend at home, let your child go naked from the bottom down to help them adjust.
Another Montessori secret: Drop the questions.
When approaching your child about toileting, use direct language instead of questions. Drop the question, “Do you need to go?” and replace it with, “It’s time to use the potty.” If you’re noticing some resistance, a great trick is to give your child choices but remember, the choice isn’t about going potty or not, it’s about when they go. Try using, “Would you like to use the potty now or in five minutes?” This gives them a sense of control over the situation.
One of the most important things I want you to remember about your child’s toilet learning is to keep your reactions gentle and positive. Punishing your child only deters them from using the potty. You should always respond in a factual, gentle, and positive way. I also recommend staying away from unnecessary rewards, such as stickers, as rewards link an extrinsic motivation to the learning process. This can cause setbacks when you decide to stop giving your child rewards. Toilet learning is a natural process that you want your child to do because they are ready. The most effective reward is the intrinsic one of being proud of themselves.
Lastly, make sure to have developmentally-appropriate expectations of your child. Toileting is not something that will magically happen overnight. It is a skill to be learned, likened to walking; it takes time, practice, and patience.
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