Toilet learning: a practical guide

Did you know that you don’t actually need to train your child to use the toilet? You’re probably breathing a huge sigh of relief right now, and perhaps feeling a little confused as to how your child is ever going to learn then.

The key to your little one learning to use the toilet is through teaching, not through training. There is a difference. Toilet learning, with the right adult support and tools, is child-led and done when they’re ready, and at their pace. On the other hand, toilet training is adult-led.

Here we’ve put together a practical guide that looks at the benefits of toilet learning, how to tell when your child is ready, and importantly, how to go about it.

What are the benefits of toilet learning?

With the child-led approach, it will be less work for you, cause you much less anxiety and frustration, and you won’t experience power struggles and resistance from your child.

Instead, they will lead the way…and we know that suits a toddler just fine! If they sense that we have an agenda, it is a toddler’s prerogative to resist us, and even hold onto their wee or poo.

Early or rushed toilet training, on the other hand, can lead to constipation for that reason, and is often the cause of bedwetting, recurrent UTIs, and toileting accidents.

Finally, the most powerful benefit of toilet learning as opposed to adult-led toilet training is that your child can take pride in the knowledge that they’ve achieved something themselves. ‘I do it!’ is the mantra of toddlers everywhere, so what a huge confidence boost it is for them mastering this skill!

How do I know my child is ready for toilet learning?

As each child is unique, the time that they’re ready for toilet learning will vary. There is no ‘right’ age or ‘right’ way. For some, it’s 18 months or earlier, and for others it’s 3 years or older. There’s no rush, and your child will learn when they’re developmentally ready. There are three readiness factors children need to show, according to child specialist Magda Gerber:

  1. Physical: they have the bladder and bowel capacity and muscle control.
  2. Cognitive: they know when they need to eliminate urine and feces, and are fully aware of what they need to do.
  3. Emotional: they are ready to let go of a situation they are used to and comfortable with. This means that they’re okay to wee or poo in a nappy whenever they feel like it, and are fine with letting go of these waste products. Some toddlers perceive their waste as belonging to them, so the emotional readiness factor often comes last.

To clarify these factors further, here are some considerations:

Is your child able to tell you that they have a wet or dirty nappy?

Can they pull their clothes up and down independently?

Can they tell you that they need to wee or poo?

Do they sometimes have a dry and clean nappy for a prolonged period of time?

I think my child is ready. Do I just wait for them to start using the potty/toilet?

No, it’s still a skill that needs to be taught through adult support and facilitation. Our role in this is to set our little ones up for success. It will happen naturally and easily if we do the following:

  • Model toilet use

Just like with anything we would like our children to learn, whether it’s to eat a variety of foods at mealtimes, use manners, or brush their teeth, we need to model it to normalise it. Children naturally want to do what their grownups or other bigger kids do, so let them see you go.

  • No pressure or force

Refrain from demanding or even politely coaxing your child to use the potty or toilet. The aim is to keep it a positive, self-directed experience.

  • Make it accessible

Have a potty available if your child prefers to sit with their feet on the floor. Keep one in different parts of the house, particularly if you have multiple levels. If your child prefers to sit on the toilet, make it easy for them to reach the toilet with a step stool, and use a child-sized seat that they will find comfortable to sit on. A child who falls in the toilet might be reluctant to try again for some time!

  • Keep it up outside the house

When you’re out and about, don’t forget to take along a portable toilet seat, so that your child becomes comfortable with public toilets as well. If they prefer a potty, pop a portable potty with disposable liners into your car or pram for convenience.

  • Become a practiced observer

Being a responsive parent means being in tune with your child, and if they seem to be signalling that they need to go (for example, squeezing their legs together, doing a little ‘dance’, touching their nappy), simply ask if they would like to use the potty/toilet. If they say no, keep calm and accept their response.

  • Offer the choice between nappies and underwear

If they decide that they would like to stay in nappies or pull-ups when they start toilet learning, respect that choice.

  • Prepare for the piles of washing

Naturally, while children (and adults!) learn anything, there will be lessons along the way. For instance, when they don’t make it to the toilet in time, when they wee in their underpants, or when they wet the bed at night. It’s all part of the process. We just need to stay calm, not shame them, or make much mention of it. Always have several changes of clothing handy, cloths to wipe up any mess, and use a waterproof sheet protector on their bed.

  • Trust and respect your child

There’s no need to bribe or reward your child to use the potty/toilet. In fact, there’s no need to make a big fuss of it all (remember what happens when they sense you having an agenda? So, do your little happy dance when they’re out of the room). Extrinsic rewards don’t work in the long-term and only undermine a child’s abilities and sense of worth. Your child’s reward will be the sense of accomplishment.

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