A lot of parents are on board with responsive parenting, until it comes to potty training. This is understandable because in our effort to spread the message about not training, we inadvertently forgot to tell people what can be done to support their child’s toilet learning journey. We may not be into traditional training methods but we do have strategies we use to support our children in the transition out of diapers. Potty proficiency requires a complex combination of abilities that are mostly a result of development; same as sleeping and eating. Each aspect of development works together to achieve potty proficiency.

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Physical Development or Readiness

This includes mature bladder and digestive system, ability to take off and on pants and underwear, ability to wipe themselves, able to get onto and off of the potty or toilet, able to wash hands and able to feel the sensations of having to go.

Cognitive Development

The child needs to have an understanding of all the physical steps, including being able to make a connection between the sensations in their body and needing to go to the bathroom. Also being able to delay gratification in order to use the toilet. So many children have accidents because they don’t want to stop playing. A child with more advanced logical skills may be more able to predict that if they have an accident, they will have to stop playing for longer, so they may as well run to the washroom and then return to playing.

Emotional Development

Usually when a child has a desire to be seen as more mature (“a big boy”) they begin to show an interest in the toilet. This desire to feel older can sometimes help with their interest in toileting. Having said that, I would caution you not to say things such as “only babies wear diapers.” Many people who are not babies wear diapers and this kind of message can result in a bias and sometimes bullying behaviour. It just may be a sign that your child might start showing interest in the toilet soon.

Social Awareness

Children usually need to realize that most people use the toilet before they will become interested in using it themselves. We are social creatures and imitation is a common strategy children use to learn and make sense of the world.

There are things you can do before your child is interested in the toilet, when they first show an interest and when they are actively engaged in toilet learning. Setting them up for success, making it fun and following your child’s lead are all responsive toilet learning strategies.

Set Them Up For Success

Before they show interest

  • Let your child see you using the toilet and their siblings (if the sibling is ok with it)

When they first start showing an interest in the toilet

  • Have a potty or potty seat available (you can do this before they show an interest too)
  • Work on pottying skills: practice dressing and undressing, washing hands, flushing the toilet and ripping off toilet paper.

When they are actively engaged in toilet learning

  • Create a little routine, including letting them flush the toilet (you can start this when they first start using the toilet too)

Make It Fun

Before they show interest

  • Read books, sing songs and watch shows about toileting

When they first start showing an interest in the toilet

  • Let them pee outside
  • You can have a toileting song and/or sing while they are on the toilet. The song can relate to toilet learning or not
  • Go ahead and celebrate their toileting attempts. Children love celebrating. Just try to avoid statements such as “I’m so proud of you for using the toilet!” because it puts the focus on pleasing the parent. Instead, try “you must be so proud of yourself for using the toilet!” or just “hooray! You used the toilet!”

When they are actively engaged in toilet learning

  • You can offer books, toys, or a show on a tablet while they use the toilet to encourage them to stay sitting, which can be hard for a small child. You can try books and shows that relate to potty learning or not.
  • For boys, put a cheerio in the toilet bowl and encourage them to try and aim at the cheerio. This is a good strategy for transitioning from sitting to standing.

Follow Your Child’s Lead

Before they show interest

  • Be patient. Wait until they show an interest in the potty

When they first start showing an interest in the toilet

  • You can start offering training pants and/or pull-ups. Some parents report children who use cloth diapers seem to achieve potty proficiency earlier, due to being able to feel when they are wet. This may be something you might want to consider. A cloth diaper for a toddler is a nice alternative to training pants or pull-ups.

When they are actively engaged in toilet learning

  • Offer and/or allow diaper free time. Allow your child to run around without a diaper. Most children will initiate this activity on their own but if they do not, feel free to offer them diaper free time. Usually a good time to try this is right after a poopy diaper change (less chance of a really gross accident). Just ask if they would like to go without the diaper for awhile.

Methods We Try To Avoid

  • Try to avoid punishing, shaming or yelling at a child for having an accident or not using the toilet
  • Try to avoid reminding the child to use the toilet more frequently than once every two hours, unless the child is showing signs. This encourages compliance, instead of teaching them to listen to their own bodies. Asking them if they have to pee before leaving the house or going to bed, is always a good time to offer.
  • Try not to shame your child with statements such as “only babies wear diapers” or even the less harsh “don’t you want to be a big boy and use the potty?” Just because a child has the desire to be seen as older does not mean we should exploit it in order to fulfill our goals. We should try not to associate maturity with toileting because, as I mentioned before, many people, for a variety of reasons, wear diapers. People who are not small children. We don’t want to inadvertently create a stigma around people who use diapers.
  • Try to avoid rewards for using the toilet. Charts, stickers, treats and toys all seem like really fun and easy strategies. We think “well I would pee for a mini chocolate bar.” These strategies have the illusion of working because most children will use the toilet for a treat but they often will continue to have accidents because they are not using the toilet in response to the sensations they feel in their body. Instead of intrinsic motivation to use the washroom in order to feel more comfortable (the motivation for adults) children are extrinsically motivated by the reward. Rewards tap into the addiction centres of our brains so they can become a big distraction from the real purpose. The purpose is not to get a treat, the purpose is to learn how and when to use the toilet.
  • Try not to rush taking away the diaper at night and do not limit water to prevent night time accidents. Wait till your child starts waking with a dry diaper for about a week before trying to go without a diaper at night. Or if they decide themselves that they would like to try going without a diaper at night, then of course, let them try, but be prepared for accidents. Children typically want to try before they are fully ready.

If you have done any of the don’ts, please don’t stress about it. We have also tried many of the don’ts too, and found they were not effective or had unforeseen consequences. Specifically with rewards, my son realized he would get a treat for using the toilet, so if he felt like a treat, he would go use the toilet, and then ask for a treat. Meanwhile, he’d still have several accidents a day. Sometimes minutes after using the toilet. It also started a whole bartering system in our home that my husband is still struggling to stop doing. It all started with the toileting. We got impatient and created a bunch of behavioural patterns that have been hard to completely let go of.

That is the big risk with traditional toilet training methods; the unforeseen consequences. Many of the messages children receive during this time, while adults try to train them to do something very private and personal, can result in psychological and physical challenges, later on . Some research has shown that children who train before they are ready can experience regressions, issues with constipation and anxiety over toileting. It can be very hard to wait for your child to develop at their own pace, especially with outside pressures such as schools that require children to be trained, same-age playmates who are being trained and family members who have opinions about when and how your child should be trained. Toileting, in general, can also be very triggering for many adults, due to their own childhood experience with toilet training and other traumas. If you find yourself really triggered, try to reflect on why that might be. Try to recognize and work through your own anxieties over toilet training, while focusing on your child’s current needs and abilities. Each child reaches these developmental milestones at different times. Your niece may be potty proficient at 2.5 years old while your son is still having accidents at 4 years old. Neither is a concern, as long as their learning was child-led. Children really do develop at their own pace. It’s our job to run along side them.

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