What is Toilet Learning?
Okay so first of all, let’s have a little mindset shift.
Toilet or potty learning isn’t something we do TO our kids, it’s a journey we take WITH them.
The difference between potty training and potty learning is this:
Potty training is something that is done to our kids. An adult-led process that goes a bit like this… We decide when. They have no say. We expect them to “get it” within the space of a few weeks and when they’re not we use sticker charts and rewards to get them to do it better and faster. We hear stories about a friends-cousins-boyfriends-little girl who was dry day and night after 3 days and then wonder what’s wrong with our kid. And when none of that works we feel like a failure - no wonder really!
Potty learning, though, is an entirely child-led process. The child decides when (which is often MUCH MUCH earlier than we are led to believe). We realise that learning to use the toilet takes time. Just like learning to walk, our children need patience, time and opportunities to make mistakes to learn from it. We see that it doesn’t take three days and it’s a learning process, not a goal. Who’s goal is it anyway? There are no sticker charts or rewards, and there are no punishments either. Just learning through making mistakes.
Why does toilet learning work?
What’s really important to remember is that toilet learning is a child-led process, not adult-led.
This means that sometimes, as parents, we can miss the signs that our children are ready.
Society tells us that children in the western world aren’t ready to toilet learn until they’re around 2.5 years old.
Look at other cultures and you see children learning to use the toilet much, much earlier.
Why is that?
Is it because our children genuinely aren’t ready? Or is it because we aren’t ready for that?
From an evolutionary point of view, children in the western world are no different from any other child. What’s different is the environment they’re brought up in.
Dr Montessori recognised a sensitive period for toilet learning at around 12-18 months of age, and you’ll see many children in Montessori families, beginning their toilet learning journey around this time.
That doesn’t mean they’re dry at this age. That means they’re starting to learn about it: they’re using the toilet occasionally, they’ve got some underwear to try, they’re watching their parents use the toilet and learning to wash their hands and flush the loo etc.
The big difference between toilet learning and toilet training is the way we approach it as the parent.
If we choose to toilet train, it can increase anxiety, refusal to use the toilet or withholding, and create disconnection between our child and us.
As parents we may experience frustration, guilt or feel a sense of failure.
Potty training is a quick-fix method that often comes with a time pressure and consequences, and therefore shame and embarrassment for the child.
Toilet learning works because the child leads the journey. They show us when they’re ready and they guide us.
A child-led approach like toilet learning takes a long time. Lots of patience (from us!) and lots of mistakes to learn from.
As a result, the child learns how to listen to their bodily cues earlier, they have a sense of independence and achievement, and they’re much less likely to have traumatic experiences like withholding stools.
They’re more likely to become dry at night quicker (it’s not just hormonal, like we are often told) and the whole process is calmer.
We also maintain and deepen our connection with our child because we recognise that this is their success, not ours.
What to expect
At the start of this blog I mentioned that using a child-led approach to toilet learning doesn’t involve sticker charts or rewards.
The thing is, whilst learning to use the toilet is a big milestone, it’s a part of every day life.
When your baby is learning to walk or talk, you don’t reward them every time they try. And we use the same principle with toilet learning.
Some things we need to remember when we are embarking on the toilet-learning journey:
They will have misses whatever approach you choose and even if you wait until they’re older - I can guarantee it! But choosing a child-led way of learning to use the toilet creates a much calmer and easier environment to be able to do it in. Accept that you’ll need lots of towels and cleaning equipment in the early days.
Children learn best when the atmosphere is calm and welcoming, so keep it light. They’ll be happier making mistakes knowing that they won’t be shamed for it. You can say factual things like “Oh there’s a wee on the floor. Let’s clean that up.” or “Your wee went in the toilet this time!”
Remember that this is a journey. It’s not a quick-fix or dry-in-3-days method and it takes time, but is much gentler on your child and creates deeper connection between you. Your child may go backwards and forwards for a while and that’s okay. Go with the flow as much as you can.
What you need
It is common for us to feel as though we need a ton of fancy stuff - but you really don’t.
Here are my top toilet training items:
A step stool - In order to promote independence, a step stool allows your child to be able to climb up to the toilet and wash their hands. Get one that’s high enough for them to rest their feet on when they’re sitting on the toilet as it gives them stability. With this, they’ll be able to use the regular toilet seat independently.
A potty - whether you use it in the house or keep it for out and about, you’ll need one. Choose one that’s plain and not too fussy. You can get one that looks like a replica of a toilet if you like, but it’s not necessary.
A basket of clean underwear, wipes, toilet paper and nappies - increases independence for your child and also means everything is easily accessible for you too.
A very low chair or stool to sit on - allows your child to be able to put on their own underwear and pull them up. Sitting on the floor isn’t so easy when you’re learning to put on underwear!
Towels or bed pads - makes the clean up easier when they’re to hand, but especially useful for car journeys!
Time and patience - the more you can give this to your child, the calmer the experience for everyone. (Not always easy - I’ve been there!)
Don’t waste your money or energy on:
Toilet seat inners - most of these have big bulges at the front which actually prevent your child from being able to sit on it independently. You’re much better off getting a decent step stool, as mentioned above.
Making a sticker or reward chart - it won’t affect the outcome in the long run. You’ll need to take it away eventually and what then? Just don’t bother.
Rushing it - it just puts pressure on everyone. Your child will get there in their own time. Start early, but don’t rush them through the process.
Some final tips:
You don’t need to go all in, all at once. Start by offering the toilet once a day, or having a nappy free hour.
Go back to nappies occasionally if you need to. It’s much better to keep a calm atmosphere than to get frustrated by lots of misses.
Follow your child’s lead! I cannot stress this enough. They will show you when and how - look for signs and go with it.
If you'd like to learn more about toilet learning including the history behind nappies and how that has impacted our western children, and how to get started with your child, you can find out more about my workshop Toilet Learning with Monty here.