Toilet learning – the story so far

The hot topic for the last few months here has been toilet learning and as such I decided to write a post on it.

We started introducing the concept of a potty from the time that Joshua was 6 months old. While we did not engage in elimination communication we did start encouraging and introducing the concept of toilet learning from what is generally considered “early” in modern Western society. This has been driven by the desire to allow Joshua the chance to learn about the toileting process without pressure or rewards, as it remains important to us that Joshua learn things from an intrinsic desire to do things himself rather than through extrinsic motivation. It has remained to this day one of the most challenging aspects of parenting in that we have had to really work at refining the process (which you would think would be fairly straightforward, but as we progressed it became obvious that adjustments were needed with a younger child to facilitate the process).  It has also sometimes tested the limits of our patience, but has also become a shining example to us of how we need to trust our child and let him try.

Montessori philosophy holds that toilet learning sensitivity is between 12-18 months. (Please note that if toileting has not commenced during this period it is not to say that toileting cannot be achieved, this is Montessori theory). During this time we noticed that Joshua would be unhappy if he had a bowel movement and it was not cleaned up straight away, and he also displayed increasingly clear indications that he needed to go. We had already introduced the potty at times when we thought he might like to go, such as on awakening from a sleep or before bath. Once Joshua was 14 months old we started to increase the frequency with which we offered the potty as we did not want to miss taking advantage of this period where Joshua seemed more aware of what was happening. We have never forced Joshua onto the toilet or potty; he is offered it on a regular basis and if he chooses not to use it and subsequently wets himself then he is taken to be changed without recrimination.

Joshua has 2 toileting stations in the house, one upstairs and the other downstairs.

Joshua's downstairs toilet station

Joshua’s downstairs toilet station

There are a few important things we have integrated in our toilet learning process which are as follows:

  1. Changes standing up.
    Once Joshua was able to pull to stand we commenced doing all changes standing up. This is a little trickier on the care giver but we found that changes for Joshua on his back resulted in being kicked. A lot. I believe standing up made Joshua feel more involved in the process and respected.  It also presented a great opportunity for Joshua to help dress himself, thus making him a part of the process.
  2. All changes done in the bathroom/toilet.
    This helped to strengthen the association between the toilet/potty being where these things occur. The potty was available from around 6 months old and positioned in the bathroom at all times. We do not have potties lying about the house even though this might be easier as we wanted Joshua to associate toilet/potty with those certain areas of the house and not to just do it in whatever room he was in.
  3. Have an action plan.
    I firmly believe you need to be prepared for success. Our process so far has been well planned and the significant steps we took so far are as follows:
    * Nappy free time – and lots of it. Joshua has never suffered from nappy rash because of the amount of nappy free time he has had, as inconvenient as it has been for me sometimes. Please note that ANY amount of nappy free time is a learning period and should be encouraged so parents should not feel discouraged if they have not been able to give a lot due to time constraints.
    * Cloth nappies – if possible Montessorians encourage parents to cloth nappy their children. While this is more labour intensive for the caregiver, it gives the child lots of time to recognise that they are feeling wet and will want to be changed. For convenience purposes many parents today do not want to use cloth nappies but cloth is definitely recommended and is cheaper than disposables in the long run.
    * Observation – We took some time to observe Joshua’s toileting habits. For us it seems he needs the toilet to urinate far more in the mornings than afternoons and evenings, bowel movements tend to be afternoon or evenings.
    * Slow but eventual removal of nappies – we made it clear that there were no more nappies at certain periods of the day and then finally removed them altogether. Joshua no longer wears nappies during the day and mostly stays dry. There are still occasional misses but for 20 months old we feel that Joshua is progressing well and is achieving good control.
    * Trainers – we decided to invest in some quality trainers to facilitate the process. We have several different pairs, some are organic cotton and others are Bright Bots trainers which are perfect for little learners.  These allow the child to feel the wetness but without having the urine simply go straight through and onto the floor/carpet so gives the caregiver time to get the child to the bathroom to be changed.
    * Underpants – these are currently being worn at home and substituted with trainers while out and about. Eventually Joshua will wear underpants everywhere and we will then start on night learning.
  4. Requesting but not forcing child to use potty/toilet.
    It has remained important to us to remain as emotionally detached from the process as possible. If Joshua does not use the potty and wets himself we simply clean it up and move on. There have been periods where he has refused to use the toilet and has seen and felt the natural consequence of his choice. While frustrating and annoying he is definitely learning.
  5. Working on toileting out and about in your routine.
    This has definitely presented challenges as there was a stage when Joshua refused to use the potty elsewhere so there were misses. He seems to get it now and we have had several successful days out and about without any misses at all. There has been resistance to using the toilet elsewhere but I guess this should come as no surprise as most people prefer to use their own toilet at home.
  6. Positive language.
    We do not refer to misses as “accidents”. This might seem trivial but even the word carries a negative connotation. We also do not tell him “oooh that stinks” or “yuck” for the same reasons. Yes it smells, but it would still be the same smell if you had to clean it out of a nappy. Toilet learning is about learning the process and remaining positive about the whole process is a key factor in getting Joshua motivated to continue the process and want to master it. If he has wet himself I will say Joshua you are wet, we need to get you changed. We also ensure we use the proper language to describe what is happening and body parts. If it is not something we would use in everyday conversation then we don’t refer to it in that manner.
  7. The prepared environment.
    Be prepared for success. We set up the toileting stations and made modifications as needed to ensure that the process would be smooth once the process was underway. As you can see all of Joshua’s things are available at every toilet station in the house, we have one upstairs and one downstairs. We have trainers nearby and available for Joshua to get if he is wet, somewhere for him to sit to get changed, a bucket for soiled items to be placed into for laundering. At home he tends to prefer sitting straight on the toilet but out and about he will use a toilet or a potty which means we are able to get out and about without too many problems.
  8. Modelling appropriate behaviour.
    We have an open door policy on toileting in our house at the moment in order to model the correct behaviour. Children learn best when led by example! This includes wiping, flushing the toilet, washing hands after going to the toilet and drying them. Every time.
Toilet learning toddler

Toilet learning toddler

Things to note:

Yes, it takes a longer time to get the process done – but all forms of learning take time. Just as we have had to teach Joshua how to prepare a snack for himself, how to eat and how to use a spoon, so does this area require the same love and patience and the time to master them.

Yes it is frustrating – all forms of toilet learning are. Believe it or not your child is also frustrated if they can’t get to the toilet on time and have a miss.

Yes there are still misses to clean up – but toileting results in misses at all ages.

Yes it requires a lot of patience – but all forms of toileting requires patience, whether or not you start when we did or later.

Yes Joshua still needs a lot of help at this stage – but there will come a time when he is able to do most things for himself. All children need help with toileting such as wiping when they are trained too, and still need it until they are much older.

Yes we have to keep reminding him at this busy stage – but how many people do you know that you still have to remind to use the toilet (e.g. partner, older child?) You may even find yourself forgetting to use the toilet in the rush of reminding everyone else before you pile out the door!

We aren’t finished yet and have not yet tackled night learning. Joshua no longer wears nappies during the day and has made significant strides in his toileting which is partly because he is ready and also because he has been an active participant in this process.

If you are considering taking the toilet learning journey I encourage you to read and draw from the variety of resources available – kindle and e-readers are wonderful for immediate download and access to the information and online resources allow parents access like never before both local and international. A few useful resources are listed below.

  • Diaper free before 3 by Jill M Lekovic. This is a good read for those interested in the background behind toileting and how disposable nappies have changed the toileting landscape.
  • Aid to Life – this is simple but doable information which I have found invaluable and I keep referring back to it throughout this process.
  • Toilet Awareness by Sarah Moudry. I have not read this book myself but this comes highly recommended by Montessorians around the world.

There are several books that you can read to your child. We prefer those that have real pictures in them but you can also have those that are fun and make the process something to enjoy. Joshua has enjoyed Potty by Leslie Patricelli as it is a quick fun book to flip through and we read it to him while he is using the potty. We tend to keep some books in a basket nearby to read to keep things casual while on the toilet. The idea is to try and enjoy being on the toilet and Potty was amused by the story when it was read to him and clearly has understood the message of the story which has assisted with the process! There is debate for and against having books while on the toilet but we found that having some books helped Joshua relax and this in turn helps him go, especially for bowel movements. Things that I hope Joshua remembers from his toilet learning is having fun with Daddy and Mummy while on the toilet and enjoying one on one time with us. Things that I will take from this process are patience, love, understanding and happy memories of seeing Joshua’s achievements and strides forward in this area all done in his own time and achieved through our love and support of his independence.

Please remember that toileting is a process that each child needs to learn and misses are a part of this. A little understanding and kindness to parents going through the toileting process is appreciated.


15 thoughts on “Toilet learning – the story so far

  1. Thank you for sharing your own experiences with toilet learning. Can you describe a little more how you went about introducing the potty at 6 months? Our youngest is now 5 months. At the same time our oldest is 26 months and still in nappies. Although she is interested in what is in her nappy and she tells us, when we are using training pants at home or is having nappy free time and has a ‘miss’ she gets really upset if we suggest to her that she could use the potty and starts to hold her toilet in. So we are not forcing the issue but being led by her. Do you think seeing her 6 month old sister with a potty could be negatively perceived by her? I don’t want her to feel bad in any way about herself because she isn’t wanting to use it even though she’s older than her sister. I hope I’m making sense! Lisa

    • Hi Lisa, at around 6 months old we were starting to pay more attention to Joshua’s toileting habits. We noticed that he would generally urinate around bath time so we chose that as the time to first introduce a potty. We made sure that the potty had been sitting in the bathroom and was a familiar object and explained that we were sitting him on the potty to see if he wanted or needed to do a wee. We kept the experience positive by singing songs initially and only for a minute or 2 before bath time and the first wees that went in there were seemingly accidental but at least Joshua was getting exposed to the idea of what the potty was for. Whenever anything went into the potty we would tell him look you did a wee or a poo into the potty to bring his attention to it. We did not use excessive praise, we noted that that is what he had done and good effort and left it at that. It was around 8 months old that he did his first bowel movement into the potty and from there he seemed to understand what the potty was for. We initially had more successes in catching bowel movements as these were obvious and we would interrupt whatever we were doing – even dinner – to help him onto the potty. It was not until around 12 months old that we then started introducing more potty opportunities – say after nap time or getting up in the morning and from there the process accelerated so that it was becoming clear that it was very much a part of the daily routine. We had more success with consistent wee catches around 14 months so we started to put on trainers and remove nappies during the day for longer periods of time.

      I also believe children learn best through correctly modelled behaviour. When I go to the toilet I tell Joshua I am going to the toilet now and he often follows me in. I describe what I am doing, such as flushing the toilet, washing my hands etc so that the process is clear. He was interested in this process and I think it helped to see that we use the toilet too and that that is what we do. Do you have an open door toileting policy, as I believe this is invaluable learning experience.

      I don’t think that seeing her sister on the potty would be negative. If everyone is doing the same thing then I feel that she would be encouraged that as she is the older and more able child she would be able to show her sibling how to do it. Another thing is that she can also be actively involved in the process and sing songs to her sister and entertain her while she is on the potty, even if she doesn’t want to use it herself. If exposed to seeing her sister having fun on the potty this might also help and encourage her to use the potty too – I would offer the potty to both of them at a designated time, say bath initially and go from there.

      Regarding suggesting using the potty – We were very matter of fact about it. After the suggestion is made and eventually Joshua wet himself as he did need to go and was holding it in we said to him you are wet (drawing attention to what has happened, putting his hand on his trainers to understand wet), we need to change into clean trainers and lead him to be changed (same as if you were doing a straight nappy change). If there is anything on the floor from nappy free time you can engage her to help clean up – make old towels available to help mop up and put into a bucket for cleaning. She can help remove and place soiled trainers into the bucket, get new ones to put on, help pull them up and down. Engaging your child in the process will encourage them to want to do it themselves.

      I hope this helps and thank you for taking the time to read my post. Please let me know how you go.

      • Thank you for expanding on your approach. We also have an open door policy and explain what we are doing. Hanalise seems quite comfortable with that. In light of your comments I have today set up the bathroom with a change mat, two potties (one for each of our daughters) and a bucket for soiled nappies/trainers, plus new nappies/trainers in.a couple of drawers that Hanalise can get herself. It’s a bit of a challenge since our bathroom is very small but we’ll make it work. Even though Seren is only just 5 months, I sat her on the potty just before both girls got into the bath tonight and she had her first wee in the potty, which big sis was intrigued by. With Hanalise we used sign language before she could speak with word and we’ll do the same with Seren but starting earlier, including the sign for toilet which we’ll use in combination with using the potty from now on. Thanks again for all the tips and advice! Lisa

      • Hi Lisa, that is fantastic news about Seren’s wee into the potty! Every catch in the potty is a positive experience and I am so pleased that you have found a setup solution that works for you. Another thing, if you cannot have everything in the bathroom directly – we have a downstairs toilet that is only a toilet and basin – we have the main items just outside the toilet so it is still in the area and therefore association with bathroom for toileting is still being made but the toilet itself is free for someone to use. You could get a step stool for the basin so that your elder child and eventually the younger one can get up to the basin and wash their hands. Positive attention, lots of fun and love are the key to making the experience a positive one for everyone, from what you are telling me Hanalise is already deriving positive experience from your efforts, you are doing a fantastic job!

  2. Perfect timing! 🙂 I just ordered Diaper free before three and Everyone Poops! I did notice a sensitive period around the age 12-18 months and she seemed to enjoy the process of going on the potty but I was having a difficult pregnancy and wasn’t able to fully commit to the diaper-free process. So here we go again…I will let you know how it goes and will try to implement a few of your recommendations.

    • From what you have told me it sounds like Sixtine is definitely picking up toilet learning very quickly. I have no doubt that she is going to be completed with her learning very soon and it is understandable if you could not commit to the process earlier as you have Victoire too! Best wishes for your toilet learning with Sixtine, I am sure there will be much success.

    • Yes it is definitely not an easy journey to take, no matter how you do it. As you know I have experienced my fair share of frustration! I think it is important to step back and just let it go, as soon as I did that then things seemed to just fall into place. I definitely agree with you, children should have the right to learn at their own pace and should be exposed to toileting as part of everyday life. Respect for the whole person for us included Joshua being provided opportunities to toilet learn. Thankyou for liking and taking the time to read my post, I will keep you up to date with how we go with night learning!

  3. Great post! Last month, I was able to observe in several of our Montessori infant classrooms. I witnessed many children who were just starting to walk (twelve to about sixteen month olds) who were very aware of their elimination needs!

    In our classrooms, we do stand-up diaper changes in the the bathroom for children who are able to stand up. We have a little station where there is a low mirror on the wall, with a pull-up bar across it. The children hold onto the bar, and make faces at themselves (or each other) as the teacher changes their diapers standing up.

    These new walkers would regularly just walk up to the bar, and hold it, indicating wordlessly that they needed a diaper change. And for every one of them, when the teacher checked, they did, indeed, have a wet or soiled diaper! And each and every time, the diaper change was a quick, happy caregiving moment–no fights about changing, not once during several days of my visits!

    I really, really wished I had known about stand-up diapering when my two children were young. I would have put up a mirror with a bar in my bathroom immediately, to avoid the fights of diaper changes–and I bet it really helps with early toilet learning!

    • Hi Heike. I feel honoured that you have taken the time to read my post, I’ve been following your posts at LePort schools for some time. It’s been an amazing process so far, and that’s here at home. I wish Australia had the wonderful setup your school provides as there is not enough montessori support here, which is part of the reason I decided to start blogging our journey.
      The stand up changes are great for independence. I didn’t think of a pull up bar, that’s a fantastic idea. I’ve been encouraging people I know with diaper (nappy here in Australia!) changes as mostly people do lying down changes. I agree it improved our change experience markedly. Joshua loves going to get his underwear and helping out putting them on. It’s been a wonderful thing to experience, his satisfaction being able to help himself and decide more frequently recently when he needs to go (not needing the reminder) has really built his confidence.

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