I have taken an approach to potty learning that resembles my approaches to most things in mothering — let the child take the lead. I truly believe that children do things when they are ready. Armed with information and opportunity, they desire to grow up and do ever-increasing amazing, awesome things!
With all of my children, when they are babies and toddlers, I leave the door open and they can see me using the bathroom so that they see that it’s a natural part of life. This is also especially helpful when children are going through stages of anxiety during separation or before they gain object permanence when out of sight means Mommy no longer exists. I talk to them from very young also. “Mommy is putting her potties in the toilet. Right now you are in a diaper, but soon you will be big enough to use a toilet too. Then you don’t have to carry your potties on your bum. You can sit on the toilet and leave them here. Then, watch, we FLUSH it away! All gone!”
As they move fully into toddler stages, I talk to them about tuning into their body, and respecting body boundaries in SO many areas of life — walking into people and things, hitting, anything that hurts someone or takes their things, etc. And I talk about it in terms of pottying. “When you can feel that you’re about to go potty, you can run to the toilet and sit there and put your potty in the toilet. How awesome that will be!”
At all times it is presented as the assumed place where people who are able put their potty. It doesn’t go other places — and diapers are only until you are able.
Some of the signs that they are ready to begin trying to use the potty include BOTH coming to you when they are done, because they don’t want it on their body anymore AND awareness that they are about to go. You can often tell, if you are watching, that they squirm, or get a look of concentration on their face and pause. When I see that look, I ask them, “Is your body telling you it needs to go potty?” During this stage when I’m changing a diaper, I talk about how awesome it is for everyone when they are using the potty. And I talk to them about what sensations they might have felt right before they pottied. For pee, I talk about feeling full and touch their bladder area. For poo, I talk about feeling like you have to push. I remind them to listen to their body because it will tell them what they need to do.
At all times I am validating their ability to have their body tell them what to do in this area and their ability to listen to it — that they will do this in conjunction with the potty when they are ready.
Now, when my children start to ask me to use the potty — either to help get a diaper off or to take them to the potty — I slow down my encouragement. This is for a very important reason! *For most children*, their own ability seems to come in stops and starts and the more excited I get, the more I start taking over the process. The more I almost drag behind, the more they take the lead. And that’s what I want.
When they truly are using the potty, the way I deal with accidents is simple: two accidents in a day means back in diapers and we try again tomorrow. It is not done with shaming or as a punishment. On the contrary, it’s simply that if you’ve had two accidents then for some reason you aren’t listening well to your body that day so it’s not going to be a day of success in this area. Frankly, I don’t want to clean up more than two accident messes in a day. Sometimes this can be due to learning a new skill or hyper-focusing on something else, sometimes it is due to loss of bowel/urinary sensation connected to food allergies, and sometimes it can be due to coming down with something. Whatever it is, we try again tomorrow and we build success upon success — no one gets frustrated or discouraged this way.
Potty awareness is something that children really will develop when they are ready — we don’t have to train them to do anything else that is also developmentally connected. We don’t have to train them to crawl, or to walk, or to run.
At night is another story — some children are night dry before they are out of diapers, while some continue to have accidents at night. I find the best way to prevent this is to make note of when a child is having his accident at night and take him to the bathroom, fully or half asleep, to use the bathroom in time to prevent the accident. Just sit the child on the toilet and make a noise that sounds like “psst, psst”. This triggers the bladder to release.
Potty awareness is something that children really will develop when they are ready — we don’t have to train them to do anything else that is also developmentally connected. We don’t have to train them to crawl, or to walk, or to run. We don’t have to train them to eat. As with all these things, they will use the toilet when they are ready — assuming they are aware that that is what is expected when they have that readiness. In my very personal experience, we can either put a lot of effort into trying to rush them and they will use the toilet when they are ready OR we can put in very little effort and they will use the toilet when they are ready. Either way, they do it when they can.
When To Be Concerned
There are a few issues to be concerned about in the area of potty readiness.
If the child is not realizing that they are wet/dirty by the age of 3. This might be in conjunction with other sensory issues you are already noticing or other developmental delays.
You also may have a child who is expressing a desire to use the toilet but is unable to be successful — if it is truly the child expressing the desire, then I would encourage you to become a detective. As mentioned above, allergies can remove the awareness of the sensations needed to warn us we need to use the bathroom. I experience this as an adult and when exposed to certain allergens all of my children, up to different ages, would have accidents at night. Also, some allergens can cause constipation that makes it painful to poop. If the bowels are blocked, the only thing that will get around the blockage is diarrhea. Often diarrhea in children is evidence of constipation.
- Certain infections can block the ability to pee. Advanced UTI’s are one infection that will cause this. Children who have pain when peeing will withhold and can distend the bladder. If your child is straining to pee or going unseemly long intervals between bathroom visits, you might want to explore further. Children’s soap and bubble baths that have chemicals are very common causes of UTI’s. Yeast infections in the vulva area or the head of the penis can also cause burning when urinating and cause the child to fear using the toilet.