Of all the developmental milestones that children experience in the early years, learning how to use the toilet often causes parents the highest levels of anxiety. Not surprisingly, the theories, resources, and ‘training methods’ about this topic, to which parents are exposed, are abundant. Also not surprisingly, this process of learning which is supposed to be such a natural milestone to be reached by a healthy child, becomes an experience filled with tension and anxiety for all of those involved.
Seeing and perceiving children through a holistic lens enables us to understand that toilet learning is multi-faceted and connected to various aspects of the child’s being. How your child experiences this process will impact different areas of their development and well-being. A negative toilet learning experience can produce significant emotional distress and long-lasting consequences.
A child-led approach to toilet learning allows the child to develop in a manner that enhances the child’s physical development, self-awareness, confidence, and sense of competency. This occurs while preserving and strengthening a secure attachment with their caregiver and enhancing the parent-child relationship.
The combination of all of these aspects have a tremendous impact on the healthy mental and emotional development of the child which can have ripple effects into all areas of the child’s life, for many years to come.
WHAT IS CHILD-LED TOILET LEARNING?
Child-led toilet learning emerges from the principle that every child has an innate desire and capability to learn and develop; each child has their own pace of learning and developing, and this should be honoured and respected.
The child will do it; and it will happen at the best possible time for them.
In a child-led approach, the child must be ready for the toilet learning process to occur. The adults follow the child’s cues, empowering and enabling them to develop this new skill, without pressure – including the added pressure of punishments (e.g. child being reprimanded because of an ‘accident’) or rewards (e.g. stickers or treats for using the toilet).
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOUR CHILD IS READY FOR TOILET LEARNING?
To say that a child is ready for toilet learning, we must consider physical, cognitive, and emotional aspects of development.
Signs of physical readiness* include:
child’s diaper is drier for longer periods of time
child can let you know once they have peed or pooped
child can tell when they are peeing or pooping
child can tell when they need to pee or poop (e.g. they may ‘hide’ in a corner)
*Please note that bladder control is a physical milestone. Just as an adult wouldn’t expect a 4-month old baby to walk because they know the child’s body isn’t ready, we cannot expect a child who hasn’t yet developed bladder control to use the toilet and not to have an accident. By doing so, we are setting our children up for failure, with all its associated negative consequences.
Signs of cognitive readiness include:
child understands what the toilet if for and what they are expected to do when sitting on the toilet (as opposed to child being sat on the toilet while caregiver waits for something to happen)
child understands the process of going to the toilet: getting undressed, sitting on toilet, cleaning/drying, getting dressed, washing hands)
Signs of emotional readiness include:
child tells you that they no longer want to wear diapers
child asks to use the toilet
It is important to be aware that signs of readiness don’t always appear across different settings. It is common, for instance, that a child is emotionally ready to use the toilet at home, but not in a group care setting. In such circumstances, families can empower the child to use the toilet at home, while waiting and letting the child decide when he or she is ready to take that next step in the group care setting.
HOW CAN YOU ENCOURAGE CHILD-LED TOILET LEARNING?
As children start getting ready for the toilet learning process, they may start asking toilet-related questions. Allow and encourage those types of conversations, answering their questions truthfully and with clarity.
Allow your child to watch you use the toilet. As with everything, children learn best by watching us.
You may wish to make books about using the toilet available to your child. This can be useful; however, be careful not to pressure your child into reading that book in particular, as this may increase anxiety and apprehension around the toilet learning process.
As you notice your child getting ready, it is normal to feel a combination of excitement and apprehension due to the uncertainty of the process. Try your best to avoid demonstrating your anxiety to your child as it can increase their levels of anxiety, apprehension, and pressure ‘to perform’. Treat toilet learning as a natural part of every person’s developmental journey, because that is what it is.
When your child is ready, follow their lead. Every now and then, ask them if they would like to use the toilet and remind them that they can do so whenever they feel like they need to; you are there to support them if they would like that.
If your child decides not to wear diapers anymore, follow their lead. Use the opportunity to explain that there may be accidents, that this is a natural part of learning and not their fault. Explain what will need to be done in case of an accident so they are empowered to take responsibility and help out with the clean-up.
When accidents do happen, encourage your child to help in the process of cleaning up in an accepting and non-judgemental way. Encourage your child to reflect on what they felt physically just before the accident, and how this can help them understand when they need to go to the toilet a little bit sooner.
PRACTICES THAT MAY BE DETRIMENTAL AND CONFLICT WITH CHILD-LED TOILET LEARNING
There are certain practices that are commonly used in the ‘potty training’ approach, but that can be detrimental to the child’s holistic development and may hinder some important aspects of a child-led approach to toilet learning.
One of the objectives of the process of a child-led toilet learning is for the child to develop an awareness of the physical signs that their body sends when they need to use the toilet, and to learn how to respond to those signs in a timely manner.
When children are regularly reminded or asked to sit on the toilet at certain times, adults are interfering with the development of this self-awareness. Children stop listening to their bodies and start depending on adults to let them know when they need to use the toilet. Or, because they go every hour due to reminders, for instance, the child may not have the opportunity to experience those physical signs which warn them that it is time to go.
The cons of using sticker charts as a strategy go beyond just toilet learning. Generally speaking, any strategies associated with rewards teach children to behave a certain way in order to receive recognition, to gain something, to please others, or to feel accepted and ‘good enough’ – and even to feel loved.
In the long-term, our goal should always be for children to develop an intrinsic understanding of right and wrong, to set their own goals for success, and to be internally motivated to achieve these goals. We would like them to do their best because that is what they want to do, not because feeling loved and accepted depends on it. We also want them to make a positive choice because that is the right thing to do, not because that is how they will gain something in return.
When sticker charts are used in the context of toilet learning, there is the additional negative point that the child may try to use the toilet more often in order to collect more stickers, as opposed to responding to their body’s cues. Once again, the development of self-awareness is hindered.
In a child-led approach to toilet learning, accidents tend to be much fewer, simply because the child is ready. There may be accidents while the child learns to identify his or her body’s cues and some attuning may be needed, but it doesn’t take long for the child to achieve that.
Repeated accidents that happen over an extended period of time, as well as receiving responses to accidents in a condemning way, cause the child to feel ashamed for something that is only natural and part of the toilet learning process. This may cause feelings of intrinsic inadequacy that can have long-lasting effects on the child’s emotional wellbeing, including low self-esteem.
Furthermore, negative responses to accidents tend to have the opposite affect to what the caregiver intended: it may cause the child to regress in the toilet learning journey due to the added stress and anxiety.
Most of the well-known methods around toilet learning are essentially adult-led; it aims at meeting the adult’s need, when the adult is ready, the adult’s way. Often, families start ‘potty training’ motivated by the age of the child or for financial reasons (diapers are expensive!), rather than because of the child’s readiness. When the child isn’t ready, and the adult expects the child to do it, the child starts to perceive themself as ‘not good enough’.
Because the child isn’t ready, the likeliness of numerous ‘accidents’ is high. This gradually evolves and tension and disconnectedness may become part of the parent-child relationship. The person who is supposed to be the child’s safe haven, becomes a source of anxiety and, sometimes, fear. This, on its own, is one of the most dangerous and long-lasting effects of non child-led approaches to toilet learning.
LAST THOUGHTS ON TOILET-LEARNING
A child-led approach to toilet learning ensures that this natural stage of development remains natural and positive, and avoids unnecessary damage. Whenever you feel pressured by society, families and friends who may ask about your child’s toilet skills, or compare your child to others, remember: it will happen at the perfect time for your child!
Child-led toilet learning is yet another way to show your child that you trust and respect them; it’s a way to offer unconditional love and acceptance that will sustain physical and emotional wellness throughout their life.
Bambini Learning Group is a Reggio-inspired, holistic child care program located in Edmonton, Alberta. Their vision is to inspire families to live healthier, more meaningful lives. Through innovative, holistic, and supportive resources, Bambini is helping children live the authentic childhood they deserve. New locations coming soon! Contact Bambini for more information about their unique, holistic child care program at [email protected], or book a tour to see Bambini for yourself!
Fabiana Gunschnigg is the Executive Director of Bambini Learning Group. She has been working in the early childhood field for over 15 years. She’s originally from Brazil and then moved to New Zealand in 2007, where she completed her Early Childhood Education and received her diploma in teaching. Fabiana has worked with various ages of children, in numerous programs, within various roles from teacher to assistant manager. She has a passion for early childhood and you can see this in her everyday contributions to Bambini.