Toileting is a learning process in which a young child learns how to control their bowel and bladder and use the bathroom for elimination.

Toilet learning is a natural process and should be done at a pace the child is comfortable with. This process cannot be directed and controlled by the adult (aka as toilet training). We must not hinder the child and prolong the process. The adult is not the one who should decide when to start the process because of their own needs. Our duty is to observe the child and know when the right moment is for the child to start.

How do we know when to start? From the Montessori perspective the answer is easy: The toilet learning process starts at birth.

Toileting implies sphincter control and the myelination plays a determinant role in the process. But also, as Maria Montessori said: “the child absorbs and adapts to its culture”. Meaning that the sphincter control can be achieved much sooner than people think. It depends on our culture and whether the adults provide the necessary support.
We can support our child by talking to him about his body parts and its functions when you we are changing his diaper or giving him a bath.

We can support him as well by choosing cloth diapers over disposable. Cloth diapers help babies to feel and understand the difference of being wet and dry. It is important to use 100% cotton underwear, since the child may be more sensitive to temperature and wetness.

The child is ready to use a toilet when his muscles and nerves (sphincters) are properly developed (usually around 12 months of age or when they start walking). Society, however, often promotes timing that is convenient for an adult versus the time at which children are truly capable. History tells us that the more we use disposable diapers, the later children become toilet trained. The New York Times reported, in 1957, almost 100% of the children wore cloth diapers and 95% of them were trained by the age of 18 months. Today almost 95% of the children wear disposable diapers and only about 10% are trained by the age of 18 months. Currently the average age for toilet training is about 30 months with the age ranging from 18 to 60 months.

Every child is different and has his own path of growing and developing. However, there are universal signs that might indicate readiness to begin a transition to his new developmental stage of wearing underwear. Whether you decided to use disposable diapers or cloth ones, here are some signs that help us know when and how to support your child in the toilet learning process.

When your child:

  • Can follow simple directions
  • Is able to sit
  • Is interested in wearing underwear
  • Has curiosity concerning the toilet
  • Is able to stay dry for 2-3 hours
  • Seeks privacy (hides) when urinating or having a bowel movement in the diaper
  • Verbally expresses that he is wet and wants to be changed
  • Is able to pull his own pants up and down

We want to make sure that our ‘toilet-ready child’ is dressed for success, which means wearing outfits that he can get in and out of easily. Hence we need to avoid buttons, belts, and other fasteners he might have trouble handling by himself. Even if he has the dressing skills to unbuckle and unzip and manipulate other clothing closures, he shouldn’t have to fuss with them at the same time he’s trying to get settled on the toilet. Avoid overalls, onesies or pants too tight for the same reason.

We need to give the child independence on the levels they can handle (size appropriate toilet, clothing, reminders…). The space where the child will learn to use the toilet has to be consciously prepared by the adult. Remember that the toilet should be located in the bathroom, not in the kitchen or the living room or the patio. We do not want to confuse the child about how, when, and where we use the potty.

The basic items needed in this process are a:

  • Toilet (child size or adapted)
  • Sink and Stool
  • Soap and hand towel
  • Basket for dirty clothes
  • Basket with clean clothes

The adult must collaborate with the child by both observing and modeling. We need to show the child where the potty is as well as how to sit and use it. As adults we must also be aware of the different diets that can help the child have more comfortable bowel movements.

Toileting is a learning process for children. It is important use positive language when we talk to the child about the learning process of using the toilet (no punishment or reward system). Some children train themselves in a few weeks while others need months. Some children show readiness as soon as 12 months while others start by the age of 3 or later. Regardless of the age we start, the process needs to be low-key but straightforward. As parents and educators, we need to commit to the whole process that involves lots of laundry, mopping floors, and wet carpets.

Maintain a positive attitude and your child will be toilet-trained in time :)

By Nuria Serrano