Helping children transition from diapers to using the toilet is a big milestone, one often surrounded by stress. Part of the reason, I believe, is due to the way we have been conditioned to think about it. It is often called potty training, but we aren’t training animals here. We are teaching and guiding children.
Potty learning is a task that requires many skills, and development marches at its own pace for each child.
How do you know your child is ready?
The answer is not from any mom group or book or blog. It isn’t found in what other kids are doing. It is in noticing your child as the individual they are. They may be ready if:
- They can stay dry for about 2 hours
- They wake from naps dry
- They can follow simple instructions
- They have regular and predictable bowel movements
- They have a natural curiosity for bathroom activities
- They are seeking independence
- They are able to verbally or nonverbally communicate wants and needs
How do you know you are ready?
What feelings surface for you about this process? Are you filled with anxiety, fear, or dread? Are you excited, engaged, and calm?
How do you feel about letting go of control? How do you feel when you think about accidents (aka messes)?
This self-reflection is an opportunity to collect data about your own mindset so that you can better acknowledge and work through them before engaging with your child. Remember, that our kids absorb our energy, and we want this to be a low-stress experience for everyone!
Focus on process over outcome
More often than not, when stress surrounds potty learning, it is because there is a focus on the outcome of sitting on the toilet and voiding over the steps that lead up to the big Ta’Da.
The process of potty learning is actually complex and requires many higher-level skills. Our child’s role is to notice bodily sensations and signs. They are in charge of what comes out of their body, when, and where, which is a shift in separation and independence. All really big stuff for our tots!
Our role is to guide and support our child in their process, not control or force it. When we focus on process over outcome, we are more likely to see long-term successful potty experiences.
Potty Learning Tools
Here are seven ways to focus on the process of potty learning:
1. Help children recognize bodily sensations
The goal here is that kids not gaze outward toward caregivers for timing, praise, or rewards, but rather inward to notice, “What is my body telling me?”
In our house, we talked about “the feeling.” I began by modeling it myself. When I went to use the toilet, I would say aloud, “I have that feeling in my body. It tells me my bladder is full and I have to pee. I am going to sit on the potty.”
I also looked for signs in my child such as wiggling, withdrawing, or grabbing genitals, and I would ask, “Hmmm, is it that feeling? We can run to the potty!”
Avoid commanding your child to sit on the potty. This shifts the control from them to you. Instead, try things like, “Tell me when you have that feeling. We can go to the potty together.” This shifts the power and body awareness back to your child.
2. Build sovereignty
Your child wants to know that they are in control of their body and their process and that they can trust the feelings they have inside. The best way to practice this is actually outside of a potty moment. It may sound something like this:
- Your child doesn’t want to hug their aunt: “Your body will know what feels right.”
- Your child wants more apple slices: “You’re telling me that your body is still hungry?”
- Your child explores the new play set: “You know your body best. It knows what to do.”
Never force your child to sit on the potty. If your child doesn’t want to go, use words like:
- “You’re in charge of your body.”
- “You’ll know when you’re ready.”
- “The potty is close if you have that feeling.”
- “I am going to check in with my body. Do you want to check in with yours?”
3. Familiarize your child with the process
Break things into small steps to approximate your child to the bathroom.
- Do diaper changes in the bathroom while your child is standing.
- Set a small toilet in the bathroom without pressure to use it.
- Invite your child to sit on their small potty fully clothed to increase comfort.
- Flush pee and poop down the toilet.
- Explain what the potty is: “This is where you can put your pee and poop when you feel that feeling!”
4. Communicate safety
Model using mantras like, “This is new, and I can do this. I am safe to sit down and try,” and encourage your child to join in.
Avoid talking about pee and poop being yucky, stinky, or gross as this can send the message that these are bad and not to be in them or to be released from them. Instead, explain what pee (extra liquid from our body) and poop (solids that our body can’t use) are and that they are safe to release.
If your child feels anxious about potty tasks, offer encouragement: “I know this is new and maybe it feels scary. You are safe. I believe in you!”
Be sure to check in with your feeling states too, taking a deep breath and reminding yourself, “This is my child’s process and they will get it in time.”
5. Ditch the diapers
When you commit, commit. Enroll your child in picking out their new underwear. Do not yo-yo between undies and diapers once you start the process. Because diapers absorb pee, it can disconnect your child from their sensations and decrease body awareness. You may choose to use sleep undies (aka pull-ups) during naps and nighttime. For road trips, bring a portable potty with you so that your child has somewhere familiar and safe to go.
6. Insert play
Play helps take the pressure off of the task itself.
- Read books about toileting. Our favorite was Everybody Poops!
- Place Goldfish crackers in the toilet, fill up the bowl with pee to make them swim.
- Place cheerios in the toilet to help with aim.
- Wave bye-bye to poop as it goes down to the toilet.
- Encourage your kiddo to make potty lemonade (pee).
- Roleplay with dolls, stuffies, or action figures - Not only is this helpful with sequencing, but also coordination for tasks like wiping, and it increases comfortability.
7. Encourage independence
When your child does go on the potty, avoid using terms like “big boy/girl” or “good girl/boy.” This can actually hinder the separation process and stifle independence. Praising a certain action and labeling it as “good” or “big” puts pressure on the action itself, and communicates that their ability to perform a task defines who they are. While often our intentions are loving, these types of labels backfire and, instead of motivating and inspiring the child, can be immobilizing.
Rather, link back to their body awareness: “You had that feeling and you went to the potty!” Or, simply, “You did it.”
In our house, we sang a little song, “Pee pee/Poo Poo on the potty. You listened to your body! Hooray!”
When there is an accident
The goal of potty learning isn’t to stay dry or not have accidents. Accidents are part of the potty process. It is important that your child has opportunities to practice the skill!
When an accident does occur, focus on “what is” without judgment, shame, or blame. A great way to do this is to make an observation. “Your pants are wet. Let’s go get dry!”
You can also point back to body sensations and cues with something like, “It seems like you had that feeling.”
When your child holds their pee and poop
We want to let our children know it’s safe to let out their pee and poop. This is best done outside of toileting moments via play.
- Build a tolerance for mess
- Encourage outdoor play in the mud
- Walk barefoot in the grass
- Invite sensory play
- Teach them to “let it go” by releasing tightness.
- Climb to the top of a jungle gym, beating your chest like Tarzan, yelling loudly.
- Let loose with dance parties, encouraging limbs to fly wildly.
- Scribble or splatter paint.
- Contract and release body scans
If you find that your child has a hard time pooping on the potty, let them decide where to poop. Maybe they poop in their diaper, and then build up comfortability to poop in their diaper but in the bathroom .. in the diaper sitting on the toilet … a diaper with a hole. The goal is to reduce stress, guilt, and power struggles.
Potty learning doesn’t have to be stressful. When we follow our child’s lead, they usually give us signs that they are developmentally and emotionally ready. During times of stress, transition or trauma, there may be a regression in potty learning. Take a deep breath and hit a huge reset button, starting back with the basics.
You and your child will move through this phase. In creating a healthy experience around toileting, your child will learn big life lessons beyond the commode, such as independence, body awareness, sovereignty, problem-solving, and coordination. It is all part of the learning process.