In Her Own Time: Learning to use the toilet

Learning to use the toilet - Toilet Learning vs Toilet TrainingLearning to use the toilet is something we approached very differently from Jack (4yrs) to Sarah (23months). With Jack, I now realise, it was on our time and our agenda. Even though he was showing signs of being ready, we took that as our cue to ‘train’ him.

How long did he take to toilet train? Was he toilet trained before 3? or even better, before 2? How did you do it? 

With Sarah, well she has the benefit of our hindsight (and the wisdom of Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury). Toilet training isn’t something we do to her, it is a natural development that all children will go through, in their own time. There is no agenda.

With Jack we put him on the potty every 30 minutes. We decided that he didn’t need nappies anymore. We decided he was a ‘big boy’ now. When he started to do a wee, we would rush him from where he was, picking him up and taking him to the potty. Everything was going wonderfully though so we must be on the right track…

But then Jack decided he wasn’t going to use the potty anymore. He would fight and scream when we disrupted what he was doing every 30 minutes to put him on the potty (I can’t imagine why…) That’s when we realised that we were forcing our agenda on him… He’s two now. That means it’s time for toilet training. That’s the next thing to teach him. 

We stopped. Stopped everything. And wouldn’t you know it, when he was ready he taught himself. The pressure of the situation had gone. Instead, an acceptance that, just like crawling and walking and learning to speak, Jack would learn to use the toilet when he was ready.

Learning to use the toilet has been a much more relaxed experience for Sarah. I think what we learnt most from Jack is, when she is ready, to provide an environment which supports this need and possibly more importantly, an atmosphere of calm acceptance that this is going to take some time and without coaxing or forcing or rewards, Sarah will learn to use the toilet.

And just like Jack, she started to show signs of being ready. However this time, that wasn’t my cue to teach her, that was my cue to make a few changes to our home and our daily rhythm so Sarah could be best supported in learning to use the toilet.

So we put a potty out for Sarah. Kept it in the same easily accessible place so she knew where it was when she needed it. Made sure that her clothes were simple enough so she could remove them by herself or with a little help and changed her shelf in her wardrobe to now include a change of underwear and clothes. And then we waited. Waited until Sarah was ready to use the potty.

Sarah was now wearing underwear at home. She decided this. When she would do a wee in her underwear, rather than rushing her off to the potty like we did with Jack, we would stand with her and say, ‘Oh you’re doing a wee.’ ‘When you are ready, you can do a wee in the potty.’ ‘Let’s go and clean this up and put some dry clothes on.’ 

Soon enough, Sarah became very aware of when she was doing a wee. But she still wasn’t able to hold it to make it to the potty. And we spoke with her again, cleaned up the mess and trusted that she would get there eventually.

And she did. Sarah started using the potty. From then on she used the potty consistently. She had control over her body, knew where to go and so off she went.

Sarah wears a nappy at night time, but this too will come with time. She also prefers to use the toilet now instead of the potty; just like the rest of her family I suspect.

The whole experience has been completely different, dare I say, even enjoyable; watching and supporting Sarah as she mastered this new skill without any coaxing or step-by-step plan. But rather treating her with respect for the person she is and accepting that in her own time, not mine, she will learn to use the toilet.


32 Replies to “In Her Own Time: Learning to use the toilet”

  1. Oh, I so needed to read this…

  2. I went through a similar process with Lucy as you did with jack. Lucy was not happy to wear a nappy and was showing all the signs of being ready to train so we decided she was ready to train. She was great to begin with but soon she realized that going to the toilet meant that she had to stop playing. It seemed that her bladder was teeny tiny and she was literally going to the toilet every 20 mins. She would often run off to the toilet, do a wee and then 10mins later, have an accident. It was seriously starting to impact on her quality of life so after about 2 months of frustrations for all of us we decided to let her wear pull ups so if she wanted to go, she could but accidents could be managed so she wasn’t constantly being interrupted to be cleaned and changed. Now she happily goes to the toilet throughout the day but still wets her nappy in between. We know that when she is ready she will learn to go 100% of the time and in the meantime, we are all happy with the progress she is making in her own time. Thanks for posting. 🙂

    1. I read something a while back that Janet wrote (I think) as advice to a mother in a similar situation. And she said something similar, just gently reminding the child that they can use the toilet. I do like this approach a lot.

      1. Me too, Kate. We give Lucy the choice about wearing a pull up now and often she chooses to wear it. I absolutely don’t mind her wearing one though because I know she has realised that her bladder is just not mature enough yet to hold her wee in for more than 20-30mins. It was so disruptive for her throughout the day. Now she can still use the toilet (which she does throughout the day -prob 4-5 times) but doesn’t have to constantly be disrupted whether to run to the toilet or have her accident cleaned up. Its much more peaceful and less stressful here now.

        1. We do the same. Our son gets the choice of wearing pull ups or underpants. And at the moment with a big transition in his life (new baby sister) he insists on pull ups 90% of the time (especially during the week when he is in daycare). I don’t discuss or argue. It’s his choice and I am happy with it because I don’t like him weeing himself all the time (and he doesn’t either). Since he was pushed a little in the daycare centre and their approach was different to ours I am really excited how this will go with our daughter. But that will take at least another 2-3 years to find out…
          Thanks for that post. I like that somebody finally points out that it’s not about training but about learning. Self initiated learning. Thank you!

          1. Things are definitely a lot more relaxed with Sarah. I think there is still a lot of social expectations about toilet learning; under 2 is fantastic and over 3 is slack on the parents’ behalf. If only we would all just give each other a break and follow each child as the individual they are.

    2. My daughter is 3 and absolutely has no interest in pull ups or underwear up to point.. But her class at church orefers her to be potty trained..,it’s hard for a child to be able to progress of that are told that can’t got something like this.., I have pull ups but she says no,.. May have to try offering underwear when she is at home on my days off! What do you think?

  3. Reassuring post! I’m curious as to how you handled underwear – did you give her a choice each morning as to whether to wear underwear or a nappy? Our son asks to use the potty occasionally and we go through the laborious business of taking off his trousers and nappy and then putting them on again afterwards. I want him to learn at his own pace, but I’m also wondering about how/when to introduce underwear.

    1. We used cloth nappies and I think as they grew taller, they were a little too bulky and this might have been why both Jack and Sarah refused to put on a nappy after a time. So they went straight into underwear.

      Does your son want to wear underwear? Is it possible and comfortable for him to just wear underwear and a shirt while at home? When we introduced underwear we put some on their shelf in the cupboards.

      It seems he is starting to learn to use the toilet/potty. I think you could put some underwear on his shelf and see if he would like to wear them. We talked to Jack and Sarah for many mornings just gently reminding them that they were wearing underwear. I think it also helped to have the potty in the same place.

      Let me know how you go. 🙂

      1. Thanks! I failed to mention another slight complication in that I’m 8 months pregnant which I guess is also one of the reasons that I haven’t been feeling in too much of a rush. He’s not a big fan of nappy changes though – he’s happy once he is lying down on the changing mat but tells me ‘no nappy change’ whenever I ask him if he wants one. He has strong opinions on what colour nappy he wears however! It might be worth getting some underwear and seeing what he makes of it – can’t decide whether to leave things until everything is a bit more settled after the baby arrives.

        1. Jack was learning to use the toilet when I was pregnant with Sarah. I think had we continued the way we were than things might have been more stressful for us. When we decided to back off, things became a lot easier. We were using cloth nappies too so I figured there really wasn’t much difference between wet underwear and wet nappies. Jack really protested to putting on a nappy too and really welcomed the choice to wear underwear. I think if we take the expectation that this is going to be a stressful experience, and just take it as something each child goes through, things become a whole lot calmer. I understand how you are feeling, with the baby on the way. Take care of yourself. For me, offering Jack underwear was the calmer course since he would kick and squirm and fit nappy changes. See how he goes with the underwear, a happy toddler is definitely a happy mama 🙂

          1. We’ve both been ill and I’m still not properly better yet, so think we are definitely going to be leaving this until after the baby comes now! I think what you say about not expecting it to be a stressful experience is important for me to not to forget. My friends who have potty-trained their toddlers of the same age so far in the traditional way all seem to have had quite a stressful time and I mustn’t let that affect me.

          2. Not long now til that little one arrives. I have to remind myself at times too to not let things that are perfectly natural in their development (like sharing and squabbling) stress me out. Jack and Sarah respond very negatively when I get stressed; their behaviour escalates and so when I am calm so too are they. I think it is the same with learning to use the toilet. When we stress so do they.

  4. Great post Kate! I came to the same conclusions myself and now that my twins are nearly 3 they are really getting there on their own agenda. They choose to wear ‘knickers’ in the morning and if they wet we talk about it being an accident and how their pants feel wet and then we go and change…talking about trying the toilet next time. They don’t like the potty but love the toilet and having a turn. In the last few days they have made the connection of how it feels when they need to go and asking for toilet…the light in their eyes when they do a wee on the toilet is magical!
    Yes it means quite a few wet pants but it’s no worse than all the wet nappies I was washing!! So glad your process with Sarah is going well…thanks for sharing x

    1. That’s what we figured to Jode, a few wet undies are no different to washing nappies. It really doesn’t need to be a complicated or stressful experience, does it? Or something which we should be comparing with or envious of others. They all will get there in their own time.

  5. Clearly with every child it’s different, but it all boils down to how you approach it: is it training or is it awareness and respect? I don’t think it’s about age as much as it is about being in tune with the signals they’re sending and knowing how to respond.

    My son started fighting diaper changes at 7 months, regardless of what I did (RIE or no RIE!!) and would complain if he was wet or soiled (we used cloth). He peed from the first time I sat him on the potty at 7 months of age, and a few weeks later started pooping, too. I started by offering the potty after naps, and if he didn’t want to sit he didn’t have to (although most of the time he loves sitting and looking at books). I slowly increased the number of times a day we would be in the bathroom but NEVER would I interrupt his work/play sessions, even if he was pooping. I approached using the bathroom as any adult would: You go before and after a nap, before leaving the house and when you come back, after a meal, before going to bed and upon rising. I make the sign for “bathroom” and use the word, and he has recently started signing and telling us when he needs to poop (he’s 14 months). He is now in underwear because he’s dry about 75% of the time during the day, and I say the same thing you do if he’s wet/soiled: “Oh, you peed, let’s change you into dry underwear.”

    I think that early toileting awareness is respectful and supportive of the child’s development if done the right way. Before the advent of disposable diapers, approximately 90% of children were able to control their bodily functions before the age of 1 (and they didn’t have “regressions” like doctors now claim). Traditional cultures also take a similar approach; parents and older siblings learn the child’s cues and routinely offer a spot for eliminating, so that children are dry within the first few months of life.

    Actually, it seems like the age of two is actually the most difficult time to start toileting awareness! In my experience (with my son and with the countless pre-schoolers I have worked with), you either provide an environment for creating toileting awareness before 18 months or you will be better off waiting until they are nearing 3 years of age (especially boys…).

    Supporting toileting awareness takes much more commitment on the parents’ part than simply slapping on a diaper, but if we’re committed to their education, nutrition, emotional health, etc. then is toileting any different?

    1. I agree with what you’re saying. I think that this is what we learnt with Sarah after our hindsight with Jack; that it takes awareness on the parent’s behalf to notice the cues, and then continue to provide a supportive environment (and supportive action from the parent) to respectfully help the child towards learning to use the toilet. Like you said, being attune to our child’s development takes commitment and I think this is what you have shown with your son.

      I think importantly is for us, people, society even, to foremost follow the child (at what ever age that is) and support them to learn, as we would any other area of their development (like you said) in a supportive and respectful way.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences 🙂

  6. Totally agree with the approach of it being about the child and not the adult timing, pushing, demanding.
    I have found that when families let the issue go and the child leads the way it takes very few days, tons of positive feelings about the toilet and what they have learned to do.
    What I really like is how you have termed this “toilet learning”. I’m stealing that one for my handbook and future explanation with families.

  7. What a nice post! I shared it with our parents at LePort Schools via Facebook, because it’s very aligned with how we approach toilet learning in our Montessori infant and toddler classrooms. In fact, we recently wrote a blog post titled “Toilet Learning: A Montessori Perspective”, which outlines how to follow a similar, follow-the-child, respectful approach in a group care setting:

  8. love this <3

  9. this is a great post. We fell somewhere between your two approaches. We took our time to introduce the idea of toilets and potties and gave Goblin lots of options, but we did go through a period of putting him on the toilet regularly to stop him weeing on the sofa. After being dry and in underwear for 6 months he suddenly regressed and started wetting himself three times a day. At first we got annoyed, but when we stepped back, and offered Goblin the choice of going back into nappies he made his own choice to stay in underwear and stopped wetting so much. It has been a long road, over a year, and i think posts like yours are really helpful because they remind us that it is a developmental issue and we shouldn’t expect kids to learn over night. Some might, but most will take their time.
    I’m sharing your post on the Sunday Parenting Party Pinterest board

    1. I’m featuring your post this week on the SPP (grab an I was featured button from my blog button page if you’d like one)

      1. Thank you. 🙂

  10. Thanks for sharing! We are doing the same with our second daughter and it has been wonderful to see her come to it on her own!! It’s a lot less stressful than it was with the first, where we didn’t know any better and just did the potty training. I love seeing my little girl get to know her body and come to this big milestone on her own!!!

  11. I love this article. My daughter was taught to use the potty because peeing/pooping in her diaper caused her so much stress. The moment she had even the smallest amount of pee in her diaper, she would start crying. She has always been a very happy baby, but without fail, a wet diaper made her so upset, immediately. We started letting her try to go on the potty at 12 months and she picked it up FAST. The first time she used to potty for poop was literally the day she became potty trained for #2. She never pooped in her diaper again after that day. We started letting her go pee in the potty and she caught on very quickly. By 16 months, she was 100% potty trained because she preferred NOT having pee or poop in her diaper. She just hated the feeling. It made sense for us to let her attempt using the potty. I’m sure cloth diapering was a huge reason, as wet cloth just cannot feel nice and must’ve just been too yucky for her to deal with. For this reason, we avoided diaper rash completely! It was awesome! I call it potty training rather than potty learning because teaching her at such a young age (crawling to the potty before she was able to walk, for example) did feel a lot like training. I guess I’m not totally sure what the difference is in training and learning now that I’m writing it all out…… Anyway, there was no punishment or consequences or anything when she didn’t make it to the toilet, it was just an “oops” type of thing.

  12. I hated the idea of toilet training it scared the hell out of me. So when my son started taking himself to the toilet just before he was two we went with it. For 12 months we followed his lead of if he wanted to wear a nappy or not. There was a few months he refused to go to the toilet. Then a few weeks off turning 3 he said no more nappies. He started using the toilets and had no accidents. A couple of weeks later he gave up night time nappies. It might have taken 12 months but it was such a laid back approach but at the end it wasn’t stressful of horrible
    On any of us. We are doing the same with Miss 2. Someday she wears nappies some days she uses the toilet.

  13. We practiced attachment parenting with our little boy, now 4. I didn’t even think about toilet training until I was with a mum’s group and they were discussing potty training. Next day I told my boy (2 & a bit at the time) he did not need nappies anymore as I felt he was ready. He had a few accidents with no. 1s, no accidents with no. 2s and all went smoothly without much ado and certainly very little effort on my part. Children learn in their own time in their own way despite their parents. I think ‘grown ups’ need to respect and treat children the way they treat other adults otherwise we undermine their learning capabilities. Thankyou to your blog which encourages this.

  14. My daughter will be 4 in 2 weeks and she is still in pull ups. We have tried undies in the past and she gets really distressed and upset if she has an accident.

    I must admit I do feel a lot of anxiety and judgement (probably more in my imagination then anything else!) over the fact that she isn’t using the toilet at her age.

    I keep telling myself she will when she is ready, but I do sometimes worry about it 🙁

  15. Our daughter decided she was done with diapers the week our family spent a summer vacation at a small cottage in Down East Maine (we stayed mostly in one place, mostly outdoors). I attribute this to several factors: her readiness (right place at the right time), my husband and I absorbing Janet’s blogs about respectful parenting, and a comment a French teacher made when we were touring a school that accepts children after 2, provided they are out of diapers. We had wanted our daughter to attend this school starting in September (visit was in May, just after she turned 2), but doubted that she would be potty trained by September and mentioned this to the head of school–the French guy. He blithely said something to the effect of, “Ah, but it’s summer–perfect timing. Let her run around without pants on like we French do and she’ll potty train herself before too long.”

    We went on vacation in mid-August and the last thing we put in the car was the small potty, which our daughter had been interested in, and had used a few times (no pressure, more for fun, akin to a toy kitchen). Sure enough, in this relaxed environment where the only agenda was to spend time as a family and really enjoy and observe and discover with our daughter, she ran (and swam!) around without pants on and started gleefully using the potty–which stayed outside the whole time! I think the bodily awareness that came from feeling/seeing the pee and the realization that she didn’t like to be wet was what did it. She also seemed to relish pooping in nature. She’d sit on the potty and stare out at the ocean or up at the trees. After the first day she started refusing the diaper but we were so unprepared for this change that we hadn’t brought undies for her!

    The only problem was that when we got home (where we keep the potty in the downstairs bathroom by the big toilet) she still wanted to poop outside! We went through a brief phase where she was pooping on the lawn and driveway but we decided to not make a big deal of it and had her help us clean it up the same way we pick up dog doo.

    Ultimately we decided to wait on this particular school even though we loved it and she was out of diapers “in time”. She’s in a play-based daycare for now instead.

    We really feel like we can’t thank you enough! I was dreading potty training and was actually of the mind that we should even try to delay it–for some reason the stress of finding toilets in public and knowing/planning when she might need to go intimidated me. Instead, I feel like it’s now yet another way for us to be in tune with each other. We’ve only had one “accident” (if you can call it that) in public and in hindsight I realized she had been communicating with me, but we were doing errands and my mind was really elsewhere. So that was on me.

    Anyway, my husband and I are STILL amazed that potty training required almost no effort on our part–just putting a tiny potty in the car when we went on a one-week family vacation. We still help with cleanup, but let her do as much as possible by herself. All in all, I feel like we’ve all gotten great things out of it and it has been stress free. Not what I expected based on what our society tells us!

  16. In Europe mothers had to wash the diapers, if the baby was sensitive boil them as well. Potty training was a fairly important step. If a child was not fully toilet trained by a year old, – this includes nights – it would be frowned upon. I left Europe to live in Canada. My ability to do accomplish this for my children seem to be effortless. In the early ’80 my daughter was fully potty trained at 10 month old. I begun the process when she was 6 months old. With tremendous patience, lots of fun. Natural functions seem to happen after meal times. I’m an avid natural food advocate so for me using baby formula or synthetic food of any kind was a no, no. Issues with tummy problems were thankfully never an issue. Im aware of how very conscious our baby’s are. Their ability to learn much by the age of 6 months is profound. By the time my second baby was reaching 6 months old, I was convinced there was deep, profound learning going on in utero for the 9 months. Our emotional states, focus and environment all seem to shape this becoming human. Now I have grandchildren …. 🙂 my daughter in law has no plans to focus on potty training yet my 17 months old grandson. Its her choice, and there are no agenda or push from me. My daughter has her 9 months old, who is showing very clear signs that she is ready for potty. Mommy however may not be…. 🙂 Children develop differently, timeline is not whats important. Focusing on the little ones and knowing how very profound they are right from birth. If people known what a phenomenal consciousness they hold in their arms when they first gaze into the eye of their baby…… most of us would govern ourselves much differently.

  17. My son is starting Kindy in January.
    He is very anxious around toileting. It hurt, until we discovered he was dairy intollerant and since removing all dairy products from his diet he feels a lot better and bowel movements happen without any pain. But he hates going to the toilet to poo and he poos in whatever it is he’s wearing. When he wears nothing, he can make it to the toilet, but as soon as he has pants or pull ups on, he won’t go to the toilet, and if I notice him preparing to poo by hiding under the table or wherever and say, let’s go to the toilet, he has an emotional outburst.
    He’s 4 and a half years old. In 2 weeks we’re going on a long haul flight, we’ll be moving house in January and he’ll be starting kindy then too.
    We’ve tried to let him go at his own pace because our eldest son suffered (and still does in times of high stress) encopresis, but we’re running out of time. School will not change nappies, especially not several a day like we have.
    Is there something else we can do (presently we are doing 5 minutes after meals, star charts, rewards, cleaning up every soiled pant and bottom without issue, reassuring when he is distressed but I’m starting to get really fed up – and I’m sure he picks up on that.)

    Any more tips?

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