In days past, to teach children to use the toilet, parents simply
undressed them and sat them in a potty chair for extended periods until
they eliminated. Then referred to as toilet training, past practices and
past terms have been updated. Research has shown that seeing the child as
an active player makes the toileting process more enjoyable. Therefore, a
more appropriate name for the process is toilet mastery or toilet
Toilet learning is a developmental process in which a child learns to use
the toilet appropriately. As in many areas of child development, children
must reach a certain age or be in the proper setting or situation before
they are ready to learn. Children are ready to learn when they are
healthy, well nourished, and not pressured to achieve at a level above
Toilet learning generally is initiated in
early childhood, which in itself can be a challenging period. At this
time, children are becoming independent and parents are trying to balance
helping the child with allowing independence. With encouragement, children
can give parents clues about their toilet readiness.
If children are pressured to learn
toileting before they are physically and intellectually able, then there
will be unavoidable accidents. Accidental embarrassment combined with
parental disapproval increases the child's sense of shame and slows the
natural sense of independence. Punishing children for toileting accidents
can turn into an unhealthy and intense struggle. Praising success will be
more accepted by children than shaming them for accidents.
Many young children are frightened by or
curious about toilets. The size, noise, and rapid water movement are
alarming to them. Parents should allow children to ask questions such as
"Where does it go?" and "Will I fall in (and
disappear)?" Give simple answers without scorning the child for
asking. Some parents find curious children playing in the water or
clogging the plumbing by throwing objects in the toilet to see what
happens. Adults may have to be very clear about why nothing else may be
put in the toilet. Parents should make sure they know where the water-flow
valve is located to turn off water just in case.
Parents can recognize some signs of
readiness. These responses may be helpful during the toilet learning
process. In general, children learn about bowel needs before urine needs.
This is because children can generally control the sphincter muscle at an
earlier age than they are able to recognize and control urination muscles.
Children who are showing signs of readiness...
- know names for most body parts.
- acquire the desire to be clean.
- urinate a larger amount at one time as
opposed to dribbling throughout the day.
There are many potential signs of readiness:
- Parents may be able to recognize some
signs that the child is ready to have a bowel movement and respond. As
soon as signs of pushing and concentration are noticed, the parent may
take the child to the toilet to finish.
- Children who can walk steadily from room
to room; have the coordination to stoop and pick up things and can
pull their pants up and down may have the physical ability to complete
- Children who show an interest in and are
motivated by wearing "real" underwear may be ready to learn
- Children need to be old enough to learn
to gauge their own body signals and attend to them. Children who stay
dry for several hours and feel the need to urinate (posture, gestures,
verbal, or facial expressions are indicators) may be ready to begin
- Girls usually learn toileting before
boys. For girls, toilet learning may occur as early as 18 months and,
for boys, around 22 months. However, there is no magical time to
begin, and this process cannot be rushed. Each child will have his or
her own schedule.
- Children begin toilet learning first in
the daytime then progress to nighttime learning.
Problems in toilet learning often can be traced to parental stress or
other struggles between parent and child. For example, if both parents
work away from the home, the process may need to be started on the
weekend. Or, if there is a family crisis or other major family event
requiring the child's or adults' attention, the process may need to be
delayed. The process should be discussed with child care providers, family
members, and friends, and procedures should be agreed upon. Parents should
be prepared with extra supplies such as clean underwear, clean-up
supplies, and a child-sized toilet or toilet chair. In general, the
learning process is least stressful when parents think through the process
and give the child strategies and reinforcement to begin work on this
special growing step.
How Parents Can Help
- Teach the child words needed to talk
- Provide a potty chair for training.
Providing a step stool to use the toilet may be helpful too.
- Use praise (hand clapping, positive
phrases) and incentives (stickers, books to read while sitting,
"playing potty" with a doll) without allowing them to be too
- Begin toilet learning only when the
child seems interested and willing.
- Ask the child gently several times
throughout the day and evening if he or she needs to go to the
- Establish a regular pattern of
toileting: upon rising, before and after meals, before bed.
- Begin a routine of handwashing after
each visit to the toilet.
- Monitor fluid intake, particularly at
- Postpone toilet learning if the child
does not seem to catch on or does not seem interested.
- Remain calm and patient.
- Expect accidents. Do not punish children
for accidents, rather explain firmly what is expected. "Next
time, just call for help" or "Go ahead and wash out your
pants in the sink."
- Do not blame, threaten, or demoralize
- Do not insist that a child remain on the
potty seat longer than 5 to 7 minutes. The child may build up an
association of unpleasantness with the bathroom or potty seat.
- Follow the child's cue. If he or she
seems more interested in the large toilet than the small potty chair;
let the child use the large toilet.
- Let the child observe the same-sex
parent using the toilet when possible.
- Remain calm if the child has an
accident. Say, "Sometimes accidents happen." Let the child
take part in the cleanup by placing soiled clothing in the sink,
wiping the floor with a towel, or wiping with a washcloth.
- Try turning on the water faucet in the
bathroom as a stimulus to urinate during early toilet learning.
- Store clean underwear near the toilet.
- Dress children in easy-to-remove
clothing. Try giving children colorful underwear, which may make them
feel more grown up.
Toilet Learning for Special-Needs Children
The same learning methods apply to
special-needs children as to other children. More record keeping may be
necessary to find pattern (the time between eating and drinking and need
to eliminate, for example). If advised by consulting physicians and
specialists to toilet learn the child, parents may need a great deal of
patience and a longer time frame. Many other skills accompany even simple
routines for children with physical or mental impairments.
A clear task analysis of each process that caregivers and parents often
take for granted should be completed. This may involve actually writing
down each step taken in order to go to the toilet. The tasks might
- Recognizing when he or she has to go to
- Waiting to eliminate
- Entering the bathroom
- Manipulating clothing closures
- Pulling pants down
- Sitting on the toilet
- Eliminating in the toilet
- Using toilet paper correctly
- Pulling pants up
- Flushing the toilet
- Washing hands
- Drying hands
To see if your child is ready for toilet learning, answer the following
1. Can the child follow simple directions? ("Come here, Tracy.")
2. Can the child sit in a chair for five minutes?
3. Can the child wait at least 1 1/2 hours between elimination times?
Human Sexuality Implications
Toilet mastery is a part of a lifelong
process of learning about the body and its functioning. Adults' attitudes
toward genitals and the natural process of toilet learning have an
important influence on children's developing feelings about their bodies
and taking responsibility for bodily needs.
Make certain the child has observed a parent or trusted adult using the
toilet. Answer questions in a relaxed manner. Toilet learning accomplished
in a calm and positive way is an important support for lifelong
appreciation of human sexuality.
Young children feel pleasure when they urinate or have a bowel movement.
They may want to play with their urine or feces. They also may want to
examine their own or other children's genitals when using the toilet. This
is normal experimental behavior.
Toilet learning provides a good time to teach correct names for body parts
and bodily functions. The goal is to teach children that all parts of the
body are good, and bodily functions are natural. Children should also
understand that their bodies are private and they can have privacy during
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Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC.
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