How To Do Potty Training The Montessori Way
Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
Photography by Photographed by Maria Del Rio
Using the toilet is one of the most important ways that toddlers work to gain independence. Your toddler has to go through a whole series of steps before she will arrive at full independence in this area, so it’s no wonder why it can take a long time, and a lot of patience and consistency, before your little one will reach full independence with using the toilet. To begin, it’s important to understand the stages of active toilet training and the end goal of the process.
The Stages of Active Toilet Learning
At Guidepost Montessori, we usually notice that once your child gets to the stage of actively working on toilet learning, which can begin as early as 18 months, she may go through the following stages:
1. She’s unaware/won’t sit down when invited.
2. She sits but doesn’t go when invited.
3. She sits and goes when invited, but will not initiate.
4. She begins to initiate.
Each stage corresponds to a level of awareness/understanding that your child has about going to the toilet and a level of interest in mastering that activity. At the beginning, starting from birth, your child has no interest or awareness of the toilet. Gradually, this changes. If the opportunity is offered consistently, she may become interested in sitting on the toilet after a dirty diaper is removed and before a clean one is put on, but will likely sit quickly and stand again right away. From there, she may start going when she sits, and may start doing this more and more consistently with time, so long as you remember to invite her to come to use the toilet. But she won’t yet be at the point where she has enough awareness of her body to know when it is time, and to initiate the process for herself. Once she does start to gain this awareness and initiate, you are in the home stretch, and it is only a matter of time!
Toilet learning is knowledge—just like any kind of knowledge your child learns as she goes through life. You can help her internalize that knowledge, and raise her awareness. For instance, you can tell her certain things consistently, kindly, and calmly. Things like “Pee and poop go in the toilet. Do they go in your underwear? No, that’s silly! Do they go in the toilet? Yes! They go in the toilet.” Gentle reminders that help the child draw connections and build awareness can speed up your child’s developing understanding of this subject, so long as they are gentle, loving, non-judgmental, and forward-looking (meaning, focused on what will we do “next time”).
Know The End Goal
When we talk about “toilet learning,” we are talking about the entire “cycle of activity” that is involved in using the toilet. Full independence with using the toilet means all of the following:
1. The ability to recognize when you need to use the toilet.
2. The ability to find and go into the bathroom.
3. The ability to pull down pants and underwear and sit down.
4. The ability to “go” in the toilet and sit until finished.
5. The ability to wipe yourself (Note: this step can come much later/at the very end of the process).
6. The ability to stand up and pull up underwear and pants.
7. The ability to wash your hands with soap at the sink.
8. The ability to leave the bathroom and return again to what you were doing.
Success with toilet learning ultimately results in your child’s ability to do all of the things that are involved in the process. That said, long before your child can do all of the steps above, she can start to learn some of these steps. And she can do more and more of the steps as time goes on. As soon as your child can stand up, for example, you can start doing stand-up diapering with her, instead of changing her on a changing table. And this allows her to start helping with pulling her pants and underwear up and down, which takes a lot of strength. You can also make washing hands a part of using the bathroom from very, very early on, so that it becomes second nature to your child even before she goes into a developmental phase where she starts refusing to do things. Always be thinking about which piece of the process you could involve your child in, even before you are ready to begin the process in earnest.
When you have prepared your home, prepared yourself, and had a good discussion with your child’s teacher, your spouse, grandma and grandpa, and any other caregivers in your child’s life, so that everyone agrees that it is time to start the toilet-learning process in earnest, then you’re ready to go! So what now? What do you do now? It’s pretty simple.
1. Put your child in underwear during the day. It’s okay to keep using a nighttime diaper at night, and to keep that going until your child is solid on using the toilet during the day.
2. Invite your child to use the toilet every 45 to 60 minutes.
3. Talk to your child and help him to understand and make connections.
4. Don’t go back to diapers!
We recommend starting this process over the weekend. Choose a weekend when you can stay at home quite a bit. When your child first wakes up in the morning and it is time to get dressed, take her into the bathroom where her potty chair is, and show her the training underwear. Have her sit on the toilet, then introduce her to her new underwear. Say something like, “You’re a big girl now! You can learn to go pee and poop in the toilet, instead of in your diaper. So, you’re not going to wear a diaper anymore during the day. Now you’re going to wear underwear during the day. Here’s your new underwear—let’s put it on!” Later on you can say something like, “Your underwear can get dirty and wet if you go pee or poop. So, we want to put your pee and poop in the toilet. I’m going to help you remember to go to the toilet.”
As you go through your day, invite your child to use the toilet every 45 to 60 minutes. You’ll start to get an internal gut instinct for when your child is likely to need to go. Try to catch her before she goes in her underwear, and get her to the potty chair in time. Try to help your child notice what her body feels like when she has to go to the bathroom. For instance, your child may do some characteristic things/move in characteristic ways when she has to make a bowel movement. Once you see them, then you can say to her, “Do you feel like you need to go poop? Let’s go to the toilet and try.” Also, from the moment you switch to underwear, it is very important that you do not go back to diapers! It is very confusing to children to go back and forth between diapers and underwear, and it significantly lengthens the process. There are very specific exceptions that it can be okay to use diapers for (like nighttime or a long flight).
Toddlers are at an age when they have learned the word “No” and they very much enjoy using it, since it represents the new idea that they are individuals, with individual preferences, and can make choices about what they like and don’t like, want and don’t want. This is a wonderful and important moment in your child’s development, and is certainly nothing to be taken personally by us as adults. However, it is also true that the word “No” and the tantrums that sometimes go alone with this word, can present a real obstacle to toilet learning. When it comes to toilet training, here are some tips for avoiding a tantrum:
1. Warn your child in advance. It really helps toddlers to transition from one thing to another thing when they know what to expect and know that the transition is coming. With using the toilet, you can warn your child in advance that it is coming, so that she has time to prepare herself. Say something like, “In two minutes, we are going to go to the toilet.” Your child may say, “No! I don’t want to!” If so, just calmly say again, “We are going to the toilet in two minutes.” Don’t argue or try to reason with your child. Just repeat the facts about what is going to happen.
2. Give your child limited choices. For example, a classic favorite is: “Do you want Mommy or Daddy to take you to the toilet?” Another example might be: “Do you want to use the downstairs toilet or the upstairs toilet?”
3. Depersonalize the process, and communicate that this is just the way the world works. Try to avoid turning toilet into a personal power struggle between you and your child. Instead, turn it into something about how the world works, about what grown-ups do, or even about what you yourself do. Your toddler is very eager to understand basic truths about how things are, or how adults do things. If you put things in these terms, it is easier for her. For instance, you can say things like, “Whenever I’m going to get in the car, I always use the toilet first,” or, “Grown-ups go pee and poop in the toilet,” or, “We always use the toilet before (we have a snack/take a nap/go outside/etc.). That’s just what we always do.”
4. Allow your child to bring one toy to the toilet, and leave it on the stool while she is “going.” One of the reasons your child doesn’t want to go use the toilet is because she is absorbed in what she is doing and doesn’t want to stop doing it. Sometimes it can help if you let her take a small piece of whatever toy she is playing with to the toilet with her. When inviting her to come, you can say: “What do you want to bring with you when you go use the toilet?” This is a form of the limited choice mentioned above. Once you are there, tell her that it needs to be left on the stool so it doesn’t get wet or dirty, and invite her to place it there herself (as opposed to taking it from her, which will likely create a power struggle).
5. Sometimes, you just can’t avoid tears. The only thing to do is ride it out, and stay calm and consistent throughout the process, until your child sees that you are not going to bend on the limit you are setting. With toileting, that might mean gently picking up your child while she is crying, holding her firmly, kissing her, rubbing her back, and saying, “I know, and I’m sorry, but it is time to use the toilet.” Bring her slowly and calmly to the bathroom and just stand for a moment, quietly, and let her cry. Then try to draw her attention to something else. For instance, ask her if she can see herself in the mirror, ask her where her nose is, or invite her to turn on the light switch. Once the tears are subsiding and your child gets used to the fact that she is in the bathroom and that that is not going to change, you can proceed with the toilet routine. If it still really just doesn’t work, and a full blown tantrum begins, it’s ok to help your child sit down on the stool, and say to her, “I love you, but I need to wait until you stop crying. When you’re ready to use the toilet, just say, ‘I’m ready, Mommy!’ and I will come.” Then leave the bathroom, shut the door, and let her cry until she says “I’m ready”. Then you can move on to the toileting routine. It’s very important that you stay calm, unemotional, and loving throughout this entire process. If you don’t manage your own emotions, you can’t expect your child to manage hers.
At first, your child is going to have a lot of accidents. When this happens, the trick is to stay positive, try to minimize your reaction, and remind your child of key ideas. Take your child to the restroom, help her remove her dirty clothing, and place it in a laundry basket.
Meanwhile, here are the kinds of thing you might say: “Oh, I see you peed (or pooped) in your underwear. Pee (or poop) goes in the toilet. Where does pee go? (In the toilet.) Where does poop go? (In the toilet.)” You can also talk about what your child is going to try to do “next time” (rather than focusing on what she didn’t do this time.) So, for example, you can say something like: “Next time, if you feel like you have to go pee, say, ‘Mommy, I have to go pee!’ and run to the toilet as fast as you can!”
If you keep reminding your child of the key ideas that you want her to learn and understand, and you keep inviting her to use the toilet, she will gradually learn and understand this new routine, and accidents will become less and less frequent until they stop entirely.
Switching To Underwear At Night
Once your child is consistently using the toilet during the day, and accidents are becoming much less frequent, the last step you need to do to complete the process is eliminate the nighttime diaper, and switch to underwear. Here are some simple steps to follow:
1. No liquids right before bed. Start by reducing the amount of liquids your child drinks late in the evening. A good rule of thumb is not to have your child drink any fluids for about an hour before bedtime.
2. Communicate the change to your child. On the night you will switch to underwear, explain to your child that you are going to make this change. One night at bedtime, as you are getting ready for bed and putting on pajamas, you can say something like, “Now that you are so good at using the toilet during the day, you can start wearing underwear at night, too. I’m going to help you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, so that you won’t pee in your bed.”
3. Protect the child’s bed. There are a few different ways to make clean-up easy on yourself and your child when your child has nighttime accidents. First, you can use a waterproof sheet protector under one’s cotton sheet. In addition, you can also use a protective pad on top of the sheet. We recommend GoodNites Disposable Bed Pads.
4. Take your child to the bathroom once in the middle of the night, as late as you can, probably just before you go to sleep yourself. Don’t talk when you do this, and it’s okay to keep your child half asleep the whole time. Just pick her up out of her bed, take her to the toilet, help her to sit, let her pee, then take her back to bed again. After a few months, you should be able to eliminate the step of taking your child to the bathroom during the night. She will naturally learn to “hold it” overnight. Just make sure you take her to the toilet first thing when she wakes up in the morning!
In case you missed it—the best potty training products to prep your bathroom. Plus, for more from the educators at Guidepost Montessori, a nation-wide network of schools currently serving over 700 families in 16 locations across the U.S., check out their website.
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