No Troubles Toilet “Training”

Has the idea of toilet training sent shivers down your spine?

Perhaps you have read that it is almost as difficult as getting through those sleepless nights, that are incredibly hard to navigate.

Maybe you have seen, been told, and bought all sorts of tools and books about how to toilet train.

Using rewards, bribes, start charts, and so on; yet it takes forever and is a nightmare.

Or maybe you haven’t yet started and are preparing for the worst.

What if I told you there was a way to toilet “train” without rewards, bribes, star charts, hassle, or even reminders?

That WORKS???

Yep. There is a way.

Using the principles of Aware Parenting (created by Aletha Solter Ph.D.) there is a way to navigate this milestone that naturally supports a child’s bodily regulation, allows them to transition without stress, and does not require expensive tools, or rewards. Here’s how:

Wait Until They Are Ready

This is the first step of course, but can be somewhat more complex than first believed. Age is not really a factor, because it comes down to each individual child. My son was ready at about 2 – 2.5yrs, but then we had a set back. Which meant he wasn’t ready again until just over 3yrs. It comes down to each individual child, and their circumstance.

A part from obvious skills that are required, such as being able to pull their own pants down, can maintain a dry nappy for at least two hours, and has an basic awareness of their bodily functions. There are some other, more telling, behaviours to look for:

1. Shows an interest in the toilet
2. Explores/plays with toilet paper and toilet buttons
3. Is curious about parents going to the toilet (though this may make you uncomfortable, it is simply another behaviour that indicates readiness
4. Enjoys going nappy free
5. Asks/speaks about doing wees and poos

These are all behaviours that indicate a curiousness that is necessary for the development of a new skill. Without that curiousness, or interest, toilet training would be jumping the gun.

Encourage Exploration and Imitation

A slow introduction is always best, and one that is as relaxed as possible.

The best way to introduce toilet training, is to simply purchase a potty, and show it to your child. Give a short explanation that it is like mummy/daddy’s toilet and that this is one just for them. Then leave them to it. It won’t be necessary to talk to them about it again, but simply allow them to play and explore.

As many mothers will know, it is near impossible to achieve any form of bathroom privacy when it is only you with your little one, because they follow you everywhere. As irritating as this can be at times, it can be very helpful for them when learning how to use the toilet.

Have their potty in the bathroom too, and when you use the toilet this will allow your child to imitate you. Because after all, children learn best through imitation.

They may not pull their nappy down, or actually use the potty, but that is not the point. The idea is just to achieve familiarity.

Let Them Go Nappy Free

Nappy free at home is a wonderful way for them to become familiar with their own bodies and how they work. Not only did my own son go nappy free, but within those four days I also made the suggestion that he can wee on the grass outside if he would like to.

This suggestion was to do two things. One, offer another choice (toilet or grass), and two, to help him explore peeing standing vs. peeing sitting down. To become familiar with his body.

He did this a few times, but it was never a problem anywhere else. It did not lead to him wanting to pee on the grass at a park, and he no longer does it now (only a couple of weeks later). He explored, it wasn’t an issue, and now he is happy to move forward.

Going nappy free will also act as a reminder of not actually wearing a nappy.  A baby raised wearing nappies becomes familiar with the feel of a nappy. When they have something around their bum that is tight and snug, there is still a subconscious sense of wearing a nappy, which can cause some “forgetfulness.” Going nappy free is the complete opposite of this, and can support a child to become more conscious of the sense of not having a nappy, therefore needing to use the potty.

Buy Bigger Underwear and Simple Clothes

If your toddler is happy to wear underwear, another beneficial step can be to buy underwear that is one to two sizes too big. This is for the same reason stated above. Underwear that is the “right” size, will feel quite snug and can create a subconscious belief of still wearing a nappy. Underwear that is slightly too big will feel completely different. This then acts as a different reminder of having to use the potty, simple through growing bodily awareness.

It will also be helpful to make sure your little one is wearing clothes that are easy to removed. Elasticised shorts or pants that are, again, not too tight but a bit loose. Skirts and dresses are also fine, however tights can make things a bit more complicated. Too many layers in clothing can also create a delay of getting to the toilet on time, and increase the chance of “accidents.”

Treat Accidents Like Spilled Water

Speaking of accidents, the best way to “deal” with them, is to just clean them up. Like spilled water.

When your toddler does have an accident, even if they poo on the floor like mine did, the best way to address this is with calmness and kindness. Your toddler will likely tell you, and be quite worried themselves. My own son did this, and my response was always the same “oh that is ok, it is just a bit of wee/poo, we can clean it up. Would you like to help me?” He often would, and if he said “no” I was fine with that too. Forcing him to clean it up would only exasperate any negative feelings, and create negative associations. And no, this did not reinforce uncooperative behaviour.

Treating accidents this way means a toddler learns that it is ok to make mistakes, that it takes time to learn new skills (yes using the toilet is a skill), and that mistakes are ok. That you won’t, or shouldn’t be punished for mistakes. Being punished or shamed will create negative associations with learning a new skills. Not only will it create a delay in toilet training, but it will also create negative pathways for learning skills in the future, a fear of failure, and a fear of others reaction.

Play Games

When a toddler starts using the toilet, it can be quite scary. there can be a sense of powerlessness, and lack of control. Even exposure. A mixed bag of feelings. Because of these feelings, toddlers can become very apprehensive about using the toilet, accidents will occur, and it may start to become frustrating for you as a parent.

But there is a way!

All children learn, process, makes sense of the world, and deal with things, through play. Play is the greatest asset in a parents toolkit. But I am not talking about tickling, chasing or racing, these games actually dis-empower when done in moments of tension, or when used for compliance. The kind of games I am speaking of are “Attachment Play” as created by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

There are nine different forms of attachment play, and each style is used specifically to support us in supporting our children, to move through challenges. Games based on separation for separation anxiety, power-reversal games to help children feel strong and capable, nonsense games to bring healing laughter, symbolic play for exploration of themes, and so on. The actual games that can be played within each category is only limited by imagination.

This is how I helped my son with the toilet.

He was very reluctant to wear underwear after a few accidents, I believe he began to hate the feelings and the risk of wetting them. So we played a game I called “undie hats.” I would be getting him dress, and before putting a nappy or undies on I would put his (clean) undies on my head and begin to dance around, saying “oooh look at myyyyy uuuunnddieee haaat!” I would dance and then take the undie hat off with my finger, spin them around, and they would go flying. He thought it was hilarious, and wanted to join in. As we played, the undies became “undie gloves,” “undie socks”, then “undie pants.” The goal, to obviously get them on. The games was fun and he loved it, but he did not wear the underwear. Which is when I offered choice (next section).

When he was showing fear of the toilet I would grab his Charlie doll (a beautful Steiner doll his grandmother made him), and use symbolic play. I would voice Charlie, as I have done many times, and every time we moved past the toilet, Charlie would freak out. “Aaaargh the toilet!!!! I don’t like the toilet! RUN AWAY!” Then my son would get Charlie to use the toilet, and Charlie hated it, then Charlie would go to the toilet and feel so much better.

We also built a toilet for Charlie out of blocks, and have a poop made of plasticine. Charlie would use the toilet, and the toilet “ate” Charlie’s poop. My son thought it was all very histerical, which is the point.

Laughter through play is incredibly therapeutic for children. It doesn’t matter how silly the games are, in fact the sillier the better, if your child laughs and loves the games. If it helps them face their fears in a way that makes them feels safe, that is the point! That is objective achieved.

Offer Choice

No matter what I did, I always offered my son a choice every day. At first this was a choice between nappy or underwear, and even despite the games, he never picked underwear. And whilst at times this was frustrating for me, I would not show my frustration, and honoured his choice.

The I realised that there was another option available.

To go commando.

So I began to offer “nappy, undies, or nothing?” He chose nothing every time. Even though he wore pants or shorts, he would wear nothing underneath. Which is completely fine. In fact I think it is even more beneficial, as it means one less layer for him to navigate in going to the toilet. Not an issue at all.

I still offer him this choice, and on the odd occasion he will choose a nappy, which I still honour. One reason he did pick undies was because he wasn’t feeling well, as when he had an ear infection the week after. He only chose a nappy once, and even though he was sick, he did not choose them again.

Having the option to choose a nappy acts as both a reassurance, and a safety net. Over time, as they realise that this is an option and they won’t be shamed or judged about choosing a nappy, they eventually stop choosing them. At some point you can of course stop offering, and simply go about your normal routine, but your child will know that they can still ask for a nappy if they need.

Regressions will likely occur, and when these happen, all of the above still applies. A child may go through a regression for any reason: being sick, a new sibling, a big change, or something else. When navigating these things, a child’s limited attention and energy is focused elsewhere, and they are unable to focus on the “extra’s” such as using the toilet. At these times, choosing nappies allows them to process everything else without the added stress or worry of using the toilet. Then, once the issue has passed and they have had the opportunity to process their feelings, they can get back to using the toilet.

Lastly, No Reminders or Rewards

The point of supporting a toddler to learn to use the toilet in this way, is to support their natural bodily awareness. To let them become familiar with how their body works, how to control their body, and to be familiar with different sensations.

Reminders and rewards work in the opposite way.

Reminders act as an override. Instead of becoming aware of what it feels like to “need to go to the toilet,” or having a full bladder, a child can become dependent upon reminders. This can lead to toileting taking longer, and also more accidents. A child becomes easily distracted at this age, and whilst reminders may appear to be helpful in navigating distraction, reminders decrease awareness. By becoming familiar with those sensations, and even having a few accidents, a toddler learns both the feeling of a full bladder, and what the resolution is (to urinate or poo). When having an accident they become familiar with the sensation of partially wet clothes, which everyone finds uncomfortable, and begin to makes associations with both the relief of using the toilet, and not having mess; meeting all needs. It happens naturally.

Rewards also override this process. Rewards turn a natural function into a transactional exchange. The toddler learns “if I poo in the toilet I get a reward, a star, a toy, a chocolate etc.” Not “if I poo in the toilet, there is no mess in my pants that is uncomfortable and needs cleaning, and I feel better.” The latter is the message that aids in the process being well integrated, not taking as long, and also having less regressions. Rewards, reminders, lack of choice, force, and more, mean that toileting not only takes longer, but can be a negative experience, and lead to more set backs.

By supporting a toddlers natural relationship with their body, and supporting their growing awareness, even through toilet training, many long term benefits are to be had. Not just the benefit of a smooth and easy toileting journey, but also internalised messages about bodily autonomy, respect for choice, consent, taking care of your body, and more. Every moment and milestone now, is a foundation for the future.

Here is to trouble free toilet training!