DeBord, Ph. D.
Child Development Specialist
North Carolina CES
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 learning.
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 their capability.
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.
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.
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...
names for most body parts.
-acquire the desire to be clean.
-urinate a larger amount at one time as opposed to dribbling throughout
are many potential signs of readiness:
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 toileting tasks.
Children who show an interest in and are motivated by wearing "real"
underwear may be ready to learn toileting.
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 the process.
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.
Parents Can Help:
-Teach the child words needed to talk about elimination.
-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 distracting.
-Begin toilet learning only when the child seems interested and
-Ask the child gently several times throughout the day and evening
if he or she needs to go to the bathroom.
-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 bedtime.
-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 the child.
-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
-Let the child observe the same-sex parent using the toilet when
-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 Children with Special Needs:
The same learning methods apply to children with special needs as
apply 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.
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
when he or she has to go to the bathroom
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
see if your child is ready for toilet learning, answer the following
Can the child follow simple directions? ("Come here, Tracy.")
Can the child sit in a chair for five minutes?
Can the child wait at least 1 1/2 hours between elimination times?
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.
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.
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.
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 elimination.
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New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster.
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L.C. and Kingston, M. 1986. *Parenting.* New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart
E. and Gray, M.M. 1989. *Starting early: Sexuality education for
preschoolers.* Missouri University Extension.
E. And Gray, M.M. 1989. *Starting early: Sexuality education for
children ages 3 to 7.* Missouri University Extension.
L. 1972. *Autistic Children: A guide for parents and professionals.*
New York, N.Y.: Brunner/Mazel Publishers.
with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC.
DeBord, K. (1997). *Toilet learning*. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina
Cooperative Extension Service.
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educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for
any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional
advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar
with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician
or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical
condition and before starting any new treatment.