Children learn to use the toilet when they are ready, not when their parents get around to training them. Readiness to use the toilet, rather than wearing diapers, depends largely on the maturation of a child's nervous system, as well as the desire to feel independent and grown up. This tends to vary from one child to another. You cannot hurry the process, the gentle patience is certainly a virtue. But, like so many aspects of living with children, if we understand how things develop, we can prepare the environment and play a supporting role.
It all revolves around your child's amazing brain and nervous system. When children are born, their brains and nervous systems are at an incomplete stage of development. Between birth and 18 months, the cells of the nervous system become coated with myelin, a fatty substance which facilitates the transmission of impulses from cell to cell more efficiently throughout the nervous system. This allows infants and toddlers to gain more and more refined control and coordination of their movement.
This process of myelinization, or integration of the nervous system, develops in stages. Infants gain control of their head, then arms and the trunk of their body, and eventually legs and feet. From random movements, they gain the ability to move with conscious intent and control.
Toilet Curiosity Children often become interested in toilets when they are about a year old. They like to flush and often want to play with the water in them. If this is the case with your child, give him access to more appropriate water play, such as water in the bathroom sink. About this time, children also become fascinated with their "poop" and "pee". Don't be surprised or offended. Just explain that everyone poops - it is how our bodies get rid of the part of what we cannot use.
By 15 months, many children are interested in dressing and undressing themselves. They often also express interest in wearing underpants and may try on their siblings' or parents'. This is probably an indication that they are becoming curious about learning to use the toilet.
Around 18 months, children enter a sensitive period in which they can most easily gain control of their now much more developed and integrated nervous system. At this stage, most children have both the physical ability and the interest to control bladder and bowels. If they are given the opportunity to spend as much time as possible in underpants, rather than diapers, they gain greater awareness of these bodily functions.
Like a big boy A young child's nervous system is now much more developed, and he can recognize physical sensations and control his bladder and sphincter muscles. If you dress your child in cotton underpants rather than diapers at this stage, at least during the day, he will have the occasional accident, but he will also become acutely aware of it. Children wearing disposable diapers can rarely sense that they have to go to the bathroom. Wearing underpants they are much more likely to learn to recognize the sensation when their bladder is full, and tend to take pride in using the toilet like a big boy or girls.
About now, many children will want to sit on the toilet or potty in imitation of their parents and older siblings, even though they have not yet developed bladder and bowel control. Gently support your child's interest, slowly teaching him how to pull down his pants, sit on the toilet correctly, use toilet paper to wipe his bottom, pull his pants up, flush the toilet, and wash his hands.
Be prepared for occasional accidents. When they occur, stay calm and be reassuring. Keep clean underpants on hand where your child can get to them, provide a hamper, and set up a stack of old towels that he can use to wipe up accidents. Help your child when he requests it or if he is clearly overwhelmed, but don't rush in and make him feel ashamed.
Learning to use the toilet is natural process that begins when your child's desire to be grown up and his neurological development have reached the point where he can control his bladder and bowels. We don't train children to use the toilet, we support them when they are ready. Toileting Tips
Be patient and encouraging.
Prepare your bathroom to support your child's independence.
Dress your child in cotton training pants during the day.
Teach your child how to undress, clean up, flush, and dress again step by step, when he seems ready to start using the toilet.
Explain bodily functions patiently.
Keep old towels on hand so your child can clean up accidents.
When accidents occur, be gently understanding.
(Cover photo courtesy of Northwest Montessori School)
Excellent video from AMI Trained Montessori Guide, Author, Speaker, and Mother of 3, Sarah Moudry