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A Developmental Look at Toilet Learning

There are many approaches to toilet learning, but one approach that can easily be overlooked is the child’s. The child’s approach to toilet learning is the same as their approach to all other areas of development: in their own time and in their own way. If babies have strong, loving and supportive relationships with their primary caregivers and feel safe and secure in their physical and emotional environments, then typically developing children have the ability to develop in all areas, including toilet learning, if given time and trust.

Toilet learning is often seen as the adult’s responsibility to “make happen” but it’s really not that different from all other areas of a child’s development. Before babies learn to walk, they must develop the muscles, coordination and balance necessary to stand and hold their body’s weight with one foot, and this starts from birth. All the physical movements the baby experiments with from squirming and stretching to rolling over, to reaching and crawling to sitting and standing, squatting and cruising lead to the eventual readiness for walking. Can some of these steps be skipped and still lead to a walking child? Yes, but at what cost? If the child is not physically and emotionally ready to walk they will not be as confident and harmonious in their movements and instead of feeling pride and excitement from being able to go from laying on their back to walking in their own time and in their own way, they are more likely to feel nervous, doubtful and be more prone to falling.

So what does this have to do with toilet learning? Everything. Toilet learning should be viewed in the same way as walking. Children aren’t ready until they’re ready. In the adult’s excitement to move beyond the diapering stage it can be really easy to push the child in the direction of toilet learning at the first signs of “readiness” when in fact those signs aren’t readiness at all, they’re more like rolling, crawling and standing: steps in the process of learning but not ready for the full transition and commitment of using the toilet.

Pushing a child toward toilet learning can look like:

  • Suggesting

  • Prompting

  • Asking

  • Being overly excited

  • Showing disappointment and frustration

  • Making the decision

Supporting the child in using the toilet in their own time and in their own way can look like:

Setting the environment to support the next stage of development-

  • Having toileting supplies available with no pressure to use them.

  • Providing the child with clothing that is easy to put on and take off.

  • Engaging in conversation about toilet use when prompted by the child.

  • Giving the child the opportunity to see the toilet being used by the parents or siblings.

  • Protecting the child’s dignity through actions, words and facial expressions when diapering.

  • Ensuring the child has a healthy and fiber-rich diet.

As with most things with babies and toddlers, the adult’s attitude and demeanor are everything. Babies pick up on the adult’s true feelings and know when we are trying to push our own agendas. Having a physical and emotional environment that invites toilet learning but doesn’t promote it will help the child feel comfortable in taking that next developmental step when they are fully ready.

“All children accomplish milestones

in their own way, in their own time.”

-Magda Gerber


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