Toileting, like sleeping through the night and a baby’s first words, is something that parents seem to really love talking about. It starts before birth, when people talk cloth vs disposables, covers, clips, nappy bags, and then moves on to the toilet habits of their newborns – are they weeing (and therefore drinking enough), what is a normal poo routine for a breastfed or bottlefed baby, and then to how things change when solid food is eaten, when to introduce a potty, training pants vs undies, right up to the magic goal – when their child is nappy-free and independently toileting.
There is a pretty wide range of ‘usual’ when it comes to toileting – human bodies are really cool and like to do things in individual ways. But some children will be outside that wide range of ‘usual’, and it can be challenging for parents to know what to do.
My children have had a variety of experiences with toileting – one who moved to independent toileting quite young and with little fuss, one who refused anything to do with toilets or potties until just after they turned four and then took to it with gusto, and one who is using both a toilet and nappies well past the ‘usual’ age bracket. I don’t have all the answers, but I have learned a lot by paying attention.
So here are my top tips for parenting a child through toileting:
1. ALWAYS maintain the privacy and dignity of your child.
Don’t share personal and private details of your child’s body and habits with strangers or in a public forum (including large Facebook groups, closed or not). If you need specific help, ask to talk privately or within a private space (on or offline) where others are also respectful of the privacy of children. If you need to debrief or are frustrated, have a trusted friend you can vent to. Don’t do it in public.
2. Get over your preconceptions and expectations.
This can be tricky – you may not even realize you have preconceptions or expectations. Let go of the idea that your child must be toileting independently by a certain age. Let go of the idea that independent toileting is a sign of intelligence. Let go of the idea that if a child doesn’t follow the ‘usual’ toileting journey it is because of bad or lazy parenting. Let go of it all.
3. Be patient. The reality is that most children will learn to toilet (and other self care tasks) at some point.
It might be on a different time-frame. It might be a twisty, turny, wibbly-wobbly spiral of a path, but most people get there. Your job is not to make it happen within a certain time-frame. Your job is to help your child become confident enough to do it when they are ready.
4. Meet your child’s needs as they are.
If your child is happy and satisfied with wearing a nappy all or some of the time, do that. If they feel more secure wearing a nappy when they leave the house, do that. If they don’t like using the toilet in the bathroom, but are happy using a potty somewhere else, think laterally, and do that. If your child needs prompting to remind them to go to the toilet, do that – privately. If your older child needs help toileting, remember to maintain their privacy and dignity, especially in front of their peers.
And if your child wants help and support to try something different, do that too.
5. Be kind.
This is basic parenting for any situation, but it is really important when it comes to toileting and self care. Don’t shame. Don’t be rude. Don’t yell. If you are frustrated, don’t direct that at your child. Talk it over with a trusted friend.
6. Check out Elimination Communication.
It is a toileting approach that does without nappies – but even if you aren’t interested in that part (and I wasn’t) there is some very good information on helping parents and children recognise body language and toileting cues.
7. Expect accidents.
They are going to happen. Be prepared (as much as you can). If you are prepared, it helps you manage your reactions.
8. Ignore ‘helpful’ people.
They could be anyone – family, friends, strangers, professionals. Truly helpful people are ones who listen, offer support, and treat your child with dignity. ‘Helpful’ people are ones who say stuff like “if you would just…” and “well I never had that problem” and “are they still not…” Or who refuse to make accommodations, are rude or try to shame your child. You don’t need that kind of ‘help’, and neither does your child.
Accept that your child may not independently toilet themselves. This does not mean Do Nothing. It means that although most children will, some will not. And how you approach toileting is going to have an impact on your child and how they view their body. If you support your child to develop their skills as and when they are ready, they will have the confidence to keep developing their own skills throughout their life. If you disrespect their abilities and their bodies, chances are they will see themselves as broken, their bodies as failing them.
So there you go. Nine tips to help you parent a child – any child – through toileting. Use them to build respectful, responsive supports for your child, in whatever ways your child needs.