Preparing for Successful Toilet Learning: Infancy and Beyond

child in crib

Many parents don’t think about what is traditionally known as “potty training” until their child is about to enter preschool.  (Or, perhaps earlier, if they are ready to move out of the diaper phase!)  But the Montessori journey towards toilet learning begins in infancy.  It is never too early to begin talking to our child about the process of elimination.  Of course, we do not put our newborns on a potty chair, but we can make small changes in how we look at and speak about toilet learning. 

Notice that we call it “toilet learning” rather than “potty training”.  Toilet/potty training is adult-led and happens on the adult’s time.  Toilet learning is child-led and involves following the child’s cues, supporting and guiding them as they acquire this skill, just as they acquire skills such as speaking, crawling and walking.  Toilet learning is best acquired naturally—much in the same way language is acquired—unconsciously through an infant’s experiences in the environment, including interactions with parents and caregivers. 

We do not sit down with an infant and introduce them to phonics; however, we integrate language into every part of our day – as we sing songs, read picture books, respond to our infant’s babbling as if in conversation, and while we speak to other members of our family.  Our infant is listening and absorbing this information.  At times we are intentional about “teaching” language, even though we know that they cannot yet understand what we are saying – we point and identify objects, we ask them to repeat, “Can you say Mama? Ma-ma!”  We ask them, “Where is the ball?”  The question is, why should other learning not be acquired in much the same way? 

One more concept foundational to the Montessori method is to be very matter of fact when it comes to discussing anatomy and bodily functions, so that there is no shame attached and so that we can equip our child with knowledge.  We are giving them the words they need to identify their needs and understand themselves and how their body works.

How does one begin the journey to toilet learning?  Here are a few suggestions; not all will work for every parent, but may be small changes you can make help prepare your child for success.

  • You can set up a diaper changing station in the bathroom – this helps associate elimination with the bathroom. A changing mat on the floor is sufficient for infancy.  If you cannot do this due to space constraints, consider doing this once your child reaches toddlerhood, when they are able to stand for diaper changes.
  • When changing diapers, you can explain what you are doing and why.  “It’s time to change your diaper.  Your diaper is wet because you urinated/peed in it.”  “It’s time to pull your pants down.  Now we can take off your diaper.  It’s time to wipe your bottom to make sure it’s clean. We wipe front to back. We are going to throw the diaper away. Now we are going to put a fresh, dry diaper on. Next, it’s time to pull on your pants. Our diaper change is all done, it’s time to wash our hands.”
mother changing diaper

Not only does this help them understand the steps that they themselves will later follow, but it is also respectful.  Since changing diapers and toilet learning involves contact with the child’s body, we want to be respectful about what we are doing and why, even when they are too young to understand.

parent and child hand together
  • Cloth diapers are recommended by many Montessori teachers, as they allow a child to feel the wetness and discomfort of a soiled diaper.

  • Wash your child’s hands after every diaper change. (This is the procedure we follow in our classrooms!)
  • Allow your child to see you using the toilet – so that it becomes familiar and part of a daily routine. They should also be familiar with the process of flushing, so that they are not frightened by the noise when they begin toilet learning. 

  • As your infant develops and can stand, change them while standing up. This invites your child to participate. You can ask for them to open/close the tabs, for example, or ask them to hold up their shirt while you fasten the diaper.  They can also assist with pulling on their pants.  Young toddlers can be invited to sit on the toilet/potty chair after a diaper change!  Again, this is the procedure we follow in our Toddler Communities. 
  • As your child nears the toddler years, allow your child to observe you emptying bowel movements from their diaper into the toilet and flush the toilet.  Narrate what you are doing: “This is where the poop goes. It goes in the toilet, and then we flush it.”  This helps them associate bowel movements with the toilet.

We hope this helps you as you guide your child on their toilet learning journey!


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