When you’ve missed the window for toileting… and a Tiny Bathroom Challenge

Confession: I used disposable diapers until my son was 3.5. Having completely missed the suggested window for toilet learning from around 12-18 months, I then attempted to make life harder on myself by beginning toilet learning for both my 3+yo and my 2yo.

12-18 months, as my AMI training had briefly touched upon, was ideal because

  • Babies were undergoing the process of myelinisation, or integration of the nervous and muscular systems, from inwards out (from chest to limbs), and top to bottom (head to toes). This meant that they were able to sense themselves eliminating from a young age
  • Adult caregivers were encouraged to see toileting as a cycle of activity. Using cloth diapers, even from birth, facilitated children’s awareness of the full cycle (eliminating in the cloth diaper, feeling the wetness/ soiling, then having it changed promptly and the feeling of dryness restored) whereas disposable diapers cut the cycle short, being as absorbent as they were, children would often not feel the wetness/ soiling. This early awareness, coupled with beginning toileting before they reached the age of resistance around 18 months, meant that toddlers could (mostly) toilet independently.

I started, admittedly rather late, because I had noticed my children showing signs of awareness whenever they eliminated (urinated or had a bowel movement). However, when I prepared the toileting area, they completely regressed. They stopped telling us when they had eliminated, eliminated in their training pants or refused training pants totally.

It didn’t feel like we were following the child. I was frustrated. They were scared of me chasing them around with training pants. My friend Lindsay, whose three children had pretty much trained themselves to use the toilet by age 2, suggested that I lay off for awhile but leave the toileting setup there so the children could access it if they chose.

Procrastination got the better of me and I laid off the toilet learning… for three months, while we packed up our place in Singapore and relocated to London.

Montessorians refer to toilet learning rather than toilet training, because children are responsible for mastering their bodily functions the way they would any motor skill.  But at an older age, once they were ready, the toilet learning process took days rather than months… Dylan went from being fully in diapers to diaper-free during the day in less than a week. 

I am possibly the least-trustworthy source on toileting, but I will just share these accidental success factors:

  • Use underwear, not training pants. The training pants we had in Singapore were almost as absorbent as diapers, so the children didn’t mind eliminating in them. But with the cotton underwear, the cause and effect was so obvious that the children begged to be changed immediately. 
  • Dress to facilitate toileting. Basic tops that end at the waist and fitting underwear are the best. (We were advised to let the children go commando but they were unwilling in winter so we didn’t push it; some parents prefer the children going naked/ commando in the first few days while some think that since children love imitating adults they would be more willing to wear underwear than be completely naked.)
  • Show them how you do it. Do not skip any step of the activity cycle, especially wiping with toilet roll and washing hands. Especially useful if fathers can demonstrate for their sons, as some boys prefer going straight to urinating standing up.
  • Observe their bowel movements and ask them at intervals (usually after meals and naps) to use the toilet, but drop it if the child declines.
  • If this is your second time starting toilet learning, don’t give up. Keep creating that gentle awareness without any shame or pressure on the child, knowing that it is a matter of when, not if. 
  • Avoid rewards, punishment, overpraise or any judgment e.g. “so smelly”. This is the child’s work, not ours. 
  • Use the factual terms for elimination. “You urinated/ moved your bowels, let’s clean you up”. (Confession: I still use “poop” and “pee” alot though.)
  • Throw the faeces into the toilet bowl (wring out the wet underwear if you are hardworking) so the child connects that bodily waste goes into the toilet bowl.
  • If a child has the urge to go, there’s no need to run to the toilet, as we can’t always have it immediately in the real world. Calmly advise them to walk briskly to the toilet. Take their hand if they prefer. When gaining toilet awareness, the child may first tell you after he has eliminated, then during, and finally before. Before may happen in the living room, then on the toilet floor, and finally in the toilet bowl.

And bearing toilet independence in mind, this seems the perfect time to take the bathroom challenge by Montessori-family. I am adopting the structure of Fridabemighty’s challenge post– and while you’re there do check out her quaint, heartwarming snapshots of Montessori home life.

 (Challenge questions in bold)

Observe the room and how your child is using it. Every time your child asks for your help (or when you go and help her without her asking), try to see what prevents her to do it by herself.

View from bathtub

This is the only bathroom in our flat. It is a narrow rectangle, which is the room shape I find hardest to work with as one lengthwise wall usually goes to waste.

Encourage your child to be independent regarding self-care. As rule of thumb, if your child walks, she can attempt most of her self-care needs with little support.

When we moved in, I spent a week observing our natural flow of movement. And then I had my husband bathe the children so I could observe from the door where any obstacles to independence lay. 

View from door

Working with the bathroom’s linear shape, I added an Ikea cabinet with a laundry hamper at the entrance.  This is so that the children can put their dirty clothes in themselves, and proceed to use the toilet, and finally the bathtub, in one straight line.

One obstacle I observed was that the children had trouble squeezing enough toothpaste. I used an airtight bag clip (the kind for sealing food packets) to push up the toothpaste and make it easier to squeeze out.

Does your child have access to the sink? Can she see herself in the mirror?

Yes. We have two stools, one taller and one shorter and foldable, so that both children can brush teeth at the same time. The taller stool has holes on each side and can be moved by the children to the toilet bowl or the bathtub. The foldable stool (pictured) is kept nearer the entrance as it’s light enough for the children to fold up and bring out. Usually, it doubles as extra seating for me when we are eating at the low table in the living room.

I added a small triptych mirror based on Montessori-family’s advice and it has really motivated them to brush their own teeth for longer (I still do one final round of brushing for them). When both are brushing, the child by the side of the sink can angle the mirror to see herself. I still think I may need to get a larger acrylic mirror.

Toothbrushing items are also mounted on suction hooks in that particular nook at that particular height, so that the children can get their own toothbrushes and cups, step up on stool, brush at the sink, step off stool and dry their hands.

What kind of bath toys does your child have? Does she play with all of them? Can she access her toys by herself?

See that middle shelf with two plastic containers? That is the extent of their bath toys. Sure makes cleanup easy 😉Whenever they start getting slimy they go into the recycling bin and are replaced by other containers.

The reason I cut back on bath toys was because both children were over 2yo and becoming more involved in shampooing and soaping themselves. So these plastic containers were both un-toys and practical for washing themselves. (They can access their shampoo and soap on the top shelf, but we still supervise and finish off the rinsing.) 

We also learnt to pre-empt tears by hanging a facetowel on the bathtub rail (or over one shoulder) so the children can wipe their eyes if shampoo gets in. 

For a younger baby though, a bath is a pleasurable experience, and how best to heighten that enjoyment than by offering toys that embody water’s unique properties? My children used to play with the following bath toys daily:

Green Toys submarine (sinks and floats like a real submarine so useful for demonstrating physics concepts) and Ikea stacking cups (each of the bases has a different size and number of holes)

And this waterwheel. How inviting to have a natural material rather than plastic in the bathroom! I first saw it here on REOlife and couldn’t get it out of my head ever since, even though the children prefer showers to baths now.

Does your child have access to her toilet accessories?

Yes. Maria Montessori said that every unnecessary help is a hindrance. I removed bath toys so the children could focus on the pleasure of bathing themselves instead of the pleasure of playing, so similarly, I have trimmed our toileting accessories significantly.

Exhibit A: Singapore toilet learning area

Well-equipped with books, bamboo wipes and training pants to keep the children sitting on the potty. 

Exhibit B: London bathroom.

Goodbye books. We don’t have the habit of reading on the toilet so we removed that. (It was also a hygiene issue as we were concerned that they might forget to wash their hands after reading/ toileting.)

Goodbye lovely cushy bamboo wipes. Hello toilet roll. You good enough for us. But placement isn’t perfect as the children have to get off the bowl to reach the roll.

Goodbye, underwear in basket. This is a shared bathroom for all members of the family. Thus, the underwear goes into the respective drawers in the bedrooms. Thankfully the children have progressed enough to not need frequent changes of underwear.

We never got around to buying a toilet ring here, since our younger was already 2yo. The children perch on the bowl with both hands supporting them. If they  fear falling in, I read that another way to make them feel more secure is to place them at the back of the toilet seat, but younger children may be too short to straddle the seat, and furthermore, placing children in positions they can’t get out of inhibits freedom of movement.

If the children wet themselves, they place their soiled undies in the small bowl on the ledge and fill it with water. There is also a Buncha Farmers stick if there are food stains (I don’t let them handle poop stains yet) they need to remove from their clothing. We are moving towards natural cleaning agents so that the children can also assist with larger-scale cleaning.

Emmy removing a stain. Look how she spreads open her thumb and index to keep the fabric taut!

Can your child reach the light switch?

Yes, but with a stool. If there is a hack for flat light switches, please tell me!

If your child has missed the sensitive period for toileting, I found this article by Janet Lansbury comforting and convincing.

Do visit our prepared home environment with useful tips for renters and small spaces and learning from my AMI Cert course!


5 thoughts on “When you’ve missed the window for toileting… and a Tiny Bathroom Challenge

  1. Great article and thank you for linking to the #montessorihousechallenge! I will totally try your clip hack for the toothpaste which is a challenge for my two children too! And so easy to have just place a mirror straight on the sink!


      1. the next one will be about the kitchen. The main goal was to be honest, I was bit discouraged by my own family chaos ad needed a booster, so being accountable to my followers helps me!


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