From Diapers to Underpants By Claire Bainer, M.A.Ed. and Liisa Hale

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1 From Diapers to Underpants By Claire Bainer, M.A.Ed. and Liisa Hale Helping a child learn to use the toilet is often a hot topic for parents of toddlers. Amazingly enough, independent toileting is something nearly every child easily masters before the third birthday. Over the years of working with children and parents at BlueSkies for Children, we have learned that toileting will come along naturally and easily as long as we are working together as a team of child, family and school. It is our hope that sharing our insights, experience, and observations on this subject will be helpful to parents, teachers, and most importantly the children. First, it is important to understand that using the toilet is in its own way a gift from a child to the adults he loves and trusts. From the child s point of view this whole concept is a bit odd putting his bare bottom on a cold white thing with a hole in the middle of it, full of water and capable of making things disappear in a noisy flush, is a big change from wearing a cozy diaper that gets really warm with urine or a B.M. in it. In addition, both the child and caregiver enjoy a lot of close, focused, physical attention during diaper changes. The pleasure of the very direct, intimate relationship during diapering cannot be denied. To give this up to be bigger is an abstract idea for a child and is done only out of love. Every adult should fully appreciate this act. Extra hugs and cuddles during the transition can help so that everyone can let go of this part of babyhood and still have all their emotional needs met. Second, toilet training is a two-way street. It is something adults do with a child, not to him. The adults commitment to being sensitive, paying attention, and planning ahead are vital parts of this process. The child s eagerness and readiness for independence along with physical development form the foundations for a successful experience. I. Readiness Awareness of Wetness One of the first signs of readiness is when a child indicates awareness that she is wet or has a B.M. Beware: Paper diapers and pull-ups do such a good job of keeping wetness away that sometimes a child needs to be in a cloth diaper or spend a little time with no clothes on to develop this awareness. Only after the child has identified the feeling of wetness can she learn to recognize the body signals that precede it. Attitude Usually when children are physically and emotionally ready for toileting, and we adults can remember to let them stay in charge of this accomplishment, it happens pretty quickly (as short as a week, or maybe a few months). This is a big step for parents toward allowing their child to manage his own life and body. It is a situation where parenting challenges us with something we all want and resist at the same time. We are challenged to let go just a little bit more, to trust, help,

2 guide, love unconditionally, support, and let him do it himself. Toilet learning really is the child s business. The best advice to parents is to try not to get too invested in the project but to facilitate the child s own management. The Toddler curriculum at BlueSkies for Children is heavily focused on independence. The children are given increasing levels of responsibility for choosing their activities and are trusted to carry them out appropriately. Teaching is geared to supporting the child s sense of competence and proficiency through appropriate expectations for self-care (dressing, washing, feeding, etc.), as well as encouragement and facilitation for children to manage their play and interactions with others. This growing sense of self gives children the confidence to believe that they can learn to do big things such as using the toilet. Verbal Ability After the child knows how to recognize the feeling of pee coming, she has to be able to say something along the lines of I gotta go pee! At first there may not be much anticipation time; the words and urine may emerge simultaneously, but it s the first step of the child s assuming responsibility for toileting. Consciousness Raising The child needs informal opportunities to become acquainted with the concept and language of using the toilet. Through watching others, reading stories, and casual conversations children learn what words are used to describe toileting functions (be sure teachers know the words your family uses), how the members of their sex use the toilet, that big kids and grown-ups use the toilet, etc. How will they know if we don't teach them? Have a potty or potty-ring (see Tips below) for the toilet which your child knows is intended for him to use when he is ready. Physical Development A child must be able to control bladder and bowel release in order to use the toilet. Generally we suggest that the child be able to hold urine at least one hour before any attempt is made to move into underwear. II. A Plan for Home, When Your Child Is Ready Plan Ahead Choose a weekend that you can stay at home and life will be relaxed. Have about a dozen pairs of training pants on hand. Read and talk about using the potty with your child. First Thing in the Morning When your child gets up, if the diaper isn t too wet, offer the chance to sit on the potty and see if anything comes out. If the child refuses, never mind. Put on the training pants and have breakfast.

3 After Breakfast After eating, collect some of your child s favorite books and say, Now we can go read some books. Take them into the bathroom, help your child sit on the potty, and read. Great books for this have a good story, interesting pictures to look at and a lot to talk about on each page. Your goal is to just get your child to sit there for a while. You are setting your child up for success. If you fill her with good food and drink and you get her to sit on the potty long enough to relax and look at the books, the chances that urine will come out are good. Then you make a fuss over how clever she is, let her flush and wash her hands, and get set to stay dry for the next time. Every Hour Set the timer on your watch to go off every hour and when it goes off say, Oh, great! Now we get to go look at the books again! Avoid asking, Do you want to go to the potty? Most children at this stage don t really know whether they want to or not, and they re often eager to say No, which just sets up a battle. It s better to act as if you know he will want to do it and make it exciting. Grab his hand and say, Oh, run run run, here we go, or Yikes, I almost forgot, we gotta go! After he gets the idea and really does want to use the potty you can ask if he needs/wants to go to the potty. Accidents Remember to keep it light. It is really no big deal if there are accidents. Like every new skill a child learns, it takes time to experiment, practice, and learn. Keep the mop handy, and try to spend a lot of time outdoors or on linoleum floors! The flooding doesn t last too long, especially if the child still wears a diaper for nap. Children are sometimes very distressed over accidents and need adults to reassure them that they can learn this just like they learn to climb a new slide or hook wooden trains together. If you clean the floor and let the child change his own clothes it helps him feel he is still able to manage, even when things don t quite go according to plan. Scolding and guilt trips have the opposite effect, making him feel inadequate and unable to do what is expected of him. Your positive attitude will help your child by letting her know you have faith in her. Consistency Children have the best success if you wait until you are sure it s time, then just cancel the diaper service or stop buying paper daytime diapers. Make the commitment and go for it, with no turning back. Just expect life to be a bit damp for a while. Plan for inconveniences and accidents; carry plastic bags, paper towels, and plenty of spare clothes wherever you go. Time this carefully; see A Plan..., above. If children start going back and forth from diapers to underwear for the parents convenience, it destroys momentum and the child s sense of control over the process.

4 III. Tips Negativity If your child says No! and fights you every time you get him near a potty you need to put the control back into his hands. Leaving him naked can really help; just put on a T-shirt in the kitchen or play in the yard. Children don t generally like pee on the floor or their legs, and the feedback is terrific! Give him a chance to make the decision to use the potty. Potty Seats Some children are afraid they will fall in the toilet. The little rings that fit on the toilet seat can help eliminate this fear. These rings are also very portable and one can stay in the car for use at restaurants, gas stations, etc. Eliminating directly into the toilet has a sanitation advantage over a potty chair, which needs to be emptied and cleaned after each use. A potty chair has the advantage of being sized for small children, but it may add an extra step to the process of toilet learning when the child needs to learn to use a regular toilet at school or when away from home. A child who has a particular spot in the house where she always has her B.M. may like to use the potty chair in that spot while she s getting started. Use the prop that best meets your child s needs, or don t bother if the regular toilet seat seems comfortable for her. Training Pants Traditional training pants are quite thick. If you have the kind of child who pees a little and then controls the release, these can be helpful to start but they will not contain a flood. Some children are very motivated by fancy underpants; they want so much to keep their cartoon-character underpants dry that this can be a big help in the process of learning to pay attention to that full feeling. Paper pull-ups are convenient, especially for B.M. accidents, but in our experience give the children little motivation or feed-back to move forward with the process. Clothing Dress your child in clothing that he can manage. Choose simple elastic waists on loose-fitting pants and shorts (the last thing a child in a hurry needs is to stop and fuss with belts, snaps, buttons, or straps). Make sure shirts are not so long that the tail falls in the toilet; it is too discouraging to make it to the toilet in time but still end up wet because clothing falls in! Velcro shoes and socks that fit comfortably can be easily removed when wet and replaced with dry ones by your child independently. Helpful Phrases Some predictable situations come up in the toileting process, and you may find it helpful to know some tried and true Nursery School teachers words. Key concepts are reassurance, confidence, and faith in success next time, all delivered in a cheerful, matter-of-fact voice.

5 After an accident: Oops! Go get some dry clothes while I clean up the floor. Reassuring a distressed child after an accident: Don t worry, we have more dry clothes for you. Go ahead and get changed and you ll get to the toilet next time. It takes some practice to remember to pee in the toilet. Or I know you don t like to get your pants wet [acknowledge whatever seems most distressing], but pretty soon you ll learn to stay dry and make your pee go right in the toilet! Convincing a child to sit on the toilet at a convenient moment: After you go pee it will be time to go outside [or whatever interesting event will follow]. Announce the plan (don t ask) and be sure there s something your child likes to do as bait go to the store, call grandma, feed the fish, read a book, etc. IV. A Plan for School, after Success at Home Communicate When you come to school after a successful weekend, let the teachers know your child s status as a beginning toileter! Be sure they know how frequently she has been urinating; any special needs she has in order to feel comfortable; any unique language your family uses for the toilet, urine, or B.M. s; whether a diaper is worn for nap; etc. The teacher will be glad to share information about the routine for toileting at school; typically all the children use the toilet before and after nap in the Nursery School groups, and at other times as needed. Equip Bring twice as many changes of clothes (including shoes, socks, shirts, pants, and underwear) as you think your child will need. School is such a busy place that it may be harder for your child to get to the toilet on time, even if she stays nearly dry at home. A child feels secure knowing that if she has an accident there are plenty of dry clothes (e.g., chances to try again) in her cubby. Facilitate It may be helpful to talk with your child on the way to school about your expectation that he will use the toilet at school just as he did at home. Plan some extra time at drop-off, so that you can accompany him into the class bathroom and cheer on his attempt to use the toilet. Sometimes the child who is toileting at home needs to know his parents expect him to do this at school as well. V. Be Prepared Planning for Success Teachers know that going into the cold air and playing with water are surefire stimulants to the bladder for young children. Therefore we plan to have children use the toilet before they go outside. You, too, will quickly learn what seems to trigger your child s need to use the bathroom and plan to accommodate it. If your child has been dry for two hours and it s time to wash up before dinner, tell her to

6 use the toilet and then wash her hands. This prevents her being surprised and upset to find urine rolling down her legs as soon as her hands go under the faucet! Handling Stressful Times During times of family stress (when you are dealing with births, deaths, illness, parental absences) you will have to take cues from your child as to his emotional state and what steps you will be able to take during that time. The stress may come from the child, such as those who delight in a brief but intense stage of regression around the age of 3. It is probably not a good idea to start something new like toilet learning when you are under stress. If you have begun the toileting process it can be confusing to return to diapers but sometimes there is little choice. When stressful times come up and the needs of the whole family must take precedence over the toilet learning, be sure to talk to your child and include him in your thinking. Be sure you tell your child s teacher so she can follow your lead in whatever you feel is the right thing to do under your special circumstances. VI. Conclusion Eighteen children move from the Playroom into the Homeroom every year, and they are all in underpants. Bottles, diapers, changing tables, and other baby things don t exist in the Homeroom; in their place are dozens of activities and spaces that reflect the new big kid possibilities open to the 3-year-olds. Over the summer as the children begin to explore the Homeroom space they see that everyone there uses the toilet. Using the toilet quickly becomes such a basic fact of life that even the resistant ones get caught up in the current and join the crowd. By giving the children a strong foundation of support and confidence, they are ready and able to achieve this milestone with pride and satisfaction. 2009, Association of Children s Services 3021 Brookdale Avenue, Oakland, CA (510)

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