Like just about every other aspect of parenting, I had extensively researched, prepared myself and had relatively developed thoughts about potty training prior to my oldest being born. He was a boy and everything I read said boys are a little harder to potty train than girls, so I figured I’d start around age 2.5. I was not going to have a 3 or 4 year old in diapers. Like most other times when I make my own plans, God laughed. However, it probably wasn’t how you think.
To understand how our Montessori lifestyle fits into our potty training story, and in honor of this being my first Montessori Monday post, let me first list some of the foundational principles of Montessori education (as I see them- there are lists with more and less), and briefly describe a few that were applicable to our toilet learning experience:.
Principles of Montessori education (no particular order):
1. Respect for the child
2. Sensitive periods
3. Mixed age groupings
4. The prepared environment
5. Experiential Learning
6. The role of the teacher
7. Freedom within limits
8. Educating the whole child
9. Uninterrupted work periods
10. Follow the Child
One of the most basic principles of Montessori education, despite me listing it last, is follow the child. It’s such a guiding Montessori principle that I’ve heard of multiple Montessori schools actually bearing the name Follow The Child Montessori or something similar. Following the child generally means observing the child and using their interests as a guide for which work to present when.
Another basic principle is that of a prepared environment, where Montessori guides should ensure children should have access to the right tools at the right time. In addition to observing the interests of each child (follow the child), the materials are presented on easily accessible shelves, minimizing the need for teacher involvement in selecting a work and maximizing the child’s independence.
The last principle that I’ll refer to here is that of sensitive periods, which is the idea that children have phases that they pass through in their development where they have a predisposition to learning a specific skill.
Following with these basic principles, shortly after my son started to walk at 14 months, I knew it was time for me to order a few child size toilets and strategically place them in areas of our home (preparing the environment). Like when most new “work” is introduced in the environment, my son was immediately interested.
Side note- Any parent of a toddler has probably wondered aloud or to themselves – “Will I ever use the bathroom alone again???” Toddlers are typically fascinated with the toilet, and usually want to follow mom or dad into this space that they haven’t otherwise had much time to explore! If this is you, mom and dad — take advantage!
Maria Montessori believed the sensitive period for toileting was between 12-18 months. I know, 12-18 months? That seems very early! It is! But did you know that here in the United States we generally introduce the toilet much later than the rest of the developed world? According to a 2017 CNN article, Turkey’s children are fully potty trained between 16-28 months; in Vietnam all children have completed this skill before age 2. In the UK, 50% of children potty train before age 2 and another 33% are done by age 2.5. In many Asian, South American and African countries, children don’t wear diapers- ever. They are just constantly put on the toilet and therefore learn to toilet early!
In the United States during the 1920s, most children were potty trained around 12 months. Contrast that with the 1990s, when the majority of children didn’t even start until 3 years old. The backwards trend began in the 60s and 70s, when doctors encouraged parents to wait for signs of readiness. I’m sure major diaper manufacturers didn’t mind that encouragement!
Going back to Montessori’s belief in sensitive period for toilet training being between 12-18 months, I also believe that most parents will agree with the anecdote from earlier- children are fascinated with the toilet! At least enough to want to be there with you every time you go! This Toddler Life Blog does a great post on Montessori Sensitive period for 0-3 years; I found it very helpful in understanding toddler readiness signs for toileting and other developmental areas!
My son was immediately fascinated with his new work, and I explained to him what the toilet was for. I did not, however, sit him on the toilet or try to encourage him to sit on the toilet. I just pointed it out. He occasionally sat on it when reading books. When he would do so, I taught him how to take off his diaper prior to sitting. And any time that he would begin to poop or pee in his diaper over the next few months, I would simply say, “poop and pee goes in the toilet,” and point to the toilet. One day when he was 16 months old, after he sat on the toilet to read a book, he peed while he was reading. He wasn’t particularly trying (that I could tell), but he did, and he looked at me with a questioning expression. I made sure to make no fuss about this (although I was jumping for joy inside). This continued off and on for another month or two, and each time I would do the same thing. I was not “potty training” at this time, only taking advantage of his interest.
It wasn’t lost on me that he was learning that, like I constantly told him, poop and pee go in the toilet. He wasn’t having a chance to develop the comfort, if you will, of relieving himself in the diaper. In fact, he was quite enjoying not having a wet or soiled diaper, and immediately wanted it to be changed when he wasn’t using the toilet. These are all signs of readiness.
In May 2018, shortly before turning 20 months old, my son had a stretch of time off from school that spanned 10 days. I knew he was ready, and my daughter, who hadn’t yet begun her Montessori program, was going to be at daycare while my son was off. I took a week off from work, stocked up on supplies, and buckled up for the ride!
What kind of supplies? No- not toys or cookies or other rewards for a job well done. Montessori encourages natural rewards and consequences, and no one gets a chocolate bar or a new car for using the toilet as an adult. That’s not to say that you couldn’t implement them if you needed to, but when they are this young, they are inherently motivated by the idea of doing things that adults do. Just like they enjoy sweeping or folding towels, they are excited about the idea to use the toilet (and haven’t yet discovered they can say no!).
1. I mentioned I had already purchased 3 toilets to place around my house- I had bought the Summer Infant Learn to Go Potty. They’re $9.99 on the Summer Infant website. This is what my son used as he was familiarizing himself; parents hate these kind of toilets the most because they have to be cleaned out, but also love them because they foster the most independence by the child because they can get on/off by themselves.
2. I also purchased 2 Oxo Tot 2-in-1 Go Potty for travel, which are also $19.99 on Amazon. These are fantastic. They sit up on little legs all by themselves and also pop out so they can sit on a big toilet. Perhaps most fantastically, they also have little liner/bags that you can place on them in case your child has to use the toilet during a long drive (they will) or otherwise at an inconvenient spot when you can’t get to a restroom. And the bags close right up with a little built in tie (kind of like a garbage bag) and do not spill. Believe me, I have put this to the test. I keep one of these in each car and use them to tuck into the stroller or diaper bag whenever we’re out and about.
Why did I buy so many toilets? Because I’m not crazy (on purpose), and wanted to make my life easier. It paid off.
4. Oh Crap Potty Training book by Jamie Glowacki ($12.99 Kindle version on Amazon). This book is God’s gift to toileting for parents. I don’t particularly subscribe to any one method, but combined this and Montessori’s toilet learning ideas in developing my ten days.
5. Puppy Pads. I bought a big pack of puppy pads to place under the sheets on all our beds so I didn’t have to stress about pee ruining any of our mattresses, despite also having mattress protectors. I found this gave me a great sense of peace whenever my son was on the bed (I still have them on the beds 10 months later).
6. Wine. I bought SIX bottles of wine for myself for the ten days, and had zero qualms about it. I was taking a week off of work and spending two weekends at home with my kid watching him use the toilet. Oh how the mighty have fallen– a springtime week off used to always mean vacation in an exotic location.
I also mentally prepared myself to be:
-Off my phone as much as possible,
-Directly engaging with my child non-stop, and
I know that might not sound like a big deal, particularly to a parent who is pretty hands-on, but it’s harder than it sounds. I don’t believe I could have been successful without mentally preparing myself.
About two weeks prior, I started building up to my son what I called “Throw Away Day.” This was a made up day the morning that we were to begin toileting where we would throw away all our diapers (which went into a recycle bin that I used for Gabriella when the time came). I wanted to up the anticipation for no more diapers, and I did. We talked about it every day, throughout the day. By the time it was the night before, my son couldn’t even say the words “throw away day” but would jump for joy and practice throwing away diapers.
Morning of, that’s what we did. Tossed all the diapers we could find into a bin and made a big deal of taking them out to the curb for the garbage collectors (of course, I brought them right back in at nap). I did keep one pack of diapers hidden- I called these sleep diapers- that I used for naps and overnights. But I never kept them in plain sight anymore.
Oh Crap Potty Training is divided into three stages-
Stage One- Naked Days
Stage Two- Commando Days
Stage Three- Normal Clothes Days
It’s important that, contrary to what parents think about the “3 Day Potty Training Method,” as Jamie’s book is often referred to, it is not necessarily 3 days. It is 3 stages, and you have to follow the child to determine when they’re ready for the next stage.
We went with 2.5 pantsless days. These days are HARD. The majority of the wine was consumed on these first days. You have to pay constant attention- no books, magazines, etc. Your kid’s backside is going to touch everything in your house. Every surface. If you don’t pay attention, your kid will pee or poop on random things in your house. This phase is ESSENTIAL to the success, so I wouldn’t start and stop or somewhat haphazardly do it. Just do it and get through it and be done. No pants until the END of this stage. None (this is why you can’t go anywhere!).
The younger your child is, the more likely they are in the first of the 3 phases of toilet awareness:
Phase One- I peed
Phase Two- I am peeing
Phase Three- I have to pee
Being pantsless helps them get out of “I just peed” to “I have to pee” faster. It’s critical to not move out of this stage until your child is at LEAST in Phase Two, but preferably Phase Three. When they don’t have pants, underwear or a diaper, they realize instantly when they are peeing.
The commando days are a bit more fun, but also a bit more tricky. I think it’s important to not skip this step as some parents tend to do in a rush to get it over with. Underwear can feel a LOT like diapers, and give the child a false sense of security due to the familiarization of the underwear kind of being like a diaper. Wearing shorts or pants without underwear deprives them of this; it is also a lot more disgusting to them when pee runs down their legs instead of simply getting caught in their underwear. Disgust is a good motivator. We stayed in this phase for 7 days, because I had the luxury of doing so. I was more motivated to do toileting once successfully than have to go back to a previous step or start the entire thing again. Especially because I was using a week of vacation time to do it!
The last phase is reintroduction of underwear- if you were able to extend Stage Two like we were, this will be easier than if you had to rush through it, for the reasons mentioned above. We were lucky to have never had to go back a few steps. I also had my son JUST wear underwear at home whenever possible to continue to give him the chance to be hyper-aware of his body.
I was concerned at the conclusion of toileting that my son was not self-initiating trips to the toilet. What did I expect? My 19 month old to tell me “I have to go to the bathroom” ?? – Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations. I would still remind him at every transition (moving from upstairs to downstairs or one room to another or before getting in the car, etc…) or any long periods of time doing the same thing about the toilet. When I say remind, I mean that I would tell him the same thing I told him before and during toilet learning- “Poop and pee go in the toilet.” I would also add, “The toilet is ____ (right next to your table, etc…), whenever you are ready.”
Even though my son would successfully use the toilet (he only had 2 accidents during our entire 10 day process, including the first day!), he would not tell me when he had to use the toilet. Well, he was not even 20 months old. He wasn’t exactly speaking in full sentences. He would communicate by showing signs of having to go- signs that I learned during my exhilarating 10 days off with him. He would also use basic “poop” or “pee” words occasionally, and that’s how he communicated to me.
In the months following completion of our toileting boot camp, my son got better and better and communicating that he had to use the toilet, although I would not say he was completely at the point of self-initiating. About six months later, through a combination of his verbal skills getting better, his confidence getting stronger, and practice making perfect, he was completely self-initiating, and I finally felt like I could relax and not have to watch for him to have to use the toilet.
I really believe that there’s no one right way, just a right for you way, but I wanted to share what we did and my best tips.
What worked for us:
1. No bribes for using the toilet. It has to be a normal thing.
2. Tell your kid it’s time to use the toilet, particularly in the beginning. Don’t ask. What toddler will say yes to anything at that age? “It’s toilet time!” was our go to phrase.
3. Do not make a big deal about accidents. Like bedtime and tantrums, it is very hard to not be emotionally invested in the success of potty training. Let it go, mom- I’m telling you now. You have to have a pre-programmed response to pee on the floor that is a default response. You cannot be more concerned about your couch, your new carpet, your kids clothes, or anything else than you are about your emotional response to pee or poop being on any of the aforementioned. If you make a thing of it, it will become a thing. My response was, as suggested in the book, “Poop/pee goes in the toilet. Next time, please put your poop/pee in the toilet. Thank you!”
4, Don’t leave the house/home area, at least not at first. Don’t set your kid up to fail. You don’t know when they’re going to have to go yet, and it’s unreasonable to ask them to try to learn multiple difficult things at once. A period of time where you don’t have anywhere you HAVE to go is critical. Then branch out. Slowly. We started leaving the house on day 4 for 30 minute intervals, even if it was just a drive for coffee.
5. If you can potty train in good weather, I think that’s preferred to colder months. During our 10 day at home period, we helped pass time by going outside and playing in our yard. I really wish we had a deck in the back of our house for additional privacy, but we don’t. Yes, people walked by my house while my son was butt naked playing at his water table in our driveway. He was 1 1/2, they got over it.
6. Commit. Don’t quit. And don’t just give in to the diaper out of convenience for you. Like most other things in life that are worth it, this is a commitment. You have to understand that up front. And it’s not just a commitment for that first period of time, it lasts for awhile. My kid was fully potty trained with VERY few accidents- less than 10 in the 10 months since we started- but it required a heightened level of diligence on my part. I’ve been able to relax that as time has passed, but still.
7. Update your diaper bag. With all the space you have from not carrying diapers, you need to add changes of shorts and underwear, plastic bags for wet clothes, and my favorite- post it notes to put over the automatic flusher in public toilets. Nothing to scare a kid out of ever wanting to use the toilet again to have an ill-timed flush.
8. Don’t over-hydrate your kid. Again- set them up for success. Don’t make them so full that they are having to use the toilet at a frequency that they otherwise don’t. This is contrary to what some potty training methods suggest, but I really believe that it’s all about “normal.” I would also give more liquids closer to wake up in the morning and after nap, and less as time passed before the next nap or next overnight. Now we’re just at the point where my son can have a full glass of milk before bed, use the toilet, and not have to go at night.
9. Keep toilets accessible. Out of sight is out of mind, and when you have a kid that can concentrate well, particularly a Montessori kid, it’s a pain to stop and use the toilet in the first place- you’re highly unlikely to do it if you don’t even see one around. I use prompts as reminders of where the toilet is- Nico, whenever your body is ready, the toilet is right next to your bookcase. It’s what Oh Crap Potty Training calls a “throwaway” prompt- it’s indirect.
A few other miscellaneous notes:
First, its important to talk with your childcare providers. My son’s Montessori school was no on board with us toileting when we did, and that’s probably my fault because I didn’t talk to them in advance. My son wasn’t showing signs of readiness at school because going to the toilet wasn’t something he did there; it was something he did at home. They had him wear diapers for about 2 months after he was completely potty trained, much to my chagrin. I got over this simply by calling them his school underwear.
With the exception of the first 3 days, I never used diapers at nap time or overnight. My son quickly learned that he didn’t like when his bed was wet after a nap time on day 4, and just stopped wetting at night. I always made sure to get in two toilet trips before bed- one about an hour before and one within minutes. I know not every kid nap/overnight toilet trains this easily, and I have no idea why my kid did because I wasn’t necessarily trying for this, but it happened with us. I’ll be curious to see how my daughter does in this regard.
If you give yourself an out (I’ll try it now and if it doesn’t work I’ll try again over Christmas break), you’ll probably take it. It’s somewhat the same with childbirth- if you tell yourself you’ll wait and see if you need meds, you probably will. While I would never force my kid into something I didn’t earnestly believe he or she wasn’t ready for, I also wasn’t going to allow myself the idea of failing. With this, the most helpful thing I did was not tell people about it- not family, not school, not friends. I didn’t want the judgment (particularly if it didn’t work), and I didn’t need the extra pressure. Remember my advice to not be emotionally invested in the success? Again, I compare this to childbirth. I wanted to have a natural birth, but didn’t go around advertising it because I didn’t want people to plant seeds of doubt in my mind.
Many kids struggle to poop on the potty; my kid wasn’t one of them. I read a lot about struggling with poop, but don’t have any first hand experience trying it out. I”ll update this when I toilet train my daughter this summer or fall if that’s something I experience.
After we completed toileting, I didn’t hesitate going places. If you follow our instagram account at all (@3under3andme), you’ll see we are constantly on the go. Two months after toileting, we went to Walt Disney World. We were accident free, including on the plane rides. A short while later we went on a cruise; that was a little trickier, but still- wasn’t an issue. Again- I felt like if I made a big deal about it, it would become a big deal. I was lucky to have thought through it and read a lot in advance, so I felt like I was prepared. We traveled with the Oxo Tot 2-in-1 toilet in the stroller or diaper bag.
What I am MOST glad about is that I did not wait until 2-2.5 to start. I knew toddler’s were strong willed; especially Montessori toddlers. I CANNOT IMAGINE trying to teach my son to use the toilet at that age when he would say no to a million dollars or a lollipop the size of the moon, simply to say no. It might actually make sense to wait until that is over if you’re already in it; it does end eventually Maybe not the occasional nos or tantrums, but the multiple times a day ones. By the time we hit that, using the toilet was just something he did, so it wasn’t like he had to say no to me. He already wanted to.
I know this was an insanely long post- even for me, who is naturally long winded. But I really wanted to tell you the tips to success with my son, and encourage you to just go for it. Your child likely is not too young, and they can do it.
Thanks for following along! And special thanks to my cousin Stacie (@smgrandcolas) and my high school friend Kelly (@kell.mill) for being my resources while I was toileting with Nico; they provided me invaluable advice (in fact, some of this is probably theirs). Thank you ladies!
Shout-out to some of my favorite Montessori Resources and Instragram accounts: