Child Development and Parenting: Early Childhood
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Preparing the Space for Toilet Training in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Preparation of the actual toilet training space will make the training process go much more smoothly when it becomes time to begin actual toilet training. Many parents wonder if they should deck out their bathroom in potty training gear months before starting actual training, or instead wait until immediately before toilet training begins to unveil the potty. Both approaches have their debatable advantages and disadvantages. When a potty is set out weeks or even months before toilet training begins, children will have an opportunity to grow familiar and comfortable with it. This added comfort level helps some children become more relaxed and prepared for toilet training. Parents can allow children to play with empty, sanitized stand-alone potties and/or sanitized potty inserts. However, parents should be careful how much children play with these items, because kids still need to learn that these devices are not toys.

The flip side of children's enhanced relaxation and comfort with the potty after early exposure to it is boredom. Some children will lose interest in the potty if it is put out too early, and will not have any real interest in using it when the true time arrives. Other children really benefit from advance exposure to the potty. They feel unsettled and even scared by this new contraption when it just appears out of nowhere and may not want to go anywhere near it. Parents should think about their children's personalities when deciding which approach makes more sense for the family. As is the case with nurturing along any developmental activity, if a child becomes overwhelmed or disinterested, parents should just back down for a couple weeks and then try again later, maintaining a positive attitude all the while.

Adult toilets can be large and intimidating objects for some small children. In order to get children comfortable with the size, shape, and noise of an adult-sized toilet, parents can encourage supervised experimentation with it. For example, children can throw bite-sized cereal O's into the toilet bowl and practice flushing them away. Such experiments can help children get experience operating a toilet so that they will feel less scared of it in the future.

Safety and Sanitation

The toilet or "potty" apparatus itself is the most vital piece of toilet training equipment. Fortunately, parents have an array of options to choose from with regard to selecting toilet gear. First, families can elect to use inexpensive toilet inserts, which fit comfortably and snugly on top of regular toilet seats. Such inserts allow small children to use the standard toilet using a seat made for children's smaller bodies. Inserts are easier to move from place to place than are freestanding potties. This portability helps young children feel "at home" using the toilet, even when the family is at Grandma's house or traveling. As well, because they make use of regular toilets, toilet inserts don't have to be dumped and cleaned after each use. Children will likely need a step stool in order to seat themselves on the insert. As some children may need help climbing up and down from the toilet, it is probably a good idea to maintain adult supervision of the toileting process throughout toilet training. Some children are frightened by the large and intimidating (to a small child) adult toilet, so using toilet inserts isn't a good option for everyone.

Another choice for toilet training is the freestanding potty chair. These child-sized, low-to-the-ground chairs are generally made of tough plastic, with plastic tubs that fit under the seat to collect waste. Because these chairs are small and often come in fun shapes and bright colors, they are a nice option for children who are intimidated by the adult toilet. Their kid-friendly features can make potty chairs more fun and exciting for children to use. Also, children can often use potty chairs unsupervised, fostering their greater sense of independence. Stand-alone potties can be placed in other rooms (e.g., in a play room or bed room) for added convenience, allowing children to reach the toilet successfully when they aren't able to "hold it" long enough to run all the way to the bathroom. As an added bonus, children can place their feet firmly on the ground while using the potty chair, which can make bowel movements much easier. Children are too small to put their feet on the ground when using an adult toilet, even when that toilet has been fitted with an insert.

There are some drawbacks to potty chairs. These chairs are more expensive than inserts, and parents need to either buy multiple chairs for multiple bathrooms (or different floors), or resort to continuously moving the potty chair from place to place as children move through the house. Children can also confuse potty chairs for toys at times, which may make the process of toileting more difficult. As well, cleaning up potty chairs can be just as unappetizing as cleaning up diapers, as the collection tubs need to be dumped, cleaned, and sanitized after each use in order to maintain good hygiene. Finally, while potty chairs are a good solution for early toilet trainees, they do not fully prepare children to use adult toilets (e.g., they do not have a flushing mechanism). It may be wise to shift children from the potty chair to a toilet insert after they have mastered use of the potty chair so as to provide a better transition to adult toilet use.

Some families elect to stick with the regular adult toilet for toilet training. The adult toilet comes without added monetary costs, and children don't have to learn how to transition to a different toilet later on in their development. Families who toilet train using adult toilets will, however, have to provide children with a step stool, as they will almost always need to climb to be able to reach a standard toilet. In addition, because of a toilet's large size in comparison to young children's small bodies, using a full-size toilet without supervision is not recommended. Children may fall off the toilet completely or fall into the water head-first. Some children become easily frustrated with adult toilets due to their large size and their being relatively uncomfortable for small bodies to use. When this is the case, families may be better off with the potty chair.

No matter what toilet kids use at home, many families invest in portable travel potties if they frequently go on long car trips or are active out in the community. These potties are often collapsible or very light-weight, so they're easy to pack and to move. Some come with bowls with lids that can be closed until waste can be dumped. Others have an absorbable, disposable liner that can be discarded in the trash can after use. Because these potties can be taken virtually anywhere, they can be used in a public restroom, on a quiet street, during a visit at someone else's home, or even in a quiet corner of a store in desperate times. Parents who elect to use such portable devices should have their children practice using them several times at home before trying to use them on the road.

Whether selecting a toilet insert, a potty chair, or a travel potty, parents should look for features that indicate quality. Devices should always be sturdy and well-built. They should also be comfortable for kids to use. Toilet seats should have a built-in splash guard for little boys to help prevent messes and splatters in the face (these seats can be turned around when little girls need to use them). Lids on potty bins should fit securely so as to reduce smells and avoid spills when waste cannot be disposed of immediately.

Beyond choosing a toilet device, families also need to set up the bathroom or other potty place so that it is kid-friendly and usable. The number one rule to keep in mind in this regard is that there should always be toilet paper within easy reach of children's small arms. Even though the traditional toilet paper dispenser may be less than an arm's reach for an adult sitting on the seat, it will be a much farther grab for little arms and may cause children who are stretching out to fall off the seat if they are using an adult toilet. If self-contained or portable potties are in use, it is also important to keep toilet paper handy for use with those devices, whether they are placed in the house or used on the road.

Wet wipes can be a useful product to purchase for use in addition to, or instead of dry traditional toilet paper. Wipes are useful for wiping bottoms as well as cleaning up associated messes. Many companies manufacture flushable wet wipes that children can use when they're first learning to wipe themselves.

Books, puzzles, and other self-contained toys should be kept within a child's reach for use during toilet time. These entertainment items will help young minds stay patient during the actual elimination process and make the toileting process more fun. Restricting certain desirable toys and books solely for use at toilet time helps keep children engaged and interested in those items and thus less likely to be bored while toileting. Toilet time can be a particularly good time to encourage children to read short picture books. Providing age-appropriate reading material helps reinforce children's love of stories and learning, and helps to develop reading skills.

Even if young children are going to learn on a self-contained potty that sits low to the ground, families will still need to invest in a child-sized step stool so that children can reach the sink in order to wash themselves after using the toilet. Step stools will allow children to reach the faucet as part of the very important hand-washing lesson; and they are also useful for brushing teeth. Parents should also make sure that there is always kid-friendly soap and a clean towel within a child's reach. Some companies make special foaming soaps for kids that come in fun colored bottles. While these features may entice some stubborn children to lather up, the extra cost these items command is not generally necessary most of the time.