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Bladder and bowel control can only occur once the nerves and muscles involved are fully developed. This occurs at approximately 24 months of age. Your toddler will begin to make the connection between her inner sensations and the physical reality of passing a stool or urine. The nerves to the bowel and bladder need to get messages from the brain (via the sensory system) to the muscles of the bladder and bowel so that effective emptying can take place. The muscles of the bowel and bladder also need to be strong enough to hold onto their contents until they can be emptied. Some children do have motor control problems, so may take longer to develop control the sphincter (the valve at the opening of the bladder). Some children are under-reactive to sensations, so may not even notice that they are urinating till much later. On the other hand, if your toddler is over-reactive to sensation, the feeling of something leaving her body may be intense and frightening. Your toddler may simply not enjoy the feeling of sitting on the potty or toilet, after becoming accustomed to having the closeness and warmth of the nappy to push against.
For optimal control, it is obvious that your toddler needs to be able to sit, stand and walk in order for this function to take place. She also needs to be able to follow simple instructions, so obviously you will need the full co-operation of your child in order to succeed. You should therefore not feel pressurised to rush into toilet training from an early age (definitely not under 18 month of age), otherwise it is doomed to fail. Two years of age is a good time to begin to prepare your toddler for this big milestone in her life. Most children are indifferent to their bodily functions, so it is a good idea to accept this and follow their cues. What is amusing to note is that around this age (24 months), when most children are developed enough to begin to gain control of their bowel and bladder function, a strange paradox occurs. Their ‘lower end’ becomes ready, but at around the same time, the ‘upper end’ becomes unwilling, as this is the typical age of wilfulness and stubbornness, so often your toddler will resist your sudden interest in her bodily functions! Keep a level head and a sense of humour and all will be well.
Her sensory system indicates readiness
Because it is easier to ‘hold onto’ stools than it is to a full bladder, your toddler will most likely achieve bowel control first. However, it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong if bladder control is achieved first.
The first sign that your toddler is ready to become toilet trained, is when she begins to show awareness of what is happening either before or after a bowel movement. She may understand and say words such as “poo”, “wee” or “toilet”, squirm and touch her bottom, or may stop what she is doing. If she takes her nappy off continuously, and can pull her pants down, it may be a sign that she is getting ready for this big milestone in her life. The connection is finally there! Her sensory system is giving her the message that something is happening. It is also prudent to take note of the climate at the time that your child may be ready for toilet training. It is far easier to let your toddler potter around the garden completely naked in hot summer months, than in the middle of winter! Having to change countless pairs of corduroys and change socks and shoes each time she has an accident is frustrating and tiresome. If your toddler is younger than 26–28 months in winter, delay toilet training until the weather improves, if possible. Don’t leave it too late however, as delaying training for too long can make it worse.
Practical and healthy guideline
Toilet or potty training can be as easy and relaxed as you make it. Not putting any pressure on your little one to perform at any stage improves your chances of success dramatically. Follow these practical suggestions:
- It is a good idea to get a potty well before you think you may need it. Place it in the bathroom near the toilet, and explain what it is even if your toddler is not yet ready.
- Let her accompany you to the toilet from an early age, so that she can get used to the idea, and learn from watching you – this will take the mystery and fear out of this new idea. Always tell her, “Mommy is having a wee”. Invite her to tear off the toilet paper for you, and help you flush.
- If you have a son, ask your husband to invite him to accompany him to the toilet. This way, he will learn that boys do it differently to girls. Place a piece of toilet paper in the bowl and show him how to aim at the paper. If he prefers to sit down to pass urine, reassure him that it is fine and try to avoid putting pressure on him to do it ‘the right way’.
- Some children prefer to sit on the ‘big’ toilet as they find sitting on a potty uncomfortable. Either way, it does not matter whether you start your child off on a potty or on a toilet. If your child prefers to sit on the toilet, invest in a special toddler inner toilet seat (available at most baby shops and supermarkets) for a more comfortable and stable sit.
- If your toddler is frightened by the noise of the toilet flushing, wait until she has left the room before flushing. Always encourage her to help you flush, but if she doesn’t want to, don’t force her.
- If your child gets ‘stage fright’, try turning on the taps – the sound of running water often helps them relax.
- Teach your daughter how to wipe from front to back, and your son to wait till the drips stop.
- Make it a rule that the toilet seat always goes down after finishing on the toilet.
- Teach your children by example that their hands must be washed and dried after a potty or toilet session, regardless of success or not!
- Consider singing a special song such as “this is the way we go to the loo, go to the loo, go to the loo…” to encourage reluctant toddlers to co-operate. Story books explaining what is happening are also most useful.
- Expect some regression if she is stressed in any way such as starting a new school, the arrival of a sibling or illness. Let her go back into nappies, and with loads of love and encouragement, try again after a short while.
Sense-able secret: Invest in a toilet seat with an inner and a built-in step and hand rail. This way, your toddler will be able to sit comfortably on the toilet and will always have her feet on a firm surface as well as have something to hold onto.
By Sr Ann Richardson