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Recommended reading Learning to use the toilet Stages: 25 to 36 months

At some time between 18 months and 4 years of age, most children show they are ready to start learning to use the toilet. It can be one of the trickiest stages of a child’s development for the whānau to deal with.

Having realistic expectations helps a lot, as does avoiding the temptation to compare their child’s progress with siblings or other similarly aged children. Because the timing for controlling bowel and bladder can vary so greatly between individual children, parents may be disappointed if they expect the same progress from them all.

It can be very frustrating, but if parents react to toileting ‘accidents’ in an angry way their child can become nervous or fearful. This reaction won’t help their learning process.

Some people think that the later you start, the quicker it’s likely to happen. This relates to the long nerve cells connecting brain, bladder and bowel becoming fully ‘myelinated’, or covered in a fatty insulation, so messages travel efficiently between them. However looking for ‘signs of readiness’ is probably of more help to parents than focusing on the specific age of their child. (See the further information below for more details about this.)

There are examples in some cultures of babies being helped to ‘toilet’ in their very early days. Dr.Thomas Verny’s book called The secret life of the unborn child (1982) refers to mothers in rural areas of Africa who carry their newborns on their backs or slung on their sides and ‘sense’ when their baby has the urge to eliminate. Baby is then held out from their mum’s body to allow it to happen without any mess.

Many of our own grandparents here in Aotearoa would have been in the habit of ‘holding out’ their very young babies. Similarly to the African mamas, a young baby would be held over a potty or paper in a position which encouraged them to wee or poo.

A look back into some early Plunket books may find references to this practice. However these traditions may not work for modern day parents in New Zealand. Newborns and their parents are not usually in such constant close contact with each other, and babies are not always carried all day. That means parents are less likely to develop the sensitivity needed to read a young baby’s signals. Even the suggestion of introducing potty or toilet learning in a child’s early months would seem unusual to most families today.

A real key to helping with toileting at any age or stage is for the adults involved to be as calm and as matter of fact as they can, with neither a positive or negative response.  At the end of the day this is a naturally occurring human bodily function. What can influence a child’s feelings about it are the responses they receive from the people caring for them.

If every time a child has a dirty nappy changed and the person changing them pulls a face expressing disgust, it makes sense that a child will learn to consider that a natural bodily function is disgusting.

Learning to use a toilet requires a child to co-operate with their parents — this isn’t something parents can make their child do. But there are two key factors that parents can do which can positively influence a child’s progress in learning to use the toilet:

  • waiting to see some signs of readiness
  • remaining calm can be a real help.

Further information

  • Watch the trailer to the movie Babies (2010) which follows four new babies born in very different countries and the role that their different environments and experiences has on their development.

  • Ministry of Health information on learning to use the toilet.

  • Ideas from Plunket to help your child learn to use the toilet

  • When to start toilet learning - ideas from Huggies

  • Thomas Verny and John Kelly: The secret life of the unborn child, Dell Publishing, 1982

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