Respectful Approaches to Potty Learning: Montessori and Elimination Communication
Many Montessori-leaning parents like myself find that elimination communication is a respectful and logical way to meet their baby’s toileting needs. But what if you don’t hear about EC until later in your baby’s life, or just don’t feel it is the right approach for you? Fear not, because somewhere between sticker charts and full on diaper free-dom, there is a middle ground!
Before I dive in to the how-to of this middle way, I’ll add the following disclaimer: we have used elimination communication since our daughter’s birth. As she is getting closer to full potty independence, I’m finding that much of what we do is in line with Montessori-style potty learning, but I have not used this method from the beginning. The information I am sharing about the early stages of potty learning comes from reading and peripheral observation of the Young Children’s Community in Montessori schools where I was a Children’s House guide. It’s hard for me to say how the early use of elimination communication has paved the way for where we currently are in our potty learning journey.
What’s the difference between potty training and potty learning anyway? There is no cut and dry, agreed upon definition of any of these terms, but potty training generally involves some sort of positive or negative reinforcement in an effort to help a child begin eliminating in a potty or toilet instead of diapers. Many parents, including most Montessorians, prefer a non-coercive way that does not involve rewards or punishments, but matter-of-factly introduces toddlers to the potty and helps them learn how to use it at a pace that is comfortable for them. Of course the lines are blurred, and it truly doesn’t matter what you call it. The end goal is a happy, confident child who knows how to stay clean and dry on their own.
When to Begin
Elimination Communication can be started at any stage of infancy, but most of the advice out there suggests that you begin as early as is possible or practical. For potty learning, the popular book Montessori From the Start: The Child at Home from Birth to Age Three, gives the period between twelve and eighteen months as the “Sensitive Period for toileting” and recommends starting the process prior to fifteen months. Of course it makes sense to follow your child more so than the calendar, so it would be wise to look for readiness signs like an expressed interest in what parents and older children are doing in the bathroom and in dressing and undressing oneself. It’s definitely advisable to be ready well in advance, however, so you don’t miss your child’s individual window of opportunity.
|Our 18 month old’s current potty set-up|
Cloth diapers are believed by many to make potty learning easier, and this does make good sense. Disposable diapers are designed to keep moisture away from the child’s skin, so they often feel dry, even when they’re wet. This robs the child of valuable feedback, making it hard for them to associate the act of urinating with the wetness that follows. Cloth diapers are certainly worth considering for this reason, among others.
It’s also a good idea to be ready with cloth training pants or underwear. I have written about the pros and cons associated with the different types of cloth training pants we have used, but the most practical and inexpensive option for at home potty learning with a toddler is probably the Gerber training pants that can easily be found in mainstream stores. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, Under the Nile and Hanna Andersson make an organic and higher quality version and both companies are certainly more deserving of your hard earned money. These underpants shrink in the wash, so it’s best to buy a larger size than you think you need. If they fit too snugly, they’ll be difficult for your child to pull up and down on their own.
In most Montessori toddler programs, toddlers are diapered while standing up. This is intended to make the child a more active participant in the process, and give them the opportunity to observe the goings on. A mirror can help this process, too. If you imagine what it’s like to be diapered while on your back, it seems it would be very difficult indeed to gain a concrete understanding of how wet pants are exchanged for dry ones. To help your child better understand what’s going on, you can also talk them through the diapering process as you go along. “I think your diaper may be wet. Let’s pull your pants down so that we can check. Your diaper is wet. You peed. I will pull the tabs so that I can take it off…” It’s also a good idea to diaper your baby in the same general area that you want them to use for toileting as they get older so that they can make this association early.
Montessori From the Start suggests placing a potty in every bathroom well before you plan to begin the potty learning process so that your child gets used to seeing it. For young toddlers, the Baby Bjorn Little Potty is a popular and economical choice, but I love the concept of the Beco potty, since it is made from plant fibers and can be buried in your garden for compost when your child no longer needs it. As toddlers get older, a seat reducer is a great thing to have on hand. Now that our daughter is 18 months, she no longer likes to use the little potties, so we use the seat reducer on the toilet exclusively.
Misses are an inevitable part of the potty learning process: sometimes urine will get on the floor. It’s a good idea to think about a system that will work in your house for cleaning it up and make sure it’s one your child can participate in. The child should be an active participant in the cleaning process so that they can connect the wet floor with the action of having peed somewhere other than the toilet or potty. Cleaning up should never involve blame or shame and it’s not intended to be an unpleasant process. The adult can just make a simple statement such as: “Oh, I see that you peed. Now the floor is wet. I’ll help you change your pants and then we can clean the floor together.”
Now that my daughter is no longer in diapers, her prefolds are getting a second life as cloths for cleaning the floor after misses. We use these and a spray bottle with a vinegar solution to clean up and the prefold and wet pants go in the pail for later washing.
With potty learning, as with elimination communication, you can decide whether you’d like to put the diapers away full time, or make a more gradual transition. If you’re not ready to stop the use of diapers entirely, a great way to start is by using timing to help your child have their first potty successes.
There are common times when many toddlers will need to use the bathroom and you can invite your child to use the potty during these times to familiarize them with the concept before switching them to training pants. Good times to try are: right after waking in the morning, after naps, when returning home from outings, shortly after a meal, at diaper changes, or at any other time that you have noticed your child regularly goes in their diaper. If your child is hesitant to stay on the potty for long enough to actually go, reading a book or singing a song together can encourage them to stick around without a struggle. We keep a basket of books next to the toilet at all times.
Many families who practice elimination communication use diapers much of the day, but also have a designated time for their child to go “diaper free.” This is another strategy that families can use in the early stages of potty learning as it enables both parents and children to begin to develop an awareness of the child’s lead-up to elimination, and the sensations that accompany the actual release of the bladder or bowels. If the child makes it to the toilet – wonderful! If they don’t, it is still a valuable learning experience for everyone. It’s wise to choose a time of day when neither parents nor child are likely to be stressed or overtired, and when there will be plenty of time to calmly and matter-of-factly clean up together if there is a miss.
|Reading on the little potty as a young toddler|
We chose this gradual approach to diaper freedom in our practice of elimination communication, and used diapers less and less as our daughter’s awareness and independence increased, putting the diapers away altogether somewhere in the neighborhood of two months ago. I definitely feel that there has been a direct connection between time without diapers and increased awareness and independence on my daughter’s part, but I’m sure age is a factor as well.
Montessori From the Start advocates a less gradual approach, and this approach is what I have seen used in Young Children’s Communities. To quote, “Parents tell us that positive toileting comes faster if the child is in underpants both during the day and at night. Thus the child is not confused by a concept she cannot understand: sometimes it is all right to have diapers on and other times it is not.”
With elimination communication, it’s very common for a child who once consistently signaled their need to eliminate in advance, to go back to having frequent misses. Generally this occurs during times when energy is focused on the achievement of some major developmental milestone, when the child is sick or teething, or when there is extra stress from a disrupted routine or change in the home.
Regardless of the method used for potty learning, it seems that many children hit similar periods. Montessori From the Start makes a wise statement about the role of the parent in instances where the child is struggling with potty leaning: “The appropriate response of parents whose child is having difficulty with toilet awareness is not to give up on her but to redouble their efforts to help. Just like parents of a child having trouble with reading or mathematics, parents of a child having difficulty with toilet learning need patience and must use their resources and ingenuity if their child is to succeed.
In the earlier days with elimination communication, I found that I handled these temporary changes better when I remembered what the true goal was: building a relationship of trust with my daughter so that she knew she could tell me what she needed and I would do all I could to help her get it. Now that we have reached this later stage, I’m constantly reminding myself that the goal is not necessarily to never have a miss or a mess, but to foster my child’s independence and nurture her self-confidence so that, when she is ready, she can use the bathroom without assistance, in full understanding of her body’s signals and needs.
What strategies for potty learning have worked for you and your child? What age felt ‘right’ for you?