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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.

Making Preparations

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.

Getting Started
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.”

Regressions
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? 

I’m linking this post up with Montessori Monday at One Hook Wonder and Living Montessori Now


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If you’re getting started with elimination communication or potty learning, you may want to enter my giveaway. The book EC Simplified: Infant Potty Training Made Easy is rich with respectful ideas for parents!

18 Responses to Respectful Approaches to Potty Learning: Montessori and Elimination Communication

  • Jessica says:

    Great reminder on EC. Will be pinning this!

  • Gaby @ Tmuffin says:

    This is a really informative article! Thank you! Baby T became interested in going potty when his cousin was potty training in August 2010. (Baby T was 14 months old). He started using the potty every once in a while, just for fun, and sometimes would tell me if his diaper was wet or if he pooped. Fast forward to one year later, and it's still pretty much the same. We don't push him to use the potty, but we do ask a lot.

    When he's not at daycare, we put him in underpants. Yes, we clean up a LOT of pee pee underpants, but Baby T doesn't seem to be frustrated by peeing in his underpants. I don't know if it's a good or a bad thing. The good thing is he'll tell us right away and we can get him to the potty in time.

    It's a slow process for us, but there's no rush for me to get him out of diapers. I know that just like everything else he does, one day he'll decide that he's ready to go on the potty and life will move on.

  • Megan Gardner says:

    Great post! I just have one statement I would change, and that's about toddlers being diapered standing up. I'm not sure about other Montessori trainings, but in AMI Montessori, toddlers don't wear diapers at all, just training underwear. 

    Also, one of the reasons we start toileting around 12 months is because that's when many children begin to walk. When a child begins walking, the mylenization of his nerve endings has progressed past his crotch, giving him some voluntary control of his sphincters. So a child who walks earlier than 12 months can theoretically start toileting earlier, and a child who walks later than 12 months should probably start later.Thanks for such a well thought out post – I'll definitely be sharing this!

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    Thank you so much for adding this great info, Megan! My training is for 3-6, so I only know what I have observed and what I have read. I have always seen children over about 12 months in cloth underwear as well, but diapered standing up on the period between learning to stand and mastering walking. I have also always taught in AMS schools, so it's really interesting to hear from an AMI perspective. 

    The point about control of sphincters is a really interesting one and I'm glad to know the reasoning behind choosing the time to begin toilet learning. From my own experience with my daughter, I think I respectfully disagree with the idea that infants don't have voluntary control of their sphincters. As early as about six months, I began noticing that when I took my daughter to the toilet and held her in position over it, I could actually see the muscles moving whether. She would "try" even when she didn't need to go.
    I'm really thankful for your insights!

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    Thank you, Gaby! I think it takes a lot of care and dedication on the part of parents to be willing to calmly and gently help a child change clothes and clean up as often as needed. Baby T is fortunate to have parents who are willing to follow his lead. xo

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    Thank you, Jessica!

  • jaqbuncad says:

    This is a really helpful post! Libra was using the potty without accidents at about 20 months. Gemini, at 15 months, has been introduced to the potty, but does not like to sit to eliminate so he doesn't stay put long enough to actually use it! The idea of keeping books nearby is a good one – I'm going to try adding that to our routine.

    I should probably add that Libra's training was mostly incidental. I had heard of EC, and we had tried practicing it as early as three months (resulting in lots of bragging-rights emails to my parents, who were shocked and amazed that a child so young could use a potty!), but soon gave up out of sheer laziness. Libra was always welcome in the loo while a grown-up needed to use it, so we think he may have just learned by osmosis – and then once he figured out how to tell us he needed to go (we taught him the baby sign, which is patting his bottom), it was a very straightforward process.

  • Momma Jorje says:

    Thank you for the great explanation of the difference! I really needed it to share with a friend that didn't seem to "get it" from the first time I posted about EC over a year ago.

  • Rach says:

    Thanks for your post Melissa.  B is using her potty a lot now, but not all the time.  We are taking it slowly but I welcome the encouragment not to give up.

  • Amy_YouShallGoOutWithJoy says:

    Thanks for this post. I don't really like the idea of waiting till Gus is 3 to start potty training, but this has given me some good encouragement to start gently introducing him to the potty in the next couple of months. And reassurance that I am not ridiculous for thinking that it can be started earlier than the average age!

  • Janine @ Alternative Housewife says:

    I don't see the 'dirty word' some people take from the word 'training'. You train for marathons and other positive things. Potty learning takes practice. *Shrug* We have been doing EC since 5 months and the idea of a reward system for potty seems totally bizarre to me now! My kid doesn't need a sticker – He doesn't want to pee or poo in his pants! He would probably be 90% potty trained right now if I was a bit less lazy. We're working on teaching him the sign for "potty".

    Love having a little potty station in the bathroom. I'm thinking of putting in a little magazine rack attached to the wall for his books. We have a container of potty & bath toys.

    My husband has been having Sebastian dress and undress himself lately – You'd think he read parenting blogs! He tells me how proud Seb looks pulling his own pants on and off. He can take off his own shirt and will push his own arms through when we put one on his head. Seems natural to involve him. Seems like most of AP and Montessori parenting is just instinct!

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    Thank you. I hope the book idea helps a bit in your house, too – it has been a lifesaver here! Your potty learning process with Libra sounds ideal, which reminds me: using sign language is another great tip!

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    I totally agree that so much of this parenting thing is best done by instinct. It sounds like you and your husband make a great team, too.

    I guess my issue with the term "training" with relation to parenting is that it usually refers to something the parent is doing to get the child to behave a certain way, and often it's a way that is unnatural. Sleeping alone for twelve hours straight, for example, is not a natural thing for many babies to do, but oftentimes "sleep training" seeks to make it the norm. I don't believe children need us to "train" them how to sleep, or how to go to the bathroom. They just need for us to be responsive to their needs as they naturally learn these things on their own. Of course it's just semantics and what many parents would call "potty training" is really a totally respectful, non-coercive process. In the long run, it probably doesn't matter what you call it.

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    I'm glad to hear things are going well for Miss B in this department :)

  • Deb Chitwood says:

    Wow! Your post is just filled with helpful information and resources! And I love that you tell about potty learning from a Montessori perspective. I just bookmarked your post and featured it at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/LivingMontessoriNow.

  • Christine Fretwell says:

    As a cloth diapering single mom of twin boys I would have loved to have them jump on the potty train early, but it wans't to be. I put the potties in the bathroom shortly after they learnt to walk and offer them diaper free time daily.
    They are now 27 months old and last week one has shown the first signs that he's ready. Even though they wear cloth and always have, they couldn't care less about wet or soiled diapers. This week N started to ask to poop on the potty before bed (a common diaper free time) And he's done it successfully each night. Peeing is a bit harder but we've had a couple of successes. They love to clean up messes so that is no problem (in fact, they like to make extra mess so they can clean it up). Tuesday was the first time N started to ask to have his diaper changed after he peed so I suspect the "I need to pee" will be happening soon. Because I have to work, they have a daytime caregiver so cloth training pants aren't an option until he's succesully on the potty at least 50% of the time.
    His twin has no interest what so ever right now. It will be his choice when he starts and how he wants to proceed.
    I don't think there is a blanket magic way or a magic moment. Every child is different. Raising twins I see this in every aspect of their being and learning. Think of how many people you've met who have bathroom hangups. Most of these go back to being trained too early, too late or in a method not suited to that child.

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    Thank you so much, Deb! :) I'm always honored to be among the gems you share on facebook!

  • Melissa Kemendo says:

    Hi Christine, 
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and for the reminder that every child is different. I am always amazed by how very true that is! In reading about EC, I came across many things insisting that children whose parents use the method to keep their children clean and dry get used to this, and express their frustration as soon as they become wet. With my daughter, as with your boys, this has simply not been the case. I have always changed her the moment I notice that she's wet, but she has never appeared bothered when I don't notice right away. Only now as she is becoming more verbal does she tell me she has gone. There really seems to be only one universal truth when it comes to children and toileting, and that is that they all have to eliminate one way or another! The thing I love about this method is that it is non-coercive and doesn't involve any blame or shame. It just treats eliminating like the very natural thing that it is, and I hope that sense of it all being normal and natural sticks with my daughter despite any less than ideal pottying decisions I make along the way.

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