Developing the autonomy of your child while giving up nappies

All early childhood professionals agree: toilet training in children is only possible if the child has reached a sufficient physical and psychological maturity. Indeed, children’s neurological system must be sufficiently mature to control their lower body muscles, including sphincters (muscles controlling, inter alia, the anus and urethra). One of the behavioural clues of this maturity is when the child is able to go up and down the stairs alone.

Children become progressively aware of their bodies as a whole. They start to understand their physiology and understand the link between the need and the result of their need: wanting to go to the toilet, the potty, and the result of the initial sensation (urine, feces). Emotional maturity is even more important than this psychological maturity as the child wants to become « a grown-up » (by imitating his/her parents and / or his/her elder siblings in the toilet). At this stage, children want to make themselves understood (they ask to use the potty for example). They also seek to understand their parents’ expectations (they want to please us for example). The psychologist Emmanuelle Rigon, author of The Cleanliness explains: « It is the desire for control and autonomy which will encourage the child to give up nappies » .

That’s the theory. But frankly speaking, how to support your child in this new important step in his or her quest for autonomy? I share with you my experience, a process of trial and error (of course!), which helped my daughter give up nappies at 22 months of age, both during the day and at night.

Observe your child and hunt for the clues

I often talk about the sensitive periods in children described by the Montessori pedagogy. These periods are defined as moments when a child develops almost unconsciously and effortlessly, a new ability or learns something new very fast. The potty training « sensitive » period is situated between 12 months and 2 years of age. If we miss it, learning to use the potty or the toilet will become more complicated.

How I knew my daughter was ready ?
In general, the summer season is better to start the potty training (clothes are easier to take off, sometimes your child does not need clothes at all). Regardless of that, you should watch closely your child in order to spot any signs showing that he or she is ready to give up nappies and become more independent.

When my daughter was 12 months old, I got her involved in changing her own nappies. I encouraged her to help me undo the nappy’s tapes. She also learned to name the contents of her nappy: « ooh, it’s a wee-wee / it’s a poo ». And when she was about 16 months old, she started to understand her physiology. She called me to show that she did a poo and wished to change her dirty nappy. At that moment, I knew she was ready.

First attempt

When my daughter was 18 months old, my husband and I decided to buy her a potty. We prepared a special corner in the bathroom, with her potty (we chose the BabyBjörn potty chair), a basket with books and some toilet paper. After explaining to my daughter how to use this ‘newcomer’ in the house, we encouraged her to sit on it as often as possible: in the morning after waking up, before and after meals, before and after her nap, before going out and before going to bed.

Perhaps this method worked or will work for your child, but at our home it was a total disaster. My daughter refused most of the time to use the potty and when she finally agreed to do it, she confused it with an armchair and spent her time sitting on it and looking at her books. After a week, we decided to stop everything and take a break, especially since we could feel tension between our daughter and us grow.

No disposable training pants – a method called « without a net » (literal translation from French language)

2 months passed before we resumed the potty training. But this time, we prepared everything in advance. First, we bought my daughter a book: « I go there » (J’y vais! in French) by Mathieu Maudet, a book she immediately enjoyed. It is a funny story about a little bird that decides to use its potty and is really determined to do so. Along the way, the little bird meets almost all its family and friends, and everyone gives it some good piece of advice. It is very funny to read all those tips, one might think that the bird embarks on a real expedition!

After getting used to the idea of a potty, my daughter and I went shopping in the girls’ department. We bought pretty panties « like mom’s » – panties my daughter chose herself. The next day, she put on one of those panties. I explained to her that she was a grown-up girl like her mother, and consequently, she would not wear nappies anymore. I also explained she should think about using the potty when she needed to do a wee or a poo. So, while she was playing, my little girl peed on herself. I read in her eyes that she was quite surprised by the warm liquid running down her legs. And yes, what a surprise to discover this unpleasant feeling of wet panties and to see the wee puddle on the floor. I immediately reassured her and showed her to her potty.

This method led to many accidents throughout the day, the time it established a relationship between my daughter’s feelings and the result in her pants. She understood that it was necessary to stop playing or being engaged in an activity in order to use the potty. I did not want these accidents to destabilise my little girl. So, I encouraged her a lot, reassured her and complimented her as much as I could so she stayed motivated all the time. We celebrated her first « potty » success with a big « bravo » and « you are a big girl now ».

After 4 days, my daughter managed to stay dry all day, then during the days that followed. However, I put her a nappy during her naps. After about a week, I noticed that my daughter’s nappy remained dry during her naps. So we stopped putting them, encouraging my little girl to call us if she wanted to use the potty. After 10 days and a few accidents (hence the need to provide a mattress protector), we definitely stopped using nappies during the day. At nights, I used the same method two weeks later.

At 22 months of age, my daughter did not wear nappies anymore. She quickly became independent and went to the bathroom during the day. On the other hand, she still needed one of us to accompany her to the bathroom in case of nocturnal needs, which were very rare.

Establishing routines

To support the autonomy of my daughter, I established the following routines:

  • use the potty before: a nap, going out and going to bed.
  • let her wipe her bottom alone after peeing and call us in case of a poo. Indeed, children cannot properly wipe their bottoms alone (in case of defecation) before the age of 4. And for girls, it is even more complicated because they have to wipe starting from front and towards the back (the front-to-back school) to avoid staining their vulva with feces and exposing themselves to infections.
  • teach her good hygiene techniques and remind her that she should always wash her hands after using the toilet.

Enough for our experience! I hope it can help you during the toilet transition in your toddler’s life. Remember that during this learning period your child needs your support, your perseverance, consistency and above all great patience. Every child has his or her own rhythm. It is therefore a question of observing our little ones. We should try to recognise the signs showing that they are ready to take this important step. Then, we must be ready to help them and support them as much as possible. We should not be rigid as that might go against our children’s personal development.

And you, how did your child give up nappies?
At what age did you introduce the potty for the first time?
Does he or she prefer the toilet reducer or the potty?
Do you practice the NIH (Natural Infant Hygiene) method, a method of raising your child without using nappies?


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