Thursday, April 3, 2014

Potty Training

The internet is abuzz lately with advice about potty training, and most of it advocates waiting until your child is “ready” - then list “signs of readiness” that a child won't show until 2 ½ or 3. I thought, in light of these recent posts, that it was time to put out some information about the Montessori perspective and why we “potty train” at the age we do.
Let's start at birth – when the child begins to eliminate waste independently of the mother's body.
Montessori professionals advocate for cloth diapers. They are all natural and help children retain knowledge of their bodily functions, because they don't “wick away moisture” like disposables do. This provides a cause and effect scenario for the infants – when my body releases waste, it is uncomfortable, and should be removed. This facilitates understanding of the toileting process later on. There are even all-in-one cloth diapers that are used just like disposables, except you wash and reuse them. Likewise, we advocate for cloth wipes and water or other natural wipe solutions. Soiled diapers are stored in a bin or wet bag until laundered (the link is to a tutorial but they can also be purchased).
During the diaper changing process we talk simply to the child about what we are doing: “I'm taking off the dirty diaper, now, so I can clean your bottom. I'm wiping your skin clean so gently, so I can put a fresh clean diaper on you.” Just as experts in all childcare methods recommend, we wash the child's hands after a diaper change.
When the child becomes more mobile (around 6 months) a Montessori infant room (called the Nido) will dress children in cloth training underwear. This is not because we expect a six-month old to use the toilet, but because diapers can hinder movement and we want these babies to be able to use their bodies! Continuing (or starting) to use cloth maintains the child's connection to his bodily functions, and helps childcare workers change wet children immediately. To reduce the amount of laundry that must be done, children often wear legwarmers with knee grips instead of pants, or just diapers and shirts if the space is warm.
As children become increasingly mobile, there is an inner function called myelinization. This is the body's process of coating the nerves with a fatty substance (myelin) which then allows the child voluntary control over those body parts. This process moves from center to extremity, and head to toe, so that by the time a child can walk he also has control over his sphincters.
An AMI Infant Community (sometimes called the toddler class, or IC for short) typically accepts children at 12 months or older, as long as they are walking proficiently. Since it is developmentally appropriate for a child to walk anytime between 8 months and 18 months, some children may remain in the Nido until they are older than 12 months.
The children in the IC continue to wear cloth training underwear, and are shown how to use the little toilets in the classroom. They are encouraged to do so as part of a natural progression of learning how to control their own bodies, because children from birth are fascinated by acquiring new control of movement. It also helps them take control over waste removal so they (eventually) don't have to wait for an adult to change them. In this room children are no longer brought to a changing table to have soiled clothes removed, but instead change in the bathroom and learn how to dress and undress themselves. Soiled clothing is stored in a wet bag just as diapers were, previously.
You can see that this process moves smoothly and naturally along, with each step following in a logical movement from the last. By treating it as the natural process that it is, children are never subject to the distress that many older toddlers feel about giving up their diapers; there is no disconnect between the child's actions and his bodily functions, because he is never taught to ignore them.
It also makes sense historically and anthropologically, because disposable diapers have only been available to a widespread market since 1961. For all the years prior to that, human babies used cloth diapers or elimination communication (EC) exclusively, and relied on diapers for a much shorter period of time. Hunter-gatherer societies, for example, hardly had time for numerous diaper changes. They listened to a baby's cues (certain specific facial expressions or noises) and held him away from their bodies when elimination was immanent. Even today, in countries such as India, three years old seems ancient for mastery of toileting, because they use those same methods of cloth diapering and EC.
If you didn't use cloth diapers (and let's face it, in the U.S. these days very few people do!) you aren't totally out of this loop – just jump into the cycle as soon as you can and be patient with your little one as he learns.
Use cloth as much as you can, to help maintain or reinstate his bodily awareness, and offer the toilet upon waking up and about 30 minutes after eating. Your child will probably have a lot of success with that “schedule” even if you both forget the rest of the time. If you see signs that he is about to go (such as hiding or fidgeting), encourage your child to use the toilet, but let him make the final decision, and don't interrupt if he is really concentrating on something.
Whatever you do, don't make your child sit if he doesn't want to! Forcing the issue and getting frustrated only cause grief on all sides, and can slow down the process, too. You never want to diminish your child's trust in you by taking away control of his body unnecessarily (obviously if he's about to be hit by a truck or something, it's different). Learning to use the toilet is something he will do his own way and on his own schedule – your job is to provide the environment and encouragement, not to push for an arbitrary deadline. If you are relaxed about it, he will push himself by his own internal clock and the accomplishment will be his own, personal achievement that you can celebrate together.
To read the toileting policy we used in my toddler communty, click here:

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