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Potty Training - a sensory perspective

Potty Training

Are you feeling pressured to get your toddler out of nappies? It becomes increasingly stressful for parents when play schools require a toddler to be potty trained before being allowed to enter the school system. This places a deadline on a milestone that requires patience and tolerance and does not respond well to timelines.

Perhaps it’s the cost of nappies, the arrival of a sibling or just the age of your child that may be the reason you are thinking about starting this process.

Whatever the reason is, Occupational Therapists for Nubabi, Carly Tzanos and Lourdes Bruwer share valuable insight into the sensory side of potty training and provide helpful hints on when start.

Before you start potty training:

  1. Consider your child’s sensory readiness: Your toddler will have shown you some characteristic signs that indicate his sensory system is ready. Starting before he has shown you these signs may lead to a longer and more stressful training period. “When your toddler can sense that he is making a wee or a poo, his sensory system is effectively sending him the right messages for potty training. He may stop what he is doing, have searching eyes or may even tell you about what’s going on. He may prefer to go to a specific spot, (e.g. behind the curtains) to do his business! He will also become increasingly interested in your toileting behaviour!” says Occupational Therapist, Lourdes Bruwer.
  2. Consider the season: It’s much less frustrating to wash and dry little accidents in the warmer months. What you may not have considered is that from a sensory perspective, this is also a good time because of the fact that your child is wearing fewer layers. This means that your little one is having to deal with less touch information. He can thus focus more on those hidden internal senses of when he needs a bowel movement. If you have a sensitive little being, he may get easily overwhelmed. In order to cope with this out-of-sync feeling, he may block out both the feel of his clothing as well as the internal messages his body is sending him. During the warmer months, you can let him run around in just underwear while at home.
  3. Consider gender trends: Do not feel pressured if your mommy friends of girls are having success to start your little boy at the same time as them. Boys need a little longer to be ready. Rather go at your own pace and take your lead from your son’s cues.

When NOT to start potty training:

  • If your little one is generally out-of-sync and has many meltdowns
  • If you have just moved house or his room
  • If there is a sibling on the way
  • If he has just started school
  • Any other major life changing event! (e.g. death of a loved one or favourite pet)

Use your sensory detective glasses

Consider all the sensory experiences around toileting and think then of your little one as a sensory being. Is he a sensory monkey, seeking more intense sensory input (e.g. loves experiences which are brighter, faster, louder) or is he a sensory hedgehog, who is sensitive to sensory input (e.g. prefers quieter, more sedentary, slower sensory experiences)?

You may need to adjust some sensory elements of toileting to achieve success for either your monkey or your hedgehog.

Sensory smart tips to consider when you start potty training:

Smell – mask unpleasant odours (fresheners, ventilation, scented candles etc.) or alert your busy monkey to his body’s signs that he may need a toilet break. When he breaks wind, reflect this to him and suggest toilet time. He may have been too busy to notice because of his high tolerance for smells.

Sight – if your toddler is worried that a piece of his body is being lost to the toilet, praise his efforts and make a big farewell by waving goodbye and allowing him to flush when he is ready. Start by emptying his poo nappy into the toilet so that he can see that this is normal. Allow your curious toddler to inspect what’s in the toilet.

Sound – the noise of the flushing toilet or the plopping poo can be overwhelming. Try letting him count before he flushes, sing while it’s flushing or place a piece of toilet paper into the bowl to dampen the sound.

Sense of body position and movement – some toddlers don’t like the sense of instability they get when their bottom and feet are dangling while they are sitting on the adult sized toilet. Try using a toddler toilet seat, a potty, handrails or a footstep to make him feel more secure.

Touch - your toddler may be used to feeling his underwear or nappy under his bottom when making a poo and the sudden strange sense of feeling airy down there may be something his sensory system has to get used to. Gradually work towards transitioning to the toilet by letting him have his nappy loosely under his bottom while sitting on the toilet.

When to ask for help

If you find that your little one is not able to communicate his toileting needs to you or if he can’t sense when he has had an accident by the time he is 3 years old (i.e. tell you when he needs to or has made a wee or a poo), even if he’s not quite ready to use a potty or the toilet) there may be an underlying reason. A visit to your paediatrician may be advisable.

Lastly, don’t be in too much of a rush to get out of nappies – your toddler will make the transition to underpants more smoothly and with fewer lasting effects if he can do this at his own pace with loads of encouragement from you along the way.

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