As parents we look forward to milestones like introducing baby to their first foods and watching them take their first steps—but for some reason, potty training doesn’t exactly incite the same feelings of excitement.
Part of this is undoubtedly the mess. But another part is that toileting is one of the few things that children are in complete control of, plus you have to learn how to potty train. You cannot force your child to use the toilet (and you shouldn’t try!)
Because children are in control of whether or not they use the toilet, the language you use with your child is very important. The goal is to empower them and their growing desire for independence, without starting a power struggle or inadvertently causing feelings of shame or failure.
Montessori uses distinct language with children learning to use the toilet, starting with the term “toilet learning” rather than “potty training.” The difference may seem subtle, but reflects Montessori’s emphasis on the child’s engagement and participation in the process, while “training” implies a more passive role.
8 Montessori-inspired phrases to use during each stage of toilet learning:
1. “Your diaper is wet. Let’s go change your diaper.”
Learning body awareness and the language around toileting begins at birth. In the early days, we spend SO much time changing diapers. This is a great opportunity to help your child become aware that they feel wet because they peed in their diaper, that you are changing their diaper so their body is clean and comfortable.
From a Montessori perspective, it’s important to avoid using any negative language (or faces!) when changing diapers. Saying it’s gross or stinky can impact how your child feels about their bodily functions and toileting later on.
Montessori-style diaper changes are also as collaborative as possible. For the youngest babies, this may just mean explaining what you’re doing. With an older baby, you might ask them to lift their own legs so you can put the diaper underneath or, if they’re mobile, to bring a clean diaper to you.
The type of diapers you use is a personal decision, but many Montessori parents use cloth diapering because cloth diapers allow the child to feel wet more than disposables, which can lead to greater awareness of what’s happening with the body.
2. “You’re so stable now. Let’s try standing for your diaper today.”
As soon as a baby or young toddler can reliably stand up with support, the Montessori approach switches to stand-up diapering. The child stands, holding onto a low bar (a wooden closet rod can easily be installed at home) while you change their diaper. If you don’t want to install a bar, some families ask the child to hold onto the edge of the bathtub or a low shelf or table instead.
If you’ve been completing diaper changes in your child’s room, this is a good time to move diapering to the bathroom to help them begin to connect bodily functions with the toilet.
3. “Please push your pants down.”
Once your child can stand with some stability, it’s a great time to encourage independent dressing. This is an essential skill, as they’ll be able to undress quickly to get to the toilet in time.
Make sure they have elastic or stretchy pants that are easy to push down and pull up. This is a process that requires lots of practice and patience for children to master, so it’s good to start early!
4. “Would you like to sit on the potty?”
In the Montessori approach, we begin asking the child if they would like to use the toilet once they can get on and off independently.
Even if they always say no at first, it’s useful to offer each time you change them. Your little may just sit there for a couple of seconds, but they’re still getting used to the idea of using the toilet and will become more comfortable each time.
While there is no universal age for children to start using the toilet, many children begin to become interested between 12-18 months.Try not to put any pressure on your child or seem too eager. This is just a time to explore.
5. “It’s time to use the toilet.”
As the child’s interest and ability in using the toilet increase, change your phrasing to “It’s time to use the toilet.” Many toddlers will automatically say “no” if you ask if they would like to do anything.
While you should never force a child to sit on the toilet, this change reflects that using the toilet is now an expectation, rather than just an option to explore. Ask your child to use the toilet each time you change a diaper. Try to time this according to when they usually need to go, such as upon waking and after a meal.
If they don’t want to, try offering a limited choice, such as, “You may use the toilet now or after you finish putting away your puzzle.”
You might also try something like, “You’re saying no, I see you’re not ready. I’ll come back in three minutes, and then it will be time to try.”
6. “You peed in the toilet just like Mom and Dad.”
The Montessori approach does not use any punishments, rewards, or extravagant praise.
Too much praise can put a lot of pressure on a child to repeat the performance, which can cause anxiety and an aversion to using the big kid potty.
Make fact-based, positive observations, but don’t let your child think you are emotionally invested in whether or not they successfully use it as. That’s too much pressure and too much control for a little one.
7. “You’re ready for underwear now.”
“Follow the child” is a common saying in Montessori, and this includes going to the bathroom. Rather than using a predetermined age when you think your child should be potty trained, try observing your child for signs of readiness.
These signs often include:
1. Their diaper staying dry for longer
2. Ability to push down and pull up pants
3. General interest in the toilet
4. Telling you when they need a diaper
5. Regularly using the toilet with success
Once your child seems ready to give up diapers, make the switch all at once (for his waking hours). It is too confusing to go back and forth (such as underwear at home, diapers while you are out).
Stay home for the first few days if possible (weekends are great) and remind them to use the toilet every 30-45 minutes. Cotton training pants can be very helpful during this time—unlike pull-ups, they allow your child to feel wet, but avoid some of the mess.
8. “Your pants look wet. It’s time to change clothes.”
Even after your child is successfully in underwear, they will certainly not make it to the toilet every time. Try not to seem annoyed or grossed out when this happens, just observe what you see and state what needs to happen. “I see your shorts are wet. It’s time to use the toilet and change clothes.”
Involve your child in the cleanup process when they don’t make it to the toilet in time, giving a towel to help dry the floor and asking to choose fresh underwear to put on.
The toilet learning process can seem so daunting, but it helps to embrace the fact that you’re really not in control. All you can do is set your child up for success by encouraging their independence, having lots of patience, and using language that makes it a positive, low-pressure experience for everyone.
A version of this article was posted in September 2022. It has been updated.