12 - 48 Months

A Montessori perspective on potty learning

“The only role of the adult is to prepare the environment for toileting and give our children those opportunities to go.”

-Nicole Kavanaugh, Montessori parenting expert, The Kavanaugh Report

Jessica Rolph, your host, is joined by Nicole Kavanaugh, a Montessori parenting expert and the writer and mom behind The Kavanaugh Report. Learn why Nicole takes a firm stance against bribing and likes to see children take an active role in their own potty learning. This doesn’t have to be a sprint to the finish. If you approach it more like a marathon or at least a long, meandering stroll through the park, it can take some of the pressure off. And removing some of the pressure tends to make the process a whole lot more enjoyable for the parent, and the child. 

Key Takeaways:

[1:57] How does Montessori potty learning differ from the more traditional potty training?

[3:34] How early did Nicole start this process with her kids?

[4:49] Nicole explains how the Montessori approach works.

[7:14] What kind of timeframe should a parent expect?

[9:10] Nicole talks about the benefits of the Montessori way and the cons of doing it in a more focused manner, with bribes and rewards.

[11:47] Why are we so squeamish when it comes to poop?

[14:48] Nicole describes what the Montessori potty learning environment can look like.

[16:03] Are cloth diapers an essential part of the equation? Nicole says no.

[17:07] Nicole gives her recommendations for pottying in public.

[19:56] Tips on nighttime and nap-time toilet learning.

Mentioned in this episode:

Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi 


Jessica: Hello, Nicole.

Nicole: Hello, thanks for having me.

Montessori toilet learning

Jessica: It’s so great to get to know you a little bit. I wanted to just jump right in and ask you, how does Montessori toilet learning differ from the more traditional potty training?

Nicole: So toilet learning is basically the equivalent to learning to walk or learning to talk for your child, it’s just going to the bathroom. And it’s something that our children know how to do. They’ve been going, pee and poop since they were born, but now we’re just sort of changing how we’re doing it. And instead of making it some sort of weekend thing or this three-day fix or whatever sort of traditional method where the parent decides “This is the weekend we’re doing it, and we’re going to reward you until you figure it out.” We’re going to take it really slow, just like you would when your child is learning to talk and to walk. We’re going to see our children where they are at. We’re going to meet them where they’re at, and we’re going to start to make this part of our routine as slowly or as quickly as our child is ready. And so it doesn’t involve any sort of rewards, it doesn’t involve punishments, it doesn’t involve any sort of adult-led time table or adult-led pressures, the only role of the adult is to prepare the environment for toileting and give our children those opportunities to go, and if they should take them, great, and if not, we’re okay with that too. And so it’s sort of a slower, more child-led process than sort of a traditional toilet training or potty training situation that we’re all pretty familiar with.

When do you start toilet learning?

Jessica: And then how early did you start this process with your kids?  

Nicole: So in Montessori, the sort of typical adage is between 12 and 18 months, I like to remind people that this is a process that doesn’t just start one day magically at 15 months, we’re just like, “Oh, we’re doing it now,” this is something we’re going to be talking and thinking about from the time the child is a baby, and we’re not going to do it, and like, “Oh, here’s today we’re using the toilet,” it’s… Oh, we’re involving your child in diaper-ing as they’re getting older, they’re a little tiny baby, we’re going to talk to them about what we’re doing, then we’re going to change to what we call standing up type of change in Montessori so that they can get even more involved. And this is happening as they’re an infant, as soon as they’re starting to stand independently, we’re starting to think about what it might look like in our home to do some potty learning, and over time, we’re going to slowly just sort of make it more and more part of our routine, so it’s hard to give you like this is the age you have to do it by.

Jessica: And so is that… You ditch the diapers and you do maybe a diaper during nap and at bedtime, and then you’re kind of doing this more gradual learning. How does this work? Are there lots of accidents like… [chuckle] Paint the picture for me a little bit.

Nicole: Sure, yeah, we call them misses instead of accidents because this is all about shifting our own expectation too, so it’s not an accident, it’s just a miss, we didn’t get there this time, but that doesn’t mean anything bad happened.

In reality, there is a lot of pee on the floor. That’s the reality for potty training, potty learning, whatever method you’re going to take, there’s going to be pee on the floor, so it’s good to remember that and get that expectation in your mind as well, but…

Backing up to what this looks like in real life… In reality, at home, when you have multiple children, I have four children, I can’t always have my toddler be in underwear peeing all over the place, and so it can be a more gradual process at home. It might be that, “Oh, I have a morning off, and I’ve noticed that my 15-month-old is really mobile now, and I’ve noticed that maybe he grabs his wet diaper when he’s peeing” or you know, there might be just some signs that he’s a little bit more aware.

I can try putting underwear on just for that morning, we make it a casual process, we’re not expecting perfection, we’re not expecting that they’re going to go, we’re just expecting that that awareness is going to grow over time. And then we’re going to make it part of our routine, and so we might say like, “Oh, every time you get up from a nap or from… Or in the morning, we’re going to go right to the potty and sit down, or after every meal, we’re going to get up and go right to the potty and sit down, that doesn’t mean that you might not have a diaper on in between, or it might be that some of the time you have an undie on, the process can be a little bit more fluid like that, but it’s not going to be something where our adult expectations are that they are going to the potty and peeing or pooping in the potty every single time. We know that it’s going to be a little bit more gradual, and we know that they’re going to start making those connections between what’s going on with their body and what they’re seeing and what they’re experiencing, the more opportunities they have to do it.

So if you go at 12 months and decide, now we’re only using underwear, you’re going to have a lot of pee, you’re going to have a lot of that, but over time you’re going to notice, “Oh, my child is making those connections,” and so for me personally, we start 15 to 18 months, depending on the child, where we really are spending significant portions of the day out of a diaper. and we take a relaxed approach.

How long does the Montessori approach take?

Jessica: And then what is… So then what kind of timeframe are we thinking towards like you spend a year doing this, is this about, when are they really more consistently just comfortable going to the potty, wearing underwear, except for maybe at night and a nap time.

Nicole: Right. You know what, I can’t give you… This is sort of the frustrating answer, right, I can’t tell you when your kid’s going to walk, I can’t tell you how long it’s going to take for your child to learn to speak, we can’t tell you exactly how long potty learning is going to be. In my experience, it’s been less than six months. I’ve had some people who… I’ve talked through this process and coached and worked with that after the first week, their child is mostly making it to the toilet. And so it really depends on the child, how much you’re using underwear, just their temperament really plays into it, your environment can play into it, and so there are just a lot of factors, and I think it’s important for parents to get less focused on what the timeline looks like and more focused on that this is a process, and however long that process is, this is what it is. We can’t change what our children need or want in a particular moment, we can just meet them where they are and really enjoy that moment that they are in, and sort of start to see it as this learning opportunity, just like we’re excited when they’re starting to learn their colors, and we’re excited when they’re taking their first steps, we can be excited that they’re starting to make these connections between their body and our societal expectations of using the toilet. And so it can really be that relaxed sort of meet the child where they are process.

Montessori vs. traditional potty training

Jessica: And I think you’re getting to this with your answer that you just gave us, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about the downsides of a more have-focused approach, you lift up all the rugs, you do a weekend where you don’t go anywhere, you might use bribes and rewards versus the slower potty learning, can you talk to me about the pros and cons or the benefits of this approach that you’re describing and the cons of doing it in a more focused… With bribes and rewards.

Nicole: Well, so the problem with bribing and rewards is that it removes a child’s intrinsic motivation to do whatever task you want them to do, and so in Montessori, we don’t use rewards or praise for anything, and so we really wanted to protect and nurture their intrinsic motivation to follow and understand their own bodily needs, and so giving them that opportunity to really figure it out on their own, you’re going to see a lot more long-term success. I think there’s a big fallacy in this potty training world, where people think like, “Oh, I have my weekend and there’s never any accidents after that,” that’s not true. It can also take a really long time, and parents get so frustrated and kids get very frustrated and the process is very stressful, who’s like, “Oh. Yeah, we’re potty training this weekend…” No, it’s this huge dreaded moment between the child and the parent, and it’s filled with tantrums and it’s filled with power struggles, and then you’re continuously for months after that dealing with a child who yeah, may be peeing in their pants.

And you’re like, “Why are you still doing this? It didn’t work, what have I done wrong?” Or “What is wrong with you?”

When really… They just might need a little more time. And if we’re giving them those opportunities to know their body, really take control over the situation from the beginning, we’re going to see a lot more long-term independence, and we’re going to see a much more confident child, a child that is happier in this process, a child that isn’t having a huge, giant tantrum every single time that they need to use the toilet, and it’s just a little bit less stressful, it doesn’t have to be this big dreaded thing, it’s just a new part of life, it’s just this next phase in your child’s development that you get to sit back and enjoy. And I know that sounds sort of unreal, [chuckle] right, it sounds a little bit like, that can’t be… But it really can… If we switch our own expectations to, there’s going to be some pee on the floor, there’s going to be some poop on the floor, and we’re going to be okay with that, and then they’re going to learn and they’re going to have that accomplishment all to themselves. This is going to be something that they feel really good about.

Why pooping can be stressful

Jessica: And I love how you described that. And speaking of stress, you’d mentioned a little bit of stress, poop can be kind of stressful for both the child and the parent. Can you talk to us about how your approach, like what’s been your personal experience with children, your children and pooping, have they been afraid of pooping in the potty? Do they hold the poop until the night time diaper? Do they get constipated? Talk to us about poop.

Nicole: Poop is weird, right? I feel uncomfortable saying the word poop as a 36-year-old woman. It’s weird in our society, we have a distance from it, like a healthy distance. [chuckle] I don’t want to feel like we should all be more into it, but it’s the same way for our children, we spend so much of their toddler and their babyhood telling them, “Ooh this is stinky.

Ooh that’s gross, don’t touch it, don’t do this,” and then we expect them to poop in a tiny little toilet and have it be right there next to them and then not freak out, and I think so, so much of that is just preparing them a little bit ahead of time and shifting, if you have a younger child, if you’re listening to this and you have an infant who might be thinking about potty learning or potty training, stop with the nonsense that ooh this is stinky or gross during their diaper changes. Start explaining to them, “Oh, this is poop, you pooped.” Involve them in that process. I love using books. “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi is one of my favorites. And just talking about this is something that happens to all of us. And just sort of taking the mystery and the grossness as much as possible out of the poop.

If you have animals, if you have a dog or any sort of pet I guess it would work, go and talk about their poop or go to a dog park and talk about their poop. Get more comfortable talking about and being around poop in your everyday life situation. Another thing that I always tell parents that they should do is model going to the bathroom with our children. We think about all the things and the ways that we model for our kids every day, that’s how they learn to talk ‘cause we’re talking around them.

That’s how they’re learning to walk because we’re walking around them, that’s how they learn, you know names of things, because we’re telling them they learn how to drink from a cup ‘cause they watch us, they need to watch us go to the bathroom too and so that can feel a little bit weird and uncomfortable if you’re not sort of used to that idea, but if you have a child who’s afraid, particularly for children who are afraid, show them that you do it too, and show them, “Hey, I poop here’s my poop” and be really cool about it, and just make that sort of that slow process and that slow introduction to being around your bodily functions, something that can help if you’re finding a child that’s significantly afraid of pooping, is ditch the little tiny potty where they’re very close to the poop.

If you adapt to your larger toilet, maybe with the seat reducer or they make some great little stairs up to the toilet seat, using something like that, where they’re not all really close to the poop after they’ve gone can also sort of be a help for children.

Montessori potty learning environment

Jessica: That’s such a great tip. And you had mentioned this environment, can you tell us anything more about what this Montessori potty learning environment looks like? 

Nicole: Sure, so we want to create an environment where your child can access the toilet independently, but not just the toilet, we also want them to access things like their underwear or rags to help clean up because cleaning up and dealing with those misses and being involved in those misses is another way that we’re going to give our child agency and control in that situation, and so it’s just a simple area, it doesn’t have to be like you create a whole new environment for your child, it’s putting a little potty at their level, where they actually are during the day, having a little basket with some underwear or some cloths to clean up or a small spray bottle can also be really helpful, and then somewhere to put the dirty laundry, a bucket or a laundry basket, whatever it feels right in your space. So that your child can remove their underwear and put it into the dirty basket and then grab a clean pair if they need to. We want to make this process as independent as possible, that doesn’t mean our children will always be independent, it means they have the opportunity to be independent.

Are cloth diapers essential?

Jessica: And I wanted to ask a little bit about cloth diapers. What is your opinion on cloth diapers? And do they play a role in this potty learning? 

Nicole: So yes, they can. So there are people in the Montessori community who are convinced that cloth diapers are an important first step in helping our children understand when they’re wet and when they’re dirty. I am not personally one of those people, I have used disposables with all four of my kids. And I don’t really think it makes that big of a difference. If families want to use cloth diapers or are currently using cloth diapers, I think that’s awesome. I think it does probably allow them to feel a little more wetness. I just am not completely sold on this idea that you have to switch to cloth diapers before moving into underwear or something like that. I think you can be a little more flexible and you don’t need to change up your routine with diapering as you switch into potty learning.

Pottying in public

Jessica: And you have some great tips and recommendations on your website for potting in public and potting, travel potty. Can you tell us a little bit about what you recommend for potting in public? 

Nicole: So toileting in public is a completely different experience than toileting in your little potty at home, and so it can be a really overwhelming experience if you’re a small little child and you’re moving into needing to go to the bathroom because we’ve all been there where we have our child out of Target and we’re like, “Oh man, they really gotta go”, and then we have to go to these giant toilets where there’s like 12 of them in there and it’s really loud and the automatic flushers, and then our kid has a meltdown and pees their pants. And it’s a huge deal. This is a thing that can happen. And so what I recommend is instead of waiting to introduce the toilet, the public toilets to your child when you’re actually in underwear, actually trying to not pee your pants, go into the toilet as part of your trips when things are relaxed, go in there when there is no pressure, “Hey, this is the bathroom at Target, look at they have a bunch of toilets, that’s different than our house, look at here are the sinks, we can make our water go without touching anything.

Oh, the toilet sounds like that.” And just getting them acclimated to sort of what it looks like to be in a public bathroom can take some of that pressure and that fear away. They have great travel potty seats that you can just pop in your diaper bag or even some are so small that they can fit in a little backpack and you can pop it on there, and that little seat reducer can help your child sit on the toilet a little more comfortably. One sort of weird tip that works really well for my children and for some of the people that I’ve worked with, is turning your children around on the toilet, so instead of having them face the way an adult would face, give them sort of the back of the toilet as what they can hold and touch, and I know it sounds weird and especially right now to touch things in public, but it gives them a little bit of grounding and a little bit of stability and makes them just a little bit more relaxed to be able to go. Another great tip is have a pack of Post-it notes in your backpack or your diaper bag and put it over the automatic flusher so that it doesn’t automatically flush while your child is going, ‘cause that can be really loud and scary too, and then you could just grab one and then remove it when you’re done so that the flusher goes off. But it’s…

Again, it’s just a process of making it more comfortable and as independent as possible for your child and really having your expectations in check, not that they’re giving you a hard time by peeing their pants and not wanting to use a toilet, that for us is the exact same for them this is a really new environment and a new experience, we just need to introduce them to it the way we would introduce them to different types of animals at the zoo, we just have to treat it as that same type of learning experience.

Nighttime potty training

Jessica: Oh, those are such great tips. How about night time and nap time? What do you recommend for those times for potty learning? 

Nicole: So night sleep and night urination is a completely different sort of system for children, which is something I was shocked to learn, I don’t feel like anyone ever told me like, guess what, they don’t actually control urine production at night time, and so it’s actually driven by a hormone, and if your body hasn’t produced enough of that hormone yet, your child is going to have a very hard time staying dry overnight. And so it’s sort of a waiting game, it’s actually developmentally appropriate for children to wet the bed until age 7. Pediatricians are going to tell you, “Yeah, it just happens.”

So sometimes we get really hung up that if our children are daytime dry, that they also should be night time dry, but that isn’t necessarily the case, so I recommend waiting until your child is mostly or consistently dry at their diaper when they’re waking up to make the switch. And I’ve done that for now for several of my children, and then it’s just like, “Oh, we’re wearing undies now, and that’s it.” There’s really no process that it has to be… Once they’re ready, they’re ready. But that readiness can take a while because it’s just about hormone production, and honestly, if you’re finding yourself with an older, an older child, ask your parents, ask your grandparents, because it runs in families. Apparently it’s genetic with this age of hormone production is.

Similar for naps, if you’re noticing that your child is waking up wet, that’s okay, you can stick with that diaper until you’re noticing that they’re staying dry for those couple of hours that they’re sleeping and then just make the switch. Some children will want to make the switch on their own and then you can follow their lead as well.

Final advice

Jessica: Nicole, this has been so great. I wanted to ask if there’s any final advice that you have for our listeners that we haven’t covered today.

Nicole: I think that it’s just important to realize with anything in parenting, but particularly with potty learning, the success really is going to depend on your expectations, and so going into this just knowing, “Hey, this is a new learning opportunity,” take the pressure off yourself, take the pressure off your child and just see how it goes, and people are sometimes really like, “Oh, they’re going to pee all over everything, they’re going to poop all over everything,” and challenge that idea. It’s not as bad as you think it is. And so we have in our society, this idea that it’s just going to be a nightmare, and if we just flip our own expectations and take more relaxed approach and more child-led approach, it really can be something that you can just allow your child to have in their control and make it a much more peaceful process, but that’s going to depend not on your child’s behavior, but on your own reaction to the situation, and so as much as possible, keep that calm for yourself and know that this is a process, know that they’re making connections, know that that awareness is going to grow over time, and just sit back and watch the beauty of that unfold.

Jessica: Oh, Nicole this has been so great having you. Thank you so much.

Nicole: Thank you for having me, this has been really fun.

Learn more about Nicole’s Montessori approach to toilet learning on The Kavanaugh Report. You can find more tips on the Lovevery blog.


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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 18 - 48 Months+, Potty, Child Development, Behavior, Parenting

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