I want to toilet train my 3 year old ahead of preschool

toiletQ: Our daughter, who turns three in October, is starting Montessori this autumn and needs to be toilet trained before she goes. She is a bright girl and we thought that we could manage the toilet training, as we did with her older brother. When we tried in early June, however, we found that she totally rejected the idea and becameinconsolable. We had to abandon the plan on the basis that she mustn’t have been quite ready. She has now developed an active resistance to the idea of being trained. She runs away screaming and crying when we ask her to sit on the toilet or potty, even whenfully clothed. When we talk about potties or “big-girl pants”, she either ignores the conversation or says these are disgusting. We feel that she does understand and can do it but needs to overcome this resistance that she has developed. We don’t know whether to back off completely for a while or give it another go this weekend, as we’re under time pressure. Otherwise we would happily wait until she wants to do it herself.

A: With the start of preschool looming, many parents are in your position of trying to toilet train a toddler who may not be fully on board with the process. Unfortunately, deadlines and pressure never help with toilet training. Frequently, children are nervous about starting to toilet train and certainly need to be relaxed to give it a try.

A toddler who is beginning to assert their independence will can easily dig their heels in and refuse to participate, and the whole process can easily become a counterproductive battle of wills.

A child will learn to use the toilet only when they feel relaxed and open to learning. As a result, it is generally helpful to take a step back and pause the training for a while, as you are doing, and wait for a time when your daughter might be more ready. In reality, a week or two later is a long time in the life of a preschooler and if you return to the training with a fresh approach she may indeed be ready then.

Helping your child be ready for toilet training

Take time to understand what might underlie your daughter’s resistance. For example, how ready is she to use the toilet? Is she aware of when she does a wee or a poo, and how much control does she have? You can increase her awareness by letting her wear cloth pants around the house so she gets feedback.

When she does go in her pants, simply comment without pressure “Oh, you did a wee”. In addition, start by encouraging her to tell you when she goes, rather than hiding the fact, saying “Good girl, telling Mum.” Also, try to notice when she is about to go and gently draw her attention to this. The key is to have a positive, curious tone that will help build her awareness and make her keen to learn.

Overcoming nervousness

Many children are anxious about using a toilet for the first time or have a specific fear; for example, some children worry they might fall in. Addressing these anxieties directly or changing the context can really help. For example, you could use special steps to help her climb the toilet or initially use a potty. Or you could play relaxing music to distract her or, initially, move toileting from the bathroom into the living room where she might be more comfortable.

Reading stories to children can be a really helpful way to teach them about toilet training. There are several children’s stories and TV shows that cover aspects of toilet training; you might be able to find a story with her favourite character learning to use the toilet or overcoming a specific fear that matches her own.

Repeatedly reading these stories to her without any pressure to do anything might gradually allay her fears and gain her co-operation.

Motivating your preschooler using a chart

In addition, attractive picture charts can be very helpful way to motivate a preschooler. The key is to break the task down into small steps and to make progress gradually, allowing your daughter to gain a small reward for easy steps or ones she does already.

For example, perhaps she could get a small star for just telling you if she has done a wee in her nappy or pants. Then you can encourage her to make progress by providing a bigger star or sticker when she achieves the next step, for example if she sits on the potty for a minute, before you gradually build up to rewarding her for actually going. There are more examples of charts in my book Parenting Preschoolers and Young Children.

Negotiating with the preschool

Though most preschools and Montessoris require a child to be toilet trained on starting, many are flexible about this rule in special circumstances such as yours. For example, some will be happy for a child to attend wearing a nappy at the start (especially for a short, three-hour day) as the parents work at the toilet training at their child’s pace.

Indeed, the peer pressure of watching other children use the toilet could help motivate your daughter to learn. Do contact the preschool manager to have a discussion with them about this. Once the pressure is off, you will find it much easier to teach your daughter.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, August 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.