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Avoiding and Overcoming a Fear of the Toilet

Toilet training is a big milestone. It takes some careful planning and lots of work for both the caregiver and the child learning to use the toilet. A common issue that many children face is a fear of the toilet. Toilets are big, cold, noisy and are associated with new sensations- this is a lot for little ones! In order to reduce the likelihood of a fear developing, we’ve come up with a list of some evidence-based strategies to support you. If a fear has already developed, it’s not too late to back track and help your child become comfortable in the washroom again.

What are the readiness skills needed for toileting?

Some resources outline several skills that are "required" before starting to toilet train. Often this list includes: showing an interest in the toilet, understanding vocabulary related to toileting/voiding in the toilet, staying dry for hours, showing signs of being uncomfortable when wet and many others. The truth is a child really only needs to be comfortable engaging in the toileting routine and sitting on the toilet to get started. The time it will take to fully toilet train a child will vary for every child but to get started, you should begin pairing the toileting and washroom routine with all things positive and predictable.

How to start

To start building a positive relationship with the washroom & toilet try the following:

  1. Model! For young children who are just starting to learn about the washroom and using the toilet it can be beneficial to have them join you so they can see what Mom/Dad does when they go into the washroom.

  2. Label the events for them such as "look Mommy peed in the toilet!" and “time to wipe and flush!”.

  3. Change their pull up in the washroom and have them get close to and eventually sit on the toilet (for just a few seconds to start).

  4. Creating a routine can help with the predictability of what is going to happen. Bringing them to the washroom at specific times and following the same routine will help them become more comfortable with what goes on in the washroom. For example, when they wake up in the morning, head straight to the washroom and remove their pull up. You can have them sit briefly, help them wipe, flush and wash their hands before putting a new pull-up or diaper on.

  5. Make sure you have a seat that makes them feel safe and secure! Don’t use a seat that moves around. Make sure you have a solid step stool so that they can climb up onto the toilet safely and rest their feet on it while they sit.

  6. Once they have sat on the toilet give them lots of social praise, hugs, kisses and tell them how proud you are of them! When you leave the washroom keep talking about how they sat on the potty/toilet and have others celebrate this very exciting event! As the little one gets more comfortable with the routine have them sit for longer with a goal of sitting for 3 minutes (just to give enough time to maybe catch a little dribble).

Something went wrong Unfortunately, lots can go wrong when a little one starts to build up the courage to sit on the toilet. If you are trying to start and your little one is showing signs of being scared it is helpful to try to figure out what has created this "fear". Here are a few things that could go wrong:

  1. The toilet flushed unexpectedly or any other loud unexpected noise occurred when they were just starting to learn how to sit.

  2. They went to sit and slipped a little losing their balance or falling a little into the toilet.

  3. They have experienced constipation, urinary tract infection or any other uncomfortable/painful experience associated with toileting.

  4. They actually peed or pooped a little in the toilet and that new feeling was scary for them.

  5. Any other new, unexpected or unpredictable event has occurred that startled them and is now paired with sitting on the toilet.

What to do now

If you can pinpoint where the fear may have started this can be helpful, but it isn't necessary. The goal now is to help the little one unlearn the association that the toilet is scary and learn that the toilet is safe. You’ll also show them that you are there to help and GREAT things happen in the washroom, especially when they build up the courage to try sitting on the toilet again. Here are some things you can try:

  1. Determine at what point the fear response starts (i.e., they seem afraid when they walk into the washroom, they become fearful when they get close to the toilet, or they are seeking comfort when they are being put onto the toilet).

  2. Once you know where the fear begins you can get started with creating a new learning experience. Pick a highly preferred item or treat and reserve it for trips to the washroom.

  3. Tell the child "Time for potty/toilet/washroom" and begin heading to the washroom.

  4. Once you have transitioned to a space the child is comfortable in (e.g., just inside the washroom door) - STOP, provide praise (e.g., that was great coming with me!) and give the preferred item.

  5. Leave the washroom area.

Practice this 5-10 times per day and with every success move a little closer to the toilet. As you move closer and closer to sitting on the toilet remember to GO SLOW! You want the child to learn that they will not be forced to do anything they don't want to. You want to reward them for cooperating and being brave. Depending on the level of fear they are experiencing this can take time, but that is OK. You want them to see that there is nothing to be afraid of, if they try they get GREAT things and everyone will be very proud of them. While you are working on getting closer to the toilet and back to sitting, you can also try a few other things:

  1. Read a book about toilet training.

  2. Role play with dolls and potty inside or outside of the washroom - make sure to incorporate all the cheering and "rewards" that the doll receives when they sit on the toilet.

  3. Watch some videos of favourite characters learning how to go potty. Youtube has some great videos featuring Elmo, Coco-Melon and more.

If you find that your little one is stuck and not making progress after trying these tips, connect with us if you need some extra support. We are always here to help!


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