Whether potty training was a walk in the park or a long, painful process, it’s a pretty big moment when your kid can finally recognize the need to go—and hold it until they make it to the washroom.
But even once you’ve kicked daytime diapers to the curb (woohoo!), toilet-trained kids will still need an adult’s help to get through all the elements of the bathroom routine. You may not mind wiping, flushing and washing for your kid, but working toward bathroom independence—where your kiddo can handle the whole process from beginning to end without assistance—is a good and necessary step for kids as they enter preschool and kindergarten.
Here’s how to help them master those skills—and get yourself on the other side of the bathroom door.
As adults, we’re so used to the typical series of bathroom events that we don’t really think about what we need to do, but to a preschooler, it can be tough to remember all the steps and to do them in the right order. Borrow a trick from preschool: Affix a visual representation of each step of the process on the bathroom wall. “Having visual cues is really helpful, because this happens multiple times a day, and we’re trying to avoid that naggy voice of, ‘Did you do this? Did you do that?’” says Suzie Warneke, an early childhood educator at Wind and Tide, a preschool in Langley, BC.
Draw your own pictures if you’re artistically inclined or look online for a printable. Warneke says that developmentally, young kids can handle a maximum of about five symbols, so pick what’s most important to you. Flushing, putting the seat up and down or turning off the light, for example, may not make the cut.
Look at the space from a preschooler’s point of view. Is it easy to reach the toilet paper, the soap and the towel? Is there a stool that’s both sturdy and easy to move from the toilet to the sink? Some parents even redecorate a bit to ensure the room feels kid-friendly. “I made the bathroom look calming and inviting,” says Danielle Fitzgerald, a mom of two in Thunder Bay, Ont., whose sons, Darius and Silas, are now five and 10. “And since they were right into racing, I bought a soap dispenser that looked like a car.”
Stacey Cham-Klein’s girls, Olivia and Elaina, are all about the party dresses with long, fluffy skirts and sashes. But when each one was four and starting junior kindergarten, the Thunder Bay mom made a point of taking the frocks out of rotation for a bit, since hiking all that extra fabric up could pose a problem. She also put the jeans away, offering stretchy leggings and sweats instead. “Why make them fiddle with buckles and zippers, leading to potential accidents and embarrassment, right?” she says.
First, show them how to get toilet paper off the roll, and how to scrunch or fold it. Don’t get too hung up on the amount of paper they take, says Warneke, as long as it’s not so much that it could clog up the plumbing.
Show how a pee wipe is more of a gentle pat at the front, whereas a poop wipe has to be front to back, to prevent skin irritation and urinary tract infections, especially in girls. The poop wipe, of course, needs to be done a number of times, until the toilet paper isn’t marked anymore. As far as positioning goes, here’s another preschool trick: “Say to them, ‘Tickle your toes,’” says
Fitzgerald, explaining that if your child bends forward on the toilet and touches their toes with one hand, that puts them in a more open position for wiping properly with the other hand and then dropping the used toilet paper in the toilet. You can also try this parent hack: Smear some Nutella, peanut butter or seed butter on a paper plate and have your child wipe it off with toilet paper. This helps them understand how much pressure is needed, and how many wipes are required, to get the job done.
Keep in mind that—despite your best efforts at teaching this skill—you’re going to have to deal with skid marks for a while. C’est la vie!
Liquid hand soap can take a long time to rinse off, whereas foamy soap is quicker and can also help make washing fun for kids. You’ll have to explain how long to scrub for. “Saying ‘wash your hands for 20 seconds’ means nothing to them,” points out Warneke, but singing a favourite song like “Twinkle Twinkle” all the way through means they wash well. Don’t let them run off with wet hands—damp hands are more likely to pick up and spread bacteria than dry hands.
Finally, keep on celebrating like you did when your kid first started toilet training, says Fitzgerald. “Darius likes to FaceTime my parents when he does something big on his own,” she says. Time for the bathroom party dance!