When clients ask me if I think their child is ready to potty train, my answer is usually “Tell me more about the readiness signs you believe you are seeing.” There are numerous factors to consider when assessing toilet training readiness if a child has low muscle tone.
Here are the four types of readiness that every parent needs to look at to determine whether their child with low muscle tone is ready to start potty training:
After about 18 months, most children can keep a diaper dry for an hour or more. Their sphincter control increases, and their bladder size does too. This isn’t conscious control; it is physical development. Kids with low tone can take a little longer, but without additional neurological issues, by 24 months many of them will be able to achieve this level of physical skill needed to accomplish daytime urinary continence. Bowel control is usually later, and nighttime control is later still.
Achievement of the OTHER physical readiness skills are less predictable. These skills include:
- Sufficient postural control to stay stable on a potty seat or toilet, and when standing to wipe. Read How To Teach Your Toddler To Wipe “Back There” for more details on learning to wipe.
- Enough mobility to get to the toilet on time, turn around to flush, and bend to pull up/slide down pants.
- Adequate strength and coordination to manage clothing and toilet paper/wipes.
- Sensory processing to perceive a full colon or bladder, tolerate clothing movement on the body, and tolerate the “sensory surround” of bathroom use. What is THAT?The smells, lights and confined space of a tiny room can be a “thing” for some kids! For more information on these sensory issues, read For Kids Who Don’t Know They Need to “Go”? Tell Them to Stand Up and Low Tone and Toilet Training: Learning to Hold It In Long Enough to Make It to The Potty
You will notice that children need enough skill, not amazing or even good skills. They just need enough ability to get the job done.
I need to mention that issues such as constipation can derail a parent’s best plans. Kids with low tone are more likely to have this problem. Read my post Constipation and Toilet Training for some ideas on how to manage this issue and who can help you. The best time to manage constipation is before you start training.
The trifecta for toilet training readiness in typical children is a child who is at the 16-20 month level of cognitive/communication/social skills. This child has the ability to follow simple routines and directions, can understand and communicate the need to use the toilet and express their basic concerns, and is responsive to praise or reward plus interested in learning a skill. If your child has receptive language issues (difficulty understanding what you are saying) then read Targeted Toilet Training Strategies to Help The Child With A Receptive Language Delay for some specific strategies for this situation.
What about children with global developmental delays? They absolutely can be toilet trained. I have worked with children who have no verbal skills and perform tasks like dressing and self-feeding only by being prompted, but they can use the toilet with very little help. Do they always know when to “go”, or do they simply follow a schedule? Well, to be honest, sometimes they toilet on a schedule for quite a while before they connect the physical impulse with the action by themselves. But they are dry all day. The essential abilities are these: they know what they need to do when they sit on the potty, and they know that they are being praised or rewarded in some other way for that action. That’s it. Have faith; children with developmental delays can do this!!
Some children with low tone have no delays in any of these areas, but many have delays in one or more. The most difficult situation with cognitive/communication or social readiness? A child who has developed a pattern of defiance or avoidance, and is more committed to resisting parental directions than working together. Toddlers are notoriously defiant at times, but some will spend all their energy defying any directive, must have everything their way or else, and can even enjoy being dependent.
If this is your child, job #1 is to turn this ship around. Toilet training will never succeed if it is a battle of wills. And no adult wants it to go that way. Repair this relationship before you train, and both of you will be happier. You don’t need a child psychologist consult to do it, either. Read my posts on the Happiest Toddler on the Block methods for ideas on how to use “Gossiping” Let Your Toddler Hear You Gossiping (About Him!)and Turn Around Toddler Defiance Using “Feed the Meter” Strategies to build a more cooperative relationship with your child.
Research suggests to me that the number one indicator for training is when the parents are ready. Sounds off, right? Isn’t it all about the child’s abilities? But if the family isn’t really ready, it isn’t likely to work. I worked with a family that had their first 3 children in rural Russia. Boiling dirty diapers on a wood stove makes you ready ASAP! Their son born in America was trained much later than his sisters because Pull-ups made it easier to wait, not because he wasn’t ready. Families need the time to train, time to observe voiding/elimination patterns, and time to identify rewards that work for their child.
They need to be prepared to be calm, not angry, when inevitable accidents happen and to avoid harsh punishments when a child’s intentional avoidance creates an accident. They have to be ready to respond to fears and defiance, and then handle the new independence that could bring a child freedom from diapers, but more insistence on control in other areas. Many of my clients have nannies, and most parents have partners. Every adult that is part of the training process has to be in agreement about how to train. Even if they are more cheerleader than “chief potty coach”, it is either a team effort or it is going to be a confusing and slower process. Check out Toilet Training Has It’s (Seen and Unseen) Costs for more information about how the process of training has demands on you that are not always obvious.
Do you have a stable and comfortable potty seat or toilet insert? How will your child get on and off safely? Do you need a bench or a stair-like device? Grab bars? Do you have wipes or thick TP? Enough clothing that is easy to manage? Underwear or pull-ups that also do the job? One of my clients just texted me that having a mirror in front of her daughter seemed to help her manage her clothing more independently. A few weeks ago we placed the potty seat against a wall and in the corner of the room so that if she sat down too fast or hit the edge of the seat with her legs while backing up or standing, it wouldn’t tip and scare her. No rugs or mats around, so she won’t have to deal with uneven or changing surfaces as she gets to the potty.
Really think out the whole experience for safety, simplicity, and focus. You might want to install a child-sized potty in your child’s main bathroom Should You Install a Child-Sized Potty for Your Special Needs Child?. If you want to learn what your child’s occupational and physical therapists know to assist you with toilet training, ask them Low Tone and Toilet Training: How Can Your Child’s Therapists Help You ?
You can now see why parents rarely get a simple answer when they ask me if their child is ready to train. I will say that since they are asking the question, they may be ready, and that is one of the four types of readiness!
Need more help with toilet training? I wrote an e-book on toilet training for you!
The Practical Guide to Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone, is available as an e-book on my website, tranquil babies, on Amazon or at Your Therapy Source ( a terrific site for parents and therapists!). If you want more guidance to evaluate your child’s toilet training readiness and learn how to prepare them well, this is your book! It includes readiness checklists and very specific strategies to build readiness. Think you are ready to jump in and start training? My book will guide you to choose between the gradual and the “boot camp” approach, and it addresses the most common stumbling blocks children experience on the road to independence.
Read my post The Practical Guide to Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone: Help Has Arrived! , to learn more about this unique book and see what it can do for you today!