Montessori Potty Training: The Ultimate Guide To Toilet Learning

Wondering what the montessori approach to toilet learning is and how it's different than typical potty training charts and toilet training tricks?

Discover the best toilet learning tips and guidelines to successfully help your toddler independently go to the bathroom without the power struggle and headache!

What is the montessori approach to toilet training?

Montessori's approach to potty training is rooted in montessori principles of respect, fostering independence, and confidence from a young age.

It's often referred to as montessori toilet learning and utilizes an approach with specific language that acknowledges and respects the child going at their own pace to acquire a new skill.

For example, we don't call it “walking training” when children learn to walk. Thus we call it toilet learning as it's a skill that will continue to develop over some time… not just a weekend. We want to honor the child's natural process instead of taking a behaviorist approach of training via rewards.

Additionally, Dr. Maria Montessori found children naturally have a sensitive period from 1 to 3 years old where they become interested in bodily functions and the bathroom.

Furthermore, many regressions happen over that first year of toilet learning that parents don't often share, all of which I'll cover in this post!

Another key concept of the montessori method and toilet learning is that it does not utilize a potty chart, rewards, or bribes. Again, just like we don't use those things when kids learn to walk, we don't use them as the child acquires this new skill.

Potty Training Chart + Rewards vs Montessori Toilet Learning

The Montessori way to toilet learning focuses on supporting the child through the gradual process of toilet learning by properly preparing the environment with a small potty chair and simply observing the child.

However typical potty training methods often utilize a more behaviorist approach with a potty training chart for stickers as the child works up to a reward or utilizes bribes and excessive praise (form of reward) for each toilet trip or sitting on the little potty for a certain amount of time.

What's wrong with the behaviorist approach:

Adding pressure (yes, celebrating can count as pressure!), ultimatums, or bribes into the mix guarantees a power struggle.

And generally speaking power struggles with toddlers just draw whatever is happening, be it toilet learning or something else, out longer than either party wants. I'll cover more tips on navigating OUT of the potty training power struggle in the tips section of this post!

How long does toilet learning take?

It depends on the approach, what you consider “done,” and the child.

Some people say girls potty train faster than boys and this was my experience. I think girls feet wet underwear different then boys and they have the physical control at an early age.

Others claim the “3 day potty training method” works, but fail to acknowledge this does not include sleep or even how they'll handle going to the restroom with others.

Additionally, even if a child is fully potty trained in a few months (sleep, daycare, etc.) they may still experience regressions if a new sibling arrives, they get a new bed, or another big change happens over the next year or so.

My personal thoughts (for whatever it's worth):

Ideally the child should be about 90% there in 7-10 days. What I mean by that is they can go to the bathroom independently, and have gone 2-3 days without an accident in that time, then only have 1-2 accident per month over the next few months.

That last 10% is going to be the longest stretch to tackle. It could take up to a year to get rid of diapers for sleep and work through any other hiccups that come up.

What are the signs a child is ready for toilet training?

  • Taking an interest in your bathroom habits (following you into the bathroom, looking at what's in the toilet, maybe even trying to copy you)
  • Hiding to go pee or poop in privacy
  • Taking off or pulling at their diaper that needs to be changed
  • Communicating with you in some way they are going relieve themselves or have just gone in their diaper (when they follow you into the bathroom, start teaching them a sign or word to encourage this BEFORE they go in their diaper)
  • Regularly waking from naps or sleep with a dry diaper
  • Starting to use less diapers
  • Able to push bottoms down/undress themselves

What are the best tips for successful potty training?

Look for signs of readiness

The first sign of readiness it typically the child taking an interest in YOU going to the bathroom. Once you notice this, start preparing the environment with a small potty, basket of toilet paper and a book for them to practice alongside you.

See other signs of readiness above.

Prepare the environment

Start including potty learning books in your child's space so they can naturally gravitate to them. These often have lots of pictures that are quite self explanatory for the child to pick up and look at on their own.

Additionally, if using a potty (my personal preference), I like to start having it out and around at this time.

If starting with a 12 month old, you may want to sit them on it diaper free while you go to the bathroom yourself so they just get used to it.

Inevitably, young toddlers tend to want to play with their potty at some point. I find having it around, and taping the two pieces together to start before officially potty training, makes this phase pass quickly before you actually get to toilet learning.

Have a plan

Get on the same page with your significant other or regular caregivers on how potty training will go. Some things to decide beforehand:

  • Method: Do you plan to…
    • Bring the child to the toilet at fixed intervals the first few days
    • Keep a potty close and just prompt them with visual and verbal reminders
    • Rush the child to the toilet, even if mid stream, if they didn't get themselves to the toilet
  • How do you plan to handle accidents and keeping the potty clean?
    • Caregiver cleans
    • Caregiver and toddler clean
    • Toddler cleans (and what will you do if they refuse? For us, we just wouldn't move onto the next activity until she helped clean or did it herself)
  • How do you plan to handle bottoms?
    • No bottoms first few days
    • Just underwear
    • Just shorts or pants (no underwear)
    • Potty training underpants (thicker crotch area to absorb more of the accident so less mess but child still feels wet sensation unlike a disposable diaper)
  • Keeping mess minimal
    • Towels or piddle pads in the car seat or stroller
    • Are there any items you'd DREAD having to clean if a mess got on them? If so, get those covered/put away. For us, that meant towels on the couch, area rugs folded up, and mattresses lined which I'll talk more about in my best potty training products post!

Choose a Time

Generally you'll want to pick a time where at least two caregivers are around and you'll be home for a few days.

We started on a whim after her nap one Friday when her babysitter cancelled for Monday. We took the long weekend as an opportunity and decided to just start right away. Potty training can be physically exhausting so I do recommend starting with a half day like this if possible.

Additionally, I would suggest doing it away from any major life changes or stressors so everyone is in as good of a mood as possible.

Tips for navigating OUT of a power struggle:

Instead of saying things like “you need to sit on the potty before we leave” try “I’m going to pee before we leave, would you like to sit on your potty with me?”

Now if you really want your child in the habit of peeing before you leave, you can provide freedom within limits by explaining natural consequences/daily rhythms. Instead of “you need to sit on the potty before we leave” you'd say, “we'll go to the park after we both sit on the potty to try and pee then put on our shoes!” This way it's more about establishing a routine for the family, versus telling them what to do. And be prepared it may take them an hour or two and a meltdown until they do it, which is okay! Your job is to stay calm, patient, and stick to the plan as they work through their big emotions.

Additionally, if you see your child acting like they need to go avoid things like “you look like you need to pee, let’s go sit on the potty now!” and try something more observational: “you’re moving your legs like you may have to pee, the potty is here when you’re ready.”

Tips for praise while toilet learning:

As a mom, I get how hard it is to NOT cheer when your child successfully goes on the toilet. So if it slips out, don't beat yourself up!

Now if it keeps happening, focus on reframing what you're saying. For instance if you catch yourself saying “WOW!” and can't stop there, try “wow you went on the potty like me!” now your excitement has become an enthused observation.

Another tip to try if you catch yourself about to cheer, try “OOH! How'd that feel for you?!” to focus on building their internal motivation and self worth.

Either way, as long as you keep your praise brief, observational, and don't do it regularly it shouldn't make too big of an impact.

A caveat to bribes with toilet learning:

While bribes and rewards are not the montessori approach to toilet learning process, sometimes they can be a useful tool.

I do NOT recommend starting with potty charts, bribes, or rewards. However if your child needs to get over a last little hurdle, these can be quite helpful.

For instance…

Our potty training experience over a year:

Like I mentioned, we started with a half day, so after a nap on a Friday around her second birthday. We were basically “done” after 3 days of no underwear/bottoms unless out of the house where she just wore shorts or pants, no underwear.

If there was an accident, we all cleaned it up together. We wouldn't move onto the next activity until we all helped clean the mess.

Additionally, it was her responsibility to bring the potty content to the big toilet to pour out (I did hold this with her the first few days).

After those 3 days, she could get herself to the toilet, pee, clean it up. When we were out, she could come over and ask for the potty.

Toilet learning through the first year…

She wasn’t night/nap trained and would this carry over to other caregivers like babysitters or school?

Over the next year we were faced with a lot of bumps in toilet learning and I never hear people talk about. It’s just “3 days and done! or 1 week and done!”

After that first long weekend we still had her in a diaper for naps and bedtime. She started saving her bowel movements for naptime, where she'd ultimately wake up early from the dirty diaper.

But within a month she started taking her diaper off at nap time and refusing to sleep in it.

We tried diaper free naps, but she'd have an accident every time which was confusing because she wouldn't always have an accident with the diaper.

It seemed like she wasn’t quite ready to be diaper free at nap time, so for about a month we put her in zip up PJs to keep the diaper on until she finally agreed to start peeing before nap time and we knew she had the bowel control to not do that without a diaper thankfully! Again, I wasn’t about to get into a power struggle so I gave her two choices: pee before nap or footie PJs and diaper.

Night Sleep:

Night sleep took longer to tackle. Basically 6 months into being toilet trained, she started to take her diaper off all the time, similar to the nap situation, but would have accidents in her crib in the morning. Meaning she would sleep through the night fine, then wake up, take her diaper off, and pee.

So we moved her to a big bed where she would have free access to the potty next to it. Only she wouldn’t use the potty.

For 1 or 2 months it was this constant thing of “why won’t she just pee in the potty next to her bed?!?” We even moved her back into a small crib mattress on the floor to minimize the mess we'd have to clean. We used the Newton waterproof mattress that can be rinsed and dried pretty quickly.

After a month of that, I finally decided to just do a sticker chart. It’s what worked for me with potty training. My mom loves to tell the story that I wanted a Little Mermaid night dress but she told me it was for big girls and I still wore diapers so I potty trained myself in 2 days to get the nightgown. I think that sort of child led rewards system can be very effective.

Anyway, I figured my daughter is just as strong willed as me, so I told her, she gets a sticker for each morning she wakes up with no accidents and uses the potty. And she had 1 accident on the second day and one around day 10, then never again. We retired the sticker chart after almost 2 weeks and it was done.

So I just want to throw that out there, you can do sticker charts or even a present to get you over a little hurdle if the child is showing all those signs of readiness but just needs a little push.

I wouldn't start with rewards, potty charts, or bribes for the entire potty training process as it just puts more pressure on both the parents and child to perform or organize another thing. But if you know in your parenting bones that you won’t need to rely on the reward system for more than a couple weeks, and you’ve done everything else, why not give it a try? 

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At what age should a child be toilet trained?

While there is no specific age to start, according to Montessori, children take a natural interest in toilet learning around 12 months. According to most other child development experts, the sweet spot for toilet training is 18 to 24 months.

With that said, some kids aren't ready until 3 years old. The key is making sure both the child and parents are ready to take on the new skill.

Personally, I think it is easiest around 18 months. I use that period from 12 to 18 months to start talking with the child about the toilet, having the potty around so the novelty wears off, and start having books around so when the opportunity presents itself to toilet train, you're ready!

How can we parents help toilet learning?

Stay calm, be patient, and have a plan!

Remember, as a montessori parent, YOU are still the leader at the end of the day. Your child will look to you to gauge how the experience is going.

If you put pressure for rewards/cheers they may get overwhelmed and fear failure/disappointing you. If you handle accidents and bathroom trips consistently you'll see they move through things more quickly.

Originally published 5/26/22; Updated 10/31/23