Toilet Learning — How to Potty Train Your Toddler the Montessori Way

Toilet training is actually something I kind of enjoyed when I was a toddler teacher — I know, I know, it’s strange.  There’s just something about guiding teeny tiny people on their journey to independence that is so satisfying!  I toilet trained close to 100 children during my teaching years, plus one so far here at home, so I put together some of my best tips and tricks for toilet training the Montessori way!

Toilet Readiness

First, how do you know when it’s time to begin?  There are a few common signs of toilet readiness that most children exhibit when they are ready — however, all children are different.  Your child may only show a few of these signs, or your child may just be old enough that she is physically ready but just not interested because it is easier for her to have you change her diaper.

Montessori talks about “sensitive periods” a lot, and the sensitive period for beginning toilet learning is between 12 and 18 months.  This does not mean that your child should be completely toilet trained by that age — it simply means that around that age your child will probably show an interest in the toilet and will begin to have more physical control over her own elimination.  In my experience, the earliest I have had any children completely toilet trained was closer to the two year mark, while most are between two and three years old.  I have observed that girls generally toilet train earlier, while many boys are more successful after 2.5 years of age.


So how do you know if your child has reached toilet readiness?  If she knows when she is eliminating or tells you when she needs her diaper changed, she is probably ready.  If your child hides behind chairs or goes to a specific corner of the room to poop in her diaper, she is aware of her bodily processes and able to control where she eliminates.  Another sign is that her diaper may stay dry for hours at a time, with only a few wet diapers each day.

So what can you do before your child is ready to take the plunge and go straight to underwear?  There are several steps you can take during that sensitive period time (or after, if you missed it!) to help prepare your child for toilet learning.  First, once your child can stand, get rid of your changing table and change all diapers in the bathroom.  Changing diapers while your child is standing up allows her to take an active part in the process as she can help with the diaper tabs and pulling up and down pants — and I actually find it to be easier than changing diapers with your child laying down.  After you take off a dirty diaper, invite your child to sit on the toilet — even if it’s just for a second of two.  This communicates that the toilet is where she will eventually eliminate, and it might even happen by accident on occasion!

Materials Needed for Toilet Learning

  • Underwear — take your child out on a special shopping trip and let her pick out her own underwear.  Buy extra.  Sometimes poop accidents are so messy that you won’t want to save that pair of undies.
  • Sweatpants — make sure your child is wearing clothes that are easy for her to pull up and down by herself.  No jeans with zippers, overalls, or onesies!
  • Stepstool — I like this one because it provides more space for you child to turn around before sitting on the toilet.  Here is one that’s more aesthetically pleasing.  😉
  • Extra clothes in the bathroom — to change into after accidents.
  • Baby wipes — for wiping legs after accidents.
  • Rags and disinfectant — for cleaning up accidents on your floors.
  • Somewhere to put dirty clothes in the bathroom — such as a garbage bag or laundry bin.
  • Optional:  Child Seat for regular toilet — we don’t use one of these, but it may be helpful if your child is afraid of falling into the toilet.

What don’t you need?  A separate potty seat.  I mean, do you really want to empty that after your child successfully eliminates in it?  Save the extra step and just use your regular toilet.

How to Toilet Train Your Toddler the Montessori Way

Okay.  You have observed signs of toilet readiness in your child.  You have set up the groundwork in getting your child accustomed to the bathroom and toilet, and you have bought all of the materials.  You’re ready to go.  Now what?

First, hunker down at home.  Make sure you have no outside plans and that your child is healthy and well-rested.  Don’t go ANYWHERE for 3 to 5 days.  I won’t lie to you, the first couple of days are going to be difficult.  You will question yourself and wonder if you should just give up and wait a few more months before trying again.  DON’T QUIT.  You both can do it.

Next, take your child’s diaper off and put on those special undies you two picked out together.  Make a big deal about the undies.  Talk about the characters on them.  Remind your child that “You don’t want Minnie Mouse to get wet!”  Tell her that she can keep her undies dry by running to the toilet when she has to pee.

In the beginning, take your child to the toilet every 30 to 45 minutes.  You can read a book on the toilet to try to spend a little more time there, but never force it.  Elimination is one of the few things toddlers have control over, and trying to force the issue could result in your child becoming sick from holding it in.  Sometimes she will refuse to sit on the toilet when you tell her to — that’s fine.  She may have an accident, or she may know her body and ask to go sit when she really has to go.

When your child successfully eliminates on the toilet, talk about your observations.  What did it sound like when she peed/pooped on the toilet?  What color was it?  Use real, grown-up terms when discussing these things —  your child doesn’t need to be baby-talked.

What about when your child has an accident?  She will have many, many accidents.  DON’T GIVE UP.  The first time she has an accident, show her how to change herself.  Have her sit on the toilet to see if there’s any more.  Show her how to clean up the accident on the floor.  The next time she has an accident, she can change herself and clean up the accident on the floor.  This allows her to take ownership of the elimination process and provides more motivation to use the toilet instead.  If she has a poop accident, dump the poop into the toilet — that’s where it belongs.

After about three days of consistently following these steps, your child will have fewer and fewer accidents and be more successful on the toilet by herself!  Depending on her age, she will still occasionally have accidents — that is completely normal.  Don’t berate her for accidents or punish her — just use the natural consequence of having her help clean up the accident and change her own clothes.

Your child will still need diapers while she sleeps, as it is harder to control your body when you are not awake.  It will be time to get rid of diapers overnight when her diaper is consistently dry in the mornings and she is able to wake up and use the toilet during the night instead of eliminating in her diaper.

And that’s it!  This method has worked very well for me both in the classroom and at home, and I kind of can’t wait for my littlest one to be ready to start… !

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67 thoughts on “Toilet Learning — How to Potty Train Your Toddler the Montessori Way

  1. ahh i needed this! I think my Son is almost ready. Not quite yet but he is already starting to announce when he needs to “caca” or just did. I will try applying these techniques..fingers crossed!

  2. Awe, this is great! I love how you added the infographics. I wish I would have known these tactics with my four. I’ll remember them for grandbabies in like 20 years from now because I refuse to think my kids will ever have sex – ew. Have a very blessed day! Thanks for posting =)

  3. We are a Montessori family and put this plan in place for several months. However, we also used the book “Oh Crap” which is very much complementary to the Montessori approach, but it is focused on making it all happen more quickly.

    1. I’d love to read more of your blog but I don’t know how to follow you. Sorry newbie here.

  4. This is a fabulous post. Though we are a long way away from this in our house, I am definitely going to pin this post and keep it in mind for when this time comes! I like the idea of readiness and keeping an eye out for those signs.

  5. I’m at least a year away from this, but will have to keep this in mind! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Great tips, honestly, I didn’t do that well with training my daughter. I hope to have a better transition with my son. I’ll be saving this for when we have a good time to work with him.

  7. Lovely post. I toilet trained my twin twice, the first time was when they were about 18 months, i tried to train them, i was following people’s saying that by 18 months, kids should be ready for toilet training but it was a fail as they were not ready. I tried again when they were a little over 2 years and it was a success with LESS stress

  8. Great post, definitely saving this for some point in the future. It sounds like a very logical approach to an important stage in toddler development!

  9. Yesss for the extra underwater ready in the bathroom and going just straight to the toilet rather than buying a kid one. Cause let’s be honest who wants to clean that lol

  10. You have no idea how much I needed this. My child is 16 months old and I think he’s been showing signs of readiness, but after reading this I know he has. I’m going to use these tips to help him start to transition to the toilet.

  11. I’m about to get started with this though it will be impossible to stay in doors for such an extended period of time. I have noticed that every morning and every evening when we take off her nappy and put her in the bath she has a wee. I have tried a few times to get her onto the toilet but she is scared of falling in so going to get her a booster seat. Do you not like pullups?

    1. We went outside in the yard when toilet training — just not out to stores or friends’ houses or anything like that. 🙂

      Pullups are basically the same thing as diapers. I prefer going straight to underwear if the expectation is that your child will now eliminate in the toilet — kids can feel it better if they have an accident in their underwear. Pullups are ok if you’re still in the teaching self-dressing stage, but once you’re ready to commit to being fully toilet trained, I would stick with underwear. [Plus it will save you some money!]

      1. I am still assisting with dressing at the moment my daughter is 18 months. She can put her tops or dresses on (and take them off) but not her trousers. I’m just scared of a poop accident in the pants. I have a queasy stomach lol

    2. These infographics are great- so helpful! We tried during Pearl’s sensitive period but it just didn’t stick. I really appreciate how attentive you are in this post to the readiness of the child and how to talk about it in grown up terms. Great post!

  12. My son is 3.5. We have tried the things you have listed and many other methods! My son flat out says no. I have tons of underwear he wanted. I have a separate potty also a step stool and even a potty seat for the big toilet. I believe he knows what to do but just refuses.. HELP!!!!!

    1. Boys are hard! At that point, I would probably just get rid of all the diapers in my house. They just aren’t there anymore. The only choice is to wear underwear. He might start out by just peeing all over your house, but be consistent about making him clean it up and change himself every single time. It could be a really rough 3-5 days, or he could just pick it up the first time.

      1. My 3 year old was potty trained for all of two weeks when we introduced him to his little brother. Since then (16 months ago) he had pretended to be a baby and will not potty train. We can’t get rid of diapers until his brother is ready so I guess we have to wait a few more months.
        I will try the changing in the bathroom idea for both boys, though.

  13. I remember the summer my daughter instantly toilet trained herself. We had a kiddie splash pool in the back yard and explained that diapers were not allowed in the pool. She simply decided she no longer needed diapers and would tell us when she needed to use the toilet. It was a miracle! But go figure: teaching that she should wear a swim suit when in the pool somehow was more difficult to convey to her. Well, it was just the back yard…

  14. My son is almost 4 and has motor and speech delays. He is capable of controlling when he eliminates but I’ve given up on potty training because it has lead to him holding it in. If he’s in underwear he will hold it all day until he can no longer hold it and then has an accident. Any advice on how to potty train him, when he shows all the signs and is capable of controlling it, just won’t do it?

    1. I’m not a doctor (or trained in motor and speech delays), so I’m hesitant to give you any advice on that. I’d suggest talking to his pediatrician or any specialists he might be seeing for the delays. 🙂

  15. We followed this method with our 2.5 year old twin girls. Stayed home for 3 days and never had an accident. Everyone was happy and carefree about their new skills.
    Went out on the 4th day to run some errands and attend playgroup and basically spent the entire day with them taking turns needing the toilet. There were a couple of accidents from each child on route to the toilet and once a poop with no warning. Once home they returned to using the toilet and no accidents.
    On the 5th day we stayed home and no accidents.
    On the 6th day we went out and the accidents returned.
    Any tips will be most welcomed.

    1. Oh man, that sounds so frustrating! It could be an anxiety issue that they are feeling — safe at home but unsure of their new skills while out and about. I would start with shorter trips out of the house — maybe just go to one place, use the bathroom there as soon as you arrive, do your shopping, and then go home. Try that for a few days, then add a second destination to your outings. Hopefully that will help!

      1. Thank you for your prompt reply.
        I will give that a go.
        I think you maybe right with the anxiety as one of them is now refusing to do poops at home in the toilet but is happy for wees.

  16. My 2.5 year old son has been potty training since Tuesday and today is Friday. He’s been pretty good, but is still having some accidents and is starting to tell me he wants to wear diapers and says he doesn’t like sitting on the potty. My husband thinks we should just give up and try again in a couple months. I guess I just want someone to tell me not to quit!

    He has been able to tell me when he needs a new diaper for months…he runs into his bedroom and lays down with his legs up. He also hides in the corner to poop.


    1. He sounds like he’s ready! An accident per day is pretty normal for the first few weeks, and then once a week or so for the first few months — he’s still learning. He can’t be expected to do it perfectly the very first time. You can learn to recognize from his movements and behavior when he’s about to have an accident, and remind him to go to the bathroom. I never give up unless it’s truly hopeless and the kid is peeing everywhere with absolutely no awareness — BUT that’s a personal decision you’ll have to make for yourself!

      You could also let him stand on a stepstool so he can pee in the toilet “like Daddy” — that’s less scary than sitting over a big hole. 🙂

      1. Thank you for the words of encouragement! A few min ago he got up and said he had to go potty and made it to the toilet and peed in front of it! I think he just couldn’t hold it long enough to sit down. He helped me clean it up and enjoyed using the spray cleaner most of all! I’m going to stick with it. His older brothers will be at camp for a week starting tomorrow and he and I will have lots of one-on-one time to work on this together. I may be back with more complaining before it’s all said and done! Thanks again!

  17. How do I keep my daughter from falling into our regular sized toilet? We haven’t started training yet but I would like to soon. She’s 2.5 years old.

    1. You can buy a little toilet seat that fits inside your regular toilet seat. They sell them at Target and Amazon. When in public you just have to kinda hold them a a little!

    2. We built a step that went around 3 sides of the toilet and had a railing on one side — that way she could hold on to it. On toilets that didn’t have that option, we showed her how to hold on to the sides of the seat.

  18. Thanks for writing this great article. I’m curious, in all your experiences of Montessori potty training, did you ever train a child with special needs? My son is 6 years old and autistic. I’ve been struggling to potty train him for years. (I am so sick of changing his diaper!) I’m no stranger to potty training as I have two sons older than him but I’m trying different approaches to see what he’ll have success with. If you have any experience here I would love some tips.


    1. Hi! I did have one who I suspected had Asperger’s, and he toilet trained about the same. Unfortunately, I am not trained specifically in special needs learning of any kind, so I hesitate to offer advice! Does he have any therapists that could help with that?

  19. I have an 18-month old who I think is not quite ready, but getting there. He can’t pull up/down his pants, but he loves to flush the potty and definitely knows when he goes. Plus changing his diaper is getting significantly harder…:) How do you deal with going out after those 3-5 days? I’d be so nervous about having an accident in public/nursery with a different bathroom. He is normally dry when we go out, but still…after those days at home are they usually consistent?

    1. Each child is different, so you’ll really just have to learn to read his signals and help him express his toileting needs, especially since he is so young. I would start with short outings — for example, to only one store [which has a bathroom available] and then back home. When I started with my oldest, we would go to the bathroom as soon as we got the store, and then she would be fine for the rest of the trip. She was 22 months. You will definitely have accidents at times, and that’s completely normal. Always pack a couple extra outfits and a plastic bag to pack up wet clothes. 🙂

  20. My daughter is 3 years old and shows all the signs, but completely refuses. She doesn’t care if she wets or soils her underwear and does a surprisingly good job at cleaning and changing herself, of course I still need to help.
    I decided to take a break and put her back in diapers. She seems to be very happy about it. Any ideas? I never punished her or scolded her. I just told her that I know she can do it and to let me know when she wants to try again.

    1. Sometimes if the child is fully capable but just doesn’t want to do it, it helps if there is something she wants to do that she HAS to be toilet-trained for — like going to preschool, or playing a sport, or starting a music class. That usually provides enough motivation for the child to be trained almost immediately.
      Eventually, diapers just won’t fit anymore — so don’t worry, she won’t be in them forever!

  21. What to do if child is soon to be 4 yrs old. He says he doesn’t want to use the toilet. Nothing has worked to motivate him. Ugh

  22. I am curious if you do any sort of reward system with the Montessori method? Do they earn stickers or prizes, etc? Or is it all just praise and encouragement?

    1. Nope! The point of the Montessori method is to build intrinsic motivation, which means no material rewards. There’s actually not even really any praise — rather than saying “Good job,” we turn it into a questions about how the child feels about his work or mention something we noticed about it, like “You worked really hard on that! I noticed how much you were concentrating.”

  23. I really appreciate simplicity and common sense of the method!
    Our 21 m/o/ is completely showing all signs of readiness and awareness, EXCEPT she would not sit on either potty or the toilet. Refuses completely. She prefers to clean up after herself and then tell stories to family that she just peed, but does not want to sit down to do it
    I am completely at loss what to do, and getting frustrated. Don’t want to start being emotional with her about it, but feel i am getting to the boiling point :=///
    Any advice you have for me?

    1. I would tell her she has to stay in her diaper if she is not going to put her pee in the toilet — that’s just the natural consequence of her choice to pee on the floor instead of the toilet.

  24. Loved this used it to potty train my son and it was fairly easy and quick day 3 no accident! And only a few here and there. I don’t know if this is a real problem or not but we did get a little mini potty before I read this and he use to use our big toilet then he decided he wants to use the little toilet ( he does how ever use regular toilets in public or other peoples houses no problem) I can’t get him to use the big potty in the house (maybe because he fell in? Or he has more accidents trying to use the big toilet) but he loves to clean the little toilet and had a temper tantrum because I cleaned it when he ran out to announce to his daddy he used the potty. So 2 weeks later few accidents and a really enthusiastic toilet cleaner. How do I get him to pull his pants up after though he has no problem running around with his pants around his ankles after he went potty and yells for me to do it even though I know and have seen him do it.

    1. Haha I can’t believe he can run without tripping! You can start by telling him that you’ll do the back of the pants while he pulls up the front — do that for a while, then ask if he thinks HE can do the back AND the front, almost as if it’s a game or a challenge.

  25. We just attempted to potty train using almost an identical method and it was a total failure. He’s 2 1/2 and very physically capable. He picked out his undies, I let him decorate his little potty with stickers, we’d watched videos and read books, we had him help his stuffed animal go potty. First day went as expected, accidents that he helped clean up, and then success peeing right at the end of the day. Not too bad. But day 2, he completely reused to sit on the potty at all. Nothing could convince him, not even bribes. He would get distressed when he knew he had to pee and would start crying. So he was freaked out to go not on the potty but freaked out to go on the potty. He ended up being so distraught he was completely inconsolable, wouldn’t let me touch him, flailing around on the floor balling and then after quite a while just laid there whimpering and then he finally let me pick him up and hold him. It was so upsetting for me to see him like that I absolutely gave up and put a diaper on him. I’m at a loss and don’t know what to do, I feel like we did everything “right” and were prepared. I know you say to keep going even though it’s hard but this felt down right traumatizing. How do I continue if he’s completely flipping?

    1. You’re right — this does seem traumatizing to him and it’s not a case when I would suggest you keep going at this time. I would give it a month or two while continuing to talk about it, then try again.

  26. Best recommendations yet! I haven’t potty-trained a child in 32 yrs! My daughter was a dream. My son took forever. Typical.
    I now have a 3 1/2 yr old granddaughter who is ready. Very stubborn & strong-willed but, ready. My ‘old’ method failed miserably. Your method sounds perfect for her & am eager to try.
    One question: How long do you recommend she sit on the toilet each time she tries? (This is crucial because she is stubborn).
    Thank you for a prompt reply.

    1. If she’s 3.5, she definitely knows when she needs to go and can control it. It doesn’t matter how long you tell her to sit on the toilet, because she’s old enough that she’s not going to go by accident on the toilet if you just make her sit long enough — she’ll either go intentionally, or she won’t go. I would tell her to sit and “try” — and that might be 3 seconds, or it might be 2 minutes.

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