Ask an expert: My child doesn't like using toilets outside the house

Public Toilet Phobia?
Public Toilet Phobia? 

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We asked Essential Baby members what their child’s major issues are in the toilet training process. Here, Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, the Director of Learning and Teaching and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood and a mum of three, addresses a problem many families encounter.

• My child won't wee or poo on the potty
• My child is resisting the toilet training process

My child is getting better at toilet training at home, but doesn’t like using toilets outside the house. How can we overcome this latest challenge?

Dr Cathrine says: Not wanting to use ‘strange’ toilets can be a common problem among young children, particularly during the early stages of toilet training. There are a few things you can do to try and help them to feel more at ease when using toilets outside the comfort and security of their home.

1. If you know you are going to be out for a bit, try to get your child to go to the toilet before leaving the house. You’ll then typically have a two-hour window of opportunity before they need to go again. This isn’t a solution for long-term management, but will help reduce any stress in the short-term, until your child becomes more at ease with their toileting skills.

2. Start with familiar surroundings – for example, when visiting the homes of family and friends, let your child see you using their toilet. Using the toilet at Nan’s or Uncle Bob’s is much less confronting compared to busy and noisy public restrooms. You’ll also feel more at ease and less conscious of being subjected to the possibility of public power struggles.

3. Be aware of your own anxieties. During the early stages of toilet training, it’s not surprising that many parents feel additional pressure when heading out, as they can be anxious about not getting their child to the toilet in time. Young children can pick up on these emotions and take them on board, affecting their own behaviour.

4. Go and visit one of your child’s friends, and let them see them using the toilet or potty at their house. Ask your child if they would like a turn, but be careful not to push the issue if they refuse. You can also take them to play group and let them see other young children using the toilet there.

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5. Let your child see you using public toilets, even if you don’t necessarily need to go. This will give your child the opportunity to become more familiar with different toilets and public restrooms. Never underestimate the role of familiarity in easing stress among young children.

6. Public restrooms can be incredibly noisy and busy, which is a common issue for lots of children. If possible, avoid larger restrooms, as these can be noisier than most. Many shopping centres now have toilets that are specifically designed for younger children; they’re typically situated within baby change-rooms, and include both an adult-sized toilet and a smaller children’s version. These can be incredibly appealing to young children, and if your child is anything like my youngest, they will actually seek these out and “need” to go to the toilet every time you are out!

7. Big toilet seats can be quite daunting, and young children often fear falling in. If you think this is a contributing factor it may be helpful to carry a small toilet seat with you when you go out. This will also provide a link between home and the outside. You can also make sure you hold your child’s hands or cuddle them around the waist so they feel extra secure.

8. If your child is using a potty at home, sometimes the extra splash of water that occurs when using a larger toilet can be a bit frightening. You can reduce this by lining the bottom of the toilet first with toilet paper.

Once your child starts using a toilet outside the home, be sure not to leave it too long between outings. The more opportunities your child gets to practice this new skill, the more likely it will be here to stay!

When accidents happen

There will be times when accidents still happen – and it’s important to treat them as just that, an accident. Toilet training outside the home is no different to toilet training inside the home, so praise your child when they are successful, and ignore or minimise the impact of accidents.

Don’t be tempted to just ignore toileting when children are out and about by letting them wee and poo in their pull-up training pants, as this provides mixed messages and may result in total regression of toileting behaviours.

This response provided by Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Early Childhood Education & Child Development Expert. 

Share your toilet training challenges and tips with other parents in our Toilet Training forum.