Disabled tamariki face some extra challenges when it comes to learning to use the toilet. But there are many simple ways whānau can make it a positive experience and an achievement to be proud of!

Look for signs they’re ready

For tamariki with disabilities, learning to use the toilet may be delayed, or it may take longer to become proficient, but it can be a good idea to start around the same time as typically developing tamariki. This is generally between 18 months and 4 years of age. To start toilet learning, tamariki need to be able to sit safely and independently on the toilet and where necessary use a children’s toilet seat insert.

Talk with whānau about looking for signs of readiness.

Potty or toilet learning

It’s important a child is ready to try. Forcing toilet learning when they’re not ready or willing can cause extra stress and problems later. Whānau should try to make the experience a positive one, with lots of encouragement and praise.

It helps to be aware of the challenges

There are some extra challenges faced by disabled, neurodivergent, and medically fragile tamariki when learning to use the toilet:

  • Physical challenges, such as low muscle tone, needing help sitting on the toilet seat and wiping, needing help with buttons and zips, constipation due to medical challenges or restricted diets.
  • Behavioural challenges, such as attention span, impulse control, anxiety, or reluctance to change routines.
  • Cognitive challenges, such as communication, or not understanding why the toilet should be used.
  • Sensory challenges, such as not liking the feel of the toilet seat, bright lights, or noisy hand-dryers.

If toileting is still challenging, incontinence products are available for tamariki with a disability or medical condition. To access these, whānau can talk to their doctor for a referral to the local Te Whatu Ora Child Development Service.

Tips for whānau

  • Make it fun! Play with a special toilet toy or read a book together.
  • Break it into small steps and talk through what’s happening in clear, simple language. Visual cues or sign language may be needed.
  • Be generous with praise for trying and for each step they master!
  • Introduce the new routine slowly. Sudden changes to accepted routines can be very hard for neurodivergent tamariki. Giving them some control over the routine, such as set times to try, routes to the toilet, and rewards, can help ease them into it. Rewards can be as simple as playing a favourite game.
  • Do what you can to change anything that might be causing distress, such as bright lights, loud noises, or cold surfaces.
  • If a child is particularly reluctant, try and find out if there is something else going on. If constipation is a concern, talk to your doctor.
  • Accidents will happen! Try not to get angry or make a big deal out of mishaps. It’s all part of learning!

It can help for whānau to know they’re not alone. Lots of kaitiaki struggle with helping their tamariki learn to use the toilet. The good news is that there’s lots of information available to help. They may find talking to others who have been through it helpful too.

Conversation ideas

What sort of things is your child doing to show they are ready to try the toilet?
How might you support your child with accidents when they happen?
How might you give some control to your child over their toilet routine?
What are some things you can try to make toilet learning fun?
What special reward does your child enjoy that might support their toilet use?