The Ultimate Guide to Potty Training the Montessori Way

 Body Image

This philosophy of using cloth diapers comes directly from my first Montessori training. It always made so much sense to me!

  1. Children are forming their body image from birth on and it it a very important part of their development.
  2. Plastic disposable diapers can reach alarming temperatures.
  3. The child in disposable diapers forms his body image with the idea that “My groin is moist and very hot.”
  4. The child in cloth diapers forms his body image with the idea that “My groin is dry and body temperature.”
  5. The best incentive for toilet learning is cloth because when a child becomes wet, his groin becomes damp and cold and he has an incentive to remove the diaper immediately as it is very uncomfortable.
  6. The child in disposable diapers has a disincentive for toilet learning. This is because his normal groin feeling is hot and moist therefore he is incentivized to put on a diaper, urinate in it (it gets hot) and then KEEP it on because NOW it feels normal.
  7. A child in cloth diapers is quickly motivated to NOT wet his diaper as it does not feel good. His body image is: “my groin is dry and warm” and he has incentive to keep it that way. At a very early age (14 months for my daughter, a bit later for my son) a child in cloth diapers will let you know that he is wet and will want his diaper changed. He may even take it off himself as he quickly wants to return to “normal” – dry and body temperature.
  8. A child in disposable does not want to be changed – because the groin area is no longer warm in a clean diaper. Thus, disposable diapers become a disincentive for potty training.

 Urge to Urinate

So in addition to a having proper body image, another thing that needs to happen for a child to learn to use the toilet is he must make the connection between the urge to urinate and the actual urination. This is very easy in cloth diapers as the urine is immediately felt. He feels the urge, the diaper becomes damp.

In a disposable diaper, the connection is not obvious. The urine is immediately wicked away from the child and absorbed into the “foam particles” in the disposable diapers. He may not even realize he’s urinated.

Holding It

The final step of toilet learning is the child feels the urge to urinate, and holds it in until he gets to a toilet.

The problem with this final step is that a child is also doing many other things to further his development. He is VERY busy at this age. His focus, ideally, is becoming longer and more sustained and deeper. It is HARD to stop the important work he is doing to form himself in order to get up and go to the bathroom. In my experience, this is the main reason for “accidents” and that is why I don’t like to label them with that word.

Wearing Underpants

I like to encourage parents to carry around 3 changes of clothing and instead of changing diapers, they are now changing underwear and pants. That’s all. What’s the difference? Don’t even mention it! And certainly don’t call it an accident! I used to have a fun thing I said with my children. “Oh, you had to go pee-pee but you didn’t HURRY to the potty. Next time you have to hurry, hurry, hurry.” I would hold their hand and we would fake rush to the potty. It was our own little game. No shaming, just a game.

I recently heard someone very popular in child development circles say that children should always be given the choice of a diaper even after they have begun wearing underpants. This, of course, in the US usually means a plastic diaper. But that means this child who is learning to change his body image to “my groin is a normal temperature” must revert back to “my groin is hot” and this is very confusing!

This person also thought if children had “accidents” we should INSIST they wear a diaper and not “let them urinate all over the house.” And this is from someone who prides herself on her respectful approach to children. Insist they wear a diaper? We’re meant to say something like “I want to help you stay comfortable and not worry, and I can’t let you keep peeing on the floor.” Even if they don’t want to wear a diaper, we must INSIST. This does not strike me as respectful. This approach seems strikes me as demeaning and controlling.

I wonder why this person assumes they are more “comfortable” in a diaper. And who is bothered by them peeing on the floor? Not the child, that’s for sure. So the child should adapt so that the adult feels more comfortable? And I’m assuming a child peeing on the floor is naked and if you don’t want them peeing on the floor, why are they naked? I mean, why not just dress him in underwear and pants and change them when they’re wet. Without a word? Is it any harder than changing a diaper? I don’t think so.


In the Missouri neighborhood where I grew up in the 1960s, a typical new suburb of tract houses surrounded by farms, the mostly Catholic mothers who typically had many children all had the same routine. We were one car families which the men took to work. I was a very busy babysitter and the routine was the same in all the houses. Children under one slept from 9-11 and 1-3. After one year of age they moved to one nap at 11 a.m. which slowly went later until it was also 1 to 3.

The children all potty trained at about a year. Children under five went to bed at 7. Over 5, at 8. This was all commonly held knowledge that everyone agreed on. When I was in Africa children were potty trained by one year. Any child development class will tell you that once a child has myelinated (made a brain/body connection) to his hip area as indicated by walking, then he has the ability to control that area of his body. This is when you see children hiding behind a plant to poop or waiting until they’re out of their car seat. We know they have the ability to hold their urine and feces. But we often wait another 2 to 3 years? Why? Do we really think it’s fine for a 4 and 5 year olds to be in diapers, 3 years after their bodies are ready?

I believe disposable diapers have wreaked havoc with the body images of small children and until we fix this we will continue to have confused small children stunted in their growth and also very strange philosophies of toilet learning.


About katepflynn

International Montessori teacher (birth to 12 years), RIE Foundations Course graduate, and Infant Development Specialist teaching Bradley Childbirth, Parent-Infant (pre-walkers), Parent-Child (walkers) and Toddlers.
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2 Responses to The Ultimate Guide to Potty Training the Montessori Way

  1. mez88 says:

    Wow, I wish I had read this sooner. It makes COMPLETE sense to me, and it’s so simple: just lose the diapers and dress him as a big boy. It’s simple adaptation…no pressure.

  2. Pingback: How Changing Your Beliefs Changes Your Parenting | Regarding Parents

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