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Potty training…is it a sensory issue? My answer is definitely “Yes!”

Children who struggle with sensory processing often find potty training to be a daunting task that often leads to a battle of the wills that nobody actually wins.

Using the potty is actually a very complicated life skill that involves:

  • adequate registration and interpretation of the sensation of a full bladder,
  • transitioning away from an activity in order to deal with the need to toilet,
  • communication of the need to a caregiver,
  • motor planning to stabilize on the toilet while releasing the bladder,
  • tolerating significant tactile input as clothing is removed and put back on again,
  • tolerating auditory input from the close proximity of caregivers as well as the flushing of the toilet,
  • and more.

No wonder it’s such a big milestone!

Sensory Tips to Make it Easier

Make it a Routine

This eliminates the need for the child to correctly identify the sensation, prevents issues with the child not wanting to stop a preferred activity when the need arises, and enhances communication without requiring the child to verbalize the need.

Most kids do best with visual schedules. For toddlers and preschoolers, it can be overwhelming to see the schedule for the entire day so consider breaking it into reasonable chunks of time. For example, the first schedule strip could show the morning routine leading up to breakfast or leaving the house. For kids who stay home, the next schedule strip could show breakfast to lunchtime, etc.

Schedule boards can be easily created using Google Images or your own photos, velcro dots, and some strips of poster board. For a toddler, a typical morning routine might show:

  • Wake Up
  • Cuddle
  • Potty
  • Wash Hands
  • Breakfast

Make sure to build potty breaks into the schedule every one to two hours.

Let the Child Use the Potty Seat 

Take the child shopping, or buy a few options to keep available at home for him or her to choose from. Stability is key. It is important the child’s feet are not dangling. If they choose a little potty seat, their feet will be firmly planted on the floor. If they choose a potty ring that goes on the regular toilet, be sure to have a step stool for them to rest their feet on.

Eliminate Tactile Issues 

While potty-training at home, allow the child to wear only a long shirt with no diaper or underwear on, if possible. This helps them to get maximum input from the sensation of having an “accident” and it also eliminates the need to pull clothing up and down which is bothersome to some kids. This method works best if a parent can stay home for a week and be fully devoted to potty-training until the task is accomplished.

Meet Sensory Needs throughout the Day 

Work with your child’s occupational therapist or do some research on how to set up a sensory diet to make sure your child’s sensory needs are being addressed. If your child is struggling with sensory overload or has unmet sensory needs, it is unlikely that he or she will be able to handle the increased sensory demands of potty-training.

A sensory diet can be built into the visual routine mentioned above to keep your child functioning at his or her best. For example, if your child wakes up fussy and irritable on a regular basis, build some calming input into the routine, such as rocking with you, before going into the bathroom.

Offer Lots of Sensory Choices 

Some children prefer wet wipes, others want regular toilet paper.

Some kids love to flush the toilet themselves, others want to be as far away from the sound as possible.

Some like company, others want to be alone.

Some want music and toys, others want to be read to while on the toilet.

I know it seems like a lot of work in the moment, but once the child is fully-trained, they typically no longer require all of the bells and whistles. This too shall pass!

Personal Experience

Here’s how the process looked for my very own sensational child:

We gated off the tile-floored kitchen and she and I literally lived in there for nine days with her wearing only a long t-shirt and a potty-seat always nearby.

We followed a visual schedule where I put on the “must-do’s” (potty, breakfast, etc.) and she put on some choice activities (puzzles, play-doh, etc.).

If she started to “go,” she got instant feedback that she wouldn’t have felt if she were wearing a pull-up or underwear and we moved quickly to the nearby potty seat.

She was given paper towels to help clean up the accidents – not as a punishment but rather as a natural consequence that she hopefully would want to avoid in the future.

Scheduled “potty times” meant she sat there long enough for me to sing two songs of her choice.

Successes were rewarded with M&M’s.

It was a long nine days, but at that point she was fully trained and no longer needed songs or M&M’s! Hooray!