Figure out exactly which sensory issues are making potty training difficult for your kiddo. And, get 29 ways to help your kid with sensory issues learn to use the toilet on their own!
Was she losing her mind?
Surely potty training isn’t that complicated. All of her friend’s kids seemed to have no more than the usual amount of trouble getting their kids potty trained.
Her daughter was now 4 and had barely made any progress. She seemed scared of trying and cried even walking into the bathroom. She couldn’t help but wonder if this was somehow related to her picky eating and strong dislike for getting messy…
And, it just might be.
How is picky eating, disliking getting messy, and having trouble potty training linked together?
The common denominator is sensory processing.
This is just one example of the many stories I’ve heard as an occupational therapist about potty training woes. Kids can have trouble getting the hang of potty training for all sorts of reasons, but sensory processing is often overlooked.
Yet, it’s a factor for a lot of kids struggling to potty train. In this post, I’ll show you the variety of ways sensory can affect toileting and exactly what you can do to help your kid work through it.
Affiliate links used below. See our full disclosure.
Why Do Kids With Sensory Issues Have Trouble Potty Training?
The sensory system affects just about everything we do and that includes using the bathroom. A child has to feel the sensation that they need to go to the bathroom, they need to be comfortable sitting on a toilet, know how to release their muscles, and experience the sensations of peeing or pooping, which may be painful or uncomfortable.
If you already know that your child has sensory issues, Autism, SPD, or ADHD and your child is having difficulties with potty training, then it’s likely that those sensory needs are affecting their ability to learn to use the toilet instead of a diaper.
However, sensory issues in general are often layered because they involve 8 different senses:
- Tactile (touch)
- Auditory (sound)
- Gustatory/Oral-Sensory (taste)
- Vision (seeing)
- Olfactory (smell)
- Vestibular (movement)
- Proprioception (body awareness)
- Interoception (sensations from internal organs)
Each of these senses can be linked to kids having difficulty with toileting. Your child could be refusing or unable to potty train due to sensory processing challenges from one or more of these senses.
*If you’re not sure if your child has sensory needs, grab this 21 sensory red flags printable for a quick checklist of some of the common signs.
Figuring Out Which Sensory Issue is Causing Potty Training Trouble…
Let’s break it down a little further by each of the senses that affects toileting:
- Likes the wet feeling in diaper
- Dislikes wiping
- Dislikes sensation of peeing/pooping while sitting on toilet
- Likes to feel/touch their feces
- Doesn’t notice when their diaper is wet
- Dislikes sound of toilet flushing
- Dislikes sound of fan in the bathroom
- Dislikes sound of automatic hand dryers in public bathrooms
- Dislikes buzzing of lights
- Lights are too bright
- Distracted by possible bright colors, objects in the bathroom
- Afraid of falling in, doesn’t feel steady, secure
- Difficulty sitting still because they want to be moving
- Feels like they’re going to fall off the side, doesn’t feel balanced
- Can’t tell where to wipe and may feel overwhelmed or confused
- Difficulty coordinating steps of wiping
- Difficulty coordinating steps of pulling down pants, sitting on toilet, or lifting lid and aiming
- Bothered by general smell of bathroom
- Bothered by smell of poop or pee
- Doesn’t notice the internal sensation that they need to use the bathroom
- Constipated from picky eating that results from sensitivity to eating/tasting different textures
As you look at the above list, consider which factors may be affecting your sensory kiddo. If you aren’t sure, ask them or begin to observe them more closely and when they seem to have difficulty. Then, check out the coordinating strategies below.
29 Tips for Potty Training Kids With Sensory Issues
As you begin to narrow down why your child is having a hard time potty training, choose some of the strategies below to help address those needs. Of course, the best way to address these sensory needs is by improving their sensory processing, whenever possible.
Learn more about how to do that in my free workshop: 3 Expert Secrets to Calm and Focus Kids with Sensory Activities, this absolutely applies to sensory related difficulties with potty training.
Strategies for Tactile Toileting Needs:
- Potty train naked (works well over a 3-5 day period where you shut it down and do nothing at home).
- Potty train in tight clothing to help them feel the wetness better.
- Use a warm baby wipe for wiping (gradually get used to toilet paper over time).
- Play in sensory bins regularly to get used to different textures like toilet paper (this helps to improve the overall processing of the tactile system).
- Play in sensory bins regularly so they can don’t seek out touching feces.
- Use body brushing under the guidance of an OT (also may help with decreasing desire to touch feces).
Strategies for Auditory Toileting Needs:
- Tell your child to cover their ears when it’s time to flush or you flush after they’ve left the room, although they need to get used to this sound eventually.
- Play soft music or upbeat music depending on what’s motivating or relaxing for your child.
- Turn off fan and other noises if bothered by noise.
Strategies for Vision Toileting Needs:
- Be aware of sensitivities to overhead or noisy lights. Consider a night light only or some other soft lighting.
- Clear clutter and visual distractions from bathroom.
Strategies for Vestibular Toileting Needs:
- Use a toilet seat cushion with handles like this one.
- Support their feet with a stool so their knees are bent and feet firmly planted on stool.
- Try a toddler toilet that’s close to the ground.
Strategies for Proprioceptive Toileting Needs:
- Create a visual schedule for the steps of toileting to put in the bathroom (or grab this one on Amazon here).
- Teach your child to stand and wipe, which may be easier for them to coordinate.
- Practice labeling body parts, including private parts for more accurate wiping.
Strategies for Smell Toileting Needs:
- Ventilate the bathroom as much as possible by opening a window/turning on fan.
- Use an essential oil diffuser in the bathroom or an air freshener before your child goes into the bathroom.
- Swipe an essential oil across your child’s wrist and encourage them to smell their wrist while toileting.
Strategies for Interoceptive Toileting Needs:
- Describe what it feels like to need to go to the bathroom, ask your child to start noticing when they feel that way.
- Tell your child when you need to go to the bathroom.
- Choose a time frame for your child to try and go to the bathroom on a consistent basis (every 2 hours, after eating/drinking, etc.).
- Have them flush poop down the toilet with you from their diaper so they can see they had a bowel movement and begin to make a connection to what their body is doing.
Strategies for Oral-Sensory Toileting Needs:
- Use picky eating strategies to increase tolerance of textures and tastes. Get a boat load of ideas in our picky eating guide.
- Encourage your child to play with their food to help get them used to new foods and expand to vegetables and higher fiber foods.
General Toileting Strategies that are Helpful for Kids with Sensory Issues:
- Pick a time frame when you’re really going to be focusing on potty training. Try to clear your schedule as much as possible so it can be your primary focus.
- Remind yourself that potty training takes time and that for kids with sensory needs it’s usually a process.
- Be consistent about regularly putting your child on the potty. Sensory kids need a lot of repetition and tend to do best with routine.
Toileting with Sensory Issues in Public
Keep in mind that any public restroom or Port-a-John has a ton of different sensations that may bring new challenges for your child. Your child may make great strides at home but need more time to get the hang of it in public. Consider carrying sunglasses, an essential oil roll on, and noise cancelling headphones if lights, smells, or sounds are triggers.
If you have a van or SUV, you also may want to carry a portable kids potty in the back as an option too!
Now it’s your turn.. what potty training tips do you have? Leave any tip no matter how big or small so we can create an awesome resource for every parent that stops by looking for help.
More Help for Kids with Sensory Issues
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.