10 Things to remember when Potty Training a Special-Needs Child

Potty training any child is a victory but potty training a child with special needs brings a whole other level of satisfaction and serenity. I should know; it took several years to toilet-train my son, Max, who has cerebral palsy. But he did it. No, we did it — and here are 10 key things that helped us.

1. Remember: You have to be ready, too

Experts often note the signs that a child is ready to be toilet trained include staying dry for at least two hours at a stretch, waking up dry from a nap, and an increased interest in the bathroom. The thing is, as a parent of a child with special needs, you also have to be ready: for the attention, scheduling, dedication, and time required. Ditto for your child’s babysitters and teachers. Without consistency, a child won’t get into a habit. Plus, he’ll get a mixed message about the importance of potty training, and things will drag out even longer.

2. Consult with the experts in your child’s life

Your child’s pediatrician, specialty doctors, teachers, and therapists may have valuable ideas, strategies, and programs to share, along with the wisdom of having helped other special-needs parents through potty training. They may also have thoughts on strategies unique to your child’s abilities. Reach out to them for advice, because you don’t have to go it alone.

3. Start off seriously

My husband and I declared one weekend “Potty Training Boot Camp.” We bought plastic shower curtains to spread over carpeting and other stainable surfaces. We bought a timer, gave Max lots and lots to drink, and every half-hour we placed him on the new potty seat he’d selected (Lightning McQueen). We used the same bathroom each time; like many children with special needs (and children in general!), Max thrives on routine. Max wasn’t potty trained after that weekend but at least he gained a potty-oriented mindset.

4. Praise your child for what he did right

Rather than noting your child has wet his pants, commend him for those times when it’s clean. Positive reinforcement is always a good thing.

5. Make it interesting

I know one mom who brought little tablets you toss into the toilet that change the water into various colors to encourage target practice. Some choose to allow their kids to use tablets, iPads, or other electronic devices while going to the potty, others are against it because they feel it may result in a child only going when he has a device. But there’s always good old-fashion books! We liked reading the classic, life-affirming Everyone Poops. Max was also enthralled by the Elmo’s Potty Time DVD (viewed in our living room, not the bathroom).

6. Do things your own way

For a couple of years, my son wasn’t yet coordinated enough to stand and pee in the potty. And so, he sat. Did we care? Nope. Because it worked for him. 

7. Offer visual rewards

Many kids with special needs are more likely to respond to visual motivation for potty training rather than some hypothetical promise of big gifts or trips. We kept a basket filled with little toy cars in a closet and pulled it out every time Max went. Star charts or any kind of stickers can do the trick too.

8. Talk about it. Lots.

Kids like my son often learn best through repetition. So have a potty mouth! Regularly talk about going to the bathroom, including times when you have to go. You could even put together a fun home video to get your child psyched.

9. Show your enthusiasm

Do a happy dance when your child goes, even hours after he’s gone. Make it clear that you are all for potty training and that it’s worthy of celebration.

10. Don’t pressure your child or yourself

Potty-training a child with special needs rarely happens fast. Keep the faith. Reach out to other moms of kids with special needs for inspiration, motivation, and (of course) laughs. And know that one day, as hard as it may be to imagine, your child may very well go independently — and you will never stop appreciating it.

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