10 tips for potty training a child with a speech delay from a mum who’s been there.

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So welcome back to another post on speech delay– and today we’re turning our attention to potty training. Potty training a child with a speech delay can be really tricky. The language barrier can make things harder, but there may be other issues, like sensory issues or struggling to understand sensations. That’s not to say your child will take longer or not succeed, just because they’ve got a delay. But it’s important to recognise any potential pitfalls.

Now if you follow me on Instagram, you will know that this is something that I’ve been trying to achieve for around a year! Potty training for a child with speech delay or other additional communication needs is really overwhelming at times, and in my experience, there isn’t a ton of information out there, easily accessible so I thought I would create a blog post of things that have worked for us when potty training a child with a speech delay.

Our potty training journey with a child with a speech delay

To begin, Jude is a four in May so he’s obviously on the older side of potty training. To give some history we did try and potty train before he turned three and we were actually doing pretty well considering he didn’t have that many words then. But we had a bad case of norovirus and it really set us back. The next couple of times we tried it he was a lot more resistant.

However, we decided to try again at Christmas. And by now he does have lots and lots of words and he’s speaking in his own form of sentences. He does sometimes struggle to communicate things like needs and feelings so it wasn’t really straightforward, but from a language perspective, it was obviously a lot better this time around! And emotionally he was definitely ready as well.

I’m not sure I would say we are 100% potty trained but I would say that we are very nearly there. And I keep trying to put this blog post off for as long as possible until I can say with confidence we’ve done it, but I keep reminding myself that with children like Jude, it doesn’t always follow a straight line. And he’s still made amazing progress.

We’ve pretty much cracked wees now and I’m really pleased because we’re managing to do them outside the house with no fuss, at school, at home and he hasn’t really had any wee accidents for a long time.

Poos are a little bit more tricky and apparently, this is quite common with potty training. Again, we’ve made a lot of progress here but it’s something that he still finds uncomfortable and harder to communicate.

However, if you’d have told me a few months ago that my son would be using the toilet independently at school at how it went out and about I would not have believed you so I’m still really proud of the progress that we’ve made.

Anyway, let’s delve in with my top tips for potty training a child with speech and communication delay.

Top tips for potty training a child with a speech delay

1. Have lots of visual reinforcements.

So we chose to use visual symbols all over the bathroom wall of different symbols around toileting, and we actually introduced these before we started potty training. We kept reinforcing these symbols every time I was using the toilet or every time he just went to the bathroom.

One of the tips that we read a lot online is that if you’re not ready to start potty training yet to change all of your nappies and pull-ups in the bathroom. And again having those symbols in the bathroom meant that he was getting lots and lots of reinforcement.

We tried to use these tom tags which are visual symptoms on circular disks, he didn’t really respond to them but am linking them as it might work for you!

We also printed off and used his AAC device to have all different scenarios such as my pants or ‘I’ve had an accident,’ or ‘I’ve done poo in my trousers,’ because it was really important to us that we move beyond just the single symbols but actually tried to get him to communicate different eventualities that might happen.

So every time he had an accident, I would get his AAC device out straight away and I would use the symbols to talk him through the different steps of what we needed to do, like put our pants in the basket and get new pants. And eventually, he started to do this a little bit more on auto-sync.

So there are lots of different ways that you can use visual symbols but I would definitely recommend them to begin with, especially if your child is preverbal or nonverbal because then they can use those symbols to communicate to you.

2. Use really literal language.

A lot of the potty training books out there we didn’t feel were that helpful because they relied on things like metaphors and euphemisms, like ‘catch the toilet train’ We instead try to use lots of literal language like, ‘my pants are wet,’ or ‘you’re weeing!’

Agree on a set of phrases that describe what’s happening and use them every single time to eventually put the language in for what your child wants to say. Make sure it’s what your child can understand. ‘The potty is here,’ may not be clear enough to them for example.

3. Be consistent

The one thing that we tried to do was to keep in pull-ups and sort of half potty train or try on and off but we really needed to be consistent and take the pull-ups away. Funnily enough, now we are potty trained we can we use a pull-up occasionally for going on a long car journey and he never wees in it because he understands and treats it like pants.

But in the beginning, he really did confuse pants and pull-ups and think they were the same thing. So the first thing I would say in that regard is to try and be consistent and get rid of pull-ups if you can.

Another thing that we did in terms of consistency is we used his symbol board and we made a reward chart. And we kept it really simple that he had one Smartie for sitting on the toilet in the beginning, two for a wee and three for poo, and so on. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, but we again printed that off visually and put it all around the house. So we were consistently giving him those reminders of rewards.

We also used a potty timer in the beginning and tried to be really consistent with how often we took Jude to the toilet.

When we read about potty training autistic children in particular, a lot of the recommendations were consistently taking them to the toilet every 30 minutes. So we tried that on the first day. But then my next tip would be to also learn the patterns.

4. Learn your child’s pattern

So one thing that we had some really good advice on is if you’re not ready to potty train yet, use your pull-up and literally make a note every half an hour. Is it still dry? When was it wet? So you can figure out how long your child could hold their bladder. So by day two, we realised that Jude was going like two hours so that we could drastically reduce the amount of time we did those reminders. Obviously, there’s a different school of thought about how much self-initiation you give the child but for Jude, we felt we had to be really consistent and say it’s toilet time now.

5. Don’t keep asking ‘do you need a wee?’

Another thing with a child with a speech delay is that it’s not always that helpful to ask lots of questions, especially if your child might copy back or misunderstand the question. So things like ‘do you need a poo? do you need a wee?’ all the time is not always helpful.

We were told by a potty training expert that they might not realise in that precise moment that they do. They’re not thinking five or 10 minutes ahead like we are to avoid an accident. So therefore in the initial days, we literally focused on being consistent with how often we took him to the toilet. So we could figure out a set routine. Rather than asking we would just say ‘it’s toilet time now,’ or if it was obvious he was trying to wee/poo, ‘I see you need a wee, let’s go to the toilet,’ to remove the pressure of asking Jude.

6. Find the right books

There were a few books we found really useful. The first was Potty Superstar. They have a book for boys and another for girls and really breaks down the process step by step-choosing a potty, feeling like you need a poo, washing hands, etc. The bonus is Jude absolutely loved it!

We also purchased Bobby Can Use The Toilet. It is very literal, matter-of-fact and uses short simple sentences and picture.

7. Think about how to teach your child signals

My next tip would be to consider thinking about how to actually teach your child the signals. Now I read a potty training guide book called Oh Crap! And at first, I really was resistant to implement it, as I found the book quite unhelpful and also quite offensive in the way that she described three-year-olds as being too late to potty train. However, I did find in Jude’s case (and again it could be a sensory issue or related to dyspraxia) that he really confused pants with pull-ups and just wet them at first and really didn’t get the difference.

So we decided to try the naked stage of the OH CRAP method. This part really helped teach the signals and the words you can use BEFORE an accident, like ‘I need a wee…’ or ‘I’m weeing…’

It was only on day two of doing that Jude finally realised the sensations that were going on and that he could stop and start them, before he just seemed clueless. And this was a really big breakthrough!

8. A lot of traditional advice might not apply to your child-that’s okay!

A lot of the general potty training advice does rely on neurotypical children so it relies on things like them being motivated by external rewards such as being a ‘big boy’ and peer pressure from others, e.g. wanting to fit in with kids at school. It relies on things like really being motivated to wear special pants, and it relies on feelings of feeling embarrassed and ashamed when they’ve had an accident. And none of those things really registered with Jude. And he couldn’t be less fussed by a sticker chart!

Try to find what works and motivates your child rather than following a set formula. Honestly, I thought Jude wouldn’t get it because he didn’t seem remotely bothered by picking out pants or that bigger children used the toilet!

Similarly, I know a lot of the advice centres around staying at home for the first week of potty training but if you can’t do that, then don’t! Jude has a lot of energy and by day 3 we were doing trips to park and had a hospital appointments. I just went with and prepared for accidents. The first time we tried potty training, we stayed in the whole week and it really impacted my mental health!

9. Use a timer

We used two different timers. One piece of advice we were given was to try to practice sitting on the toilet for longer periods of time using a digital timer. We used this one at first and would set the timer for 2-3 minutes to practice sitting on the toilet for longer periods of time.

There was an app that I would recommend called Potty Toilet Trainer, which gives you visual reminders and actually comes up on the screen with your child’s name and potty time, and a specific sound (See the example above). When we first started potty training, we would set the reminders for every 30 minutes and he got to the point that Jude quickly associated that sound with going to the toilet.

Then we would just set reminders much less but it also has a function to log their patterns so you can figure out when to next prompt them.

10. Buy all the treats

Honestly, stock up! Potty training is exhausting so stock up on all the snacks and wine. I bought ready meals so I didn’t have to worry about making myself lunch. Try to arm yourselves with things that will make your life easier!

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