The Toileting Environment
Is your environment preventing your child from pooping?
Do you believe that the environment impacts your child’s ability to toilet? If you’ve read my instagram posts [https://www.instagram.com/sensoryexplorers/] and have been receiving my newsletter [https://sensoryexplorers.newzenler.com/f/newsletter-sign-up] then you know this is a topic I feel strongly about. But… if you still don’t buy into the power of the environment then let me ask you - do you feel comfortable pooping in a public toilet? How about at your office? What about in a porta-potty? Did I hear a “heck no”? Well the only difference in these toileting scenarios is the environment!
While the mechanics of toileting (releasing pee and poo) are the same wherever you go - toileting at home is different from toileting out of the home because of the many variables that exist in the environment. Smells, sounds, sights, and temperature are some of the major environmental factors that play a role in these differences but there are more nuanced factors too like cleanliness level, lighting, and positioning.
WHY DOES THE ENVIRONMENT MATTER?
Why does the environment play such a large role in our ability to poop or pee on the potty? We can do other body functions pretty much everywhere. Sneezing, coughing, and farting aren’t much impacted by our environment and are under the umbrella of “necessary body functions”. One might think that the same rules would apply when you gotta go.
The thing is, while peeing and pooping are necessary body functions there is an involuntary part to it AND voluntary part to it . This means that you can hold it (voluntary) in until you’re in a place where it’s OK to let it go (cue Frozen soundtrack). In order to let it go our bottoms (AKA pelvic floor muscles) need to r-e-l-a-x in a big way.
There are a few things that can impact our ability to relax:
Body structures and functions (medical conditions)
Past experiences (trauma, painful experiences, traumatic toileting experiences)
Nervous system regulation
In this post we’re going to focus on that last one - our big- ole brains!
WE ARE ALL LOOKING FOR SAFETY
We are hardwired to seek safety, connection, and to anticipate and avoid danger. While many modern day humans live in relatively safe environments, we continue to seek safety and look for danger. When we see something that triggers danger, we typically react to protect ourselves and to regulate our nervous system so we can survive and function. If triggered, part of the safety domino effect is to NOT go to the bathroom because we are feeling like it is not safe to be vulnerable. When we pee or poo we are being vulnerable because we are partially unclothed, we are relaxed, and we are releasing our bodily waste which can initiate sensations and body mechanisms that can feel involuntary and intimate. If you do not feel safe it is VERY difficult to fully relax your bottom muscles and completely release your pee and poo. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4364301/
While we’re not typically on the lookout for wild animals in our toileting situations, we can sense danger in other ways. The sensory or environmental landscape is a big determiner of if we perceive a situation as safe or unsafe. Even small, almost imperceptible things (like a faint dripping sound or an “off” smell) can trigger the body to feel that danger is near and that protective measures need to be activated.
CREATING A SAFE ENVIRONMENT
So now, if you haven't bought in to the power of the environment and the very big possibility that the environment is impacting your child … your wheels are probably turning and you’re seeing the link between environment, safety, and pooping.
If not - let me say it one more time. You need to feel safe to poop, our brains are hardwired to see danger, if you sense danger you prob won’t poop, there’s likely something in your environment that doesn’t feel “safe”.
Now let’s talk about how to create safe environments at home and away from home.
We’ll start with the four biggies:
First, get curious with your kiddo and go on a little detective hunt to see if you can find what’s good and what’s not so great about these four categories in your own bathroom. What smells does your child like in the bathroom? What smells are not so appealing? Do the same for sounds, and sights. Throughout this detective hunt make sure you are supportive and open to your child’s perceptions. As a caregiver remember you are their primary source of SAFETY so you play a big role in this adventure.
Once you get the hang of being a detective you can apply this “game” to other toilets your child needs to use such as at school or at another caregiver’s house noting that every bathroom is different.
WHAT ABOUT BATHROOMS AWAY FROM HOME?
While it’s easier to modify the home bathroom, there are somethings you can do to adjust a “foreign” bathroom. Let’s take a look at some ways to adjust an out-of-home bathroom using the four biggies:
Smell: To mask unwanted smells you can bring your own kid-safe spray, use an essential oil necklace or give your child a scented stuffed animal or smelly stickers to hold on to when they are on the toilet.
Sounds: Dull unfamiliar or obtrusive sounds with noise canceling headphones or add pleasurable sounds with a noise machine or a handheld music device like this amazing bunny from VTECH https://a.co/fr843Ix
Sights: You many not be able to redecorate a bathroom, but you can talk to schools and daycares about hanging a friendly poster or adding some kid friendly accessories. If that’s not possible, or you are on the go you can try tinted sunglasses or a comforting book to hold.
Support: Remember the caring caregiver is the biggest support and source of safety. Open communication with your child, offer to go in or stand right outside the door. You can sign a song, read a book, or just remind your child that you are proud that they are learning to do something difficult.
So there you have it, big reasons that the environment plays an essential role in helping your child toilet and some of my top tips for adjusting the environment both at home and away from home. If you’re looking for some extra support in the toileting area I’d love to invite you to sign up for my monthly newsletter where I share tips, freebies, and insights from my pediatric occupational therapy perspective. You can also sign up for my totally free toileting support guide here which will give you my top 4 toileting support ideas (plus some extra email bonuses) to help you go from toileting terrified to totally chill.