There is a second, oft-overlooked chapter of potty training. Every kid has to learn to wipe his or her own butt. Most kids in the U.S. potty train at between 2 and 3½ years of age, which is actually pretty late by international standards. None of those kids have the motor skills necessary to wipe their butts. They can’t see back there to know if they’ve done it right, and have no internal sensation to tell them when they are done. And no matter how much they want to be big kids and entirely independent, they simply may not develop the dexterity needed to properly wipe a butt with toilet paper for some months.
How to Teach a Toddler to Wipe Their Butt
- Set Realistic Expectations: Certain motions, no matter how important, can’t be done well without a certain level of motor skills. Not every kid will have those motor skills yet, and that’s OK.
- Be an Active Coach in the Bathroom: Wiping is less intuitive than using the potty, and kids need explicit instructions, practice, and review from their parents.
- Safety Wipes Keep the Skid Marks at Bay: Once a kid has gone through the routine, parents can check to make sure things are clean and touch up with a wipe, if needed.
- Stay Calm: Nothing derails skills-building like the pressure of an impatient parent.
- Skid Marks Aren’t the End of the World: While a child is still learning a skill, sometimes their underwear isn’t going to be the cleanest. It isn’t personal.
“A 3-year-old, a 4-year-old – sure you can have them do it, but it’s not going to be done well,” says explains Dr. Roseanne Lesack, a licensed psychologist, board-certified analyst, and director of a child psychology unit at Nova Southeastern University. “You have to really think about what is developmentally appropriate for the age of your child. Though you may want to be done wiping your child’s butt, the truth is they may not be ready for it, and that’s OK.”
So, for a few months while teaching a toddler to wipe their butt (or more, depending on the kid), parents may be on the hook for butt-wiping duties. But that’s not a problem — that’s what they invented shittens for. Parents can coach their kids, check if they are clean, and give them feedback on their technique. Technique varies from family to family, but remember that little kids have no point of reference. They don’t know how many toilet paper squares to use to wipe their butt, or if the toilet paper goes in the toilet or the garbage, or what can be flushed down the toilet (hint: not wet wipes, even if they say “flushable”).
Once they have an understanding of a butt-wiping technique, parents should still stick around to offer a safety wipe, or a wipe down by an adult after the kid tries it, because they probably aren’t going to be particularly good at it. This can be frustrating for parents who just want the process to be complete; there’s a temptation to compare kids to their peers, siblings, or relatives, and that isn’t fair. In fact, stressing about potty training can really interfere with the process.
In the midst of all this wiping, parents should realize there is an extremely important bathroom skill that most kids can master by age 3: washing hands. This skill takes on even more importance when the wiper isn’t up to snuff.
“Make sure your kids know how to wash their hands really well. That’s going to be a much more important skill because going to the bathroom is dirty,” says Lesack. “We want it to be a sanitized kind of experience, but it just isn’t, especially for kids who don’t have very good motor skills. Imagine: if a child can’t hold a pencil really well, are they going to be able to get that efficient smooth wiping motion? Probably not.”