Nappy change and toilet learning

Attuned routines give us the chance to reconsider our interactions and focus on pausing to be truly with a child. One opportunity for an attuned routine experience is nappy changes. Here Dr Katherine Bussey and Michelle Richardson share some insights for us as we reconceptualise this routine task.

Reconceptualising nappy changes and toileting key times for learning requires educators to facilitate opportunities for children to be actively involved. This supports children to learn how to lead their toileting experiences independently in the future. It also helps children build communication skills, through rich one-on-one conversations with educators about what is happening, and supports them to gain understandings of consent, of their bodies and how they work.

Children experience thousands of nappy changes during the early years. This provides regular opportunities for creating predictable patterns for children and consistent ways of approaching routines for educators. Toilet learning is a more relevant term, as toileting should be a learning process that children facilitate and learn to understand.

It is important for toileting to be an autonomous activity led by the child and not a process that families or educators ‘accelerate through training’ (Belza et al., 2019, p. 497).

The child’s role in nappy changes is to be an active participant. Toddlers can lift their legs and bottoms when educators ask them to, and educators can pause and wait for a response. Older children can unstrap their own nappies. Toddlers can gradually learn to undress themselves and wipe their own bottoms, kick-starting their journey to independent toilet learning. Encouraging children to be active participants and to pay attention to what is happening with their bodies is also a vital part of learning more about consensual touch to their most intimate parts.

‘… toileting should be a learning

process that children facilitate

and learn to understand.’

The role of educators, when changing nappies, is to ensure that children get their full attention. This is an integral part of the curriculum, so time and resources need to be allocated to this routine. This can be a chance for educators to support language learning by continually describing what is happening during the experience. They can label and put words on actions and feelings, for example, by describing what will happen next, when the child should be involved and in which way. These times are a great opportunity for using rich, full sentences; pausing and observing the child’s eyes, face and body; and waiting for cues and responses. This way, children learn how conversations work, what it means

to be listened to and how to share with someone else. During the process, educators need to ensure that their hands are gentle and their facial expressions are positive and inviting.

Nappy changing spaces should ideally be peaceful and quiet, allowing genuine opportunity for one-on-one conversation, connection and learning. If nappy change spaces are lined up

next to one another, educators and children may miss the opportunity to focus together. The environment should be set up in a way that helps avoid distractions from what is

happening in the moment.

‘Nappy changing spaces should

be set up in a way that helps

avoid distractions from what is

happening in the moment.’

Using clear communication not only helps the child know when it is time to change their nappy, it gives them information about the physical sensations relating to toileting and what will happen next. For example, you could say, ’Your nappy is looking heavy and wet. Let’s go change it together.’ Give the child advance notice before you touch them with a wipe—‘This will be cold and wet. Are you ready?’ Pause and look at the child’s face for indications that they have understood what you said. For young infants, slight changes in their muscle tone indicate they have heard you and are likely ready for the next step.

Through attuned routine experiences, children feel safe and are encouraged to stay present in the moment. They learn that educators listen carefully to what they say and pay attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues. Children will also learn about their bodies and develop their sense of agency, while practising self-help skills they will build on for the rest of their lives.

Dr Katherine Bussey
 is an infant and toddler specialist academic from New Zealand, currently living in Melbourne, Australia. Katherine is a strong advocate for infants and toddlers, having spent the last 20 years actively engaging in international infant and toddler professional learning and developing practice in early childhood education based on the Pikler® approach and Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach (RIE™). Katherine mentors, consults and provides professional learning and development to educators and infant and toddler teams by helping them engage in inspiring critical reflection, learning and growth.

Michelle Richardson is an early childhood teacher and graduate of Macquarie University. More recently Michelle has worked in senior leadership roles, supporting teams and individual educators in the crucial role they enact each day with children and their families. Michelle oversees the Education Hub, Gowrie NSW’s professional learning program and provides pedagogical leadership across the programs of the organisation. Michelle is driven to ensure spaces for children and their families are deeply respectful, meaningful and connected places for children to uniquely be themselves and thrive.

ECA Recommends

Attuned routine experiences
By Dr Katherine Bussey and Michelle Richardson

The way in which routine experiences are established and enacted with infants and toddlers in early childhood settings significantly influences opportunities for learning and relationship-building. This Everyday Learning Series title uses research and evidence-based practice to provoke thinking and promote routines as key, meaningful moments for young children. Purchase your copy on the ECA Shop here.

Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

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