How can parents find the right time to encourage a child to clean itself after bowel movements?

Our son is nearly 4 years old and it is still difficult for him to get to the toilet early enough (see here: How can we potty-train our pre-schooler outside the home?). During our holiday, for 2 weeks everything worked perfectly and he always told us when he needed a toilet, so that there was not a single "accident" in those two weeks (even in a foreign environment).

When we got back to the kindergarten after the holiday, 2 days went well and then he started again to poo in his underwear (also at home), so that we finally decided to make a step back to diapers (as he often stated, he did not want to go to the toilet, because it was "too far" and seemed not to be willing to cooperate).

At the same time he said each morning, that he did not want to go to the kindergarten (when asked for reasons, they were manifold and mostly concerned preferring to play at home with certain toys...) .

I got aware of the fact that the kindergarten teacher let him clean himself, when the diaper was full - I assume to show him that it was not an enjoyable job for them - which at first seemed to make sense to me. (Sure they helped him afterwards, but he had to start putting the diaper off and cleaning as good as he could.)

However I then learned, that he seems to see that as a punishment and therefore does not tell them less than ever if the diaper is "full".

So we then thought, that it might have a strong negative impact to force him cleaning himself. And I got aware of the fact, that at home we had never allowed or encouraged him to clean himself, so he was forced to do something which he maybe thought was forbidden.

I've been talking to several kindergarten teachers and they claim that the other kids (>3 years) are also cleaning themselves. That's why I'm asking.

I understand that this is much easier for the kindergarten teachers and that autonomy is a good thing to learn, but I wonder

  • are those kids at the age of 3 really able to clean themselves appropriately?
  • what about hygiene (washing hands, ...)?
  • what about children with special digestive troubles or disorders?
    Our son has bowel movements at least once daily, sometimes 4 times a day and it is often quite loose bowels, so maybe more difficult for him to get aware of it coming out and for sure much more difficult to clean, as it is quickly distributed everywhere in the diaper... After long "research" we finally seemed to find the reason for that: he seems to have an imbalanced gut flora which might cause those frequent and often loose bowels (as well as weakening his immune system etc.)

Update We made some good progress during the last weeks.

  • we encouraged him also at home to clean himself and made clear to him that this is a privilege to be allowed to do that, and after some days of seeming to be not very comfortable with it, he now tries to clean himself voluntarily.
  • for 7 consecutive days he managed to leave his pants clean, which gives us hope that we're on a good way
    (he normally poo'es in the morning before going to the kindergarten and in the evening before going to bed - and most days he seems not to have had more bowel movements than those two.)

5 Answers 5


Our Kindergarten, in Northeast US, required potty training to be complete - so the kids can go and take care of themselves. Kindergarten here begins at 5 years, in my area, so I would expect most kids be capale of doing this by themselves. In our DayCare when my son was 4 years he was expected to know most of this, and did pretty well with it, we did put toilet training off a bit but he caught on quickly. The important thing was to make him think it was natural and we needed to be clean afterwards, but when it was messy it became a challenge.

We instituted hand washing for pretty much anything, although my wife goes overboard on certain things more than me, but I still have a rule that if you have gone into the bathroom you don't come out without washing your hands. Mostly due to my time working in restaurant kitchens, but I like to prevent issues.

If your son has loose bowels like you mention it may be a bit much for him to clean up by himself, we've learned to deal with it as adults but often kids think its more gross than it is. My son has the same reactions, and at home sometimes calls us in to wipe himself - even at 6 years old. I may give him toilet paper but it has be a real issue for me to do anything, and that is mostly when he is sick. Since my oldest is now able to take care of himself and did a fairly good job around 3 years old we are going to do the same with our youngest (18 months) and hopefully have him ready about the same time.

The way I looked at it, once our child could reach "back there" and knew what was going on, then it was time for him to be able to do it. Maturity level in many things of course matters with most kids, but they should be able to start doing it on their own, and I know plenty of 3 year olds than can handle the job by themselves. Considering many of our day care and pre-schools also have the requirement that by 4 years old kids should be completely toilet trained, to know when to go and clean up, then I don't think this is unrealistic either.

  • 2
    Consider keeping wipes on the back of the toilet. They feel softer to kids and so its easier to get "everything". When out of the home, keep a small travel pack with you. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot you can to provide wipes while he is at school or a friends, but this might help in creating more confidence and independent ability. Jul 10, 2012 at 2:27
  • wet wipes for sure. they et you cleaner and with less hassle. And you can give him a little portable pack in his backpack, or even a ziplock for his pocket. (Adults can do this too.)
    – Vynce
    Jul 17, 2015 at 19:31

As part of the first time parent program through our hospital, we get partnered with other first time parents of similar aged children. My group consisted of 10 children all born within 3 weeks. Every one of those children was able to use the potty, wipe themselves clean, and wash up before they were four.

From talking to teachers, they expect that skill before four, some say it should always be possible by three and a half.


As an addition to what already has been mentioned in other answers, there is a definite physical factor in play here too. Infants' arms simply are too short compared to their torso to reach down there well. Their arms grow long enough roughly around the age of 4, making them capable of cleaning themselves comfortably.


My son was out of nappies around 3 months before his 3rd birthday, and he certainly wasn't the earliest among his peers. It would seem to be the norm here in the UK for kids to be toilet trained by 3, and is usually a pre-requisite for attending nursery.

He still asks for his bottom to be wiped every now and again though, and isn't great at washing his hands, but other than when he gets overly upset, he hasn't had any problems with soiling himself.

It sounds like you think your child might have a specific issue, in which case I would advise you to get that looked into. If you find there is a medical reason, I am sure explaining the situation to your kindergarten teacher will make a world of difference.

From my experience, age is certainly not the primary reason for your child still being in nappies.

  • thanks for your answer! We explained the situation to the kindergarten and I hope it gave them some more understanding for his situation. However (see my update in the question) it seems we're on a good way.
    – BBM
    Oct 21, 2011 at 20:04
  • 1
    I'm very pleased to hear you are making such good progress
    – Modan
    Oct 24, 2011 at 12:21
  • thanks, Modan! We don't want to count the chickens before they are hatched, but at least we have 9 days in series without any accident - However, he nearly never poo'ed in the kindergarten since then, so we'll see what happens if that should become necessary (like today where he did not poo in the morning at home)... (fingers crossed) :-)
    – BBM
    Oct 24, 2011 at 13:11

I posted the link to this question on facebook/twitter/G+ hoping some folks would come back here and answer the question. Several answered THERE instead, the best answer I think came from my mother, so I'm going to present it here on her behalf... though I notice she was answering "how" instead of "when". The consensus on "when" was "when they ask about it."

Like any good teaching start with "my turn" and explain what, how and why you are doing each step; next is "our turn" guide him by holding his wrist and modeling what he should do. Last step is "your turn" giving him independent practice with adjustment as needed (reteaching). Not everything has to be done at the same sitting :). By the time he starts kindergarten he should be totally independent for his toilet needs...ask me! Teachers don't have time nor are they paid to wipe noses or butts.

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