Toddlers, toilet training, and universal access to sanitation

May 17, 2017


Ashley Latimer
Senior Advocacy and Communications Officer, PATH

I’ve been thinking a lot about toilets lately.  Odd, I know, but I have a toddler who is interested in using the toilet and the prospect of not changing daily diapers is almost too good to be true.  My son is obsessed with using the toilet – he loves to announce when he “has to go.”  He likes to tell everyone that he went “potty” and flushed.  He’s even been known to wave bye-bye as poops swirl down to the septic system.  He knows to wash his hands after he’s finished and while “washing hands” is often more of “playing with water,” he gets the general idea of toilets and clean hands. 


Here in the US, toilet training is a major toddler milestone.  Parents celebrate the end of diapers and proudly share that their little one is “toilet trained.”  It’s inherent that children grow up to use the toilet.  But the realization hit me the other day: my son (actually, my whole family!) takes the toilet for granted.  There is one basically every place we go.  Even the airplane provides a potty!

Importantly, this is something that I have taken for granted.  I have always known that I would be able to teach my son to safely and cleanly use the toilet. That he will grow up with access to safe, affordable sanitation, and the ability to wash his hands with soap to keep him protected against various pathogens.  


Yet, for more than 2.4 billion people on our planet, growing up and learning about defecation, toilets, and clean hands is not a sure thing.  For many, the experience will be very different from that of my son.  Maybe it’s that an improved form of sanitation isn’t available in the home. Or perhaps it’s understanding that “the potty” is a public latrine for which there is a line and a communal handwashing station with sparse soap.  For others, many of them young girls, it will be learning to walk a long distance to defecate in private, risking safety and comfort to take care of daily needs.


I can’t help but wonder how we can teach children about improved sanitation and effective handwashing if the infrastructure isn’t available.  How do you teach a two-year-old to “want to go potty” when “the potty” is an intangible concept?  How does that very same two-year-old grow up to advocate for himself and his community to build safe toilets and provide handwashing stations in schools?  Toilet training is a luxury; the infrastructure and systems to effectively manage fecal material is one typically associated with wealthy communities, cities, and countries.  But it shouldn’t be.


Universal access to safe water and improved sanitation doesn’t have to be a pipe dream.  It’s doable.  It’s a matter of government prioritization – with resources and the right policies – to ensure that infrastructure is in place to provide toilets and clean water, thereby protecting children and their families from fecal pathogens and the spread of diseases.  In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, toilets will have to become a universal commodity for all of our neighbors. 


And as a special bonus to universal access to toilets, think of all of the toddlers who will have the joys of toilet training, growing up to say “bye bye” to their own poops, washing their own hands and staying strong, healthy, and happy.  Toilets are a powerful tool – and while my son may not appreciate that part of it, I am well aware of this amenity, and I am a very grateful, thankful toddler mom.