Parents have been asking me to flush out when a child is old enough to use a public restroom on their own, particularly when a boy is with his mom or a girl with her dad. Let me see if I can take a peek at this particular issue.
Initially a young child may be fearful of using an unfamiliar toilet. In this case, you may need to have your child use the potty before going out – and plan to keep your outings short. While this will avoid the problem, it will not really solve it.
Even before they begin toilet training, children can get used to the idea that there are more toilets than just the ones in your home. You can gradually increase your child’s comfort level of using a different toilet, progressing from your home to someone else’s home and then to a one room public bathroom in a store or restaurant before your child is ready to master the multi-stall setup.
You can also use a public toilet with your child watching. Your child can see that it is okay and not a scary place. If you can use a family or unisex bathroom, that is ideal. Doing this will also teach your child the proper bathroom routine of removing and refastening clothes by themselves, flushing the toilet, and, of course, good hand washing.
As children get older, even around 4-6, and are more aware of gender differences, they may want their privacy. Girls may not want to use the men’s bathroom with dad, and boys may not be happy using the lady’s room with mom.
While we should do what we can to respect children’s desire for a same-gender facility, if no suitable same-gender adult is available, your child’s safety comes first. If there is no single unisex bathroom available and they are under the age of 7, you must insist that they go to the opposite gender bathroom with you.
Even at age 7, a child should be big enough to reach the faucet for himself or herself or for a boy to be tall enough to use a urinal before going into a public bathroom unsupervised.
Hopefully tips like this will wipe up any concerns you have when it comes to your child being comfortable when they need to use a public bathroom.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.