A Bathroom That Lets Kids Do It Themselves

Designing a children's bath means more than just fun decor. Use technology to turn a child-challenged bathroom into one that encourages children to be independent.
By: Alicia Garceau


Potty-training. It's the first step in a toddler's burgeoning independence. "I can do it myself" becomes a favorite phrase with the pre-school set, and with a few simple tweaks done by a professional or do-it-yourselfer with plumbing and wiring knowledge, a bathroom can become accessible to the littlest users.

David and Deborah Heffner's oldest daughter, Caitlin, reached the significant milestone of potty-training and mastered the accompanying skill of hand washing as a 2-year-old, but because the bathrooms in their home had been designed for adults, Caitlin couldn't use the bathroom by herself.

So David and Deborah continued to escort Caitlin to the bathroom, flipping the light switch on, waiting outside the door for the call of "mom" or "dad," then entering the bathroom to turn the faucet on and off for hand washing, and finally flipping the light switch off on the way out of the room. And because toddlers like to practice their newly learned skills — often just for fun — the process was repeated many, many times each day.

"As a plumber I know that there are easier ways to do all those things," David says. He hatched a plan to make the bathrooms in his Indianapolis home child-friendly by incorporating three key elements: a motion-sensor light, a hands-free faucet and a soft-closing toilet.

Let There Be Light

At several feet off the ground, the bathroom light switch was well out of Caitlin's reach. David knew that a motion sensor with an adjustable timer would be essential to the child-friendly bathroom (Cooper Wiring Devices 150 Wallbox Motion Sensor, $14.99 MSRP). A sensor could detect movement when Caitlin entered the bathroom and turn the light on automatically, and an adjustable timer would keep the light on anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes depending on the family's preference. An override would allow the light to operate conventionally if desired.

Look! No Hands!

When it came time to wash her hands, Caitlin needed help from her parents not only to turn the faucet on, but to ensure the temperature of the water wasn't too hot. With a hands-free faucet (Delta e-Flow Hands-Free Faucet, $430.95 MSRP), all Caitlin would have to do was place her hands under the spout and water would flow from the faucet, automatically shutting off after 30 seconds. A pre-set temperature would prevent accidental scalding.

A Soft Touch

Any toddler knows how much fun it is to slam a toilet seat with a bang. However, David knew of a way to spoil that fun — a soft-closing toilet (TotoUSA Round Front Drake Toilet, $380 MSRP, and Toto Round Front Soft Closing Seat, $83 - $124.50, depending on color). Using hydraulics, a soft-closing toilet is impossible to slam shut. It closes gently and automatically, preventing pinched fingers and ensuring that the toilet lid is closed after each use.

Big Benefits

When David first suggested improvements to make the bathroom easier for Caitlin to use, his wife, Deborah, thought the idea was a bit over the top. After all, their daughter would be small for just a short period of time. The improvements would cost more than $700 for parts — quite an investment considering how fast children outgrow things.

David was quick to point out that the child-friendly applications had far-reaching benefits that would last beyond the toddler years. The hands-free faucet and motion-sensor light would cut down on water and electric consumption, trimming utility bills. The upgrades would also help keep the family healthy by reducing the spread of germs.

"Whether it's children, teenagers or adults, across the board, it's beneficial to all ages because the less surfaces you're touching in a bathroom, the less chance you have of spreading germs or acquiring germs," David says.

For example, Rotavirus — a germ that causes gastrointestinal illness — can be transferred from a dry, smooth surface like a faucet handle or a light switch to a clean hand for as long as 20 minutes after the surface has been contaminated, according to a study published in the Journal of Microbiology.

Convinced of the long-lasting benefits of David's child-friendly bathroom, Deborah agreed to a retrofit of the first-floor powder room.

Bathroom Bugs

The first few times Caitlin used the child-friendly bathroom, the light did not turn on and water did not flow from the hands-free faucet. "Caitlin was so little that a lot of times the motion sensors didn't go on," Deborah says. Caitlin learned to wave her arms to get the motion sensors to take effect, which of course made using the child-friendly bathroom all the more fun.

After a small adjustment to the sensors, Caitlin, now 9, and later her younger sister, Sarah, 6, were able to use the bathroom without the assistance of their parents — and that translated into added self-confidence for the girls.

"They were doing more by themselves at an earlier age," Deborah says. As a result, David and Deborah were able to do a little less. That — as any exhausted parent will agree — is a good thing. David admits his idea for the child-friendly bathroom was two-fold. "It was independence for [the girls] and making it a little easier on us as parents," he says.

House Guests

The Heffner girls delight in having the coolest bathroom on the block and are glad to demonstrate its features to friends who are using the child-friendly bathroom for the first time. "They kind of get surprised when they walk in and the light just flickers on. Sometimes they don't notice that the sink is automatic, so I have to finally show them that your just stick you hands under it," Caitlin says.

Usually though, it's the visiting adults who can't quite get the hang of the child-friendly features. Not long ago, David discovered a guest washing his hands at the kitchen sink because he couldn't figure out the hands-free faucet.

David's design for the child-friendly bathroom has been such a success with his own children that he has begun offering the package to plumbing clients. Currently, the Heffner's pediatrician is considering a child-friendly bathroom for her office.

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