Sensory Issues in Public Restrooms: Looking Through a Sensory Lens


Why is it that so many kids LOVE to visit public restrooms?

I am a pediatric occupational therapist. Part of my job is to evaluate clients for sensory processing difficulties, including auditory sensitivity. This means that a child is sensitive to certain sounds and might over-react to noise that many can tune out. One of the most common concerns my clients’ parents have is the automatic hand dryer in a bathroom. Sensory issues in public restrooms are terribly common. But even public restrooms can cause sensory issues even for kids with typical sensory systems.

Let me back up a bit. Think about what it means for a small child to use a busy public restroom.

Planning to make the trip to the bathroom likely involves a plan, especially if you’re solo with several kids. For a kiddo, you locate the bathroom – if there’s a line, you need to stand to one side and try not to touch anything. Then you wait your turn and try not to wet your pants And there’s this social rule not to rush the stall until the other person has exited. Next your whole family will squeeze inside this small area while your mother yells at  reminds you NOT to open that neat little stainless steel bin on the wall.

Boys are on tip-toes to get high enough to clear the bowl, and girls have a balancing act to conquer as well.

Once the deed is done, you’re dodging baby brothers, a hanging diaper bag, some winter coats and strewn paper on the floor.  As a child you have to resist the temptation to look under the stall when mom goes to. But even so, movement sparks the toilet to flush so loud and strong that it could probably take everyone down the pipes. Sometimes covering your ears makes you drop your pants because you weren’t actually finished pulling them up yet.

Next is hand-washing.

Obviously, the sinks are really high and the soap is always way out of reach. You’d love to push that cool soap button, or use the motion activated light to make the foamy suds fall into your hands, but you just can’t reach. Leaning forward to touch the running water one arm at a time often leaves your chest wet, from the previous user’s sink puddle. Walking around for the rest of the day while you’re shirt dries doesn’t feel good either.

Finally the hand drying.

My kids begin trembling in anticipation and holding their wet hands over their ears as soon as they spot the dreaded dryer. Why do those things have to be SO LOUD? It sounds like you’re going to break the sound barrier to take off into outer-space! I love the concept of the Dyson ones that you slip your hands inside …. but WHAT KID ON EARTH would agree to stick their tiny fingers into the mouth of the loudest roaring heat throwing dragon?

sensory issues in public restrooms - hand dryer

So, all this unexpected, unpredictable, adult-sized stuff turned on full force and at such high volume is an assault to anyone’s sensory systems. Even more so for the youngest potty users and for those kiddos with sensory difficulties. Being little can be so hard sometimes! I wish I could create a sensory-safe pint-sized space for them to conduct their business. In the meantime, I will share some of my strategies for surviving the public restroom saga.

Some tips for managing sensory issues in public restrooms:

  • Family Restroom -usually a separate door in between men’s/women’s rest rooms in airports and major shopping centers. They have more space, a baby changing table, hooks for bags and coats, and sometimes a chair. If its occupied, scout out the biggest stall in the ladies room, often on the end.
  • Make Space – Strap the little one in the stroller and have the older one stand with the door ajar while I use the restroom, so that everyone isn’t trapped in the same scary space – but my eyes are on both kids. I know, I have no shame anymore, I don’t care if a random stranger sees me pee!
  • Hand Sanitizer – For when the sink situation is impossible. Sometimes I feel like my kids get dirtier trying to manage the wet mess that lies on the sink top. I can always count on the toddler trying to go swimming in the sink.
  • Prepare the Crew – Remind them of the noises that are coming. Talk out the coping strategies that they have already. Its OK to cover your ears, close your eyes, or cover your head with your coat. Its temporary.
  • Count and Sing – We do a count-down while using the hand-dryer, or decide to  sing a quick song, all together. I make sure that I end the hand-drying when the song ends.

Good luck with all of this, and plan accordingly when out and about. In the meantime, I will continue to rationalize letting my kids pee outside!


  1. My daughter HATES public restrooms. When she turned 3 she started categorizing toilets as either scary potties (autoflush) loud potties (everything else) push to flush potties, ok potties, little potties….

    I keep sticky notes in my purse to avoid auto flush panic–when I run out, I tie toilet paper around the sensor. I’ve given up on hand driers too–we just shake our hands as we leave instead. When we started potty training I had no idea bathrooms would cause this much drama!

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