Learning to use the potty is a huge developmental milestone for a baby. Putting the little guy in underwear even changes his look from “baby” to “kid.” It makes him or her “one of us.” The baby is usually as proud of this accomplishment as the parents.
There are many ways for parents to help their babies learn how to use a potty or toilet. However, there are some important parenting principles that will apply no matter what method of toilet training is used. Every child will eventually get out of diapers and start to wear underpants. What most parents don’t realize is that the way they train the child teaches him much more than how to use the toilet!
When is My Child Ready for Potty Training?
Parents are teaching toddlers how to be people, how to handle life, how to show love and approval. They do this teaching through feeding, holding, diapering and—yes—toilet training! It’s the way parents do all this that conveys a wealth of information about life to the tiny tot. Is the parent a gentle teacher? Or rough? Rushed or patient? Calm or stressed out? Does the parent respect the child’s feelings or trod over them with a steam roller?
Potty training is a powerful venue for all of these lessons. To begin with, the very timing of potty training shows whether or not parents are in tune with their youngsters’ rhythms and emotions. Parents who start before the child is ready may have their own agenda that they are trying to impose on the baby. It’s more about what the parent needs or wants than what is actually right for the child. In some cultures, this is simply a practical need of parents—in places where there is no easy way to wash diapers, for example. In our culture, it can be about desiring a “natural” way of parenting or it can be a desire to show off one’s baby’s “talent.” Whatever the case, attempting to train a child before the child is physically ready (which typically occurs somewhere between 18 months & 24 months) is not acting in concert with the child’s development. This can also be the case when parents wait too long to start toilet training a youngster. Some parents are not eager to train their babies because they know that the process itself can be time-consuming and messy and that it will rob them of some sense of control of their own schedule. Having to run to the bathroom all day with a toddler-in-training is indeed inconvenient. Parents can change diapers more or less according to their own schedule and convenience. Parents who feel overwhelmed with the demands of their other tasks may therefore decide to wait awhile in the hopes that the child will train himself eventually. Unfortunately, many parents miss the toilet-sensitive period this way. They are out of touch with their child’s stage of development.
Tuning into the child’s readiness level is an important parenting skill. It applies to everything that a parent wants to teach a youngster. The optimum time for teaching is when the child shows the prerequisite skill set. Waiting too long can mean that the child will have more trouble learning the skill or may never quite get it. This is as true for teaching children how to clean their rooms as it is for toilet training!
When is a Child Ready to be Trained? There are Several Signs:
- The child is dry for longer periods of time during the day
- The child has a couple of well-formed bowel movements during the day instead of frequent loose movements
- The child stops having bowel movements in her night diaper
- The child has the dexterity to run to the bathroom and to pull off clothing
- The child already knows how to follow simple instructions and is cooperative (i.e. is not thick into the defiant “no” stage that is typical of early toddlerhood).
Most of these developmental tasks occur naturally around 2 years of age. Although there are individual differences, the order of control usually goes like this:
- The child stops having night-time bowel movements
- The child attains daytime bowel control
- The child attains daytime bladder control
- The child attains night-time bladder control
Parents can help a child get ready for training by teaching some potty words. For instance, when the diaper is wet, a parent can say, “Oh you made a pee.” When it is dirty, the parent can say “Oh you made a poo (or word of your choice).” When the child is obviously having a bowel movement, the parent can say “You’re making a poo? O.K. when you’re done we’ll change your diaper.” During this stage, the parent can begin to bring picture books home from the store or library that show babies going through the potty-training process. This “bibliotherapy” (use of books to help reduce anxiety and create readiness) can be very helpful. Toddlers love to look at picture books and read them over and over and over again. The frequent exposure helps them become familiar with the steps they will soon be going through. Once you start formally training your baby, the books will provide added educational support.
Introduce the Function of the Potty or Toilet Chair
When you feel that your child is ready to be toilet trained, you can but a potty chair or a smaller version of the toilet chair designed specifically for toddlers and young children. (Some parents skip the potty chair and goe straight to the toilet; this is fine too.) Start the lesson by encouraging your child to sit on the potty chair, even with his clothes on, so that he can feel comfortable with it.
Then you can begin introducing to your toddler what the potty seat is for. For example, you can get the contents of a soiled diaper and dump it into the potty. If you notice from your child’s movements and/or expression that he or she is about to pee or move bowels, then you can take him or her to the seat or toilet to perform the task there.
One method for encouraging use of the toilet or potty is to allow the child to run about the house naked for a few days. When the child begins to urinate or defecate, scoop him or her up and let him or her finish the job on the toilet or potty. Although this method is a bit messy (the floor or carpet may get soiled), it is also very quick and effective. The child quickly learns the right place to deposit his or her goods.
Another trick that some parents use is to show a child how to control the flow of urine in a bathtub. This is particularly suitable for little boy toddlers. When the child wakes up dry from a nap (or, does not have a soaking diaper after a night’s sleep), take the child to the bathtub right away. Turn the tap on to let a little water run. Have the child standing in the middle of the tub, with legs slightly spread. He is most likely to start to urinate. Show pleasure! Tell him that he is making pee-pee (or use whatever words you like). This can serve as the little guy’s introduction to the functions of his body and the control he can exercise over it. After doing this once or a few times, simply take the child straight to the toilet or potty when he wakes up in a fairly dry state.
Consistency is the Key
As in other aspects of parenting, consistency is the key. Once potty-training starts, it needs to be seen through to the end. You can’t put a diaper on the child one day, underpants the next, a diaper when going out, nothing when running around the house. The best way to avoid even wanting to do this is to start potty training when you really feel the child is fully ready. Then, the diaper goes off and it stays off (at least, during the daytime). Some parents put the baby in cloth diapers for a couple of months just so that the child can feel the wetness that he won’t feel in a disposable diaper. This encourages kids to want to stay dry and fresh. Once potty training begins, thick training pants can be used to help avoid large messes while continuing to let the child feel wet.
At first, the parent must guess when the child needs to go to the bathroom. This guess can become fairly accurate by observing the child before training commences and once it begins. How long after eating or drinking does the child typically wet a diaper or the floor? Just before that time, take the child to the potty to try to use it. Don’t make her sit there for more than a few minutes. This just teaches sitting behavior! If nothing happens, take her off and bring her back every 20 minutes until she has been able to produce something. Acknowledge the accomplishment with happy praise. This will be sufficient. Children are very pleased with themselves for managing to use the toilet. There is no need to offer treats for good performance.
Bring the child to the potty as often as you feel you need to in order to avoid having wet clothes or furniture. After a few days, he or she will get the picture. However, it can be months before the child reliably tells YOU that a bathroom break is in order. Praise the child for interrupting himself to go the bathroom. Praise him for having dry underpants throughout the day. Keep the pressure off but keep the expectations up. This means, avoid any show of anger or displeasure but ignore all requests for diapers with a firm “no more diapers.”
Toilet Training Accidents
There is no one smooth accident-free path to toilet training. Along the road to independence from diapers are plenty of accidents—wetting and soiling clothes, floors and furnishings. For parents, this can mean lots of frustration. It is essential that parents remember that they are always teaching their kids more than how to sit on a potty: they are also teaching them everything about how to be a human being, including how to handle setbacks, frustration and upset.. If parents get irritated and impatient and show their frustration in unkind ways (yelling, looking mad, threatening), then little people learn that “it’s my way or the highway; things must go the way I want them to or I become nasty.”On the other hand, if parents just shrug and say “Oops. You’ve had an accident. Let’s clean up.” the child learns that mistakes are not the end of the world, solving a problem is more important than having a problem, people can stay calm in the face of things going wrong and, most important, learning is a gradual process, all about trial and error.
The younger a child is when he starts the training process, the longer it may take him to become accident-free. This just means that parents must be patient longer. Sometimes children develop anxiety around toilet-training. Sometimes it happens because the child is being trained at a late stage where his bowel habits have become entrenched. Most often it occurs in toddlers who have a bit of an anxious streak in their genetic make-up. This group may be fearful, phobic or anxious about other things besides toilet training. The anxiety is almost always about letting go of a bowel movement. Somehow, the diaper provides a safe, familiar experience whereas the potty or toilet seems threatening. Anxious kids often benefit from taking Bach Flower Therapy for a few weeks (you can find more information about Bach Flower Therapy online and throughout this site). This eases the anxiety and then a carefully structured toilet-training process can be undertaken.
Even when a child has been fully trained, accidents will still occur. Even after a child is mostly toilet-trained he or she will often continue to have accidents for a year or two. Just as commonly, a child will be predictably clean and dry for a year and then start to have accidents. This confuses parents who thought that the child was way past the stage of having accidents. However, it often occurs as the child becomes more involved in the world around him and just doesn’t want to interrupt play or activities in order to go to the bathroom. Kids of 5 or even 6 still behave this way on occasion. Don’t use shaming or anger to help cure this behavior. Instead, remind the child to go the bathroom a little more often. Also, when the trained child has an accident, take him or her to the bathroom afterward and make him or her sit on the toilet for a few minutes. This teaches the child that no time will be saved by not going to the bathroom, since he or she will end up having to go in any case.
Nighttime toilet training tends to occur spontaneously. Most kids just start waking up dry. However, many children will not be trained at night till a year or longer after they are daytime trained. And some kids will continue to wet the bed for a very long time, even into adolescence. For concerns about nighttime wetting, talk to your pediatrician. There are various treatments that can help.
No matter how many accidents your child has, keep in mind that your child WILL be completely toilet-trained sooner or later. But most importantly, your child will be emotionally trained as well. Your style of doing potty training gives your child the tools he or she will need for every learning experience.