OK, so your mom likes to brag that she had you potty-trained by your second birthday, but today’s more child-centred approach lets kids decide when they’ve had enough of wet diapers. Often that means that training doesn’t start until months after the two-year milestone.
Whenever toilet learning begins, to succeed takes patience, luck and the right timing, and in this last area your child’s readiness is the key factor. There are several signs that your child is mature enough to start training. These include the ability to walk to and sit down on the potty chair on her own, the manual dexterity to pull down her diaper, a clear desire for your approval and a pattern of staying dry for many hours at a time.
“The most important thing is that there’s both a physical ability to be toilet trained and an emotional readiness,” explains Dr. Fabian Gorodzinsky, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Western Ontario in London. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) in Ottawa, most children are physically able to start toilet learning by 18–24 months, and are fully trained by age 4. “Physical readiness and emotional readiness are two entirely separate and distinct things,” says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Toddler Books (Wiley, 2002).
“I started training my first-born when she was 2 1⁄2, and it was a battle of wills. So with my boys, I didn’t even start trying until they were 3 and I took a much more laid-back approach. All of them, including my daughter, ended up being trained by around 3 1⁄2, so I learned that it wasn’t worth frustrating them and myself to push the issue earlier.”
1. “MOMMY, I HAVE TO GO!”
Your child’s use of language is also an indicator of readiness, says Gorodzinsky, author of the CPS’s position statement on toilet learning. “If he comes to you and says ‘Mommy, pee-pee!’—even if he’s already gone—that’s a sign that he’s connecting the need to pass urine or stool with notifying the parent.” It’s a good idea if parents and any other caregivers all use the same terms, but most toddlers will understand what is meant if someone prefers to say, “Do you want go to the bathroom?” rather than use the “P” words.
2. A throne of one’s own
Whether you use an adapter seat and footstool with the regular toilet, buy a new floor potty just before training begins or have one around for some time beforehand, the vital thing is that your toddler knows its purpose. “We had the potty in the bathroom for a few months before Daniel started training,” says Toronto mother Marcelle Leventis. “We explained to him what it was for, and one morning when he was 18 months old, he suddenly said ‘Poo!’ We asked him if he needed to use the potty and he said ‘yeah,’ so we took him over to it. And, lo and behold, he did his business and that was it.” For Daniel, knowing the potty’s purpose allowed him to choose to use it, thereby kick-starting the training process.
3. Dry runs
The CPS advises parents to let their child spend time sitting on the potty fully clothed or in a diaper, so that she gets used to the chair. Letting your child watch you use the toilet and explaining what’s going on will help her make the connection between what you’re doing on the “big potty” and what she needs to do in the little one. The CPS goes as far as recommending that you take the contents of a dirty diaper and place it in the potty to make its purpose clear.
4. Like clockwork
Once junior has decided to give the potty a try, it’s a good idea to start encouraging him to use it according to a schedule. The best times are those when he’s likely to be in a good mood, so if he’s happiest right after he eats, that’s when you should take him to his “special chair.” Having your child use the potty at roughly the same times every day will also help his body adapt to evacuating at expected intervals, making training more convenient for everyone in the house. “It has to be at a time when the family dynamic is such that you’re not doing it in a rush,” says Gorodzinsky.
5. Number one
It can be difficult to spot when your child needs to empty his bladder, but once he starts letting you know, the trick becomes getting him there in time. Keeping the potty at hand, even if it’s in the middle of the living room, will make this task easier. Because boys generally urinate sitting down first—and should be encouraged to do so to facilitate bowel-movement training—you or your partner should show him how to point his penis down so he doesn’t redecorate your walls. Kids usually master daytime dryness in a matter of weeks and then can switch to training diapers or cloth underpants.
6. Second Movement
When it comes to Number Two training, “the worst thing you can do is try to force a kid to have a bowel movement in the potty,” says Gorodzinsky. “Because then they hold in the stool and get constipated, and if that happens, its game over.”
If your child associates pain with toilet training, she’ll continue to withhold her bowel movements and exacerbate the problem. Upping her fibre intake or using a doctor-approved laxative can clear up the constipation. Also helpful is ensuring that she has a proper support to brace her feet against—whether it’s the floor or a footstool.
This makes it easier to push during a bowel movement when she does start to train again and will decrease the likelihood of potty refusal.
7. It takes a village
Whether it’s the staff at daycare, a grandparent or a sitter, everyone should be on the same page about your child’s training. If you have regularly scheduled potty times, specific words, rituals or rewards associated with training, make sure everyone knows what they are. But take your cue from your toddler. If he’s not ready to share the experience with Grandma, don’t stress about it. “Daniel has not started training at daycare yet,” reports Leventis. “I’ve told the staff to ask him if he has to go, but I think there’s so much going on he gets distracted and forgets.”
8. Day for night
Some children achieve daytime and nighttime success simultaneously, but it’s more common for nocturnal continence to take months or even years longer. Occasional bedwetting is not a cause for concern, but to reduce its incidence the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends withholding liquids from your child after dinner and having her practise bladder control during the day. Some nocturnal accidents are inevitable, so double up on bedding and rubber sheeting to make midnight messes easier to deal with. Resist the temptation to wake your child up during the night. “Three o’clock in the morning is not the time you want to be toilet training,” says Gorodzinsky.
Unless you’re all willing to trade sleep for dryness, waking up occasionally to deal with an accident is preferable to rousing a deeply sleeping child.
9. No pressure!
Toilet training is not the time to be pushy with your child; save that for arguments about homework later. If you’re using the toilet with an adapter seat, the loud noise produced by flushing and the disappearance of toilet paper or stool can frighten a child. Explaining the process and demonstrating that you can flush the toilet without anything bad happening can help alleviate your tot’s fears. If she’s still afraid of the toilet, or even of the potty, it’s a safe bet that she’s not psychologically ready to start training and you should postpone the process.
10. Encourage, encourage, encourage
When it comes to recognition, the prevailing wisdom is that verbal encouragement rather than treats is the best reward. “Because it’s a lifelong physiological function, you’re going to have to remove the rewards eventually,” says Gorodzinsky. “And if the child is going to the bathroom six times a day, and you keep giving rewards, you’re going to go bankrupt!”
But as Karen Doore, a Toronto-born mother of three now living in Bangor, Me., found, sometimes bribery is the only way. “I hate myself for it, but it’s what worked for Mackie when I started training him when he was 21⁄2,” she says. “Mackie was obsessed with the Baby Einstein videos, and the puppets in particular, so I bought 10 puppets and told him that as soon as he collected five stickers—I gave one for each time he used the potty—he could pick a puppet. The kid couldn’t use the potty enough after that.”
11. If at first you don’t succeed
On average, a toddler will achieve daytime potty success in three to six months, but regression is common. Reverting to soiling herself usually indicates that the child is under some kind of stress. Karen Wade, a Winnipeg mother of two, remembers thinking that her daughter, Crystal, was done with potty training at 2 1⁄ 2. “But five months later, Crystal began having accidents and needed her clothing changed three to four times a day,” Wade says. The probable cause of this development? “Crystal had just been presented with a brand new baby brother.”
Experts say that the arrival of a new sibling is the primary trigger of toileting regression. The CPS recommends holding off on training your toddler if you have a stressful family event coming up—the birth of another child, a household move or the start of daycare. If your child regresses, the best strategy is simply to give her time. Eventually, she’ll be fully trained again, but if the behaviour persists for more than a few months, consult your doctor.
“Toilet training is one of the most important milestones for the parents, but it’s not that much of a milestone to the kid,” chuckles Gorodzinsky. So although you may be keen to get rid of the diapers, as Doore puts it, “Potty training is one power struggle you cannot win. The child will always be in control—or not, as the case may be!” So take your time, be very patient and look forward to the day when the only accidents on the floor are the dog’s.