Potty training: Is early better?

I have heard many different opinions on when and how potty training should be started. When should you start introducing the potty and how can we do this without our child suffering from the too much, too soon syndrome?

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There are, indeed, many opinions about how and when children should learn to use the toilet independently. Expectations vary among generations, cultures and "what the experts are saying." If children are helped to use the toilet loving, supportively and non-punitively, they will be successful both in the short and the long term.

Using a "developmental" approach to toilet readiness, most children become ready between 24 and 36 months of age. There are three areas of readiness for toileting: physical, cognitive and emotional. Often, children will have one or two, but not all three. It is easiest for children to learn when they are ready in all three areas at once.

Physically, children need to be able to hold their pee or poop. They also need to be able to let go of it at will. Often children learn to hold their pee and poop before they can figure out how to release it voluntarily. Children also need to be able to take their pants off and put them back on. They need to be able to get themselves to the toilet.

Emotionally, it is important for two year olds to feel ready to make their own decision to use the potty. Because they are so engrossed in their "own" decisions at this age, they may refuse to try the potty if they think it is your idea. Further, some children like to hold on to their diapers because they offer the security and familiarity of babyhood. If they are pushing for independence in other realms, they may be reluctant to move out of their diapers for awhile.

The other part of emotional readiness has to do with fear. Some children are afraid of the toilet. Many children successfully learn to pee in the toilet, but take much longer developing the sense of security and confidence needed to let go of their poop without a diaper.

Cognitively, children need to be able to understand that pee and poop go in the toilet. They need to be able to interpret the physical sensations that tell them that their bladder and bowels are full. Finally, in order to be successful using the toilet, they have to be continually aware of the state of their bladder and bowels, no matter what else they are doing--and it is challenging for young children to keep two ideas in their heads at one time. Alice can't concentrate on digging a hole in the sand at the same time she’s thinking about whether she needs to pee. Bennie can't be expected to think about the poop that may be coming if he is studying an ant colony disappear into a hole in the ground.

Children who have just begun the process of independent toileting are typically more successful at home where the schedule and activities are more predictable. When they get out into the world, there is so much vying for their attention that they can easily become distracted and forget to use the toilet. Eventually, once toileting becomes familiar and automatic, it will take less of children's attention to consistently use the potty.

Here are some suggestions for things you can do to help facilitate your child’s use of the toilet:

  • Observe. By watching your child, you will get an idea when he/she is beginning to be ready. Lots of interest in the toilet, curiosity about other people’s toilet habits, an interest in putting toilet paper in the bowl and repeated flushing can all be signs of readiness. Longer periods with dry diapers is another sign. Children may start telling you that they are peeing or have just peed in their diapers. This level of awareness may also indicate that your child is ready to move toward independent toileting. Remember, however, that you may get lots of signs and your child may still not be prepared.
  • Help your child learn about her/his body. Having knowledge about her body and how it works will help your child take the initiative in learning to use the toilet. You can start giving children this information when they are still in diapers. Including your child in the diapering process will not only give her information about how her body works, but will also invite her into taking some responsibility for her own self-care. "Can you hold the dry diaper while I take the poopy one off?" "Here is the poop you made. It is time to wash off your bottom. I'll wipe if first and then you can take a new cloth and wipe it next."

    Warm days outside also offer children a chance to see how their naked body works. Seeing how they make pee helps children learn about the feeling that comes just before the pee comes. This is one of many steps towards getting to the potty on time.

    Giving children information about all parts of their bodies, including genitals, gives them vocabulary to talk about their bodies. It also gives them permission to come to you with questions, observations or concerns they may have.

  • Provide the tools. When you get several signs that your child may be ready, provide a potty chair or steps up to the big toilet. You can provide underwear and, even more important, clothes that are easy and fast to take off. Elastic waist pants and shorts are the easiest. Overalls, and other clothes with buttons, snaps and zippers take much longer to shed when a child is in a race to the toilet.
  • Provide the choice. Once you have provided the tools, it is up to the child to decide to use them. You can introduce them and explain that when he is ready he will learn to put his pee and poop into the toilet. You can offer your child the choice of wearing underwear or diapers and the option of sitting on the toilet when he is getting his diaper changed. Choice is the important word here. It is important that children are never forced, coerced, shamed or manipulated into using the toilet. Sitting until you have "done" something feels punitive and restrictive to children and doesn't help them learn how their bodies work.
  • Prepare for "got it, lost it." One thing that is sometimes discouraging for parents is that children often begin successfully to use the toilet and then stop, refuse to do it anymore, or start having accidents. This is a very normal occurrence. It means the child began toileting independently before he was truly ready and is taking a break until he is more ready. For instance, a child who has a hard time keeping two ideas in his head at once, will have to concentrate very hard on using the toilet in order to be successful. This can interfere with his play and can be an exhausting task. Going back to diapers and waiting until he is more cognitively prepared, though disappointing for you, may be a positive move for him.
  • Provide the confidence. This may be the hardest, but most important gift you can give your child. It is your job to convince yourself and your child that she will eventually succeed. This confidence can be difficult to come by. If there are fifteen books on the shelf instructing you how to toilet train your child, it must be a very difficult task. Naturally, given time and encouragement, we all figure out how to do it on our own. Your child will, too.
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