After sleep, and perhaps after discipline, potty training is next in line as one of the likely questions you’ve had (or will have!) about raising your wee ones. Aside from it being a rite of passage for our kiddos, moving beyond diapers is also a big leap for us as parents. When our children stop using diapers and start regularly using the toilet:
We cut down on purchases and on garbage (extra garbage tags, anyone?);
We spend less time dressing and undressing, wiping, and washing the kids.
We have more freedom on outings, even if initially we are simply trading diapers for a portable potty seat.
And we can relish in a significant milestone that shows us our little ones, regardless of how many other ways they need our support, are developing and growing up.
Getting to that point of diaper free, however, is not like stepping through a single doorway. Just like with infant sleep, it is a developmental skill that is complex and cannot be rushed without consequences. Below are strategies for approaching toilet learning with kiddos. And, as with all things parenting, we can begin setting the path right from birth.
“R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”. Awareness of and respect for one’s own body (and all its bodily functions!) starts with how others treat us. Telling your little one what you are doing as you do a diaper change is a simple and yet helpful way of reminding us (and teaching our children) that we respect them.
Pay attention to patterns. Whether you approach peeing and pooing from the perspective of Elimination Communication, or whether you have a toddler with longer periods of time between wet diapers, or an approaching enrolment date for kindergarten, being aware of body language, timing, and triggers (how many pee-infused baths have your kiddos had?!) is helpful.
Each in their own time. Although there are general trends on when children are able to use the toilet regularly for peeing, the age at which children are ready varies so widely that these age ranges are usually not helpful. With the exception of identifying medical, neurodevelopmental, and emotional barriers to toilet learning, the age when most kids are toilet trained may not be helpful in appreciating when your child is ready. Paying attention to signs of readiness, instead of age, can be helpful for taking the pressure off and for respecting your own child’s development.
Model the outcome you want. Kids who see how the toilet is used are more likely to imitate its use, even at the age of one. Consider pointing out why you are using the toilet, and perhaps even invite your toddler to flush! But be prepared that modeling your behaviour might transfer over to putting other things in the toilet —a plumber once told me that in one troubled toilet he found an entire mini collection of playskool people. Pens are surprisingly effective at causing all sorts of back ups (this from personal experience —oh what chaos one little pen can cause). And no one wants their toothbrush to make its way into the bowl. Take it in stride. And keep a plunger nearby!
Offer it and they will pee. Eventually. Having available a potty or an accessible toilet seat (including this one that is built right into the adult seat) along with an appropriate step stool can encourage children to spontaneously try toileting. Getting a potty long before your child is ready results in it being as natural a part of the bathroom as the toilet itself. For kids who don’t like dramatic change, this may be helpful.
Pomp and Circumstance. For kiddos who love to have their milestones celebrated in style, novelty toilets with their favourite characters on it may help. But more importantly, the positive and genuinely pleased approach you take towards their learning may make a longer term impact (and transfers over into all sorts of achievements and milestones without the need to surround yourself with Paw Patrol paraphernalia). Being interested and excited—without been too interested and excited—may take some trial and error. Knowing your child’s temperament, and what works for them in terms of your reaction to other achievements, can help guide you.
Go with the Flow. Whether your child goes diaper-free or bottomless for three intense days in the winter, or for two months in the summer, there will likely be wet clothes and pee on the floor at some point. Cleaning it up without chastising, and (if you can muster it without it seeming like you are punishing them) recruiting their help in a calm way is important for avoiding shame and embarrassment about a tricky developmental skill that will inevitably have its ups and downs.
Know when to hold’em… know when to walk away. If things are not going so smoothly, it is often a sign that they are not ready. Put the goal of potty training aside for a while, and return to it when there are other cues. If, however, you feel like there is more going on, pursue it with your doctor. Urinary tract infections can sometimes be symptom free and yet will cause all sorts of upsets to the progression of potty training.
Natural Opportunities and Oops’s: At one point in the gradual transition to full toileting with my first born, I found myself at a park ten minutes from home when he had to go pee —and we had not brought a diaper with us. This was the first time in the toilet-learning process that he’d been away from home for toileting and he wasn’t so gung ho about the idea of peeing in the public washroom. I offered a choice: he could either pee in the public toilet or we go home right away for him to pee there and remain at home. Although not initially happy with this choice (it was a beautiful day at the park, but boy oh boy the toilet at home was familiar) he weighed his options and chose to give the public toilet a try. It worked! We got to stay another hour, and he overcame the milestone of using a washroom other than our own. The next week, however, at the same park, we ended up with a surprise wet pair of pants. Sometimes natural opportunities (or genuine forced choices) help us make progress. But it’s not always linear.
Dry Nights. If dry diapers at night seem like a distant dream, and you feel like it ought to have happened already, consider constipation. If children are backed up (even if they are pooping every day), it can cause night wetting. If you feel this may be a factor, an x-ray can confirm it, and strategies can be put in place to get things flowing better. Once the bowels are emptying easily and fully, there is less pressure on the bladder and ureter, and more ‘room’ for developmentally-appropriate night dryness. Resolving constipation will also set the stage for smooth transition to toileting for bowel movements too.
When Hurdles Get In the Way
There are a number of situations that delay toileting or that prevent independent toileting. Mobility issues, neurodevelopmental and social-emotional challenges, frequent UTIs, and cognitive delays can impact a child’s ability to progress towards independent toileting. Whether these hurdles are resolved over time (e.g. cognitive development or resolving UTIs) or whether these hurdles remain, respecting a child’s developmental, emotional, and physical abilities is crucial. By appreciating what the challenge is, we as parents may work towards remaining calm about the goal, the timeline, and the barriers.
This patience and acceptance includes when the child is ready and willing emotionally and yet is unable to achieve this milestone, and vice versa —when the child appears physically able but is not emotionally ready.
Signs Your Child May Be Ready for More Progress to Toileting:
Their diaper remains dry for a greater length of time;
They pause activity and take a pee posture (or expresses to you verbally that they are peeing in their diaper) that lets you know they are peeing willfully;
They show an interest in the toilet, especially if it involves imitating you. (However, imitating can happen long before a child is ready physically.) Encourage this imitation, even if it doesn’t ‘yield results’. Toilet habits are a nice thing to develop, if led by your child, even before toilet use is consistent.
Should I Use Rewards to Encourage Toileting?
I generally take an “Alfie Kohn” approach to rewards (see his book Unconditional Parenting for his perspective on rewards and punishment): rewards usually coerce compliance rather than support the development of a skill. Although a well-timed encouraging gesture can tip “almost ready kids” solidly into the “totally potty-trained” category, rewards tend to assume that all the pieces are in place for success, and that all the child needs is a sticker or toy or chocolate to achieve the milestone. This is not usually the case. Kids are built to want to develop new skills. If they are resistant to developing a new skill then perhaps (a) they are not ready yet and a reward will frustrate, rather than motivate, or (b) they are relying a lot on this skill being your priority rather than a priority that comes from within. Occasionally, a reward to sweeten the deal can be helpful in cases where there is a lot of fear —the extra motivation to overcome that fear might help. But in my view, we ought to use rewards sparingly.
All in Good Time
Generally, as with most developmental skills, if we as parents provide the environment (nurturing, supportive, with opportunities for development, and access to the right tools -e.g. a potty!) children will develop new skills when they are developmentally ready, including toileting. If the timing is right, this happens smoothly, albeit gradually and with set backs along the way. And although there may be pressure to speed things up and rush the process, we can remind ourselves that, just as with learning to walk, most kids will get where they need to go when they are ready.
Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting
Built-In Potty Seat, amazon.ca