As a parenting teacher and writer, my intention is to support, encourage, and answer questions. So I feel a teensy twinge of guilt when I’m asked for advice about toilet training, and my response is, essentially, don’t.
Children don’t need adults to train them to use the toilet. They do need attuned, communicative parents and caregivers to support and facilitate the toilet learning process, a process that is individual to each child.
These are the 3 main reasons I don’t recommend adult-led toilet training:
I have no recollection of my younger two children learning to use the toilet. I vaguely remember the beginning of this process with my first child, but only because I was flabbergasted when she initiated an interest at 18 months and had completed the process by two years old.
My experiences illustrate the normal, natural, ho-hum process that successful toilet learning can be when parents don’t invest in it. Hundreds of parents I’ve worked with over the years have reported similar experiences.
This begs the question: why would we add toilet training to our already overloaded job description when doing less works just as well, if not better? Why risk the headaches, power struggles and resistance, frustrations and failures? Why be a taskmaster when we can relax, enjoy, and take pride in supporting our child’s self-directed achievement?
Toddlers have a developmentally appropriate need to resist parents, and if parents have an agenda around toilet training, healthy toddlers are inclined to push back, even if they might have been otherwise ready to begin using the toilet.
Child specialist Magda Gerber noted three types of readiness children need for toilet learning:
1. Physical: there is bladder and bowel capacity and muscle control.
2. Cognitive: children know when they need to eliminate urine and feces and are fully aware of what they are supposed to do.
3. Emotional: children are ready to let go of a situation they are used to and comfortable with (urinating and releasing feces into a diaper whenever they feel like it), and also let go, literally, of these waste products, which they perceive as belonging to them.
The emotional readiness factor usually comes last, is the most fragile, and also the most powerful. Bright, sensitive, aware toddlers can readily perceive a parent’s agenda. For some, the subtlest nudge toward the potty or being diaper-free can cause holding of urine or feces, delay toilet learning for months or even years, make toddlers feel ashamed, lead to severe constipation.
In this video, mother of twins Suzanne Schlosberg shares her cautionary tale about adult-led toilet training:
In It’s No Accident, the book Schlosberg coauthored with pediatric urologist Steve Hodges, parents are urged to slow down toilet training and informed that constipation — caused mostly by early/rushed potty training and poor diet -– is the root cause of virtually all bedwetting, toileting accidents, and recurrent UTIs. Schlosberg and Hodges also created this infographic (available as a free download) to increase awareness about constipation:
According to Schlosberg, “Most parents don’t know the signs of constipation (assuming it means “infrequent pooping”), it goes unrecognized, and kids suffer.”
I’ve learned over the years working with parents that toilet learning is nothing to mess with. I even cringe when parents tell me they’re “working on it,” because I’ve seen this attitude lead to problems all too often.
Granted, I hear mostly from the parents who are struggling and anxious. There must be many for whom toilet training techniques work. Why else would there be such a proliferation of toilet training books and products? Hmmm… marketers wouldn’t try to convince consumers they need something they really don’t, would they?
Kids deserve to own this accomplishment
There isn’t a long list of accomplishments toddlers can achieve. But they can do this, so I see no reason not to let them master this skill. There is no more powerful, confidence-building affirmation for toddlers than “I can do it myself.”
Toilet learning happens naturally and easily when we:
Invite children to actively participate in bathing, diaper changes, and other self-care routines from the time they are born. We invite active participation by communicating each detail respectfully: “I’m going to lift your bottom now so that I can wipe you. Can you help me lift?” Be careful not to transmit negative messages about body parts or feces and urine (“stinky, dirty”, etc.).
Model toilet use. Children naturally wish to do what parents and older siblings do.
Never force or even coax children to use the potty, but give clear behavior boundaries in general so that children aren’t tempted to use toilet learning as a testing ground. This sensitive and complex area of development needs to remain free and clear of power struggles.
Make a potty available. Some children like a small potty that allows their feet to reach the floor, while others prefer a seat that fits into the regular toilet.
Observe. Become a practiced observer. When children seem to be signaling an urge to eliminate (by touching their diapers, pressing their thighs togethers, etc.), ask matter-of-factly if they would like to use the potty. Calmly accept no for an answer.
Offer the choice of diapers or underwear when you sense children might be ready for toilet learning, always fully accepting their choice to stay in diapers.
Trust, trust, trust. As Magda Gerber advises in Your Self-Confident Baby, “Learning to use the toilet is a process that takes time. Rather than push or manipulate your child by giving him treats such as candy or a special reward for something that he will learn on his own, trust that he will learn it when he is ready. Respect is based on trust.”
For more support, here’s a podcast I recorded in response to a parent struggling with toilet training:
I share more about this respectful approach in
Toilet Learning Made Easy by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
A Doctor Responds: Don’t Potty Train Your Baby by Steve J. Hodges, M.D.
It’s No Accident: Breakthrough Solutions to Your Child’s Wetting, Constipation, Utis, And Other Potty Problems by Steve Hodges, M.D. and Suzanne Schlosberg
(Photo by Russ on Flickr)