Our daughter Mia is almost two, and I have no idea how to begin toilet training. We've been told to wait until our child is “ready”, but I’m getting that advice from parents of three year olds who are still in diapers. I really don’t want to wait that long. Diapers are expensive, and I don’t want to explain to my relatives that Mia has never sat on a potty chair because she doesn’t seem interested! What should I do?
Sometimes the most well intentioned advice backfires. Years ago, parents (in those days, mothers) were urged to begin training toddlers to use the toilet as soon as they were walking, and to be out of diapers by eighteen months old. Moms were highly motivated—washing machines and diaper washing services were rare and disposable diapers didn’t exist, and most children just learned how to use the toilet. However, some children weren’t willing to follow the usual program. As we learned more about children’s individual rates of development, the established ways of toilet training were modified, and a “child-centered’ approach was introduced .
“Child centered” doesn’t mean waiting until a four year old asks why all the other kids get to use the toilet and he has to wear diapers. It means watching your toddler for indications of readiness to learn—from you—how to use the potty or toilet. It doesn’t make sense to try to get a child to sit on the potty when she can’t sit in a chair for three minutes, or hasn’t learned to pull down her own pants. Introducing toilet training when a toddler is saying “no” to every parental request isn’t a good use of parents’ time. But please don’t think children somehow figure out how to use the toilet all by themselves without parents’ helping them master all the small steps they have to learn on the way to being independent.
Yes, you’ll hear parents talk about overnight success—but that is rare. Children learn to do almost everything by watching, being taught through repetition, practicing, and then gradually becoming competent. Without help, they don’t do very well. Can you imagine what would happen if you never gave your child a spoon or fork and then expected her to feed herself with utensils on her third birthday?
Here’s a brief overview of the steps of teaching your child to use the potty and then the toilet. Most children can begin this process by the time they are two years old. As long as your child is cooperative, there isn’t a “too soon” time, but keep in mind that progress may be slow and steps forward can be followed by steps back.
•Get a potty chair! Choose one that’s be comfortable and the right size for your child to be able to rest her feet on the floor. Tell your child, "This is your potty," and let her examine it, carry it, take it apart, and decide with you where it should be placed.
• Show your child how a potty is used. Choose a teddy bear from your child’s collection (I’m sure you have a few). Most children love to watch a teddy bear or doll "sit" and they learn better by watching than by having a parent tell them what to do.
• Tell your child that it’s her turn to try sitting, just like the bear. You can begin by letting your child practice using the chair while she's dressed. The potty seat can feel cold and hard at first, so having cloth between skin and chair is easier for many children. Of course, if your child wants to take her diaper off, that's fine.
Have your child "sit" for two or three minutes while you read him a story, sing a song, or just chat. Tell her that she's practicing sitting on the potty now, and that after awhile she'll be able to use the potty when it's time to "pee" or "poop" or whatever words you choose to use. If she doesn't want to sit, don't try to persuade her. If a child is resistant to sitting and a parent insists, a power struggle will begin that can delay the entire process. Continue this practicing for a week or so.
• Continue routine sitting time. In the second week, at a time when your child is undressed such as before or after bath, suggest to her that she try sitting on the potty bare bottomed. Again, don't insist that your child sit if she doesn't want to. Continue your practice sessions once or twice a day until it seems very matter of fact to both of you.
• Add more sitting time. Once your child is happy to sit on her potty chair for a few minutes every day, you can begin to increase opportunities to practice. Always choose a relaxed time for having her sit. After meals, the middle of the morning, or right after a nap or before or after a bath are times that usually work well. Whatever time you choose, your child must feel that it is easy and pleasant to sit on the potty. Keep up this pattern of regular times to sit, but don't put pressure on your child. If she is unwilling to sit very often, take a break for a week or two and then try again.
• Tell, don’t ask. When you want your child to go sit on the potty chair, don't ask, "Would you like to use the potty?" A toddler often answers all questions with "No!" Instead say very matter-of-factly, "Let's go use the potty now,"
• Time for success. If your child wakes up dry from a nap or in the morning there is an excellent chance she will need to go soon. After a meal, the feeling of fullness in a child's abdomen triggers a natural reflex that may cause him to move his bowels.
• The first time is just the first time. At some point in this process, your child will pass urine or a bowel movement into the potty. Many parents are so thrilled when this happens that they shower the child with praise. However, sometimes too much of a celebration can overwhelm a child. Yes, offer praise, but don’t go overboard. You don't want your own excitement at this achievement to be more of a motivation than the child's own pride in his accomplishment.
• Keep up the routines and the practice.
Once your child has used the potty successfully once, you will probably be hoping that she'll begin using it every time. She might, but she might not. If she is cooperative, you can increase the number of times a day you take her to the potty. If you are at home all day, you can suggest going to the potty about every two to three hours.
Even if you notice that your child tends to wet or have a bowel movement in her diaper five minutes after she gets up, don't try to make her sit longer. She may not be aware enough yet of the sensation of "needing to go" to be able to get back to the potty. She also may have wanted to wait until she had her diaper back on to let go. If you make her sit longer she may start to hold on rather than to gradually get comfortable enough to let go. Don’t get angry at your child for going later. Instead of scolding or expressing disappointment, change the diaper and tell your child that someday soon he'll be able to use the potty instead of the diaper all by herself.
• Practice some more! Continue with this stage of training until your child is regularly producing urine or a bowel movement several times a day. It may be days, weeks or months before a child begins to put her urine and bowel movements in the potty more often than she puts them in his diapers. That's why it's important to keep the sitting time short. You won't be spending more than ten or fifteen minutes a day total in this activity, but your child will be learning at his own pace.
Once your child is able to go both pee and poop in the potty several times a day when she is at home, it is time to introduce training pants or cloth underpants to wear while she is awake. Some people think that it is better to take diapers away before that time so that the child will be motivated by feeling cold or wet if she goes in her pants. If you decide to try taking away the diapers when your child is still regularly wetting them don't make a fuss about accidents. Tell her you're just going to try the cloth pants for a few days and see how it goes. If your child continues to go in her pants instead of the potty, it will of course be more work for you to clean up. It can be hard to be cheerful about cleaning up messy pants for weeks at a time, especially if your child doesn't seem to care. Some parents find that if they begin using cloth pants too soon they wind up getting very angry and even losing their temper at their child. Although a child may react to parents' anger by trying harder to stay dry, she is just as likely to react by being more unwilling to go into the potty.
• Keep up regular potty visits. Once your child is out of diapers, she’ll probably need to be reminded to sit in the potty at regular, frequent intervals. Some children will go on their own, but it's reasonable to think that the parent may need to offer a casual reminder every two hours or so. Set a timer or ring a bell so that the buzzer or bell "tells" the child to go, rather than the parent. Don't watch the clock. The purpose of the reminders is to help the child have the feeling of being successful more often, not to avoid having any accidents. If you have to nag your child to go or if she resists a reminder or a bell, it's best to let her go at his own pace, even if it means more puddles.
• Most Important: Be Patient! Every child learns in her own way, at her own pace. If you are in a hurry, you will be the problem, not the solution!