Toilet Teaching Techniques: 5 Experts' Methods
What the big names say about potty training
Signs of Readiness
You’d think that toilet learning would be a simple step in childrearing; everyone finds success eventually (how many teenagers do you know still in diapers?). But for many parents, the very thought of toilet training can be daunting. A dear friend recently told me, “I love everything about being a mom—except potty training.” This is a common refrain voiced in the hundreds of resources available for anxious toilet training parents and reflected in the arsenal of potty-training paraphernalia on the market.
Philosophies and techniques vary dramatically; there are doctors who suggest not starting until the age of two, and those who sell instruction manuals designed to teach parents how to toilet train their infant. How do you find a technique that will work for your little one? And when—and how—do you get the process started?
Before searching for these answers, you’ll need to gather a good deal of patience and humor (an absolute necessity when you’re making that emergency run to the carpet cleaning aisle at your local grocery store or as you and your child proudly wave “goodbye” to her accomplishment as it’s flushed away). Understand that you are embarking on a journey that may end in one short day or take as long as a year. While reading through techniques and tips outlined in this article, keep in mind that the best thing for your family may end up being a combination of several different approaches. Don’t be afraid to mix and match those that feel right for you and your child.
It’s easy for parents to get caught up in the numbers game when it comes to toilet learning, and pressure from friends and in-laws to train a child doesn’t help.
The fact of the matter seems to be that age doesn’t matter. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says there is no set age at which toilet training should begin, they do offer a convincing reason to wait until a child is at least two. “Children younger than 12 months have no control over bladder or bowel movements and little control for six months or so after that. Between 18 and 24 months, children often start to show signs of being ready.”
Before you begin to wonder why your two-year-old is not showing signs of interest in toilet learning, know that the AAP also adds that some children may not be ready to begin using the potty (for both physical and emotional reasons) until 30 months or older.
How can you tell if your child is ready? Keep a watchful eye out for the following signs:
- Your child stays dry at least two hours at a time during the day or is dry after naps.
- Bowel movements become regular and predictable.
- Facial expressions, posture, or words reveal that your child is about to urinate or have a bowel movement.
- Your child can follow simple instructions.
- Your child can walk to and from the bathroom and help undress.
- Your child seems uncomfortable with soiled diapers and wants to be changed.
- Your child asks to use the toilet or potty chair.
- Your child asks to wear underwear.
The AAP also points out that during this stage, your child’s stooling patterns may vary (some children move their bowels several times per day, others several times per week). However, anytime your child experiences a dramatic change in her bathroom habits, you should speak with your pediatrician (do not use laxatives, stool softeners, suppositories, or enemas unless recommended by your pediatrician).
Vocabulary will play a big part in your child’s toilet learning. Before you begin, decide what words to use. You and your parenting partner will both need to be comfortable with this language; use words that are accurate but easy for your child to understand.
You’ll also need to purchase a potty chair and training pants and/or underwear. You may wish to bring your child along to pick out her own potty chair and trainers. Make the day special and discuss with your child the significance of learning how to use the potty.
Before your child sits on the new potty, talk about what he/she can expect. Point out that Mommy and Daddy use the potty. Then try a couple “test runs” in the bathroom. Without taking off her clothes or diaper, show your child how to sit on the potty (most pediatricians recommend starting boys out sitting, too). Your child’s feet should be firmly planted on the floor or a step-stool. Also, demonstrate how to wipe (girls should always wipe from front to back to avoid bladder infections) and talk about flushing and where the contents of the toilet go. Be sure to enforce healthy hygiene: you and your child should always wash your hands when leaving the bathroom—even if you are just “touring” the facilities.
Many children also benefit from the many toilet-learning products available. There are self-wetting dolls for boys and girls (complete with their own potties), training books, and various DVDs and videos.
One morning—perhaps after your child has had her potty chair for a few weeks—your little one announces, “No more diapers, Mommy.” Now what?
The techniques and philosophies regarding toilet-learning techniques vary. Here are some of the more popular approaches:
All in a Day’s Work: Dr. Phil McGraw, the licensed clinical psychologist who has become a household name in recent years, employs a six-step technique for one-day toilet training. His program leans heavily on the use of a drink-and-wet doll—something easily found at various toy stores. Parents use the anatomically correct doll to illustrate proper toilet use, as well as to introduce “big kid” underwear. After the doll uses her potty, Dr. Phil suggests throwing a “potty party,” replete with party hats, streamers, and lots of loving attention. “Let your child know that when he goes potty, he will have a potty party, too,” writes Dr. Phil on his website. After the party, have your child put on her new undies and offer her lots of fluids—the sooner your little one has to go, the sooner you begin toilet learning.
Parents should then gently encourage their child to use the potty several times in a row to establish muscle memory. After the first successful potty-chair trip, Dr. Phil suggests parents offer their child a phone call to their favorite “super hero” to share in the good news (enlist the help of a family member or friend to play the part ahead of time). This step can easily be substituted with just about anything—a special phone call to Grandma, picking out a new book or toy, or going on a special parent-child date.
A Simple Two-Step: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D., famed child-development specialists, suggest beginning toilet learning with several practice sessions. Have your child sit on the potty fully clothed, with a parent nearby. Take this time to talk about the potty, how it’s used, and how it’s similar to the toilet Mommy and Daddy use. You can also use this time to read a toilet-learning book together.
After introducing the potty a few times, Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow recommend letting your child run around bare-bottomed—but remind her that she can certainly “try” the potty if she feels the need to go. (Keep an eye out for signs and help guide her to the potty if you see that tell-tale look.) The doctors add the realistic caveat, “[This] may work immediately; it may not.”
Careful Conditioning: William Sears, M.D., a proponent of attachment parenting, offers toilet training advice similar to that of Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow—although he believes parents should “condition” their child to use a toilet. “Toilet-training is a partnership, with proper roles assigned to each person,” writes Sears on his website. “You can lead a baby to the bathroom, but you can’t make him go.”
Dr. Sears offers several different approaches to toilet learning, including a guide for toilet training in two days with several tips to consider before starting, plus information on what to do if your child refuses to go and how to handle toilet training during travel.
The two-day guide advocates charting a child’s diaper bowel movements for a few days, then trying to catch an impending bowel movement by getting the child to the potty in time. Eventually, the child learns the connection between urine or a stool and the potty. “The bottom line [to toilet learning] is helping your baby achieve a healthy toilet-training attitude,” writes Dr. Sears. He further explains that toilet training should be an exciting interaction between parent and child, rather than a dreaded task, adding, “From a baby’s viewpoint, toileting is his initiation into ‘bigness’—a rite of passage from toddlerhood into preschoolerhood.”
Building a Connection: Dr. Penelope Leach, the renowned child development specialist known for her authoritative but loving style, explains that parents should be explicitly clear with their child about using the potty; however, parents shouldn’t constantly remind or push their child to use it.
The key to toilet-training success, according to Dr. Leach, is understanding that a child won’t really be ready until he can make a connection between the feeling of “having to go” and the urine or stool that results from that feeling. “If you begin before your child is physically ready you will be asking something of the toddler which he is simply not mature enough to give,” says Leach in her book Your Baby and Child, reminding parents that, “Toilet training is not a question of making the child do something for you. It is a matter of helping him do something for himself.”
Parents Take the Lead: Seen by some as a controversial figure and beloved by others, Dr. John Rosemond has been publicly at odds with Brazelton’s toilet-training philosophy. Instead of child-led toilet learning, he purports parent-led toilet learning and for parents to be much more forceful in potty training. His recommendations are often referred to as “the naked and $75 approach” (the money is for the carpet cleaning).
Dr. Rosemond instructs parents to tell their toddler when to toilet train, setting aside a day or short amount of time to focus intently on mastering the skill. Under his direction, parents tell their toddler that he or she is expected to use the potty, then remove their child’s diapers. “While they’re perfectly content to release warm, gooshy stuff into their diapers,” Rosemond writes in his book, New Parent Power!, “children do not like these same substances running down their legs.” Rosemond advises focusing intensely on this training over several days.
Moms Who Know: Sometimes your friends, family, and peers are the best source for information on potty training techniques that work.
No matter what technique you try, strive to make toilet learning fun. This is a great excuse to explore your silly side and teach your child something in the process. My own potty-training daughter loves to sit on her potty while we draw her nightly bath and sing our “potty song” while the tub fills with water. Although I look forward to the day when she no longer wears diapers, I’ll miss these moments—these last glances at babyhood before she emerges from toilet training a little girl.
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