Potty Training

Reading forums and question sites online, it astounds me how often people ask questions about potty training. When is a good time to start? How should they go about it? Should they use rewards, or routines, or…?Some children apparently understand what they are supposed to do before they are two years old. Perhaps they are running around in the summer without a nappy on, and sit on a potty because they have seen other children do so. However, this is quite unusual; most children do not have control over their bladders until they are around two-and-a-half, sometimes nearer three. Boys are often later than girls.

Physical readiness for potty training

Some parents decide they will sit their child on a potty  every hour until they get the idea. If the child happens to be physically ready, and is compliant in personality, then this might be successful. Unfortunately, this metod can create a huge amount of stress. A child has to be physically ready before he can take any kind of control over his bladder: that means that he must be aware when he is about to pee, and – very importantly – he must be able to hold it, at least for a minute or two, while he finds the potty or goes to the bathroom, and adjusts or removes clothing as appropriate.

If he is not able to do both these things, then sitting him on the potty will not ‘train’ him at all. Sometimes he will go, sometimes he won’t. If a parent offers rewards, or praise, he will simply be confused. One day he will be ready, so it’s much easier to wait rather than wasting hours of time encouraging a child to do something he simply can’t do. It would be like repeatedly trying to teach a child to crawl when he simply isn’t yet able to.

Buy some underpants and then let the child decide

Being basically lazy and conflict-avoidant, I decided that I would not ‘potty-train’. I watched friends trying to persuade their children to go; even if they were ready, some children realised that they had control in this area, and would refuse. Or, if the parents had instituted a ‘reward’ system, the child might pee a little bit, then demand a reward, and repeat the process.

Instead, I bought some underpants in my first child’s favourite story character – I think iit was Thomas the Tank Engine. I showed him, and explained that when he was big enough to use the potty or toilet, he could stop wearing nappies and use these underpants instead. Then I closed the drawer, and made no further comment – other than to show him where the potty was, in case he was interested.

A few weeks later, shortly after he was two-and-a-half, he asked if he could wear the underpants. I said that was fine, and we took the potty downstairs with us in case he needed. Unsurprisingly he had an accident an hour or so later, so I gave him a hug, sympathised, and changed his clothes, and the next time he succeeded in using the potty.

I suppose it was about a week in all before he was completely reliable and knew what he was doing.  It was around the same time that a friend’s child, ‘trained’ for about six or seven months, was also reliable at last. I felt that my method was a great deal easier. Yes, we used an extra six months’ worth of nappies, but I didn’t have to spend hours persuading a child to sit on the potty, nor were there endless accidents from a child who simply didn’t have the physical control.

How do you know when a child is ready?

In some cases, it’s easy to know when a child is ready to start using the potty. He is likely to start noticing when his nappy is wet first, and may then, over a period of a few weeks, become aware that he is actually peeing.  Once he has that awareness, it probably won’t be long until he knows when he is about to, and if you encourage him to talk about it – in a low-key kind of way – you can then ask if he wants to use the potty.

If you have not already bought some suitable underpants, make sure you have some ready for when the child expresses an interest. But if he says that he wants to keep wearing nappies, just nod and say that it’s his choice. Toddlers generally want as much independence as they can get, and this is an area where they must make their own decisions.

What about night-time training?

At night, obviously, your child is asleep. And many children sleep so deeply that they are not aware that their bladders are full until they wake up to find their bed wet. This is uncomfortable and embarrassing for them, so the best thing to do is to keep the child in nappies – or pull-ups – until he regularly wakes up dry in the morning, or gets up of his own accord in the night to go to the bathroom. There is likely to be the occasional wet bed even then, so make sure you minimise the child’s embarrassment, changing the bed without comment, giving him an extra hug, and not mentioning it to anybody in his hearing.

You can, of course, restrict your child’s liquid intake somewhat for a couple of hours before he goes to bed, and encourage him to use the potty when he brushes his teeth. This will not guarantee a dry night, but it might help. Of course you should not do this before the child is about two at the earliest, since most two-year-olds still have a night-time breastfeed or bottle to help them get to sleep.

Some parents will ‘lift’ a sleeping child out of bed and onto the toilet around the time they go to bed – this can sometimes seem to help, if the child will empty his bladder without properly waking up, but it does not help to train hi at all – rather the reverse, it trains his body into being woken up at this time rather than waiting until the morning. If he usually wakes and needs help getting to the bathroom after the parents are in bed, then it makes practical sense to do this while the parents are still up, but it is not a good long-term solution.

What if a child never shows interest in the potty?

The majority of children, if left until they are ready, will start to use the potty or toilet at some point before they are three years old. Many will still have occasional accidents at this age, which for some will continue – rarely – until they are four or even five. And many will need to wear a nappy or pull-up at night for considerable time after they have stopped using them in the day, sometimes as late as six if they sleep deeply.

However, sometimes a child reaches the age of three and still shows no interest at all in using the potty. Don’t let this become a major issues – if he seems forgetful, you could perhaps remind him about the underpants waiting for his use, but never try and coerce him. If it appears that he has no idea when he is peeing, or (at the other extreme) if it’s uncomfortable for him, then it might be a good idea to have a medical checkup, to ensure that he does not have some kind of bladder infection or other problem which is causing this.

It may also be worth asking older relatives what kind of age their children were potty trained. There appears to be a genetic element to this skill; if your child is from a family where most children did not manage to use the potty until they were past the age of three, you may just need to be patient a while longer. If you want your son to attend a playgroup or pre-school where nappies are not allowed, this is something you can explain as a possible motivation for your child – if he is physically ready, but reluctant for some reason. But if he does not seem able to control his bladder, don’t make him feel bad about it; keep showing him unconditional love, and say it’s something he will learn as he gets older.

There are some medical conditions which do create difficulties in this area, so if your child reaches the age of three-and-a-half and is showing no signs at all of readiness, it’s a good idea to have a thorough examination by a child-friendly doctor or paediatrician.

Further reading:

children and personality types
jealous of the new baby?
discipline – what is it?
ADD or highly spirited?