Potty Training

Raading forums and question sites online, there are many questions about potty training. When is a good time to start? How should parents go about it? Should they use rewards, or routines? As with any childhood milestone, there is no set age at which potty training happens, nor any fixed period after which a child is considered ‘trained’. Some children understand what they are supposed to do, and can give up nappies before they are two years old. However most children do not have control over their bladders until they are around two-and-a-half, sometimes three or more. Boys are often later than girls.

Physical readiness for potty training

Some parents decide they will sit their toddler 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 method can create a huge amount of stress. A child has to be physically able 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 excessive praise, he is likely to become confused. It’s much easier to wait rather than wasting hours of time encouraging a young child to do something he simply cannot yet do. It would be like repeatedly trying to teach a child to crawl when he isn’t yet able to.

Buy some underpants and then let the child decide

Being basically quite 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 would refuse if coerced. 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 mostly reliable, at least in the daytime. It was around the same time that a friend’s child of similar age, ‘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 didn’t yet 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 may notice when his nappy is wet first, and may then, over a period of a few weeks, become aware that he is actually peeing.  After that happens, it probably won’t be long until he knows when he is about to go, 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 it is much easier if they can make their own decisions.

What about night-time training?

At night, obviously, your child is asleep. 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 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 toilet before he brushes his teeth. This will not guarantee a dry night, but it might help. However 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 help, if the child empties his bladder without properly waking up, but it does not really help to train him 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 they are still awake, but it is not a good long-term solution.

Consider medical problems

Most children, if left until they are ready, will start to use the potty or toilet at some point between the ages of two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half. Some will still have occasional accidents at this age, which for some will continue until they are four or even five. Many will need to wear a nappy or pull-up at night for a considerable time after they have stopped using them in the day.

However, 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. Occasionally a child has some kind of bladder infection or other problem which is causing his lack of awareness. There are some medical conditions which do create difficulties in this area. 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.

What if a child shows no interest in the potty?

Sometimes a child reaches the age of three or more and still shows no interest in using the potty. This may be more of a problem now than it was when my children were smaller, because nappy technology has improved so much. No longer does a child feel damp or uncomfortable when his nappy is wet; the cleverly-designed filling removes the moisture from his skin, ensuring no nappy rash – and minimal motivation to start using the potty or toilet.

Don’t let this become a major issue. If you want your child to start nursery school, or some other activity where he must be out of nappies, it’s easy to become very stressed. For home educating parents, that should be less of a problem. But nappies are increasingly expensive as a child gets bigger, and the largest sizes can be difficult to find. Yet potty training is something that a child must do for his own sake, as part of his increasing independence, not for the convenience of his parents.

A nappy-free week?

Some experts recommend that, when a child shows no interest in potty training, but is physically ready, the best thing is to announce in advance a week in which he will go without nappies. You will mostly be limited to the house during this period, as you will have to keep reminding your child to go, and watching for signs that he needs to do so. You will have to have a great deal of patience, as you clean up accidents, where you must offer sympathy but no censure. Depending on your circumstances and culture, you might let your child wear underpants, or loose shorts, or you might let him run around with just a long shirt on (or a dress or skirt for a girl).

For some children, small ‘rewards’ (raisins or stickers, perhaps) may be motivating, but if you use these make it clear that they’re for a limited time. Explain that using the toilet is part of growing up, and that it’s what adults do. Make it clear, if you can, that it takes a lot less effort to use the toilet than to pee on the floor or sofa and then have to change clothes, and have the parent spend time cleaning up.

As with most parenting problems, potty training will happen eventually, if there are no medical problems or special needs. Try to relax, to listen to the child’s point of view, and never compare him with another child.

Further reading:

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