Editor’s Note: A recent story in the New York Times that’s been buzzing around the parenting world, “Baby’s Latest: Going Diaperless” inspired us to revisit this “how to” story that we published a few years ago, by the author who wrote an insightful and very helpful book on the topic.
Even as parents in our country wonder if their three-year-old is ready to start learning to use the potty, most children around the globe are fully trained by age two. But this wasn’t always the case. U.S. children were on the same timetable as the rest of the world in the early 1900s. Back then, parenting experts debated whether it was better to start potty training at age two months or give infants an extra month to mature. Parents began delaying when washing machines eased diaper drudgeries in the 1940s. Nevertheless, 90 percent of U.S. children finished potty training by age two in 1960.
After disposable diapers hit the market in the early 1960s, a nationwide advertising blitz sought to convince the American public that postponing training was a kid- friendly move, and using disposables would make life easier for parents. While it seemed logical that older children would learn more quickly, that isn’t always the case. Getting terribly-two-year-old tykes to cooperate with potty training can be a struggle. By eliminating the sensation of wetness, disposables undermine children’s motivation to stay dry and make it hard for them to grasp the concepts need. The average age for finishing training in the U.S. quickly rose to 35 months for girls and a few months later for boys.
There’s a “green” dividend to potty training as soon as possible: Most parents spend thousands of dollars a year on disposable products, which themselves constitute an environmental night- mare.
Regardless of your child’s age, the first step toward potty training is to remove the diapers and spend a day observing her so you can learn her true elimination habits. A diaperless day can be messy, but you must know when your youngster is likely to need to use the potty so you can get her there at the right times. Infants signal their need to eliminate, just as they signal when they need food or cuddles. Many infants cry. Others grunt, stretch, shiver, give a small kick, or make another special sound or movement. Listen and watch to see what your infant does just before elimination begins. Time your baby or toddler to learn her elimination patterns. After he eats, drinks, or awakens from a nap, see how long it takes for the peeing and pooping to begin.
Once you have learned to recognize your infant’s elimination signals and are familiar with your baby’s or toddler’s patterns, you are ready to proceed. The method you need to use will depend on your child’s age.
Whenever your infant is eliminating (she will need to be naked from the waist down so you can tell when this is happening), make a special sound, such as “ssss” or “psss.” After doing this for a few weeks, hold him over a pot when you think he might need to go and make the special sound to cue him. If he responds by eliminating, lavish him with kisses and caresses.
Once your baby can sit up for ten minutes without assistance, sit her on a small potty when you think she might need to use it. Make potty time fun time by entertaining her with games of Patty Cake, So Big, and This Little Piggy. If she eliminates, shower her with hugs, kisses. Tickle her, blow raspberries, and make funny faces to get her to laugh. Once she understands how to get the good times rolling, she will push to try to eliminate when you put her on the potty.
Have your toddler accompany you to the bathroom at times when he is likely to need to use the potty, remove his clothes, and encourage him to sit on a potty chair while you sit on the toilet. To be able to use the potty, toddlers need to relax while sitting still – a big challenge for active tykes. Praise him for sitting still, however briefly. Teach basic potty skills by having him hand you toilet tissue and flush, and by washing and drying your hands together. Whenever he uses the potty, praise him heartily.
Children can’t readily release waste when they are tense, so nagging, reprimanding, and punishing your youngster is likely to slow training. If your infant objects to being held over a potty, try using the bathtub or shower as a receptacle, or simply try the potty again later. Always remove a baby from the potty before fussiness develops. Use praise to encourage a toddler. Respond to accidents by quickly removing wet and soiled clothing so your child doesn’t become accustomed to the smell and feel.
In cultures where most children are potty trained at early ages, experienced parents tutor young mothers in the art of working with infants, babies, and young toddlers. Most U.S. parents rely on books and online discussion groups. You can find more early potty training resources at my website, DrSonna.org.
10 Potty Training Tips for Tykes
1. Start working with your child sooner rather than later to help your infant or baby stay in touch with the sensation of needing to eliminate, and to strengthen the muscles.
2. Avoid disposable diapers. Children who wear cloth finish potty training a year sooner, on average.
3. Make sure your child is not constipated. Painful bowel movements are a main cause of potty avoidance and refusals.
4. Provide a potty-chair. Potty seats are associated with training delays and toileting problems.
5. Be a role model. Toddlers learn faster when they see others use the toilet.
6. Discourage your child from “holding it.” Postponing potty trips causes accidents and can harm the bladder.
7. Take your child to the potty regularly. Consistent practice speeds learning.
8. Provide only one prompt to “try” per potty sit. Pressuring children slows learning and is associated with long-term toileting problems.
9. Remain patient. Punishing youngsters for accidents slows learning.
10. Expect success! The age at which children finish training tends to coincide with parents’ expectations.
Linda Sonna, Ph.D, is the author of 10 parenting books, including “Early-Start Potty Training.”