Toilet Training ‘Theory’
So much depends, it seems, on getting a toddler to put what comes out the other end in a particular place: the potty. ‘Oh, little Johnny is still in a diaper? Hmm. Madison has been potty trained for months, now. She just did it! What can I say… by the way, did I tell you we’re helping her apply for a Fulbright Scholarship? She’s been working after preschool with the homeless but, of course that all happened AFTER she was potty trained…’
Let’s skip right to the first rule of potty training: ignore everyone else (well, don’t ignore me) and focus on your child:
Focus on the Child
Potty training is a complex task. A child must be able to recognize the feeling that tells them they need to go. Then they must have the control of bowel and bladder to hold it in. After that they need to make it to the toilet, undo their clothes, and find the courage to actually flush the toilet. On a higher level, they need to learn, for themselves, why they should even bother. After all, their pants have been catching the stuff for as long as they can remember.
Some children walk at nine months and others don’t start until well after the first year. This has no bearing on their future athletic abilities any more than ‘my baby can read’ creates a genius. If you have already started measuring the superiority or failure of your child based on when they obtain milestones, you need to stop. Children will usually be able to master toilet training somewhere between 18 months and 4 years old (many children will still have nighttime accidents after this). This means you begin looking for signs of readiness between the first and second year, but you might not see them for years! So take a deep breath, relax, and stop listening to everyone else.
Your child is smarter than you think. Children watch and absorb everything. They explore and assess what might be something they want and something they want to avoid. Long before you actually try to put your child on a toilet, you need them to see what it is and feel comfortable and normal around it. They need to see the normal way mommy and daddy go to the bathroom without any expectations, just observation. If you create an expectation free environment where the child is comfortable in and around the bathroom and knows how ‘big’ people go to the bathroom, you are halfway there. And all this has absolutely nothing to do with the ‘task’ of potty training.
A comfortable, non-intimidating ‘potty-chair’ or attachment for the toilet is a good way to begin to introduce a child to the idea that they don’t have to ALWAYS go in their diapers and some day they’ll be big like mommy and daddy and won’t need diapers anymore and won’t that be exiting! A parent’s tone here is important. Remember your child is much smarter than you think and will certainly pick up on a veiled threat or a statement of disappointment couched in a happy voice. This brings us to the second rule of potty training: stay positive.
If it is really important to you and you are really disappointed when she fails, even if you don’t think you are showing it, your child will pick up on this. You cannot squeeze the ‘poo’ out of your child through sheer force of will, diligence or bullying. All you can do is make them WANT to use the toilet. You do this by making it pressure free and something they are praised for when they do it right. If they don’t get it, it’s no big deal but if they do, gosh, you are so proud of them! You might even have a spontaneous reward handy. Reward them right away, not at the end of the week or even later in the night. Don’t make it contingent on them making it through some future time frame. That isn’t how positive reinforcement works. If you get the behavior you want, you reward it with praise and benefits ASAP. For older children with occasional accidents, a time frame reward system may work but not in the beginning when they are still learning.
You set the tone: is this something a child associates with frustration, failure and a role model (you) feeling disappointed with them or is it something he associates with pride, praise and newfound freedom? If you were a toddler, which would you want to do and which would you run from?
Don’t start training too early. If your child seems receptive to the idea but doesn’t seem to get it, back off and wait a few weeks. If the child feels like he is failing at something, he will more than likely give up or avoid the activity.
Remember that you start out with the advantage: your child naturally wants to be like you (and nobody really likes walking around with poop in his pants). Let them see what it’s all about long before you have any expectations for them. Stay positive and know that they will get it. Don’t give away your advantage by showing frustration or trying to force or cajole a child who clearly doesn’t want any part of it.
Be prepared with a potty chair and always ready to help them along. Offer rewards: praise and something even more tangible in the form of a toy or treat right away. Then let your child figure it out at his own pace.
Check out ‘Potty Training Basics’ for concrete tips and practical considerations.
Matthew Toohey, MD. September 6, 2011