My husband was a hard one to toilet train.
At least, that’s what my prospective mother-in-law told me the first time we were introduced: “It’s so nice to meet you, Jennifer…. By the way, Doug was murder to potty-train.”
Those were practically the first words out of her mouth. Nearly twenty years had elapsed, and she still hadn’t forgiven him for all the trouble he’d given her while training.
What she neglected to explain was that she began said training when he was only nine months old. Is it any wonder, then, that she encountered a little difficulty? Yet, after two short months of trying, he was trained.
Obviously, what she should have announced to me at that initial meeting is, “You’re dating a child prodigy. He toilet trained before he was a year old. You’d better not let this one get away!”
Last week, one of my readers sent me this “very random question: I have read many of your blog posts, but I don’t see anything on potty training. You did it 12 times so you must be a pro…Can you write on that subject? Thanks.”
Well, I can assure you, I have no desire to ever turn professional when it comes to potty-training, but she is right on one count. I have had to do it twelve times, so I do have some experience.
Here’s what all that experience has taught me about training little ones to use the toilet:
- Every child is different.
Do not compare your child to your neighbor’s child, or your sister’s child, or neighbor’s sister’s child, or your sister’s neighbor’s child. Your child is your child, and he will reach milestones (including toilet training) at a rate appropriate to him. Encourage him, cheer him on, support him as he learns and grows, but don’t pressure him to do things before he’s ready out of pride or just because little Suzy down the street is already doing them.
- Watch for signs of readiness.
Your child will let you know when she’s ready to train. At a minimum, she should be able to communicate when she needs to go potty, walk to the bathroom herself, and get her britches down without help once she arrives. Other signs that your child is ready to potty train include:
- Staying dry all night or for other extended periods of time
- Stripping off her own diaper as soon as it’s wet
- Changing into an older sibling’s underwear every time your back is turned
- Pretending to potty by squatting naked over the dog’s water bowl
- Flushing an entire roll of toilet paper, 12-pack of markers, and/or platoon of army men, just to watch them disappear down the pipes (and simultaneously ensuring nothing else will disappear down the pipes until a plumber pulls the toilet… again)
If your child is exhibiting any of those signs, save yourself a big headache and lots of damage control by setting aside a few days ASAP to devote to intensive potty training!
- It’s okay to wait awhile.
Want to know the best time to potty-train? Take a look at the following chart. See how the difficulty of training goes down as your child grows older, but the difficulty of explaining why he isn’t trained goes up? The slopes of these lines will vary with different children and different circumstances, but the easiest time to train is right where they intersect — at that moment when it becomes harder to explain than it is to actually train.
If your child will be starting pre-K at three and the school requires he’s trained before he begins — or if your mother-in-law (who considers nine months the optimal age to train) lives next door — your lines are going to be much steeper and intersect much sooner than if you homeschool your children and your mother-in-law lives two states away.
For the vast majority of our children, we waited until it was their idea to potty-train, then hopped aboard with that plan. It normally makes training so much easier when the child is self-motivated to learn — unless, of course, your two-year-old becomes suddenly intent on training two days before the family is scheduled to embark on a 2000-mile road trip. Not relishing the idea of stopping at every gas station that daughter spotted between here and Yellowstone, I tried to talk her into waiting until after our vacation, but she wouldn’t be swayed. The extra pit stops were a little inconvenient, but the pride she took in being such a “big girl” were well worth the hassle.
If your child is later in wanting to train than his siblings or peers? Don’t sweat it. He is likely making great strides in other areas of learning and development and just needs a little extra encouragement in this one. The child in our family who trained the latest (well past his third birthday) graduated the earliest (high school at 16, college at 18, and now at age 20, he’s just begun his second year of medical school). A couple of months this way or that in learning to use a toilet is really no big deal in the grand scheme of things.
- Set aside a block of time.
When I noticed that my first child woke up with a dry diaper shortly before his second birthday, I told him I would buy him some “big boy underwear” that evening if he stayed dry all day. He did, so I did. And such was the extent of his training.
It usually isn’t that quick and easy — especially with boys. If at all possible, delay training until you have at least a weekend to devote to helping him master this new skill. Summer time is a good choice, because the weather is warmer and he can run around the house wearing nothing but a T-shirt and his new undies. Not only will this make it easier for him to get his pants down to use the potty, but it will also serve as a visual reminder to you to remind him to try again every half hour or so. Provide lots of water, juice, popsicles, soup, and other liquids for him to enjoy during training days, so that he’ll have plenty of opportunity to get the hang of it.
If there are steep lines on your graph because of outside rules imposed by schools or daycares, start training at home early enough to build success before the big deadline. Delayed training in those circumstances may lead to more frequent accidents when your child is away from home or under stress. The book Toilet Training in Less than a Day is one we consulted with a couple of our harder cases.
- Don’t make it a power struggle.
Do what you can to make potty-training fun. I don’t remember ever bribing ours with M&Ms (their chocoholic mother would have finished those off before potty-training was even an hour underway), but we have done all of the following:
- Let your child pick the color/style/design of his new “big boy pants”
- Buy your daughter a “Betsy Wetsy” doll so they can train together
- Float a Cheerio in the water for your son to use for target practice
- Call grandma and brag about your child’s progress (make sure he’s within earshot at the time)
- Tape a simple progress chart to the wall of the bathroom and give stickers for both attempts and successes
For our progress charts, I normally just write the child’s name across the top of a piece of construction paper, and sometimes draw lines for days, then award one sticker every time she attempts to potty and two when she succeeds. By the time the stickers are all used up or the page is too full to hold any more, the child is usually trained. We glue the little chart in her scrapbook and she’s fine going potty without a reward thereafter. If you don’t have any construction paper handy, just click on one of the following images to print a free customizable chart for your child.
So that’s about all I know when it comes to training. One last word about accidents. I’ve known a few moms who’ve made a much bigger deal about accidents than is warranted. However, my own mother handled accidents with a lot of grace and understanding, which is fortunate for me, because I had plenty of them, even beyond the window of time when you might expect a child to be wetting her pants.
If your child has accidents during the day, don’t ever shame him about it, but do carry an extra change of clothes in your purse and gently remind him to take a bathroom break as needed. Some children get so busy and involved in what they are doing that they simply forget to attend when nature calls. I think that was my problem as a child.
If your child has accidents at night, know that this, too, shall pass. Restricting fluids for a couple of hours before bedtime may help, but the problem often stems from the fact that bed-wetters are unusually deep sleepers. Invest in some plastic mattress covers and extra pads, let your child wear pull-ups until she outgrows the problem, and patiently teach her how to take the wet sheets off her bed, put clean sheets on, and start a load of laundry. It will help her self-esteem if she can tend to the mess herself.