Rannia Reddy of Barrington was desperate—there was only one week left until her 3-year-old son, Giovanni, was to start preschool and he still wasn’t potty trained. It was time for desperate measures: She signed Giovanni up for potty training boot camp.
Founded two years ago by nurse Wendy Sweeney of West Chicago, the $200 boot camp is an intensive, five-hour approach to toilet training that requires parents and children to devote themselves 100 percent to the effort for that day and the next two days at home.
During the boot camp, the children and their parents spend the day in Sweeney’s kitchen without toys, books, electronic media or healthy food. Potty chairs line the wall. Children begin by taking off their diapers and putting on underwear. Then they spend the day drinking juice and eating salty foods and candy. The hope is that a full bladder and no distractions will allow the kids to catch on quickly.
Chicago Parent sat in on a daylong camp in August. On this day, the three children (the camp can accommodate up to five) range in age from 2½ to 4 years old. Each mom has been trying for up to a year to potty train her child without success.
It isn’t an easy day for the children—or their parents. The moms sit in chairs and watch while the children play and use the potty. The moms must sit by while a child has an accident and is left to clean the mess alone. One mother, whose child repeatedly wets his pants, is told she cannot even hold him on her lap.
Reddy says she was hesitant about the draconian approach. "When I was there, I didn’t like the diet where you load up on junk food." But, she says, she is pleased her son came away potty trained.
Sweeney, mom of six, began using the boot camp method with her first child after reading Toilet Training in Less Than a Day by Nathan H. Azrin. "I tried this and it worked when nothing else did."
Soon, frustrated friends and neighbors began to ask for help and the boot camp was born.
To date, 150 children have gone through the boot camp. Sweeney says her success rate is about 95 percent, although only one of three kids at the August session was fully trained after the three days.
Sweeney says those are not normal results. The problem, she says, is the parents did not maintain her rigorous approach at home.
"We put them into underwear, tell them what we expect and then make potty training the center of their universe for the next three days," Sweeney says. "But sometimes this is hard for parents because they have to put errands and classes on hold. And sometimes parents accept the minimum instead of requiring kids to be completely trained."
Jennifer Cromheecke of Western Springs, whose daughter Anna, 4, was not successfully potty trained, admits she didn’t maintain the pressure.
"I wasn’t requiring total dryness and setting the bar that high at first," she says. "I had a hard time being as tough as I needed to be."
Cromheecke says Anna also suffers from body sensory issues, making potty training even harder. Although Anna successfully peed on the potty and remained dry during camp, things weren’t as smooth at home. Anna woke up with diarrhea the next day—Cromheecke attributes that to the boot camp diet—which made it difficult to continue potty training.
Sweeney is the first to admit her approach is tough. She tells children she will not tolerate wet underwear. Children who have accidents must clean themselves.
She says the key is to tell children what you expect and require them to meet those expectations. She also emphasizes that children must learn to listen to their body.
"We never ask them if they have to go potty, we let them go. Just say, ‘If you have to go pee you’d better go over to the potty, otherwise you’ll have to clean it up,’ " Sweeney says. If they have an accident, "Tell them, ‘You’re not listening to your body.’ We never say it’s OK, because it’s not."
Not everyone agrees with this demanding approach. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to relax when it comes to potty training.
Dr. Mark Wolraich, an academy spokesman and pediatrics professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, says parents push kids to use the toilet because they worry their child is lagging behind. But he warns against forcing kids who may not be interested.
"You have to remember that most people are not going to graduate elementary school or go to their wedding in diapers, so they’re going to get potty trained," he says.
Palatine mom Bobbi Selvik, who attended the August boot camp with her son, Andrew, 2½, thinks the experience was too demanding. She signed up because her mom, Andrew’s babysitter, expected him to be potty trained. But Andrew did not stay dry during the five hours of camp—or the following two days at home.
"Andrew woke up [on the third day] and hid his potty. After I found it and placed it back into the kitchen, he slammed the lid shut and stomped on it. Later he threw his potty across the kitchen and it broke into three pieces," Selvik wrote in an e-mail.
"I’ve gone back to more traditional means and I’m happy to say that my happy boy is back, too," she wrote. "Wendy stressed in her training that it has to be the child’s decision to potty. I just don’t think Andrew is there yet."
But Reddy thinks Giovanni needed an intense approach. "I think my kid was ready and he just needed that little push. Sometimes it sounds better if it comes from someone besides their mom."
However, she was skeptical of Sweeney’s approach, especially when Giovanni had a tantrum after five hours of eating salty food and candy while confined in a kitchen. But when they got home, Giovanni stayed in underwear and has been potty trained ever since.
Cromheecke also considers Anna to be a success, although she didn’t leave 100 percent potty trained.
"We made a lot of progress, but I do think there’s a reason some kids get to be 4 without being potty trained. ... A more compliant kid might have gotten it right away, but Anna’s more distractible. But we gave it a real good try."
Sweeney thinks every child can be successfully potty trained in one day—if parents are willing to follow her program exactly.
"You have to put time in with them afterwards to be successful," Sweeney says. "The key is if parents follow up with me. And if they do, we find a way to get to each child."
Some thoughts on the boot camp approach
I admit it was hard to keep an open mind as I observed children enrolled in a potty training boot camp. Somehow, boot camp conjures up visions of new soldiers facing rigorous physical training, not toddlers sitting on rows of plastic potty chairs. But I was intrigued by this approach to potty training that would get things rolling in just one day.
What I saw though, ran completely counter to how I potty trained my own three children. I admit it, I’m a nurturer and tend to teach my children more through hugs and good examples rather than taking the "tough love" approach. And this boot camp was tough. I had a hard time watching young children confined to a kitchen on a beautiful sunny day and told they couldn’t go outside until they pooped in the potty. I mean, really, how many of us can move our bowels on demand?
And watching the youngest child in the group—2½ years old—being told repeatedly that his wet underwear would not be tolerated was rough for me. I wanted to scoop him up and help him change out of the mess, but part of this boot camp was requiring even young children to clean themselves up.
OK, so maybe this camp does train some children to use the bathroom in one day. But I’d rather take the slow and gentle approach. After all, my three children are in school now and not one wears diapers. Did they stay in diapers a little longer than if I’d enrolled them in a boot camp? Maybe, maybe not. But I for one would rather change diapers a little longer than subject small children to this tough approach.
Let’s leave the boot camps to the military and stick with loving parenting, even if it means a few extra poopy diapers. Seems worth the trade-off to me.
Training tips from the trenches
Jennifer Cromheecke of Western Springs admits she’s embarrassed about her daughter’s lack of success with potty training.
"I always put underwear over her diaper so people aren’t asking why my 4-year-old is in diapers," she says.
But experts say in most cases, successful potty training is a matter of kids being ready and parents following their lead.
The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses that if kids are resistant, parents should not force the issue. When you’re both ready, they recommend picking out a potty chair and getting a child interested in the family’s bathroom activities.
Start by helping children recognize and respond to body signals, even if that means encouraging them to stand in the bathroom while they poop in their diaper.
"Once your child is old enough to stand, he or she should be encouraged to go in the bathroom when they need to pee or poop, even if they’re still in diapers," says Dena Provenzano, a Montessori teacher and mom of four, who has potty trained many children at work and home. "They’ve got to understand how to relate their body with this toilet, because if you wait until you’re ready [to begin potty training], they’re going to freak out because they’re not used to it."
Try positive reinforcement, such as sticker charts or new toys, to entice kids out of diapers. Or make a game out of it, such as seeing who can run to the bathroom the fastest or, for little boys, drawing a target on a piece of toilet paper and letting him aim when he pees in the potty.
Liz DeCarlo is a writer who lives in Darien with her husband and three children.