Parents often feel a great deal of pressure regarding toilet training their toddler. Frequently it is a prerequisite for attending a preschool or program, and well meaning friends and relatives often tell stories of how early, quickly and easily their child potty trained.
In our fast-paced, on-the-go lives, most toddlers train a little later than they did years ago. When moms didn’t drive cars or have disposable diapers, they were much more inclined to potty train as soon as possible.
Most toddlers learn to use the potty between two and three, with boys being a little later and closer to three. Children first learn to recognize the sensation of urinating or passing stool around 18 months, but few train that early. I often tell parents they can potty train for a year and a day, or they can wait for the day. Potty training should not be a power struggle; it is a battle the parent cannot win. A child will use the potty when they want to use the potty and not a moment before. The trick is to figure out when they want to!
Put a potty chair or seat that fits on the toilet in the bathroom around the time a child turns two. Children like to explore the idea of using the chair and will watch their parents or siblings using the toilet. Remember that in order to push, the child needs to be able to plant their feet. If using a seat that fits over the toilet, be sure there is a stool for the child to put their feet on.
One of the first signs a child may be ready is when they wake from sleep with a dry diaper. This is a teachable moment. It is a good time to put the child on the potty chair. If they happen to go, it is important to give them praise. Pleasing mom or dad is a powerful motivator. Some kids will hide behind the sofa or run in their room to go. It is reasonable to remind your child that the bathroom is the place where people go to urinate or stool, even if they go in their diaper. This helps establish a habit and shape the behavior towards using the bathroom, even if the child is not ready to sit on the potty.
It is critically important never to punish a child when they wet or soil themselves. Negative feelings about potty training will prolong the process for months. It is reasonable to use positive reinforcement to encourage your child to use the potty, but it has to be something that is meaningful to the child. Using candy or small toys gets old quickly and in a short time, the child is no longer interested. Some children respond to the notion of being more grown up and wearing the latest superhero or princess underwear. I find that a chart with stickers for successful trips to the bathroom leading to a special prize or outing is very effective.
It is helpful to train in the months when the weather is warmer. It becomes difficult to potty train in five layers of clothing and a snowsuit. It is easier when a child can wear clothing that they can take on and off themselves.
It is often amazing to parents how long a child can hold urine and stool. It is important during toilet training to keep a child well hydrated with fluids and increase dietary fiber. If is painful to pass stool, a child will continue to hold it. This makes the stool harder, dryer and even more painful to pass. If your child becomes a toilet training refuser, stop the process. Take the pressure off, go back to diapers and wait a few weeks before trying again.
Every child develops at their own pace, and potty training is no exception. Parents should trust their own judgment on when it is the right time for their child to potty train, and work to make it a positive experience for everyone.
Dr. Sheinkop is the mother of three girls and has been a pediatrician in Chicago’s northern suburbs for 25 years. While she treats most pediatric issues, she is passionate about the topics of parenting a child with special needs, relationship building and asthma. She currently treats patients for PediaTrust/Lake Shore Pediatrics, a new private partnership of seven pediatric practices located in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
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