By Karen RobockUpdated Mar 01, 2022
So you’re ready to start potty training, but you’re not sure if you want to try a three-day method or something more gradual? We asked Janice Heard, a community paediatrician in Calgary, about common missteps parents make when they try accelerated toilet training for their toddler. (Hint: A few of her “don’ts” are actually listed as “must-dos” in some three-day methods.)
“I have parents who swear their 18-month-old child is toilet trained, and it’s true there are exceptions, just like we occasionally see eight-month-old babies walking—it’s very early, but it does happen,” says Heard. In most cases, however, she says the parents are simply training themselves. “The caregiver is just catching on to the child’s rhythms and cues, and helping them get to the toilet on time,” she says. That’s OK if your little one can hold their bladder fairly well and you’re OK with being very hands-on about potty time for a while, but it can be a problem if you, say, leave them with the grandparents for a day or a babysitter for an evening. Other caregivers might not be able to keep up with your system, and this can be frustrating for everyone, says Heard. The majority of kids are two to four years of age before they can be reliably toilet trained, she says.
“It’s not uncommon for kids to have bladder control for months before they can have full control of their bowels,” says Heard. “One of the dangers is that a child can become quite constipated.” This happens when a kid has a few negative experiences with the potty and then develops a fear of using it. If they don’t have an option to use their diaper, they might choose to hold in their poo for days. “Then when they do finally go, it’s painful. That reinforces the fear aspect, and it can become a vicious cycle,” she says. If your kid is regularly constipated and in pain, consult their doctor.
Employing negative words for your child’s poo and pee, like “dirty” or “stinky,” is encouraged by some three-day methods we investigated, including 3 Day Potty Training by Lora Jensen, but that’s a mistake, says Heard, because it can impact their self-esteem. “Kids respond to praise, positive reinforcement and loving encouragement,” she says. “Sure, you might be able to get them to do what you want by being negative or angry about it, but that’s a fear response.” And if kids are ever punished for having an accident, it can negatively affect the parent-child relationship, says Heard. “Children should never be punished for something they don’t have complete control over,” she says. She encourages parents to even avoid showing their displeasure or frustration, if possible. “That facial expression, like ‘oh no, not again’ can be counterproductive.”
When kids take longer to learn to control their bladder during the night, that’s due to a maturational delay in the brain. “It’s absolutely beyond their control,” says Heard. She recommends using overnight training pants and waterproof mattress covers until your child gets the hang of holding their bladder while they sleep. “About 10 percent of kids still wet the bed at age eight, and that’s the point at which we tend to intervene medically,” says Heard. Unless there is a medical problem, all kids will eventually catch on to it—there’s no actual “training” required for nighttime.
“Children really don’t need a Smartie for going potty,” says Heard. After all, they won’t continue receiving candies after each trip to the toilet once training is over. For most kids, praise is reward enough, she says. If your child is three and a half or four, and you really feel they need the extra motivation, then bust out the treats. “But it’s not something I recommend as a starting place,” she says.
Parents can be so intent on getting their child trained as soon as possible that they develop a false perception of their toddler’s abilities. “They are misinterpreting the fact that they can catch their child before they pee each time and keep them out of diapers, and confuse that with actual developmental progress,” says Heard. As a result, when parents don’t reach their toddler in time—or the little one has an accident at grandma’s house or the babysitter’s—it can feel like a failure. “People who rush the process end up having more accidents and then more negative moments, and that’s not a good way to be with your kid,” says Heard.