Kids get brand new personalities, it seems, when they trot off to daycare. At his “school,” my four-year-old son, Leo, puts on a snowsuit without protest, washes his hands after being asked once, and cheerily puts away his toys. He’s so not like this at home. So when the time came for potty training, it was (surprise, surprise) at daycare where he sat on the toilet for the first time.
Before age three, this wilful, dreamy child had fully completed potty training. Although my husband and I had put him on the toilet from time to time and bought him Thomas underwear, his daycare providers did the real work of making bathroom visits a regular part of his life.
To find out more about the magic skills daycare workers seem to have in the land of diapers, I asked some early childhood educators across the country for potty training tips. First, they admitted that simply not being a child’s parents has its benefits. “We have a very different relationship with the kids. We’re able to hold the line,” says James Barker, site director of the Front Street location of Kids & Company in Toronto.
Not only do daycare workers tend to be firmer than parents, they also worry less and rarely get riled up in matters of the toilet. “Parents need to relax,” says Vivian Turner, executive director of the Garneau University Childcare Centre in Edmonton. “There are very few adults walking around in diapers.”
Here’s some more bottom-line advice on potty training from the pros:
Persuading a toddler to first sit on the potty is no small task. Some are scared, some get mad and others are just not interested. “I will bring a friend of the child who is already toilet trained, and have that child go first,” says Barker. Then he suggests the untrained child give it a try. If the child refuses, Barker shrugs it off—and then offers again a few hours later. And the next day, and the day after that. “If they refuse, we don’t push it,” says Barker. “But we ask consistently.”
At Moore Place Day Care in Georgetown, Ont., staff break up the potty process into stages. First, they teach a child to pull down (and then up) his own pants in the bathroom. “They have to have an understanding of what logically goes first,” says Moore Place executive director Carol Bee, adding that kids who can do this themselves save staff time. Flushing the toilet or pulling off toilet paper further helps kids feel in control of the world of the bathroom. Many daycares also have a stash of potty books around to help kids get used to the idea.
Try this at home: You don’t have a row of toddlers to exert peer pressure, but you can employ an older sibling, cousin or friend to demonstrate the joy of using the toilet. And when you get a defiant no to your bathroom offers, try to conceal your frustration. But keep offering. Start changing your child’s diaper in the bathroom, and suggest incremental tasks such as pulling down pants, tearing off toilet paper and flushing. When he does finally give it a shot, show him you’re happy and excited, even if he doesn’t pee or poop.
The daycare way: The potty-versus-toilet debate gets little airing at daycares—they have what they have and kids must adjust. “It’s a small obstacle, but we work around it,” says Barker. If all they have are full-sized toilets, daycare workers drag out stools to help kids climb up. Wonder why you don’t see many toilet inserts at preschool? They’re hard to keep clean, so most daycares avoid them.
Try this at home: Daycares can’t cater to each child’s individual needs, but you have more flexibility at home and should take advantage of it. Toilets are big and loud and some kids are scared of them; others know the potty is not what adults use, and thus give them a snub. So have both a potty and seat insert (decorated with Dora or whatever appeals) available, and use the one your child prefers without making a fuss or trying to talk her into the option most convenient for you.
The daycare way: “It’s an accident; it’s not premeditated,” says Turner. When a child who’s potty trained suddenly goes in her underwear, daycare staff see it as a natural part of the training process. They do a quick cleanup, put the child in fresh clothes and simply move on. At the same time, when accidents are ongoing, staff will try to figure out if they’re triggered by something. “Sometimes the child is not feeling well,” says Turner. Or sometimes a big change, such as a new baby in the family, a renovation or being on vacation, can cause a series of setbacks. “If they were dry at one point, they’ll be dry again,” Turner says.
Try this at home: Keep in mind that this is a temporary phase, and your child will go back to going in the toilet. Try not to get upset or punish her for backsliding. If you think the relapse may be the result of something going on around her, talk to your child about it and see how you can make it easier for her to cope.
The daycare way: “We keep a sticker chart in the bathroom, and when they sit and try to go, they get to put a sticker up themselves,” says Anne McKiel, director of the YMCA Dartmouth Childcare in Dartmouth, NS. Other daycares make a big deal when a child uses the toilet by praising him and sharing the news with the other kids.
Try this at home: Establish a reward system that motivates your child and is realistic for you to sustain. Barker has heard of parents giving their kids a Hot Wheels car every time they go—that’s a bit much. Try stickers or check marks instead. But also consider making your reaction the big motivator. “Sometimes the biggest reward is mom saying, ‘Great job,’ with a big smile and a hug,” says Turner.
The daycare way: Daycares each have their own approach to scheduling the trek to the toilet. At Kids & Company, daycare workers do a toilet routine four times a day. At Moore Place, workers take kids in training to the potty every half-hour. McKiel’s centre keeps it very flexible. “We watch the children and make the schedule around them,” she says. The challenge with schedules, say all three daycares, is getting kids to stick to them. “It’s really hard for kids to leave what they’re doing,” says Barker. Daycare workers often give kids lots of reminders that a bathroom break is coming, reassuring them that their toys will still be there when they come back.
Try this at home: Set your potty schedule at home according to the one your child follows at daycare. If you’re home full-time, set a routine around both your own day and when you find your child most often has to go. And do as daycare does: Let your child know in advance that it’s almost potty time, and playtime will continue afterwards.
The daycare way: Avoid training diapers when possible. “A pull-up diaper is exactly the same as a diaper and kids think they can do the same thing in it,” says Bee. Most daycare staff agree: Go directly to underwear. Kids can really feel when they’re wet in underwear and, says Turner, “most kids enjoy underwear rather than pull-up diapers.” On the other hand, Barker likes to use a training diaper on top of underwear for about a two-week training period: The child can feel when he’s wet, but there’s less mess.
Try this at home: While you might want to use diapers at night, underwear is best for serious training. Splurge on Tigger or Cinderella undies—it’s a real motivator for some kids. And don’t be afraid to slip a training diaper over underwear for long car drives or outings. Your child will still know when he has an accident, but you won’t have to change his clothes.
The daycare way: When kids take their time learning to poop on the toilet, daycare providers don’t sweat it. It often happens after a child figures out how to urinate—sometimes a really long time afterwards. Bee knows of kids who hide in the corner to fill their diapers and are afraid to go on the toilet; they’re often worried that they might get in trouble or that they’re losing a part of their bodies. Most daycare workers see it as a waiting game: They keep offering the toilet, give kids lots of encouragement and celebrate when it finally does happen.
Try this at home: Many kids hold their bowel movements until they get home, anyway. If you know your child’s natural routine, try to catch it with a visit to the toilet. Get her reading a book at the same time—it’s distracting and she might poop without realizing it. Even if it takes several months to get poo happening in the toilet, don’t lose your cool. But be sure to congratulate your child when she does go.
Somewhere between two and 3½ years, your child should be ready to start the toilet-training process. Here are some signs he’s ready to get serious:
• Staying dry for long periods of time. • Showing interest in other people going to the bathroom. • Asking to wear underwear. • Wanting privacy when he fills his diapers.
This article was originally published in June 2013.