Toddler development

Practical potty training

A sensible guide to helping toddlers graduate from diapers

By Cathie Kryczka
Practical potty training

We seemed to be on the brink of something big — potty training! My daughter had turned two and we were going to the cottage for a stretch of leisurely days. There would be time for many trips to the bathroom, we’d be outside a lot, and clothes would be extremely casual — if there were misses, cleanup would be easy. My daughter was eager to wear underpants and impressed with the potty. She loaded it into the car herself, sat beside it and proudly carried it along the big dock to the boat.
But that summer — despite what I interpreted as my toddler’s interest — the potty turned out to be just an elaborate carryall for pine cones and pretty stones. Potty training came much later.

The pee-liniaries

There’s no milestone chart to exactly pinpoint when to start moving your child from diapers to potty. According to Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Potty Training Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Child Say Good-Bye to Diapers, “The timing is so important, but the perfect age for every child is different.” Most children are ready sometime between two and three years.

Angela Perkins,* of Woodstock, Ont. knew that good timing would be key. “We waited until Robbie?was ready and it was the best thing we could have done. We didn’t want to push it because we’d just had another baby. He knew when he had to pee and poop, but he’s a stubborn little guy and doesn’t like change. We decided we would ease him into the training thing very gradually, so we bought a potty and put it out when Robbie was around two; he was 2½ when he started actually using it.”

Your child will let you know — in subtle and not so subtle ways — when he’s ready.

Read on for the signs to look for.

* Names changed by request.

Physically ready

• Your child is steady on her feet — she can get to the bathroom, sit down and stand up easily, and she’s beginning to manage her clothes, with some help.

• He has some dry times during the day — perhaps he wakes up from his nap with a dry diaper. “Babies may go every 30 minutes,” says Pantley. “You’re waiting until your child is going two to three hours before you have to change a diaper.” If there are a couple of hours between changes and he urinates a large amount at one time, it means that his bladder is able to hold some volume.

• She is aware of eliminating Debbie Nystrom, manager of? Mothercraft’s?Brookfield Place?Centre for Early Development in Toronto, explains that this awareness develops in three stages:

1. There isn’t any indication that a child knows when she’s going. The first stage of awareness (a Wow! moment) is when she notices the feeling of being wet or soiled. She might tell you that her diaper needs to be changed.

2. The child knows that she’s wetting — in the moment. You might hear, ‘I need to pee’ or ‘I need to poop,’ but she has already done it.

3. The child’s body is signalling ahead of time that it’s time to go and she’s aware of that sensation. Nystrom says, “You might see her go under a table or hide by a bookshelf because she knows it’s about to happen. Or she might say, ‘I need to go.’ This tells you she’s on her way.”


• His language and thinking skills are developing Pantley explains, “The child needs to be able to understand basic words like wet, dry, wash, sit, so he can understand instructions. And he has to communicate his needs to tell you when he’s wet or dirty. Can he express that?” Nystrom adds that your child also has to master more complicated concepts, too. “If you tell him, ‘When you need to go to the washroom, you can sit on the potty,’ he needs to be able to put those two ideas together.”


• Your child seems receptive She has to be ready emotionally for this step — not resisting the whole idea of sitting on the toilet and wearing underpants. Nystrom cautions that one or two signs of readiness aren’t enough — you’re looking for an overall picture. A young toddler who is showing one sign isn’t there yet. Nystom says, “Emotionally the child must be willing to give up the security of the diaper and use the toilet.”

Adult readiness

You’re on board, time- and energy-wise Sure, you’re probably eager for the switch from diapers to underpants. It may go like clockwork...or it may be a lengthy, sometimes frustrating process. Pantley suggests, “The parent’s readiness to train is as important as the child’s readiness to learn. You are going to be involved 10 times a day or more — for a month or more. You’ve got to have the time and attention to devote to the child so it can be a peaceful process, not one that’s stressful and full of tears.”

Just as Perkins suspected, the arrival of a new baby is enough for a family to manage. Pantley confirms, “If you’re in the middle of a move or you’ve just brought a new baby home, it’s probably not a good time, even if your child is ready.”

The poo-ticulars

Learning to use the toilet is usually a journey with starts, stops and sideways detours. Some children (we hear) learn in a day, but that’s not typical. Pantley says, “It can take anywhere from three to 12 months from the beginning of training until your child is totally independent — it’s not overnight.”

Your role will change: “There will be times when you teach, and then help, and finally you back away and let the child take care of his own business — but it could be a year before you’re to that point,” says Pantley.

For Robbie, who’s three now, it’s been a fairly trouble-free transition. Perkins explains, “It was a while before we realized he was too big for the potty and he couldn’t relax all scrunched up. One morning we tried him on the regular toilet and he went just fine. Every time we noticed him doing the ‘pee dance,’ we put him on the big toilet. After a while, we asked him if he could just tell us when he had to go — and he did. Now we’re asking him to try to do some of the steps on his own, like taking off his pants and putting the stool in front of the toilet.” Perkins is pleased with the experience, so far. “He’s never looked back and he’s only had a handful of accidents in the four months he’s been trained.”

Like Perkins, you’ll want to set up your child’s world so that as he comes to recognize the signals his body gives him, the potty’s handy and he can manage his clothes and the toilet facilities. And all the while, you’ll support, gently encourage and offer help as he needs it. Here’s how:

• Begin to change your child’s diaper in the bathroom as she approaches toilet-training age, Nystrom suggests. “When she’s a baby, you use the change table, but later it should take place in the washroom so she associates that room with going to the washroom.”

• Give your child the tools Teach him the words to communicate toilet needs — pee, poop, toilet, washroom (whatever vocabulary your family uses). And be sure that his clothes are easy to pull on and off. Elastic waistbands are great. Long T’s, overalls or fussy buttons could delay him and cause an accident.

• Go shopping for underwear Take your child along so she can be part of the process of getting ready. Does she like Dora or princesses or purple? Give her a choice so she feels some control over what she wears.

• Read stories about toilet training and leave the books out so your child can look at them whenever he wants. Nystrom likes Once Upon a Potty (there are versions for girls and boys) by Alona Frankel and Uh Oh! Gotta Go! Potty Tales from Toddlers by Bob McGrath.

• Introduce the potty casually Bring it into the bathroom — just have it sitting there at first and let your child explore it. Maybe she would like to sit on it with her clothes on or have her stuffed animals try it out. If the bathroom is up a flight of stairs or far from your child’s usual play area, consider a second potty, closer at hand.

• Establish routines Take your child to the bathroom and catch him when he needs to go. Pantley explains, “Have a routine so he goes as soon he wakes up, after meals, before he goes down for a nap or to bed.” Pantley adds that bowel movements are likely to happen first thing in the morning and 10 to 30 minutes after a meal.

• Watch for signs your child is feeling the urge at other times, too. Nystrom says, “The child might not say, ‘I have to go.’ She might be doing a little jig in the corner or holding herself, and then you know, ‘OK, let’s go try.’”

• Offer praise Share your child’s pride in the accomplishment! “You might say, ‘Great job!’” suggests Nystrom. “You don’t have to reward her, but be there for her and support her.”

• Anticipate accidents He won’t always make it — that’s a certainty. Just take a breath and clean up. If it’s a dirty diaper, Nystrom suggests saying, “‘We’re going to put the poop in the toilet’ and the child can flush it if he wants to — or you can do it.”
• Use clear language Nystrom advises, “When a child is in the training stages, don’t ask, ‘Do you have to pee?’ You want to say, ‘OK, in five minutes we’re going to go sit on the toilet.’ Don’t make it a choice because she might not make the right choice and then she’ll have an accident.”

• Expect your child’s (and your) enthusiasm to wane sometimes Pantley asks, “Can you think of any game your child will play eight to 10 times a day, day after day, and not lose interest?” When the novelty wears off, you may need a way to boost your child’s interest while his new skill becomes an established habit. Pantley says, “I’m never against little prizes for success or a little chart with stickers — that kind of thing is often helpful.”

• Establish good washroom habits Show your child how to wash her hands right from the start, every time she goes. Choose some fun soap and keep a stepstool by the sink.

• Don’t expect overnight success Being dry during the day doesn’t mean your child will be dry through the night — these are separate processes and night dryness relies primarily on physical factors your child can’t control. Nystrom says it usually takes until age four before a child is able to make it through the night (and quite a number of five-year-olds still wet the bed). In the meantime, use Pull-Ups and have a plastic cover on the bed so cleanups aren’t a big deal.

• Don’t be afraid to back off If you feel that you and your child are struggling and perhaps he isn’t as ready as you thought, take a break and try again later. “Take your lead from the child,” says Nystrom.

You may feel a tug of regret when you finally pack away that last daytime diaper — you don’t have a baby in diapers anymore. But the feeling will last only a minute.Your child is growing up, just a little. And many exciting, happy (and drier) milestones lie just ahead!

The bum's rush: Not quite ready

Some parents feel they have to start potty training. Friends or family members may be asking, “Isn’t he trained yet?” Try to set aside those pressures. The right timing depends on your child and your family — not the (sometimes inaccurate) memories or expectations of others.

But parents may also feel they’re behind the eight ball if the nursery school or child care program they’ve chosen requires that children be trained. An imposed deadline isn’t ideal, but it may be workable, says Elizabeth Pantley: “If it’s necessary, you can potty-train a child who’s not quite ready. It’s more complicated and it requires more patience and more time. It’s better to wait if you can, but sometimes that’s not easy.”

When the going gets tough

We hope that any toilet-training troubles can be fixed with a smile and a roll of paper towels. But obstacles can arise. For example, some children are concerned about flushing the toilet and where the poop goes. Pantley reassures, “This is common and, usually, they get over it quickly if you’re relaxed about it. I don’t recommend waving bye-bye because that personalizes it too much. Kids wonder: If it’s that important, why are we flushing it away? Just say, ‘That’s where it goes.’ If you treat it normally, your child will as well.”

Some children breeze through number one training, but have difficulty when it comes to number two. Pantley explains, “One of the most common and frustrating roadblocks is when a child willingly pees on the potty, but demands a diaper or uses his pants for bowel movements; some children will actually hold their bowel movements and create severe constipation, which further complicates the issue.” She stresses that it’s important to identify why this is happening — perhaps pooping takes too long for a busy child, or he’s used to standing and finds sitting uncomfortable. The toilet seat may not feel right. Or a hard stool may have hurt him and now he’s afraid it will happen again.

Don’t get angry, Pantley urges.

And don’t make your child sit and try to push. A bowel movement will only come when the time is right. She offers these suggestions:

• Make sure your child is eating plenty of whole grains and fibre and drinking regularly, so his functions are normal and routine. Constipation can be a major problem, halting the whole potty-training process.

• Build exercise into each day — activity helps digestion and elimination.

• Encourage your child to take enough time when she sits on the toilet — three to five minutes, Pantley suggests. To help her relax and linger, chat, sing a song or read a book together.

• If you are concerned, talk to your health care professional.

Potty gear

There are lots of cute toilet-training accessories — charts, stickers, musical potties, flushable targets. You don’t need these add-ons. Pantley explains, “Basically what you need are easy-to-wear clothes, a potty and big-kid underwear. That’s all you need. Anything else is icing on the cake, but if you like it, if your child is excited about it — sure, go for it.”

This article was originally published on Jun 08, 2009

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