By Jill Chafin
I've always been a firm believer in early potty training. It started with my first experience with babysitting, with two kids potty trained soon after they turned 2. The belief was cemented into my young mind forever: kids are potty trained at 2-years-old. And I'm actually not alone in believing this.
Research shows that most cultures are getting their babies out of diapers by age 18 months, at the latest. Some cultures even have their babies fully potty trained by age 1. For many, early potty training is a necessity, such as families in third-world countries not being able to afford disposable diapers or having the resources to wash cloth diapers (read HERE about how different countries approach potty training). The fact that many people are potty training early, and doing it successfully, makes me pause and wonder: why are so many waiting until later to ditch the diapers?
In the US, the average age of potty training has been consistently getting pushed later and later. Before the 50's, most children were potty trained by the age of 1. In the 70's, the average age to start was 18 months. Now we're seeing parents waiting until their kids are nearing 3 or 4 years old. So what explains this raising trend?
For starters, we're terrified of scarring our children. Due to Freud and other psychologists, we're tip-toeing delicately around the subject of “the toilet” – nervous that we'll generate too much pressure, expectations, and demands, thus inflicting serious damage upon our innocent offspring. But let's face it, all those kids in other countries learn to pee in a designated spot at a very young age, and they seem to be doing okay. A study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in 2009 found that 66.3% of parents in the UK had initiated potty training before 24 months of age. Are those kids growing up psychologically damaged because they were introduced to the potty at such a young age? I doubt it.
Another reason late potty training is so popular is because of the convenience of the super absorbent disposable diaper. The manufacturers must be loving this. I'm sure they endorsed the “wait until your kid is ready” theory. I'm by no means a potty training expert, but there ARE experts out there who'll tell you to ignore this statement. They claim that you, as the parent, can decide when to teach your child this new skill. I think of it like learning to use a spoon, tying one's shoes, or learning to zip a jacket; sitting on the potty is a skill, one that must be taught. Sure, you want to make sure you're child is showing signs that he or she is capable of learning this new skill, but you don't have to wait until the skies part and a magic rainbow shines down on the potty to do it. I'm by no means suggesting forcing this skill upon your children. You simply guide them, patiently teaching them the way, encouraging them to unlock their own potential. Because if your child can talk about pee and poo, then your child can learn to put pee and poo in the right place.
I've thought about how we train puppies and kittens to use litter boxes. We don't wait until they are “ready.” If we want them in our houses, they must learn to go in the right spot. Of course I'm not going to kick my kid outside if he pees on the floor (and believe me, he's peed on the floor plenty of times during this whole process). But I am going to have confidence in him that he's able to learn this skill at a young age. Because if you can teach a nonverbal animal to follow your instructions, clearly you can educate your young toddler on how to gain control over his bladder.
One of the first books I bought as a parent was the Diaper Free Baby. It's about the Elimination Communication method, which is where you learn your infant's patterns and signals of when they have to go, rushing them to the toilet, way before they're verbal (this report shows how young babies can withhold for stretches of time and how they use signs to indicate they have to go). We started implementing this method and successfully got our son pooping on the potty at 7-months-old. His signals were loud and clear: he'd start grunting and you knew a poop was coming. We had about 20-30 seconds to rip off his diaper and set him on the potty. But we had no luck with getting him to pee on the potty that early (all power to those who manage to make this method work - please share your secret). My husband and I continued doing our research and were determined to get our son out of diapers as soon as possible. What was our motivation? Basically disposable diapers are bad for the environment, and the work involved with cloth diapering (especially after baby #2 arrived) was time consuming and exhausting. Let's just say we didn't see the point in prolonging the diaper stage longer than necessary.
Before you think I'm crazy for believing that young toddlers can be diaper-free, you should read Jamie Glowacki's popular Oh Crap! Potty Training book. She's created quite a movement of early potty trainers and states that the ideal age to start is between 20-30 months, even as young as 18 months (when they're old enough to be capable of this skill, but not too old to fight back). Her overall philosophy is that it's not about believing if your kid is ready, but if you think they are capable of doing this.
When our son turned 18 months, we ditched the diapers and decided to dive 100% into Glowacki's method. After two weeks of cleaning up countless puddles and slipping in a pile of poop while racing him to the potty, we decided maybe we'd jumped the gun a little too early. We had a newborn baby girl, my husband was working long hours, and it just wasn't clicking. Yet I couldn't help but wonder, how do these other countries manage to make this work at such a young age? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that it's their society's norm, so you don't end up feeling so alone in the process.
We made another attempt shortly after our son's second birthday. We were making progress, with about 80% of the pees going into the potty when we were home, but then we had to move unexpectedly. This became a super stressful time, which caused a major regression, resulting in our son hiding places to pee and us not discovering it until days later. Again, between work and the chaos of life with stacks of unpacked boxes, a baby sister, and no family around to help out, we decided to take another break. This was after 6-weeks of our son being diaper-free. I hated giving up, but it didn't feel right to push through the regression. We needed to take a breather and regroup.
Our last attempt was over Thanksgiving break. Our son was almost 27-months-old. He was super verbal about bodily functions, which started after his first potty training boot camp at 18-months-old. He told us when he had pooped: “I pooped. Diaper change.” Or he'd shout from his crib: “Poop! Potty! Potty!” This was far better than an earlier time when he saw his poop on the floor, pointed to it and said, “Meat!” Thinking it was a sausage.
This time was different. This time it started to click, and really fast. By the end of the week, we were leaving the house without diapers. We watched as he gained more and more control, as he was able to verbalize his need to go, the proudness he showed when he stood up and looked at his potty full of pee. Such a basic function of the human body, something we take for granted. Do you remember learning to use the potty for the first time?
Our son is now almost 30-months-old and has been accident-free for over a month, until recently. He pooped his pants at preschool, where he goes one morning a week. Accidents happen, they're a part of life. I peed my pants on multiple occasions after my son was born and even resorted to putting a towel on the couch. Thankfully nobody forced me to go back into diapers. And yet I understand the need for rules, it's important to keep everyone clean and safe when multiple kids are involved. I know my son was distracted, caught up in the moment with lots of toys and the overall stimulation of preschool. Unfortunately, this one accident meant he had to go back into pull-ups when at preschool. At first this caused a regression at home, but we got through it. He still wears a nighttime diaper, so we explained that he'll now wear a "preschool pull-up." He took it in stride, continuing to use the potty at home, at the park, in restaurants, even in the daycare room where I work. The preschool keeps waiting for him to not pee in his pull-up, but of course old habits die hard. If he's wearing a pull-up and is distracted, he's going to pee away. If he's wearing undies, the feeling of wetness will stop him and the "accident" will only be a small drop of pee on his pants. That's why ditching the diaper and pull-up COMPLETELY is the way to go if you want them to truly master this skill (and to avoid confusion along the way).
This made me realize another major obstacle with early potty training: the limitations of daycare and preschool. Obviously this wasn't an issue back in the 50's. Or currently in third-world countries. I can totally understand why working parents with a child in full-time daycare aren't choosing to potty train early. To successfully potty train a young toddler, there needs to be a lot of one-on-one interaction. You need consistency, constant communication, support, patience, vigilance. It's impossible for a daycare/preschool environment to provide all of these things to a single child. There are definitely kids who potty train in daycare settings, but it's usually a longer process, and often happens more around age 3. Luckily for us, our son only goes one morning a week, so the "preschool pull-up" isn't causing too much setback (although being in a pull-up does seem to cause him stress and confusion, which I hate watching after all of his great progress being diaper-free).
The bottom line: decide when the time is right for YOU, as the parent. If you can't manage it with work and life commitments, that's okay. And if you want to wait until your “child is ready,” then know that it probably won't happen until 3 or 4, which is the age when kids start becoming more socially aware of what's expected (of course there are plenty of exceptions, such as a young 2-year-old asking to ditch the diapers, way before the parent is even thinking about potty training). If you want to guide your child there sooner, believe in yourself as the teacher, and believe in your child as the student. I've included some helpful tips I've discovered along the way.
And good luck! May the force of the potty be in your favor.
Wait until your child can actually say “poo” and “pee” – or any equivalent to them (being able to sign these words works too!). If your child is naked for three full days, pooping and peeing everywhere without noticing or caring, even after you teach him or her, “Look, you're peeing,” then maybe it's not time. From day one my son stood there shocked, screaming “I'm peeing! I'm peeing!” as he peed all over our floor. He definitely had awareness, I have to give him credit for that.
ABILITY TO SIT ON THE POTTY
Make sure your child can sit on the little potty all by himself. This was a big one for us. We used the Baby Bjorn Potty Chair, which we got for $5 at a local consignment sale. We let him walk around naked and most of the time he fell down when trying to sit on the dang thing. Fast forward to 24-months-old and he could sit on it almost every time, without any assistance. This really gave him ownership of the process.
I realize now that the more we dabbled in and out of potty training, the more confused our son got. Imagine from his perspective – all he's ever known is the comfort, security, warmth of a snug diaper. Suddenly he's peeing on the floor. Now he's peeing in the potty. And then he's back in the comfort of the diaper. He's confused – wait, where do I put my pee? Sometimes Mom and Dad are happy, other times they seem disappointed. But the diaper keeps coming back, so what the heck? In hindsight, I'd say the all-or-nothing approach (aka Jamie Glowacki's approach) is the best way to go, if you have time and are ready to commit 100% . Glowacki also suggests doing daytime and nighttime training all at once, if you're that brave (we were not).
Make sure you have back-up support if you're doing the boot camp method (aka several days naked). If you're a solo parent, see if a friend, a babysitter, a grandparent, etc. can come help out. Running around after a naked child is exhausting. Don't be afraid to ask for help in order to remain sane, patient, loving, and calm through it all.
SET ASIDE ADEQUATE TIME
A long holiday break was what worked for us. We stocked up on supplies, locked the doors, and let our son run naked. Summer is another great option, especially if you have a secluded yard where accidents can be absorbed into the ground.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
I personally enjoyed these two books: Oh Crap! Potty Training book and Toilet Training in Less Than a Day (don't be fooled by the second book's title, no one can potty train in less than a day, but this book still contains some good info!). But really, there are a million potty training books out there. Find the ones that resonate with you and don't be afraid to take little snippets from each and combine them into your own hybrid method.
FIND YOUR CHILD'S MOTIVATION
For some kids, simply being a “big girl” or a “big boy” or the promise of undies is enough motivation to get them to walk over and sit on the potty. For others, they simply can't be bothered. They don't want to stop playing. They don't care where their pee goes, it's us who is invested in this process. So find a way to motivate them. Lots of experts advise against offering bribes and rewards. But honestly, I feel like you have to offer something because peeing on the potty just isn't that exciting in the beginning. I found some special cars that we brought out during potty time. We also did “foot baths” where we'd fill up a little bin of warm water and let our son put his feet in it and play with a few bath toys while he was sitting on the potty (usually when waiting for a poop). And yes, we even let him watch some cool, educational YouTube videos (check out the Little Baby Bum Potty Song). Now he's gotten used to the drill so we can take him to the potty, help him pull down his pants and he's ready to go. The motivation isn't forever, it just helps make the experience a little more fun in the beginning.
STOCK UP ON SUPPLIES
Here's a little checklist of what helped us:
Remember, it's up to YOU when you want to start this process. If you want to wait, that's fine. There's no point in starting if you're not ready to take on this challenge. But if you ARE ready to guide your child (gently) into learning this new skill, then go for it. Trust that you're not alone in wanting to believe that your child can do this (most likely, he or she CAN do it).
Either way, all these kids will be potty trained well before they go to college, so how they get there really doesn't matter. Decide what's right for you and your family and go with it. For us, we're glad we were so dedicated, that our son was such an eager learner, and that we are now down to just one child in full-time diapers.
Jill Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist & dancer, food enthusiast, and mama. She was runner-up in the 2012 America's Next Author Competition and holds a BA in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's currently working on several novels.
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