When exactly are we supposed to start potty training our children? That's the question on the minds of all parents with a child nearing the two-year mark. From accidents to even more loads of laundry each day, frustration to excitement, potty training is one of the most important developmental stages our children will go through. So how do we even get started?
While some parents take the laid back approach, waiting until their child has exhibited all or most of the 'signs' that they're ready to transition from nappy to potty, other infants are introduced to the potty before they've even taken their first steps, and some parents eschew the nappy phase entirely (read on to see what we're talking about).
Staying dry at night is largely a question of bladder maturity and there's not a lot parents can do to speed that up. - Heather Welford
According to Simone Cave, co-author of the Potty Training Boys
and Girls books, rather than beginning to potty train based on age, there are signs to look out for that suggest your little one is ready for the next step in their toilet training development.
These include: mature bladder muscles (going for up to three hours without weeing), an awareness that they are doing a wee or a poo (the child will tell you they need to go or alert you to their wet or soiled nappy) and a child who is happy to have a go at sitting on the potty and an interest in other people going to the toilet.
As far as what parents need to do to help the transition out of nappies, they should approach potty training with patience and not expect miracles to happen straightaway – like all of your child's developmental phases, it's a process.
As Sharon, mum of Izzy, three, explains: "I never wanted to push my daughter when it came to potty training, so I bought her a pink potty and let it sit in the bathroom for a while with no pressure - since she has a few older friends and they were using the potty she asked me if she could do it.
"I bought the book Potty Training Girls, which took a very relaxed approach - a few hours here and there without the nappy. Every wee in (and even just sitting on) the potty or toilet resulted in a sticker. Eventually there were no nappies in the house, and then slowly none out of the house, either."
Never focus on holding – emptying anywhere is better than holding it in. - Dr Steve Hodges
Dr. Steve J. Hodges
, MD, Associate Professor Paediatric Urology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in the US and author of the book It's No Accident
, recommends the "soft-sell" approach when it comes to toilet training your little one. Hodges is a firm believer in waiting until your child is old enough developmentally to be able to control their bowels and bladder – which, according to him, is age three (assuming the child has maintained regular bowel movements throughout his or her life).
At that stage, he recommends putting out the potties and gently encouraging going with rewards for good behaviour. Dr. Hodges warns that parents should "never focus on holding – emptying anywhere is better than holding it in. Most kids just start doing it after a while; if they won't, they aren't ready."
Hodges is adamant that children shouldn't potty train early because it can lead to significant issues that emerge later on in a child's development. He explains: "The main disadvantage of early toilet training is that it puts a very important decision (when to urinate or defecate) into the hands of a child who has no idea how harmful it is to delay those processes. That holding, which is more likely in younger children (and will go on for longer simply because they were given the opportunity to hold sooner) leads to all the voiding complaints we see in children – from wetting, to infections, to painful or frequent voiding (weeing)."
Hodges also discourages proponents of early potty training (who tend to start at the age of one), because that is the time when kids "peak in their incidence of constipation as they transfer to regular milk and food, which often creates a perfect storm (urologically speaking)."
Some parents worry that even if their child is progressing with potty training in the day, they are taking two steps back with each step forward by putting their child in nappies at night. It's not an issue, say the experts.
"Staying dry at night is largely a question of bladder maturity and there's not a lot parents can do to speed that up. However, if you notice your child is dryer in the morning than he/she used to be, you can try leaving the nappy off for a few nights and seeing what happens," explains Heather Welford, parenting trainer and author of the NCT's Successful Potty Training.
Furthermore, getting your child out of bed in the middle of the night to have a wee – also known as "lifting" – doesn't have any proven benefits. "In fact, you could be reinforcing what you want to avoid - your child is weeing in his sleep or when no more than half awake," Welford adds.
Other setbacks to watch out for include stresses in your child's life, such as starting nursery or school, being ill, becoming increasingly busy, or the arrival of a new sibling.
"You may well find that your child asks to wear a nappy again or starts wetting themselves [with the birth of a new baby]," explains Cave. "We suggest allowing them to regress to nappies or using the potty if that's what they want – just humour them and they'll soon get bored and start using the toilet again. Remember, they are only trying to be like the much-loved baby, so do give lots of affection."
Another common concern is how to potty train boys, as opposed to girls. According to Cave, in addition to being aware that boys often potty train later than girls, keep in mind, the approach might also be different. Boys often react badly to pressure when it comes to potty training and will benefit from a more relaxed approach – which will actually take less time in the long run.
"With boys, the main difference is that eventually they have to learn to wee standing up," notes Cave. She recommends seating them on a potty to begin with, but once they are comfortable doing that, she advises encouraging them to pass urine standing up. "Use 'targets' to aim at as an incentive – cornflakes work well (!). It can really help if they have an older brother to copy, and dad of course," she explains.
Dr Hodges adds that one of the other main differences between potty training boys and girls is that girls are more susceptible to urinary tract infections, so it's particularly important that they empty their bladders regularly.
If you're desperate to get your child out of nappies, you're not alone - but be aware that you may have a longer road ahead of you. Early potty training – before aged two – is hard work, and, according to Welford, involves "a lot of chasing and lucky catching. There's a lot to be said for waiting a few months, when you can explain better, when your toddler has more physical control and awareness, and when he/she can remember what you want him to do more consistently."
However, some parents forgo nappies and potties altogether, preferring to use the Elimination Communication method (also known as Infant Hygiene and the Diaper Free Movement, which is popular in America).
The EC approach follows your baby's cues and signals about when they need to eliminate and usually starts before the baby is six months old, as laid out in Ingrid Bauer's book Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene.
"EC is about training the adult, since the child needs no training: they are born potty trained, and our culture untrains them and then goes to great lengths (bribes, punishment, harsh words) to then retrain them to know their body functions," she explains. "Neither of our sons has a conscious memory of nappies. Neither have ever had a 'solid food consistency' poop in a nappy. It worked for us."
According to Bialik, many parents who adhere to the EC method typically use cloth diapers as back-up or when they leave the house, and often practise it during the night, holding their babies over potties every time they wake to pee. Unlike more traditional potty training, there is no reward or punishment associated with the EC method, but be warned: it's a lot of work from the outset and may prove more challenging once work and childcare (re)enter the equation.
EC is not for everyone. However, if you like the idea of not fighting to potty train a toddler and not scraping poo off of a three-year-old, I suggest you learn more about it and have an open mind. - Mayim Bialik
The term 'potty prodigy' has come into being for babies who are proficient at using potties long before they can walk or talk. But Bialik insists the EC method isn't about bragging that your child got there first. 'We are not doing 'touchdown dances' every time they use the potty. EC is a lot of work.'
While the generation of women having children in the 1940s and 1950s did tend to boast about their early success rates when it came to potty training – as Welford notes, they might have said, "All of mine were out of nappies by X months," - the truth is "successful" early potty training may have just been the result of placing the child on the potty frequently and "catching" a lot that way, not actually teaching the child the fundamentals of independent training.
"Parents being excited about their child toilet training early drives me insane," says Dr Hodges. "As we mention in the book, although kids that walk, talk and read early always make parents proud, they shouldn't feel that way about toilet training. They should feel the way they would if their young child was making important life decisions on their own: very concerned!"
Whether you're an EC devotee or favour Dr Hodges' scientific approach, or maybe fall somewhere in between, since potty training is a time associated with plenty of emotions for parents and children alike, you have to find the method and time-frame that works for you. And if you try and your child isn't ready, it's OK to stop and start again in a month or two... or more.
Whatever your method and whatever the timing, not to worry. It will get done, As everyone says, no child goes to uni in a nappy.