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Potty Training: Ready? Or Not?

I know with my friends, our kids attained that coveted potty trained status at different ages, some around two, some closer to three-and-a-half and others just before four. Some kids seemed to achieve it rather easily – while others started and revolted, started again, revolted a bit more and then committed. No two potty training stories seemed to be the same.

What worked for one child, wouldn’t work for another. One friend had a three-year-old who would only have a bowel movement if the potty was put in their walk-in closet. Another friend had a two-and-a-half-year-old who had to hold a toy train while going to the bathroom and others had children who liked looking at books. Or some reveled in getting a reward, like a candy, after a successful bathroom trip.

One thing that did seem to be common for all parents, though, was the feeling of judgment when their child was not potty trained or not using the potty consistently by a certain age. A lot of times, ‘well-meaning’ relatives and friends would make comments on how things should be done according to their perspective. I once had someone tell me, “There’s no excuse for a 12-month-old not to be potty trained.” And if they weren’t, it was just because the parents were “lazy”! The Canadian Paediatric Society (2008) states, “Toilet training readiness should not be dictated by a child’s chronological age. By the time a child reaches 18 months of age, sphincter control has been reached which is necessary for bowel and bladder control.” They further state, “However, just because the body is ready for potty training does not mean the child is psychologically ready.”

It is crucial to make sure your child is psychologically ready for potty training. Trying to coerce a child who is not ready into using the potty can open up a variety of issues. Power struggles can ensue, and instead of potty training being a step toward independence that is celebrated, it becomes a battle of the wills filled with nothing but negativity for parents and child. Susan, whose three-and-a-half-year-old son attended a day home she loved, was fully potty trained by 18 months by the day home provider – with the parents’ support. However, Susan started to notice that her son, Aidan, would not have a bowel movement at the day home. Aidan would hold it all day, and within minutes of being clipped into his car seat, would have a bowel movement in his diaper. By the time Susan’s son was two, he refused to use the potty at all. Today, at three-and-a-half, Susan concedes that Aidan was likely not ready to be potty trained at 18 months and it was other people’s agendas being met, not her son’s. Now at the age of three-and-a-half, her son will occasionally use the potty, but still sees using the toilet as a negative experience.

Other signs of readiness can be showing an interest in using the potty, wanting to stay dry and not wanting to wear diapers anymore. For some kids, getting underwear with a favorite character on it is a huge incentive to become potty trained. One two-and-a-half-year-old girl would become very upset that she was going to get her princess panties dirty; this seemed to be enough incentive to encourage successful potty trips; whereas another three-year-old was obsessed with superheroes, but had absolutely no interest in superhero underwear and refused to go near the potty.

The Canadian Paediatric Society (2008) suggests if your child refuses to be involved in potty training, “a one to three month break is recommended.” The Society does say that if your child is over four and still not toilet trained, you should ask your family doctor for a referral to a pediatrician.

It is also important to be clear on your expectations. Do you have specific ideas on when your child should be potty trained and how this process will go? If so, do some reading on potty training and see if you can incorporate your ideas with what you’ve read to find that balance to encourage success. Do you have a close friend or family member who has strong opinions on potty training and will show judgment toward your approach? It’s a good idea to talk with your spouse and brainstorm some ideas on how to delicately handle your ‘well-intended’ person. In most cases, the individual is trying to be helpful and will respond to redirection from you or your spouse. However, this isn’t always the case, and there may be times when you need to resign yourself to agree to disagree. It’s also good to keep in mind that with potty training, there is one person you absolutely must listen to: your child.

The other area to be aware of is comparing or belittling for lack of potty training success. Your child is not their older sibling who was potty trained at two. They are a completely different person, developing at their own rate. When they are ready, it will happen. Comparing and belittling will do nothing but add tension and anxiety to the situation – and possibly prolong the arrival of potty training success.

Lastly, it’s important to keep some perspective (you won’t be packing Joey or Suzie up for university and trying to shove a large box of adult diapers in the car). Potty training will happen and when it does, it will be rewarding for both you and your child.

The Canadian Paediatric Society (2008)  suggests the following as signs of readiness for potty training:

• Able to walk to the potty or adapted toilet seat.
• Child can verbally express or use gestures to communicate need to go to the potty.
• Can follow one- and two-step requests.
• Stable while sitting on the potty.
• Able to remain dry for several hours.

Stephanie Robson, MSW, RSW, ECE III, is a mother of three and has worked with many children and families through a number of city agencies and child care settings.

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