Potty Training: 7 Lessons Learned
Cee has been wearing undies for six months, and I think I’ve drafted a potty post for each of those months. Each time, before I had a chance to edit and publish it, something would change, and the post would seem irrelevant. Potty training is truly one of the hardest things I’ve done as a parent, but not in any of the ways that I expected. I thought I’d finally share some of the lessons I’ve learned so far. In other words, this post is mainly about my missteps and mistakes.
I write this knowing that your process, and the challenges that you face along the way, might be very different. Every kid is different, as is every parent. Like any two-year-old, Cee really wants to do things herself, but she is also a really sensitive kid. And as she’s been learning to use the potty, I’ve been learning more and more about her and how she ticks.
1. Begin when your child is ready.
Okay, I actually think that we got this part right. Cee started showing some interest in using the potty around 18 months. When she started daycare last fall, she jumped into the potty rotation with the bigger kids. By January, she was coming home at lunchtime in the same diaper (dry!) as when I dropped her off in the morning. And in February, after admiring her friends’ underwear, Cee told me that she wanted some too.
Cee was around 27 months when we made the switch to undies. Some would say that’s late, and some would say that’s early. I don’t think there’s a magic age, but I can’t imagine starting this process if Cee wasn’t interested in it. It’s been challenging enough as it is.
Of course, I did dig into the scientific literature to see if I could find some guidance on optimal timing and “methods.” But I think this is an area where the science is just not that helpful. Melinda Wenner Moyer recently wrote a review of scientific support for different methods of potty training at Slate, and she concluded that there’s decent support for parent-led and child-led and quick and gradual methods. This is true, but I also think that the potty training research is limited by the bias of the authors. Potty training is a culturally diverse practice, and a study conducted in a given place at a given time is always going to be framed by the norms of that place and time. Lacking good science, and considering that Cee is not interested in doing things just because I want her to, I waited until it was her bright idea to try going diaper-free. I began with the simple strategy of following her lead, praising her successes, and responding to accidents in a neutral way. Easy, right?
2. Ultimatums don’t work.
Here’s where I made my first mistake. I had what I considered to be very reasonable ideas about how often she should sit on the potty. At the very least, I thought she should sit on the potty before going to sleep and when she woke up in the morning or from a nap, plus anytime we were getting ready to leave the house. I thought that I could make these firm expectations, giving Cee a healthy framework for potty habits.
This didn’t work. Consider, for example, this common scenario:
Cee wakes up in the morning, dry. She declines to use the potty, and I let it go. At 10 AM, we get ready to go to the library.
Me: “Potty time, Cee!”
Cee: “I not need to go potty.”
Me: “We always sit on the potty before we leave the house.”
Cee: “But I not need to go potty.”
What does one do in this situation? Sometimes, I could tell her that we couldn’t leave the house until she sat on the potty. But what if we’re on our way to daycare so that I can get to campus to teach my class, and she decides she’d rather stay home?
One day, frustrated, I tried enforcing the “you have to sit on the potty before we leave the house” rule. I physically sat her down on the potty. She cried, looked at me as if I’d just lost all her trust, and of course, didn’t pee. I felt horrible. It was an all-time parenting low for me. I thought I’d done a good job of keeping things positive and low-pressure until this point, but that day set us back.
I’ve read that if your child resists using the potty, you should take a break and go back to diapers or pull-ups, but Cee protested this idea as well. And sometimes she did choose to wear a diaper, but it usually stayed dry and didn’t change her toilet habits.
This brings me to my next point.
3. Let go.
When I was 16, I spent a summer working in the 2-year-old room at a daycare center. As I remember it, most of my time was spent running kids to the toilet, wiping up messes, and changing soiled clothes. So when we started potty training, I thought that the hardest part about potty training would be the inconvenience and the mess.
I was wrong. Cee has had very few accidents from the start. The challenge has been that she doesn’t use the potty very often. When she does, it is because it is her idea, not mine. The hardest part of potty training for me has been the letting go. Cee has to be in control, for two reasons: 1) It’s her body. I can’t tell how full her bladder is or what sensations she’s feeling; and 2) She’s two, and two-year-olds don’t like to be told what to do.
At one point, when Cee was wearing dry undies all day but only peeing about twice a day, I was starting to feel really worried. I consulted with one of my favorite parenting bloggers, Lisa Sunbury. Here’s what she told me:
“No pressure. Cee will get it! She’s clearly in charge of this process and making choices that work for her, and you are wise not to pressure her too much or engage in a power struggle. I’ve seen many children hold their pee for long periods of time with no ill effect. This, in part, is what this process is about – learning to listen to, and control their own bodies. It’s harder for us to trust sometimes, because it’s not as visible a process, as say gross motor development. Just keep trusting Cee, and modeling.”
(Lisa’s post, Toilet Learning Made Easy, is also a useful resource.)
4. Stay observant.
I was trying hard to let go, but there was one thing that really worried me. I’d read an article on Babble last year entitled “The Dangers of Potty Training Too Early” by pediatric urologist Steve Hodges (author of the recent book “It’s No Accident”). Hodges sees kids with toileting problems in his clinic every day. It isn’t pretty, and it all starts with holding pee or poop. Kid holds pee in, and bladder walls thicken until it gets smaller and loses proper sensation. Add in constipation, and poop builds up, squeezes the bladder, and can even cause nerve damage, resulting in frequent accidents. I worried that Cee was a textbook case, destined for this medical spiral. So, I did what any reasonable parent would do. I called up Dr. Hodges.
“Well, do you see any signs that she’s purposefully holding her pee?” he asked.
I thought for a moment. Actually, no. No Michael Jackson potty dance, no curtsying, and rarely running to the bathroom at the last minute.
“She might just be a kid that doesn’t need to go that often,” Hodges replied.
Hodges went on to tell me not to stress or hover over Cee too much, but to stay observant. A child who is holding pee or poop in an unhealthy way will show behavioral signs of this. It’s when this is ignored that things can go bad. Watch for signs that your child is holding pee or poop, frequent accidents, or constipation (potty dance, skid marks on underwear, and evidence that pooping is difficult or painful). Fiber can help with constipation, but if the problem persists, get help.
5. Model and talk.
Asking Cee to go rarely inspires a trip to the potty. Telling her to go never does. But if I say, “Gosh my bladder is full! I need to go to the bathroom!” then every once in a while, Cee will say, “Oh, I need to go, too!” We spend a lot of time hanging out in the bathroom together, and we talk a lot of potty talk in our house.
6. Make your child an active participant.
At one point in our process, we installed one of those nifty toilet seats with a drop-down child-sized seat. Cee had been using one at daycare, and I was tired of cleaning out the potty chair. Cee used the new toilet seat enthusiastically for a couple of days and agreed that we could put away the potty chair. But then, over the next week or so, she started resisting using the potty. After worrying and pondering solutions for a while, it finally occurred to me to ask her why she didn’t want to go to the potty. “I not like the toilet,” she told me. Easy fix, and we were back on track. I guess things were moving too fast for her, and it took asking her to figure that out.
6. Watch the “big kid” praise.
A month or so ago, Cee started asking to wear undies for nap and nighttime, and voilá, she was dry through the night and running to the potty on her own in the morning. I was genuinely so proud of her and I told her, “Wow, you are getting to be such a big girl!” But a couple of days later, she called me from her bedroom after nap, and I found her sitting on her bed, everything wet from pee. She looked at me sadly and said, “Mama, I’m not a big girl yet.”
Oh my goodness, that broke my heart. And surprised me. It hadn’t occurred to me that praise for progress on a skill that she hadn’t quite mastered might be flipped around to make her feel ashamed when she has a little setback. This was my reminder to give Cee time to feel her own pride in accomplishment, as it comes to her. She already knows that big kids use the potty, and she’s working on it, but what is the rush? (Check out this post from Janet Lansbury for more insight on toilet troubles and “big kid” praise.)
7. Focus on the long-term goal.
I’ve learned that potty training isn’t just about dry undies. That part came pretty easily to Cee. The challenging part has been the development of healthy potty habits, and the trick for me has been to foster and encourage without getting in the way. “The training is the easy part – it’s the follow-up that’s hard,” Dr. Hodges told me.
Helping children learn good potty habits is kind of like helping them learn good eating habits. Force-feeding veggies is bound to backfire. And I could hide a balanced meal in a milk shake every day and feel proud of Cee’s nutrient intake, but she’d be missing out on the chance to learn to like different kinds of foods and develop a healthy relationship with food. You might be able to speed-train your child to pee and poop on the potty, but that’s not the most important goal. The real goal is for a child to learn healthy and independent toilet habits, to be tuned in to her body’s signals and respond to them appropriately. Sometimes, if we focus too intensely on the short-term goals in parenting, we can end up compromising the long-term ones.
It’s been a long, bumpy road, but I think we’re almost there. Potty training for us has been a surprisingly delicate dance between Cee’s autonomy and initiative and careful parental guidance. I’ve learned a lot about Cee in the process, and just as much about myself as a parent.
Tell me about your potty training experiences. Was it easier or harder than you expected, and in what ways?