“It’s just three days,” I remember explaining to my husband the first time we were deciding how to potty train our son, one of four (soon to be five) kids. “But he just poops and pees on the floor?” he asked. We were debating the three-day half-naked kid method, where they run around without underwear, and you take them often to the potty, offering lots of drinks and making a full weekend event at home (in potty jail) out of it. The program promises that at the end of that hell, you will have a potty-trained child. We did not, and we were all much more exhausted and defeated at the end of it, kid included.
From there, we tried various other programs with the next kids. With one, we were completely against pull-up diapers, determined it would discourage them from finding a potty. With another, we threw some pull-ups their way, but cut that off at a certain age. One kid came home one day completely potty-trained from daycare after seeing a friend head to the potty. We shook our heads at all of our efforts, all seemingly in vain.
We are far from alone in this controversial conundrum, a hot topic in parenting groups, alongside the “big” issues like sleep training and baby-led weaning. Dr. Anandita Pal, a Houston-area pediatrician, explains why.
“Having seen thousands of children and their families every year, my experience indicates the majority of the pressure comes from other parents and societal pressure expecting children to be potty trained by a certain age," she says. "Moreover, there is an additional expectation that stems from kids being potty trained before attending school or daycare.” Even though parents think it’s a massive milestone, she says pediatricians don’t. “Each and every child is different and potty training is a very personal step in their growth and development.”
This notion took me exactly 4.5 kids to learn, which is why, with our next baby, I have no intention of actively potty training. I will for sure be showing them the potty, reading the Elmo book that makes the flushing sound and showing them how Daniel Tiger “stops and goes right away” before “flush and wash and be on your way.” But I won’t be having half-naked weekends of pee-covered floors or panic over pull-ups, and I definitely won’t be participating in any school programs demanding full potty training as a toddler or preschooler.
Parents say they learn from their kids, and that they are their greatest teachers. I had no idea it would take me this many kids to realize that instead of me deciding when to potty train, and how, the toddler will actually lead the way through signs and their own communication. Right now, my 19-month-old is interested in toddling into the bathroom and checking out the potty. He flushes the toilet, bangs the lid and makes a mess. But this is the beginning of potty training. He’s saying, “Mom, what is this large white thing and what’s it for?” in his own way. So, instead of shooing him out, we are talking about it.
I also didn’t know that parent pressure can actually cause health problems. “Potty training should be toddler-guided; if rushed, it can lead to other problems like pain, withholding, chronic constipation, and accidents,” Pal says. “Once a child shows interest in the potty and using it, it is a good idea to introduce them to the concept gradually by watching videos together and guiding them to the potty if they show interest.”
For me, the programs themselves created more of a timeline than any outside pressure. Pal sees this with other parents too. “Trying a program or following a timeline seems helpful for the parent and some children but will be pointless, unless the child is ready themself. In certain circumstances, these programs or timelines can result in delays and detrimental behavior.”
Instead, I plan on following Pal’s go-to tips, and my kids’ own cues. Here’s what she suggests doing:
Setting a predictable and potty location, and approximate time
Teaching them the sequence of events when using the toilet, wiping and then washing hands the same way every time to reinforce the process
Informing and ensuring all caregivers are able to follow this consistent approach
Never embarrassing a kid, and celebrating achievements instead
Remembering the wide timeline, from 24 months to 4 to 5 years old, all which is “normal”
And when in doubt, I’ll be reminding myself of the oldest potty training saying in the book. As Pal notes, "we don’t find too many high schoolers in diapers, so rest assured that it will happen."
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