I am often asked for advice on potty training children, particularly by the parents of children who will be entering our three year old program in the fall and the child is not yet trained.
I don’t advocate pushing a young child into potty training too soon, but in my personal experience, by age three the vast majority of children are developmentally ready.
When a three year old is not trained, it is often because the training experience has become a power struggle.
Although it is our policy that children be potty trained in order to be in a three year old class (unless there is a medical reason that he/she cannot be), we do give children who haven’t yet mastered it at home a one month trial period at school, and often, even children whose parents thought they were nowhere near meeting this big milestone are successful at school.
I believe there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that when the child realizes that other children in the class are using the toilet “positive peer pressure” kicks in, and he wants to be like everyone else.
Another is that, if a power struggle has developed, parents rarely win – you can lead a preschooler to the potty, but you can’t make him pee! But at school, when parents are not present, they become less a part of the equation. The child feels more in charge of his own toileting, and preschoolers love being in charge.
Of course I am in no way suggesting that parents should not go ahead and try to potty train their children before school begins, and when asked, I do share some tips that have worked for a number of parents and children through the years. If you decide that they might be worth trying, I hope they work for you.
First, get rid of the “pull-up” diapers during waking hours. Pull ups are made to hold water, so the child does not have the true sensation of how wet or soiled pants really feel. He becomes desensitized. I have been a preschool director for 25 years, and until pull-ups came along I rarely saw a child who was not potty-trained by three. I recommend buying a stack of underpants – let your child pick out his/her own. Frilly princess ones often appeal to girls and Thomas the train, Spiderman or whatever your son’s favorite characters are usually good for boys.
Next, clear your calendar for a couple of days. (Yes, that can be inconvenient, but it will pay off in the long run. Just think of all the money you will save on diapers, not to mention how many fewer you will be sending to the landfill, and of course how proud you and your child will feel. ) Plan to spend as much of the day as possible in a space that will not be ruined by “accidents”. Some people even choose to spend the day in the backyard.
Be prepared to do lots of laundry. Stock the space with: the stack of underwear, wipes, a plastic dirty-clothes receptacle of some kind -a bucket works well – toys, books and art materials for your child, something productive for yourself, and a mop and towels for cleaning up.
Have the child put on a pair of underwear with no pants over them, to make it easier for him to remove them when he needs to. Tell your child in a matter-of-fact way that since he is wearing underwear today he will need to remember to go to the bathroom when he needs to wet or poop (or whatever euphemisms your family uses).
Let him have as much drink as he wants, to insure opportunities to practice.
If he has an accident, calmly tell him, “Uh oh, you had an accident. I will clean up the floor while you change your wet pants.” As you are cleaning, you can talk him through the steps if needed. “Take off your wet pants. Now put them in the bucket.” When he has done that say “Now get a wipe and clean your bottom.” “Now put on some dry pants.” “Good job of getting dressed! Let’s wash your hands”. While you are washing hands you can remind him in a conversational way that “Next time, you can go to the bathroom before you wet.”
One of the keys to this method is maintaining a low key attitude. That helps take some of the fuel away from the power struggle. Another is that by giving the child the responsibility for changing himself you let him be in charge, and as previously mentioned, preschoolers love being in charge.
What if your child refuses to put on underwear? No problem. Tell him that is fine, he doesn’t have to wear any today, but if he asks for a pull-up, just answer with a friendly, “no, we’re not wearing pull-ups today.” As a precaution, you may want to put the pull-ups package out of sight on the top shelf of your closet. When he has an accident, you say, “Uh oh, you wet the floor. Come help me clean it up please.”
The no pants method is also good for children who just don’t seem to make the connection between their body producing urine and their pants getting wet. Because children internalize concepts through play, another experience that can help with understanding the concept is to use a doll that wets, to let your child “train” the doll. Again, this gives your child an opportunity to be in charge.
Another good strategy is to set a timer. When the timer goes off it is a signal for the child to try using the potty. That way it is the timer buzzer, not the parent who is reminding the child to go. A small reward for trying, such as a couple of Goldfish crackers, or bringing out a special toy which is reserved for this purpose can give the child a little incentive to ‘try”.
When your child successfully uses the toilet, you want him to feel proud of himself, but don’t go overboard with praise, or you may make the stakes too high, especially if you have previously been in a power struggle. You want him to feel both that you are pleased, and that you had confidence that he would be able to do it.
For some children this process takes several days. It can be extremely hard to stay patient. Remind yourself that if you push too hard the result will be a no-win power struggle. Sometimes we as parents have mixed feelings about our babies growing up. Potty training is a big step for both of you. Pat yourself on the back for helping your child grow in competence. Achieving toileting independence gives a child’s self-esteem a big boost.
P.S. While you are working on potty training it is important to keep your sense of humor, so here is a little “potty humor” for you, sent to me by one of my staff. I love the way children look at the world!
Billy (age 3) is sitting on the toilet. His mother thinks he has been in there too long; so, she goes in to see what’s up. Billy is sitting on the toilet reading a book. But, about every 10 seconds or so, he puts the book down, grips the toilet seat with his left hand, and hits himself on top of the head with his right hand. MOTHER: Billy are you alright? You’ve been in here for a while. BILLY: I’m fine, Mommy. I just haven’t gone ‘Doody’ yet. MOTHER: OK, you can stay here a few more minutes. But Billy, why are you hitting yourself on the head? BILLY: “Works for ketchup! “