What's the deal with potty training?

5 years ago

Toilet training – or potty training – is a grim subject with many parents. While we may have differing viewpoints about when and how to toilet train a child, this much we can all agree on: we all have to go through it with our children and none of us really looks forward to it, because let’s face it: there ARE better things in life than dealing with pee and poop.


Not having to diaper my daughter Emily or monitor her pee-poop dance was a stage I welcomed with glee. I’ve yet to meet parents who complain that they miss the time when their children were dependent on them for their toileting needs! So what's the deal with potty training? Or rather, what’s the big deal with potty training?



There are literally thousands of websites, blogs, and articles on the internet, all offering helpful tips for toilet training your child. Google it if you don’t believe me or in the off chance that you’re in the market for a massive optical headache! Besides the (often hilarious) parental blogs with humorous takes on their children’s potty training epic dramas, there are many “guides” of the usual I-potty-trained-my-3-children-and-therefore-I-know-what-I’m-doing variety as well as numerous self-professed experts, of various backgrounds, peddling their (many) books about it. But mostly, they speak of how your child may not be ready for potty training and how you both will get there, eventually. Or worse, that potty training is a dirty word (no pun intended) and should be postponed as long as possible.

The latest trendy set are the ECers who practice the elimination communication method of “using timing, signals, cues, and intuition to address an infant’s need to eliminate waste.” I just encountered a fierce group who proceeded to convince me that I may not be respectful of my child’s wishes, simply because I refused to let her become a teenager still in her diapers. Their whole approach is too wishy-washy for me, and I don’t know about you, but right off the bat, I have a problem with 1) infant, 2) timing, and 3) intuition, in their mission statement. Call me crazy but I’m not a big fan of dangling my 2 month-old over the sink, as soon as my timer goes off, or when the intuition finally hits me! I prefer more solid, scientific, proven-to-work methods, and that’s exactly what I went for when it was my turn to potty train Emily.



When Emily turned two, I went on a major hunt of the elusive tell-all, how-to book on potty training. I found several, but none offered complete and precise step-by-step instructions, grounded in scientific principles. The behavioralist in me needed more: more data, more details, more precision. And a book with stickers or an Elmo doll wasn’t gonna cut it. As fate would have it (timing, serendipity, whatever you want to call it), I was about to select a topic for my Master’s thesis right around that time and since I was going to do all that research anyway, I wound up doing it for a worthy cause (selfish, you say? You betcha!). Volumes of studies dating back to the 60s (which are unfortunately not available to the general public), one CalABA conference, and two seminars later, I had my thesis all set up, but more importantly, my protocol ready.

I set my antecedents and establishing operations during the week and by Friday I started implementing my diaper-be-gone operation. By Saturday mid-day, Emily was already potty trained, but for the purposes of sounding a little more credible, from then on I always told the story of how I potty trained her in one weekend. ONE WEEKEND. That’s it. The hurdle was surmounted, the dirty deed was done (pun intended). Afterwards, I shared my protocol with many friends who were going through the same conundrum (the data of which confirmed my case study nicely, thankyouverymuch!), then I moved on to applying the intervention with children with developmental disabilities, typically autism, with whom I was working -- I did modify it along the way to account for language deficiencies and impairment in motor skills. Before I knew it, I was known as the “potty lady” and it had nothing to do, as one would presume if one knew me, with my colorful language.



Your child is ready to be potty trained if he/she has the developmental maturity in the following areas:

  • Physiology: your child needs to be able to recognize and interpret the feelings of a full bladder or bowel.
  • Motor skills: your child needs to be able to get to the toilet and to manage the partial removal of clothes (aided at first)
  • Communication skills: you child needs to be able to communicate the urge to urinate/defecate to you or to his/her caregivers. Non-verbal communication (or sign language) counts.
  • Social knowledge and awareness: Your child will need to learn where and when it is appropriate to urinate and defecate, therefore a modicum of knowledge and awareness of appropriate social circumstances is required (the rest can be attained as you go along).

That’s it. These are the only barriers to a successful toilet training endeavor!

What does this mean, practically? At around age 2 (statistically, the range is 18 months to 4 years old), your child should be ready for potty training, that is but for your willingness to dedicate the time to implement the training and sticking with it. Typically your child will gain nocturnal fecal continence first (poo at night), followed by diurnal fecal continence (poo during the day), diurnal bladder control (pee during the day) and finally, nocturnal bladder control (pee at night).



Your child is ready, are you? I understand that it may be confusing to differentiate between skill, knowledge, and volition issues. But when you find yourself reading all that conflicting information on the web, remember that one of the biggest milestones your child will conquer is independence in his/her most basic bodily functions. Wouldn’t that give you the impetus to put your anxiety on the back burner and to help him/her undertake this important task?

Originally posted at The Behavioral Child.

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