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Getting Down and Dirty: Potty Training (Part 1)

I love children.  I love being a parent.  But potty training is my least favorite part of parenting, so far.  It’s not particularly enjoyable even for the kids who potty train quickly.  But in some cases, like with our first child (a strong willed boy who was not at all interested in using the celebrated potty) parents have to try many, many different approaches until we finally figure out what it takes to motivate our little ones to become toilet trained.  Now, I’ll pass along what I’ve learned (both professionally as a pediatrician and some personal lessons I learned along the way that may help other families).  First, I’ll give you an overview of the general approach to potty training and then give some specific tips for younger kids and older kids.

When to potty train?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no right age to toilet train a child. Readiness to begin toilet training depends on the individual child.  In the United States, experts typically recommend toilet training between 18 months and 3 years.  One research study found that the average age for completing toileting in girls is around 2.5 years (about 32 months) and in boys is closer to 3 years (about 35 months).  I think there is a wide range of ages when a child can successfully potty train and while some children may be able to do so at 18 months, others can not. 

It's best to start the potty training process during a stable period of your child’s life. If there are stressors happening at home (moving to a new home, a new baby, starting a new school or meeting a new caretaker) then it’s best to wait until your child adjusts.

As an aside, some parents are interested in "infant potty training" which is a different approach.  This is not wrong but involves a different strategy and involves trying to read your child's signs (scrunched face when preparinig to stool for example) and then repeatedly placing them on the toilet.  You can read more about this concept here. Many other cultures use this method but traditionally in the United States we recommend child led potty training which is what I will be discussing here.

Signs of Toilet Training Readiness

1. Periods of dryness: If your child’s diaper is dry for more than 2 hours at a time or dry after naps, they may be ready.

2. Interest in the toilet: Some children may simply verbalize their desire to use the toilet.  Others become very distressed when their diaper is wet or dirty (this is the perfect time to show them the solution to feeling wet or messy - the toilet!!)

3. Ability to walk to the potty and undress (for traditional potty training for children over 18 months).  It's helpful to avoid overalls or tight pants or belts that will make it difficult for a child to remove themselves.

Most children show some interest and then have set backs (more accidents or refusal). The most important thing if trying to potty train early is to STOP if you meet signs of resistance so as to avoid power struggles that can lead to major toileting resistance and refusal.

Setting the Stage:

First, I recommend introducing the idea of using the potty by modeling for them (let Junior come and watch you use the toilet and explaint that he or she will too as they get older).  Reading books about potty training is also very helpful for explaining what is involved.  A few of my favorites are Once Upon a Potty (comes in a girl version and a boy version), Potty Time, and Potty Superhero.  Also, there's a great Daniel Tiger episode about potty training (episode 111).

Secondly, I recommend taking your child shopping with you for all the "big kid" supplies for potty training. Make this into a special outing and tell him or her that you are so excited to watch them growing up into such a big kid.  

- A small potty seat or seat reducer inserts for the regular toilet seat (etiher removable or these that you can install to raise or lower with your regular toilet seat). If you are going to have a child sit on an adult sized toilet, make sure to get a stool that they can place their feet on (it's easier to push out stool if you can brace your feet on the floor or a stool).

- Big kid underwear (try to find a design that your child loves, perhaps a favorite carachter from book or movies, dinosaurs, etc).

- Kid friendly soap (love the foaming soap)

I also keep a package of wipes, lots of disposable trash bags, a roll of paper towels, and some Lysol cleaner in a nearby cabinet for easy clean up for near misses or accidents that are sure to occur.

Stay Tuned for Potty Training in Action (Part 2) and Troubleshooting for Potty Training Stubborn Toddlers (Part 3).


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