Toddler potty training: How to get your child ready
Getting your child ready
© 2006 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved
This article focuses on how to prepare for toddler potty training. If you are interested in training before the toddler stage, see my article on
infant toilet training
For specific methods of
toddler potty training, see my article "Potty training techniques."
Prepare for the potty: Laying the groundwork for toddler potty training
In Western countries today, most pediatricians recommend a child-oriented approach to toilet training. Children set the pace. Parents delay training until children demonstrate certain skills, abilities and interests.
The goal of this approach is to avoid pressuring children before they are physically and psychologically ready. For “early bloomers,” this may lead to toddler potty training. For others, it might mean starting long after age 2.
But “child-oriented” doesn’t have to mean “wait and see.” If you wait for your child to demonstrate a spontaneous interest in toilet training, you may end up waiting a long time.
It seems likely that you can speed up the process—-and make toilet training less stressful—-by actively preparing your toddler. Whether you favor toddler toilet training or a somewhat later start, you can help your child get ready.
Support for this idea comes from a wide range of child development research.
Kids-—even newborns—-are natural imitators (Meltzoff 1996). They love to emulate their parents’ behaviors. They learn new skills through play—including pretend play (Bock and Johnson 2004; Pellegrini and Bjorkland 2004). And when parents participate, pretend play becomes more complex and lasts longer (Fiese 1990). We also know that children become more cooperative and socially adept when their parents use inductive discipline—that is, when parents explain why they want their children to behave in certain ways (Krevans and Gibbs 1996).
Put these points together, and we have a recipe for teaching toilet readiness skills:
Teach by example.
From brushing your teeth to putting on your socks, you model many motor skills for your toddler. Toilet training should be no different.
Let your toddler observe family members using the bathroom as part of everyday life. Demonstrate the whole bathroom “script,” from having a “potty feeling” to removing clothing, using the toilet, flushing, dressing, and washing hands.
Take the opportunity to explain what you are doing—-for instance, what happens when you flush the toilet, and why it’s important to wash your hands. If your child shows interest, she can participate, too. For example, William and Martha Sears suggests you invite her to help you flush the toilet (Sears et al 2002).
Take advantage of everyday opportunities to explain how and why we eliminate.
If you notice your toddler is about to void, call his attention to his body’s signals Give them a name (e.g., “potty feeling,”) and explain that everyone experiences these sensations. Explain that everyone—all people and all animals—pee and poop. If you have pets, discuss how they “go the bathroom.” Like people, most pets have to follow certain rules. What are they? Encourage your toddler to tell you whenever he pees or poops, and explain why it’s important to change his diaper as soon as it gets soiled (“If you wear a poopy diaper, your bottom will get itchy and sore…”)
To reinforce your explanations, try these books:
Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi (Kane/Miller publishing, 1993)
Where's the Poop? by Julie Marks and Susan Kathleen Hartung (Harper Festival 2004)
Teach your toddler potty training skills through pretend play.
Weeks before you plan to start toilet training, give your toddler a potty chair and explain how it’s used. Let him sit on it fully clothed and investigate it during play. Initiate pretend play about using the potty with dolls or action figures. You might act out the bathroom “script,” or use pretend play to deal with sources of potential anxiety. For instance, your doll might have an accident and require reassurance (“Sometimes it’s hard to get to the potty in time. That’s okay. We’ll help you clean up.”)
Other important ways to prepare
Other important preparations for toddler potty training concern clothing and diapering. Discuss differences between underwear and diapers. Portray underwear-wearing as a special privilege—something to look forward to. Encourage your toddler to practice pulling his pants up and down. And practice good diapering habits. Pediatrician Barton Schmidt recommends that you get your child accustomed to wearing only clean, dry diapers. You can do this by teaching your child to ask for changes whenever she is wet or soiled, and by making diaper changes pleasant (Schmidt 2004).
Schmidt also recommends that you avoid sending negative messages about poop. In theory, kids may hide or refuse to use the toilet if they get the idea that pooping is bad (Taubman et al 2003). For this reason, Schmidt suggests that parents praise pre-toilet trained children for pooping in their diapers. He also advises against referring to poop as “dirty or yucky” (Schmidt 2004). But it’s unclear if this is actually helpful. In a recent study, parents who took this approach were no less likely to have children who held back stools, hid, or refused to use the potty. The only apparent benefit was that children who did refuse to the use potty passed through this phase more quickly if their parents used the “poop is nice” approach (Taubman et al 2003).
Based on this evidence, I don’t think the approach is justified. After all, poop really is dirty. It spreads disease. Parents should be able to tell kids that poop is dirty-—something that needs to be cleaned up-—and still maintain a cheerful, encouraging attitude about the pooping process. Toddler potty training isn't just about social etiquette. It's also about sanitation.
A much more convincing explanation for stool toileting refusal is fear of pain. Children who refuse to poop in the potty are more likely to have experienced hard bowel movements and painful defecation (Blum et al 2004). Which leads to my last point...
Most toddlers prefer starchy diets and eat little fiber. This puts them at risk for developing constipation, which leads to longer, more difficult potty sits and, possibly, pain. If your child appears constipated, delay toddler toilet training. Discuss dietary changes with your pediatrician, and make sure your child is drinking enough fluids. Soft, easy-to-pass stools will make toddler potty training easier.
For more information about toddler potty training, see my article on
toilet training techniques.
References: Preparing for toddler potty training
Blum NJ, Taubman B, and Nemeth N. 2003. Relationship between age at initiation of toilet training and duration of training: A prospective study. Pediatrics, 111: 810-814.
Bock J and Johnson SE. 2004. Subsistence ecology and play among the Okavango Delta peoples of Botswana. Human Nature, 15: 63-81.
Fiese BH. 1990. Playful relationships: A contextual analysis of mother-toddler interaction and symbolic play. Child Development, 61: 1648-1656
Krevans J and Gibbs JC. 1996. Parents’ use of inductive discipline: relations to children’s empathy and prosocial behavior. Child Development, 67: 3263-77.
Meltzoff A. 1996. The human infant as imitative generalist: A 20-year progress report on infant imitation with implications for comparative psychology. In: CM Heyes and BG Galef, Jr. (eds). Social learning: The roots of culture (pp.347-370). San Diego: Academic Press.
Pellegrini AD and Bjorkland DF. 2004. The ontogeny and phylogeny of children’s object and fantasy play. Human Nature, 15: 23-43.
Sears W, Sears M and Watts Kelly C. 2002. You can go to the potty. Boston, MA Little, Brown and Company.
Slade, A. 1987 A longitudinal study of maternal involvement and symbolic play during the toddler period. Child development, 58:367-375
Schmidt BA. 2004. Toilet training: Getting it right the first time. Contemporary Pediatrics, 21: 105-119.
Taubman B. 1997. Toilet training and toileting refusal for stool only: A prospective study. Pediatrics, 99: 54-58.
Taubman B, Blum NJ, and Nemeth N. 2003. Stool toileting refusal: A prospective intervention targeting parental behavior. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 157: 1193-2003.