When your child learns to use the toilet, it’s a significant move towards independence, but it can be fraught with frustrations. By Marianne McDonald
If you’re about to begin potty training your tot, a quick Google search of how to do it is likely to bring up videos and article titles like, “How I potty trained my toddler, fast!”, or “Three-day potty-training method”. And while it is possible to achieve results in this time frame, for most moms and tots it’s not quite that simple. Truth is, if you don’t manage your expectations, you could be in for unnecessary disappointment and frustration.
Here’s what to keep in mind from day one…
Your tot must be ready for potty training
At some point, your toddler will begin to show signs of readiness, which could emerge any time between 10 and 36 months. It’s worth keeping in mind that children are not able to control their bladders before the age of two, and most children will potty train between two and three years. Instead of throwing out the nappies the moment your child turns two, look for these signs of readiness.
Registered nurse and midwife Sister Ann Richardson explains in her book Toddler Sense that “Most parents struggle with the ‘pressure’ of starting potty training as advised by well-meaning family and friends. Understanding your toddler’s signals of readiness is key to not struggling. Misinterpreting the very early signs of sensory awareness (like squatting to poo, or indicating a dirty nappy) as time to start potty training is also stressful as your child needs to be cognitively ready and able to communicate his needs.”
You must be ready
While using the toilet may seem like the most natural thing in the world to you, it’s a learned behaviour rather than an instinct (like crawling or walking). This means your toddler is going to need plenty of guidance and patience from you and consistency is key.
If you’re pregnant with your second and experiencing morning sickness, have a newborn in the house or are going away on holiday you may want to push pause.
It’s advisable for a parent or carer to stay home with the child for the first three days of potty training if possible. But, even after this time you’ll need to be vigilant, responsive and available to your little one to take her to the toilet at regular intervals and interrupt lunch play dates when you’re out.
If your preschool is helping to potty train your child, you’ll need to be willing to continue with their method at home, which will usually involve taking your tot to the toilet every 30 minutes and negotiating breaks away from activities. “The struggle is also committing to guiding your toddler towards potty training, which involves frequent reminders, leading by example and plenty of patience,” says Ann.
There is a right time of year for potty training
The early days of potty training are going to be a whole lot easier and smoother if your child is able to run around without clothes or at least pants on. “It is much easier for a child to understand sensory awareness of urinating or passing a stool when they are naked as opposed to be being bundled up in a nappy and many layers in winter.”
It may take a while
Some toddlers wake up one morning and declare they no longer want to wear nappies. Others need a little more convincing. “It can take anything from 24 hours to a few months for those who are very under-responsive to sensory signals (don’t notice a full bladder or wet nappy),” explains Ann.
Going on outings will likely also have to happen well before your child is completely potty trained and no longer having accidents. “Plan short outings to begin with and gradually increase the length of time you’re out. Insist on a toilet break before leaving the house and consider using pull-ups in case of accidents or for longer car journeys. Keep a potty in the car and if one isn’t available, your child can squat over the nappy or grass if the surroundings are appropriate,” says Ann.
There will be lots of mess
From accidents on the furniture to soiled pants, prepare yourself for plenty of cleaning up and laundry that will go beyond the initial three-day training period. After this, there will be times when your child is so absorbed in an activity that she forgets to tell you she needs to go.
Regression periods are also common, but your toddler will begin using the toilet as usual again with patience and guidance.
Your child may also soil her pants instead of making a poo in the potty – even if she has the wee taped. Try to be patient with this as you don’t want to create a situation where your child holds it in rather than going. This can result in constipation and pain when making a bowel movement, which will only exacerbate the situation. If your child does become constipated, “she must be allowed to go straight back into nappies for pooing and you will need to seek medical advice regarding laxative use to prevent long-term constipation. In some instances where there is severe anxiety, a few sessions of play therapy works well,” advises Ann.
Poos are tricky
“It is fairly common for some toddlers to refuse to have a bowel movement on the potty or in the toilet. Your little one may demand a nappy be put on, and will invariably go to a private spot (usually behind the couch or wrapped up in the curtains) and do it there.
Some toddlers refuse to use a strange toilet, or to go if there are visitors in the house. The best way to handle this is to comply with your little one’s request and treat it as completely normal. With lots of patience and encouragement it should settle on its own within a few months. If it starts to become a problem and encroaches on her enjoyment of activities, it may be time to do something about it,” explains Ann.
She offers the following solution for slowly guiding your tot towards toilet independence. “Wait until she is calm, content and happy and when you have lots of time to be with her. If she goes at a certain time of day, take her to the bathroom and encourage her to poo in her nappy there. If she gets this right, you are making good progress. Bear in mind that this may take some time, so be patient.
“Once she has the hang of this, allow her to keep her nappy on when she says she wants to poo, but encourage her to sit on the toilet. This may also take a bit of time to achieve. The next step, which could be weeks later, is to loosen the nappy a bit until it is just under her, but not on her. When she is comfortable with this stage, place a nappy in the toilet bowl and encourage her to sit on the toilet without a nappy. If she refuses, then move on to the next step which is to hide all her nappies so she can’t see them. When she asks for a nappy, tell her they are finished. Gently guide her towards the toilet or potty, making sure her feet are supported while she’s sitting to make her feel more stable and help her regulate her body. Offer to sit right beside her or just outside the door for as long as it takes and don’t put any pressure on her.”
If it helps, allow her to bring her favourite toy with her or read a book together while she’s sitting. Ann explains it can help for your child to play out the process. “Let her place her doll over a toy potty. Be sure to acknowledge and empathise with both her and her dolls feelings at the time by saying things like, ‘I know you and your dolly don’t want to sit on the toilet, and I know it is difficult for you, but it is OK to feel a bit scared’. Stay calm and focused, no matter how long it takes. Rest assured, all children eventually attain control of their bowels, some just take a little longer than others.”
Your child may be frightened
Toilets can be intimidating and scary for your little one, including the sound of the toilet flushing and the idea that something that just came out of her body is disappearing suddenly. If this is the case, use a potty and let her help you put the wee or poo from the potty into the toilet. “Placing a fluffed out nappy in the toilet bowl can then allow your child to see the poo before it disappears.”
Ann also explains that some children also find the feeling of passing a stool scary and advises using a mild anaesthetic cream around the anus before a poo and ensuring the stool is soft by ensuring there is plenty of fibre in her diet.
You aren’t done with nappies just yet
Your little one may be going to the potty during the day like a champ, but naps and night time may be an entirely different story. Putting a nappy on your child will help her feel more secure during sleep and prevent any embarrassment connected with soiling her sheets. In fact, some children will remain in a night time nappy until the age of five.
Marianne is a freelance content creator and copy editor. She has been part of the Living and Loving team in various capacities over the last six years, but since becoming a mom to a boisterous boy, she has found a special interest in parenting issues including discipline, education and early childhood development. When not running after, and negotiating with, her three-year-old, you’ll find her experimenting in the kitchen.