by Joan M. Thomas
Forming that first intelligible word, taking that first step, soloing on a bike without training wheels—milestones such as these are some of the greatest joys of parenthood. Yet one major milestone, learning to use the toilet, can be stressful for children as well as their parents.
An essential skill that most youngsters learn too early in their lives to recall in their later years, it is nonetheless not necessarily a simple task for a toddler to master.
Whether or not your child’s future includes winning the Nobel Prize or rising to U. S. President, today she may have difficulty shedding those diapers at a pace convenient to her parents. In order to make this key transition in parenting children as stress-free as possible for all concerned, here are a few essential tips offered by pediatricians and other child care experts.
Wait to begin toilet training for when the child is physically and emotionally ready. The American Academy of Pediatrics cites the usual readiness age as between 18 months and 2-1/2 years.
But rather than gauging strictly by age, there are four “readiness criteria” described by Nathan Azrin and Richard Foxx in their book, Toilet Training in Less Than a Day:
The authors of Parenting That Works—Building Skills That Last a Lifetime, Edward Christophersen and Susan Mortweet, suggest waiting for three months after the child meets all four of these criteria. They explain that this “provides a safety margin in case you have overestimated your child’s abilities.”
Don’t pressure a child to learn to use the toilet. AAP guidelines point out that a child under too much pressure to toilet-train may withhold his urine or stool. That can lead to more difficulties, like constipation and painful bowel movements.
Christophersen and Mortweet advise parents to expect toilet training to take as long as a few weeks to a month or two. Additionally, parents should not be surprised, or react with anger or disappointment, if the child has a few accidents later on.
Don’t begin toilet training when the child is ill or during a time when the household is in upheaval. All available advice on potty training, including that of the AAP, echoes this common-sense directive. A sick child is not likely to respond well to learning something new. Likewise, if some life-altering event is occurring in the household, like the introduction of a new baby or a death in the family, the child’s attention to the toilet-training task, and the adults’ attention to the child, will wane.
Don’t use punishment to reinforce toilet training. The AAP recommends making the toilet training experience as positive, natural, and non-threatening as possible. Most children are eager to do things like the grownups, especially when it comes using the bathroom. While different authorities outline various strategies on toilet training, not one holds to negative reinforcement.
Simply making sure that a child is developmentally ready, in good health, and not under duress will certainly make one of life’s necessary (if not so glorious!) processes less of a chore.
More advice: doctors and books
It is always advisable for parents to consult with your child’s pediatrician regarding any particular questions about your child’s development. For instance, the frequency of a child’s bowel movements may vary from that of another sibling. That may or may not be of concern, as not every child is the same in this respect. The amount of dietary fiber in a child’s diet might make a difference in the ease of passing stool. Attention to a simple thing like that could make child less reticent to use the toilet.
In addition to following your doctor’s recommendations, parents can find helpful hints and sound advice in many books targeted to both children and parents.
Books for parents discuss details like the benefits of using a potty chair as opposed to a toilet ring, or when to use pull-ups or training pants. They outline strategies for effective toilet training, using examples from everyday life.
Noted pediatrician and writer T. Berry Brazelton has authored Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way. It details a “waiting and watching” approach to toilet training, teaching parents to recognize “touchpoints,” or developmental signs of a child’s readiness to graduate from soggy diapers to dry pants.
Getting children their own book will help them understand the process in a delightful way. Too Big for Diapers, a board book by John E. Barrett, has familiar Sesame Street character Ernie as a baby learning to use his own potty chair.
Alyssa Satin Capucilli’s two offerings, The Potty Book—For Girls and The Potty Book—For Boys, recognize the logistical differences in how the two genders use the toilet. We all know that there is a real reason why the line to the ladies’ room is always longer. That’s one of those mysteries of life that we all ponder when well past our own “developmentally ready” stage.
The author of three books, freelance writer and historian Joan M. Thomas also enjoys writing feature stories and essays on current topics. Born in Carroll, Iowa, she now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, Bob, and canine pal, Sasha.