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Toddler Tips

Gentle Encouragement for Potty Training

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 2, March-April 2006, pp. 78-80

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My daughter is already two-and-a-half years old and still reluctant to use a potty. I don't want to force her out of diapers but am finding it very frustrating that she is showing no sign of wanting to take charge, particularly as all her friends of this age are already dry. How have other mothers found gentle ways to encourage their children to make the transition from wearing diapers to using a potty?

Mother's Response

I understand how frustrating this situation can be. My children were reluctant to use the potty. I was getting nowhere until my neighbor casually mentioned, "The longer you leave it, the easier it will be all around." I relaxed, stopped the training, and she was right. My oldest, a boy, needed a nappy until he was three-and-a-half, and my daughter was just a few months younger. Both of them reached a stage where one day they just said, "No more nappy" and became dry. It was a very instant thing. Neither of them used training pants; in fact, my daughter didn't even use a training potty and went straight to using the toilet. They had very few accidents in the months after.

Looking back, I'm glad that my neighbor had encouraged me to be more laid back about the whole thing. This certainly worked for our family.

Sandra Thomson
Midlothian UK

Mother's Response

My three-and-a-half-year-old-daughter has been diaper/pull-up free for a month now. When she was one-and-a-half, she started expressing interest in using the potty. Then one day, she had no more interest and refused to discuss it at all. Around her second birthday, my daughter decided she wanted to go on the "big potty." We even had a celebration and bought her a new toy. That lasted about two or three days. I tried to encourage the process with a doll that went on the potty, but my daughter didn't seem to want to use the potty regularly. I knew that this was a power struggle, so I did not push the issue. I just imagined having a 10-year-old still in pull-ups or diapers.

Around her third birthday, my daughter was able to go all night without wetting her pull-up. Occasionally I asked her what she thought about using the potty like her older cousins or not being in pull-ups or diapers. After a while her answer to those types of questions was that she wanted to be a "yittle girl!"

I decided I needed to clarify my expectations and told her that I wanted a little girl who went on the potty. I explained gently that it was time for her to consider it. I'm not sure how many days or weeks passed since the discussion, but the day finally happened all by itself. But that's the way my daughter is with an "I do it by myself" attitude. After about five days of using the potty and going all night without accidents, she regressed and wanted to wear pull-ups again. I gently explained that she would always be my baby, and that we were not going back to using pull-ups. I told her how proud I was of her and how much I loved her.

It's natural to see younger children who are potty trained and wonder, "Why isn't my child diaper-free?" Remember that every child is unique, but yet every child is the very same. The differences are when each milestone is achieved. The perfect time is when the child is ready and not when "the book" says. I had no warning that my daughter was going to wake up and be potty trained. But my instinct gave me the tools to support and nurture her growth to get to the milestone at her pace.

Brenda Welbes
Platteville WI USA

Mother's Response

When I wanted my daughter to realize what the potty was for, I found three things useful. First, I had a friend who was slightly further ahead with potty training her child come for a visit. My daughter watched her friend use the potty two or three times during the afternoon. Second, I got one of my daughter's dolls and told her that "dolly needed a wee." I sat the doll on the potty and tipped a previously prepared and surreptitiously hidden little cup of water into the potty from behind the doll's back. "Look, dolly's done a wee!" I said happily, and praised dolly a lot. We did this over the next few days. The third thing I did (easier in summer) was to let my daughter go naked as often as possible. After she found herself weeing down her legs unexpectedly, she began to recognize the feeling of needing a wee in advance. All these things helped to get her on the road of potty using.

Joanna Goldie
Glos UK

Mother's Response

My daughter also showed no signs of being ready to potty train before age two-and-a-half. I think children can only work on one or two areas of development at a time. In my daughter's case, she learned to walk late (19 months), and so she was still learning gross motor skills until age two. By that time her language development was exploding and I was pregnant and trying to decrease her nursing frequency.

After my son was born, my daughter started to show signs of readiness, but I realized that I wasn't ready to help her learn how to use the toilet. I had a new baby in my arms and he needed my attention. After she turned three I was willing to invest the energy to make it happen. Here's what worked for us. At first, she had lots of naked time at home. If she started to pee, I immediately put her on the potty (we kept one in the living room and one in the bathroom). It was apparent that she did not have control over her urination at first, but she developed it. Later, I took her to the potty every two hours -- I literally picked her up and brought her to the potty. She often peed as soon as I sat her down on the seat. I made sticker charts on poster board for each stage of the process.

Looking back, I got angry way too often during the toilet learning days. I felt frustrated by her lack of interest in the potty, especially as my friends' children became dry. Ultimately, she was fully trained, including at night, by three-and-a-half.

Tara Stephens
Morristown NJ USA

Mother's Response

I've had ups and downs teaching my twin son and daughter to use the potty, but we're almost there. When I become frustrated with washing yet another load of diapers, my wonderful husband reminds me that we can't always control our children. We can offer wholesome foods, but we can't make them eat; we can create a relaxing sleep environment, but we can't force them to sleep; and we can encourage them to use the potty, but we can't make them go!

Just before they turned two, my children became aware of urinating and defecating. They spent a lot of time naked, so they were able to feel and see what happened. This is a great way to get your daughter used to recognizing when she needs to use the potty.

I would read them books about using the potty (our favorite was Dr. Sears' You Can Go to the Potty). I left the process up to them, though; I never insisted that they try to use the potty.

My daughter potty trained overnight at 28 months, refusing to wear a diaper one morning. She had accidents, but surprisingly few, and she was out of diapers during the day. When her brother was 29 months old, he went back and forth between underwear and diapers for a few weeks, and had a few accidents before he decided to wear underwear all day. We were very matter of fact about any accidents, letting them know that it happens, having them help clean up as much as they were able, and getting them into dry clothes.

Breastfeeding taught me to watch my children, not the clock; I learned to relax and trust that my babies would let me know their needs. As my children grow older and those newborn days are further away, I often have to remind myself of this simple lesson—if I watch and trust my children, they will let me know when it's time, whether for nursing, starting solids, separating from me, or using the potty.

Cheri Kannarr
Davis CA USA

Mother's Response

When we introduced the potty to our daughter, we started by putting the potty chair in a central room of the house and simply showing her what it was for. We left it there for a while with no other suggestion. She played with it and got used to it being a fixture. Then I started letting her go naked from the waist down as often as possible (and we centered our activities around non-carpeted areas). I prepared myself ahead of time for the fact that we'd clean up many messes before she was trained. When she did make a mess, we cleaned it up together. I was always happy to clean her mess up with her, but I never cleaned it up alone. I explained to her that going in the potty was not messy and all we'd have to do is flush. I reinforced this idea frequently, but without pressure. Then one day, she walked to the potty and used it and called for me to clean her. We've only had a few sporadic messes since then. It might not be so abrupt for every child, but I knew that she was ready because there was no pressure from us. It did not take her many months, but I went into it prepared for a long, gradual transition. That made it easier to stand back and give her the room to grow into it at her own pace.

HollyCatheryn Loughlin
McKinney TX USA

Mother's Response

The first time I tried to potty train my oldest daughter she was two years old. The only reason I did it was because of outside pressure and, being pregnant, I thought it would be easier not to have to change so many diapers once the baby arrived. The whole thing was a bad idea. She wasn't ready and I was too tired to really put my heart into it. I also suffered a miscarriage during this time and gave up. Besides, I didn't really mind changing diapers; it seemed a whole lot easier than potty training.

As my daughter neared her third birthday, I decided that I should think about doing something to encourage her in that direction. A friend lent me a video to show her, which I didn't particularly care for, so I decided to make my own. I filmed my daughter playing with her blocks. Then I had her say, "Mama, I think I need to go to the bathroom." I filmed her getting up and walking to the bathroom. I filmed each step: sitting, getting the tissue paper, flushing, and washing hands. She thought this was so much fun and couldn't wait to watch her very own video in which she was the star.

I also bought her some big girl underwear with fun characters on them. I told her that when she could remember to use the potty and stay dry, then she would get to wear her big girl underwear. Since we were planning a long road trip shortly after her third birthday, I decided we wouldn't actually start potty training until our return. I didn't want to have to deal with stopping constantly and the possibility of accidents in the car. Well, lo and behold, the things I had done in preparation for "official" potty training must have done the trick because one week before our trip she was potty trained.

With my youngest daughter, who is 15 months old, I do not plan to potty train at all. With a little gentle encouragement, I know she will do it on her own when she's ready.

Váronique Gaeta
Van Nuys CA USA

Mother's Response

I potty trained my daughter at two-and-a-half years old. She had been extremely resistant to anything I had tried up until then. I was feeling frustrated and had had enough of washing two loads of cloth diapers now that we had a second baby (four months old at the time).

For cleaning up accidents, we kept clean underpants, pants, and wipes in an easily accessible location in the bathroom, as well as a potty on the floor and training seat on the toilet. I explained to my daughter gently that she would be wearing big girl pants from now on. Of course, there was no berating or criticizing for messes. I simply resolved to be firm that she would be given no diapers and would clean up the messes herself with minimal help from me. I made a decision to stay very calm and devote a week to this one task.

The results were much more successful than I ever imagined they would be. The first time, she announced to me that she needed to go and was going to pee on the floor. I gently replied that she could if she was willing to clean it up, but that perhaps the bathroom floor would be easier to clean. She seemed reluctant to dirty the floor and suggested going in the baby's bath. I told her this was a great idea, explaining that that was very easy to clean out compared to a diaper or the floor or her clothes. She took off her pants herself and peed in the baby bath and with my help we cleaned it up. I praised her for her efforts and suggested that next time she could try the potty, which would be even easier to clean. By the end of the day she was climbing onto the toilet by herself and peeing in there and delighted with her new skills and her new knickers.

One caveat: the period immediately following this was a kind of honeymoon where our daughter was very proud of herself and enjoyed the attention. Eventually, when our enthusiasm for success waned, she tried to find attention in other ways—by having "accidents." It may help to keep in mind the kind of attention, care, and physical contact your child received during diaper changes and to maintain these special one-on-one moments in some other way.

Rachel Sheffrin
Kingston ON Canada

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