At some point in your child’s early years, he or she will need to be potty trained. Toilet training a child can be an intimidating undertaking, especially if the parents are not prepared for what it will entail. Knowing what to expect during potty training, and how to handle it, will make this stage of your child’s life pass quickly and more easily.
Is Your Child Ready?
Potty training will be much easier on child and parent alike if the child is already developmentally ready for the challenge. There are several ways your child may let you know when he or she is ready, so pay close attention.
Your child’s diaper is often dry when you check it. If your child is showing signs of holding it for a period before relieving their bladder, it means they are developing control of the muscles.
Your child lets you know when his or her diaper needs changed. Alerting you to a wet or messy diaper also shows the beginnings of awareness of how their body functions.
Your child tells you his or her diaper needs changed – before it actually does. If your child alerts you of the need for a clean diaper before they wet or soil it, they have learned to recognize the bodily sensations of having to go.
Your child shows interest in using the toilet. When a child begins asking questions about using the toilet “like the big people do,” it is usually a dead giveaway that he or she is ready to be potty trained. This curiosity may come sooner in a child with older siblings or friends who are potty trained, or in a child that has any other motivation for acting grown up.
Reward and Punishment: What Not to Do
There are many fallacies that parents and caregivers may succumb to when potty training a child. Knowing what not to do may avoid certain problems along the road to successful toilet training.
Although certain kinds of reward will benefit the potty training process by giving the child a sense of accomplishment, other types of reward will actually make your goal more difficult to attain. Generally, giving the child any sort of treat or material reward will have a negative impact on the child. Instead of wanting to be a big boy or girl, the child will see pottying as a means to earning a treat or a new toy. In other words, when you bribe your child with candy and toys, you steal from him or her the opportunity to feel that sense of accomplishment, that self-esteem boost. With these types of rewards, not only do you undermine the child’s self esteem, you also handicap your own efforts: a child who has learned to value potty training only for the rewards, will quickly regress when the reward is no longer given – and you simply cannot continue rewarding toilet use in a child of five, ten, fifteen years. So unless you want to go through the process of potty training twice – once with the rewards, and once after the rewards are taken away – do not succumb to the temptation of bribing your child to use the toilet.
Punishments that Punish You
For the most part, the consequences that come to mind when you think of “punishment” will only hurt your efforts to potty train your child. Possibly the worst thing to do is to try to physically or emotionally intimidate into using the toilet. Spanking your child for having accidents, yelling, threatening, or other such behavior will only upset the child; once a child associates the toilet with bad things, it will be much harder to convince him or her to use it. Another bad idea is to put a child in diapers in retaliation for an accident; essentially, you are telling the child that he or she has failed, and many children will often regress and stop using the toilet entirely at this point. Once you make the switch to pull-ups or diapers, you need to commit to it, or you could trigger worse problems than the occasional accident.
Using Effective Guidance Techniques
Consistency: Keeping a Schedule
When a child first starts to potty train, there are usually two reasons for accidents: either the child did not recognize the signs of having to go, or he or she was too busy to do anything about it. In order to avoid the majority of both types of accidents, take the child to sit on the potty at regular intervals. At first, taking the child every hour is advisable; as the child’s muscle control improves and accidents happen more infrequently, intervals can be lengthened to two hours or longer. It is important to stress to the child early on that successfully going potty is not as important as sitting there and trying each time. If your child doesn’t go, don’t push the issue; remain positive and tell him or her, “It’s okay if you didn’t have to go, but thank you for trying. Maybe next time you’ll be able to go.” However, if it seems that your child has not urinated for an unusually long period of time, it is a good idea to take him or her to the potty more frequently until they go; not only could an accident be looming, but holding it for too long due to pottying apprehensions can cause a urinary tract infection.
Reinforcement: The Power of Praise
While material rewards or treats are not a good idea, reinforcement of certain behaviors will let your child know when he or she is on the right track. Children tend to respond well to praise, as it gives them a sense of the value of their actions. Simply showing your child how proud it makes you when he or she successfully uses the potty, can go a long way toward achieving complete toilet training.
Sometimes children dislike sitting on the potty. Especially at first, a child may have to “try” for a while before the muscles respond to the mental command; young children lose focus quickly, and may need something to hold their interest while they learn to control their body. In these instances, it is certainly not harmful to get a “potty book” or a “potty toy” – a special object that is reserved for those times when the child is sitting on the potty. Keep in mind that the book or toy will serve its purpose better if it is somehow related to the activity: a picture book about potty training, for example, or a water toy that might trigger the impulse to urinate. This kind of reinforcement does not fall into the category of “harmful rewards” if it is used correctly. Do not use a potty object as a bribe: if you are tempted to suggest it when the child is pitching a fit about going potty, it is probably a bribe. However, if you make use of a neutral moment to explain to the child about the new potty toy or book, the object loses the qualities of a bribe and becomes, instead, a celebration of the child’s new status as a “big boy” or “big girl.”
Natural Consequences: Teaching What Having Accidents Really Means
There is a difference between a punishment and a natural consequence. A punishment generally has nothing to do with the issue itself; for example, spanking a child is not a direct reaction to having an accident, but an action imposed on the child by you, most likely out of anger. Punishment, therefore, will have very little success when used to try to teach a child something. A natural consequence, however, demonstrates to the child what happens as a result of his or her actions, and why the actions are undesirable. For example, if a child is responsible for helping to clean up after his or her own accidents, he or she will understand why going potty is preferable to having accidents. As a rule of thumb, potty training is a time of learning to do things for oneself; therefore, all care related to going potty – taking clothes off and on, wiping, flushing the toilet, washing hands, and cleaning up after accidents – should be primarily the child’s responsibility. The only help that should come from an adult is guidance intended to teach the child how to do it without help.
Dealing with a Child Who Refuses to Use the Potty
Sometimes a child will steadfastly refuse to use the potty, creating a special situation that needs to be handled carefully. The first thing to do is to make sure that the child is not being pressured to be potty training before he or she is physically capable of the task. This means differentiating between the child’s physical abilities, and his or her emotional desires, which may include the wish to remain a baby or the desire to exert control over adults.
If it is determined that a child is simply not physically capable of the task yet, it is still not advisable to completely reverse course, as the child may have developed a distaste for potty training and will have learned that acting in a certain way will relieve him or her of the responsibility. In this case, potty training attempts can continue, but with less insistence. Differentiate between potty training and “practicing,” so that the child knows he or she is not being pressured to achieve results that may be impossible just yet.
However, if a child is refusing to go potty because of power issues, you will need to decide how you want to handle the matter: with natural consequences, or with a little force. If you decide to use the method of natural consequences, you’ll need to be careful not to force the child to go potty if he or she resists – but keep him or her in underwear, instead of diapers or pull-ups, and make the child responsible for the majority of the accident cleanup. The goal here is for the child to realize that there is a perfectly good reason why you are expecting him or her to use the toilet. If the resistance is intermittent, however, or if you have reason to believe the child is merely testing your resolve, the second method may be more appropriate. Rather than allowing the child the freedom to make his or her own decisions about going potty, and then using natural consequences to deter the child from refusing to go, you will not allow the child the freedom of choice. Instead, when the child protests, you will actually put him or her on the potty. Remaining detached (i.e. not showing anger, tears, or other emotion as a result of the child’s refusal to go) is critical if you want to avoid turning the situation into a power struggle, but it can easily be done. Also, be aware that a child who does not want to do certain things independently, such as undressing and dressing oneself, may try to take advantage of this method of handling a refusal to go potty. To avoid this, take the child’s hands in yours and make him or her go through all the motions of undressing and dressing with you, even if the fingers remain slack, giving the impression that passive protest is just as much work as doing it oneself. Calmness and detachment are absolutely necessary to follow through with this method of dealing with a potty power struggle, so that you do not either gratify the child’s efforts by letting him or her visibly upset you, or inadvertently hurt the child, thereby making the potty training issues worse through the threat of physical punishment.
What to Expect
Although the tips given above tend to simplify this stage of childhood development, potty training can be a very complex undertaking, and is often complicated further by the fact that children at this stage are at an age where tantrums are more likely. In general, expect that boys will be more difficult than girls to potty train, and that urinating in the toilet will come more quickly than defecating. Also, while a child may be completely potty trained during his or her waking hours, he or she may still be susceptible to bedwetting during naps and overnight. As a result, pull-ups may still be needed while the child sleeps.
All in all, remember that every child is unique; just like adults, each will think and react differently than the next. Always take your child’s unique personality into consideration when deciding how to approach potty training. While the above tips can help make potty training easier, you know your child best of all. Ultimately, the goal is the end result of potty training your child, not of finding the perfect “right” way of doing so.