There they were — mum and toddler — in the middle of the busy car park, when I heard the little girl call out “Mummy, I need to do wee!” I felt for them (I knew the nearest toilet was miles away), but out of the corner of my eye I saw the clever mum whip out a potty, pop it into the back of their car, and spare her little girl a long, hot hike.
A little packing and planning can ease the way to potty training, but how do you start the process in the first place? How do you know your kids are ready?
Your toddler’s public announcements they have wet the nappy or don’t want to wear it anymore (or maybe the ‘non-verbal cue’ — just ripping the nappy off!) might seem strong enough hints, but do these really signify they’re ready to shed their ‘wearable toilet’?
Psychologist Philippa McTaggart, manager of The University of Queensland’s Child and Family Psychology Clinic, says around 2 years of age is the ideal time to start toilet training, but every child is different.
“Be confident your child is developmentally ready,” Dr McTaggart says. She explains that a child needs to not only be able to recognise internal signals like a full bladder, but also have the verbal skills to tell you they need to go to the toilet, and have the motor skills to walk there and remove their pants, get onto the toilet, wipe their bottom, get their pants back on, flush, and wash their hands.
It doesn’t need to be emotionally overwhelming, but it can be if you don’t realise how complex it is for a young child. “There is a lot to learn,” Dr McTaggart explains. “The way parents handle toilet training can make it quite daunting for children.”
Dr McTaggart’s advice is to choose a time that’s not stressful and give toilet training a try for about a month. “Toilet training works best when it is done calmly and without pressure,” she says.
Dr McTaggart recommends getting rid of nappies totally at this time so your child becomes more aware of when they are wet. “Be prepared for mess, though,” she says.
Some parents say it really helps to read a book or watch a DVD about toilet training before starting the process.
Mother-of-two Peta says she took a fairly ‘free range’ approach to toilet training with “loose pants and lots of encouragement”. “And we did hang fairly close to home for the first week or two,” she adds.
Like all parents, Peta has had her toilet-training challenges. She says her second-born (now three) insists on wearing a nappy at night, despite being daytime toilet trained before she was two.
“My next step is to try the potty in her room at night, because she seems scared about going to the toilet then, despite the night-light and our assurances it’s OK to wake us up (maybe we seemed a bit unenthusiastic about the waking up bit!),” Peta says.
Three to four weeks sees many kids achieve dryness, but for others it can take a few months. This has nothing to do with ‘not trying hard enough’. (Imagine if you thought your kids could be taller if only they would try harder!?) Kids’ nervous systems need to be mature enough to control bowel and bladder function. Bowel control tends to come first, followed by daytime bladder control, then night-time bladder control.
“If you find that your child is not making progress in a month or so, or they are getting upset about the process, then go back to using nappies for a while (at least a month) and then try again,” Dr McTaggart recommends.
Make sure they’re getting plenty of fruit and fluids to prevent constipation, and try getting them to blow up a balloon while on the toilet to help them relax and push.
Peta says some parents get a bit competitive about toilet training, but usually realise with time and experience that all kids are different.
If you think boys are slower than girls to master toilet training, you could be right. Dr McTaggart says one reason for this could be that the overall development process for boys is a little slower than it is for girls. Secondly, “boys need to learn to wee while sitting down before they learn to do it standing up (even though they have probably watched daddy wee while standing up),” she explains.
Some kids are happy to use both the toilet and potty, but others show a preference from the word go. Toddlers might like the potty because they can decide where it goes, perhaps preferring their own private corner. The potty may also seem less daunting than a toilet, but with the right gear the loo can also be a comfort zone (and saves potty-emptying).
Little toilet-users need a toilet-step and a smaller seat that fits securely inside the existing toilet seat, so they are not uneasy about ‘falling in’. Some kids worry about the sound of flushing, so you might want to wait until they’ve left the room before pressing the button.
‘Go now’ moments are urgent, so setting up the toilet so that it’s safe and has a night-light and open door will (perhaps) allow you to all sleep easily.
‘Pull up’ training pants (‘absorbent underwear’) are a popular choice and can help with the move to underwear, but some say they make it harder for kids to work out when they’re ‘wet’. Check with your doctor before using them beyond age three or four.
Mum Peta says her girls had a few ‘accidents’ when they were playing with friends and were just too distracted to think about getting to the Learning to control their bowels and bladder can be a big ask for a toddler, so there’ll almost certainly be setbacks. It can be worse if a child feels pressured. “You might find that your child becomes afraid of making a mess or getting into trouble and then she won’t be quite so willing to try,” Dr McTaggart says. She advises avoiding battles. “You can’t make them go on demand, and if they are tense are unlikely to have success.”
Being positive and encouraging when things go well and philosophical about accidents helps your kids develop the right attitude. If they become fearful and hold on to bowel movements for too long, it can create compacted blockages – not the desired result!
Regression can simply be a sign of big changes in a child’s life, but it can also signal health issues. If a child over 4 years old is having problems, or if they were previously dry and are now having accidents during the day, Dr McTaggart advises seeking medical advice.
Many under-fives wet the bed long after they are dry during the day, but if bedwetting continues after this (or your child has been dry and starts wetting again) it’s best to check with your doctor to make sure there is no medical problem. Over 10% of younger primary school children still wet their beds. Most will grow out of it naturally, although some need the help of bedwetting pad-and-buzzer systems.
Be patient. Some children learn quickly, others take a few months. Be guided by your child, not your own time-line
Take a positive approach with rewards for effort, not one that involves punishment for accidents
Praise and reward little successes instead of waiting for overall achievement (e.g. give a reward for sitting on the toilet even though nothing happened! Or reward your child for weeing in their nappy while standing in the bathroom instead of wherever they usually are in the house). Then gradually increase your expectations for earning the reward.
Let them watch you — or older siblings — use the toilet so that they understand the process. Many kids will learn the skills just by watching and it certainly makes the process less daunting
Use a child-friendly toilet seat and stool. Big toilets can be quite scary for little people
Stress will make the process longer, so try and time the start of toilet training to avoid times like a new baby’s arrival or moving house
It’s easier to start toilet training in summer rather than winter as there are less layers to take off
It’s no fairytale when you find your child has left a poo behind the couch or even in the cupboard! But research shows that half of children being toilet-trained like to hide sometimes when they poo. There’s no (known) reason for this, but the habit stops without parents doing much, other than giving encouragement to use the toilet (and praying they get over it!). Putting the potty in a more private place might help, but like many toddler-challenges, it’s usually just a waiting game.
Equally ‘interesting’ is when toddlers like to experiment with their poo: “We were staying with my parents-in-law and I had proudly declared to Mia’s Nan that she was fully toilet trained (aged two),” Peta says. “After her (nappyless) daytime sleep one day, her Nan went in to take her out of the portacot and at first she thought Mia had been quietly drawing on the walls with brown crayon...!”
While I celebrated the chance to rid my kids of their nappies (and salve my landfill conscience), from the child’s point of view it is different. It is a big step. I understood a little more when it was finally time for us to give away our cot and pram, and, with some (unexpected!) emotion, the ‘turtle’ potty. Maybe it was because that steady white turtle was a symbol of a sizeable step in my children’s independence. Fittingly, it was also a reminder that ‘relaxed and steady wins what-is-not a race’.
For more information:
Queensland Community Child Health Services. Phone the Health Contact Centre on 13HEALTH (13 43 25 84) and ask for contact details for your nearest Community Child Health Centre.
eBook Take Aim Toilet Training, by Jan Murray. A straightforward approach to toilet training — when and how to start, overcoming bedwetting, and what to expect for how long. (Available at www.settlepetal.com)