Peter Stavinoha, Ph.D.
Potty Learning vs. Potty Training?
Some child development educators use the term potty learning instead of potty training. Positive training results are learning, so either term is really fine. It is important to remember that the process requires the child to develop (learn) a new skill, and the process of learning takes time. Parents facilitate the process through positive training techniques.
Look for Signs of Readiness
Signs of readiness include the physical ability to use the potty (like being able to pull down clothing or training pants), the cognitive awareness of what actually happens (including a vocabulary for the process), and some level of interest in using the potty.
How Early is Too Early?
We often think of potty training as an “event” – this adds to the stress we feel on making the right decisions as caregivers. Thinking of potty training as an event also places a burden on caregivers to choose the “right” time to hold the event. But if we think of potty training as a process of learning, then really subtle things (like role modeling, developing a vocabulary for the process)— can be done very early on to set the stage for an easier transition to the potty when the child is ready. So even at 12 or 18 months we can interact with our child in a way that promotes later interest, though we do not necessarily expect the child to independently use the potty at that point.
Potty Training Methods
I suggest that parents take their cues from their child, even down to determining features of the child’s temperament (developing personality). If Aida’s daughter seems ready to move forward in terms of being physically and cognitively able, then the next step is to determine interest and to get a feel for her temperament. Some strategies that are universally helpful include: role modeling (letting a curious child walk in on the parent using the potty and describing what’s going on); developing a sense of excitement about the process (how proud you will be, taking your daughter out to get a potty chair); “practice” sessions sitting on the potty when the probability is a little higher that something might happen (like right after a meal or a drink); and “naked time” – letting the child go without clothes for a time so that, if she goes, she can literally see what happens and see the stuff that is going to go into the potty. More than anything keep the process positive and praise every little attempt at using the potty.
What to Do When Potty Training Is Not Working
Parents need to be thoughtful about the process and ask themselves questions about the process to determine their next step. Is the child really “ready”? Is the child afraid to use the potty? Are parents doing a good job of praising and reinforcing each little effort at using the potty and not only reserving praise for when something actually ends up in the potty? Have parents overreacted to accidents? Consider the child’s interest and what can be done to stimulate that interest.
If the child is actively resistant to potty training (a common characteristic of a strong-willed child), then the parent really needs to step back and strategize a different approach. Like countless parenting tasks that follow potty training, parents need to be thoughtful about both the potential barriers as well as strategies that will make it go easier.
Should You Reward a Child for Success?
Absolutely, with positive feedback. In fact, a child should be rewarded even for attempts when nothing happens. The idea is to give the child his or her best opportunity to be successful. Now, this is not to equate praise and hugs and tickles with “things” like toys or trinkets or candies. Often we go straight to the “things” instead of using our limitless supply of positive statements and positive reinforcement. As a child develops her sense of motivation, using positive statements and positive strokes help the child develop an internal sense of accomplishment and satisfaction more than “things” do. While giving things can be effective in the short term, it does not necessarily help to develop that sense of internal motivation that we all want our children to have.
How to Respond to Accidents
Accidents are expected in potty training, so parents should certainly not overreact to these when they inevitably occur. In fact, a negative reaction from a parent when the child has had an accident can derail the process for some children. Instead, parents should react in a matter-of-fact manner and move on. The longer term parenting message is that mistakes are a part of any learning process and we need to learn to cope affectively when they occur. If we are afraid of having accidents or if we are devastated when mistakes occur, the skill that we are trying to develop simply won’t progress nearly as quickly.
Using Books or Videos
For some children these can be effective strategies for developing interest and can help demystify the process for the child. Some children benefit from learning about pottying from books or videos in terms of better understanding what it is all about. Still other children may sit a little longer on the potty if they have a book to look at, so that can be a strategy for keeping the child on the potty just a little longer! That being said, many children develop interest in the process without books or videos – rather they watch mom or dad or siblings or friends, or it may just be that they want to wear “big boy” underpants!
“How long does it usually take for a child to become fully potty trained?”
The pace of potty training depends on a lot of things – the child’s level of interest, readiness, motivation, and parental expectations and involvement and guidance. While some toddlers potty train in a day or weekend, others take weeks or months to finally become accident-free (mostly). Having an expectation that a child will potty train within a certain time interval sets the parent and child up for frustration and unnecessary stress. This expectation also suggests that we, as parents, can somehow control how quickly our child potty trains.
As with MANY parenting tasks to follow, parents can influence and facilitate the process of potty training, but in the end the child controls the pace. So by reading our child’s cues and using thoughtful strategies to stimulate interest and positively reinforce our child’s potty attempts, we give her the best opportunity to become successful as soon as she is ready – whether in a day, a week, a month, or longer. )
”When we first started potty training, my son was doing fine but suddenly started resisting. What should I do now?”
When a child actively resists after having achieved some success, it is important to step back from the process and think about factors that possibly led to the resistance. For example, sometimes a change or stressor (a new sibling, new house, starting daycare or preschool, etc.) can result in such a setback. More than anything, step back and don’t push. Often we react to resistance by pushing harder, but that can be disastrous when a child decides to dig in his heels. Keep up strategies that help facilitate interest and make sure that every little attempt is rewarded with praise given to your child in a meaningful and sincere manner. Temporary setbacks can be a part of the learning process for a child, and temporary setbacks not unusual in potty training.
Cares for 2-year-old twin nieces
We just started potty-training my nieces in late November, when they turned two. I tried to put them on a schedule, so they know every time of day that I am going to take them to the potty. When they first come to stay with me, I take them to the restroom an hour before and after they take a nap and whenever they eat a snack. They know the schedule.
I sit & talk with them when they are on the potty. They cheer each other on. They like to take off their own pants. They love to wash their hands when they are done. When they are the on the potty, I will sing a potty song and clap.
Child care provider for 6 years
I recommend to parents to dress them in light clothing, like shorts that are easy to pull up or down. Not jean shorts with a belt. Kids can’t get everything undone in time. The best are clothes that are easy to pull up and down.
We practice sitting on the potty. Some kids have never been on a potty. Some kids are unaware of what goes on with the potty. Practice getting up on the stool, sit, and come back down. Sometimes there is a lid to make the hole smaller, so they don’t feel like they will fall in. If the child doesn’t want to sit on the big potty, divert him or her to a smaller potty next to toilet.