Parents are bombarded by ads claiming kids can be toilet trained in just 24 hours. But most tots take longer to achieve potty prowess. That can leave everyone feeling frustrated.
We asked child psychologist Heather Wittenberg, Ph.D., mom of four and author of “Let’s Get This Potty Started!,” and Dana Obleman, mom of three and author of “No-Sweat Potty Training,” to address parents’ questions head-on. Here’s what they had to say.
Q. Give it to us straight. How long will toilet training take?
A. Unless you have a crystal ball, it’s impossible to know the timeline. “It is a unique experience for each child. While one can learn in two or three days, others can take weeks or months to master the skills,” Obelman says. Experts at the University of Michigan Health System say it takes an average of three to six months to achieve consistent success. Bottom line: Think of potty training as a process, not an event.
“In addition to asking whether your child is ready, you should ask yourself whether you’re up to the parenting task,” Obelman says. “Potty training is a commitment and you need to be able and willing to take it on fully and not give up.” Delay starting the process if you are too busy to see it through or if your schedule will create a sense of urgency. The week before your holiday trip to Grandma’s house is probably not the best time to ditch the diapers.
Q. Should I make a big deal about potty training or keep it casual?
A. “Milestones should be celebrated,” Obelman says. The key is finding a way to reward success without adding too much stress. Give hugs and high-fives when your child tries to use the potty, even if she doesn’t succeed. Tell her you’re proud that she’s becoming a big girl.
You may also keep a few small prizes on hand to give out the first time your child pees or poops in the toilet or when he keeps his pants dry for a significant period of time. “Just wait to mention the prize until after your child is successful,” Obelman says. This reinforces desired behavior and minimizes performance pressure.
Q. Poop is just poop. Why are kids so emotional about it?
A. Using the toilet seems straightforward, but it is actually quite complex. “The physical skills are the easy part. Cognitively kids need to be able to anticipate, plan and have patience,” Wittenberg says, in addition to holding their pee or poop until they reach the restroom. The emotional component is huge. “At this stage your child is learning that she is in charge of her own body. This is a big shift from the stage of infancy where parents provide for every need,” Wittenberg says. Independence is exciting and a little scary. Offer lots of encouragement and affection.
Q. How can I remind my child to use the potty without nagging her all day long?
A. Encouraging independence means taking a step back and letting kids learn. “Following kids around all day is counterproductive,” Obelman says, because it doesn’t teach them to notice their body’s gotta-go signals. If your child really needs a reminder, set a timer – on your digital watch, an alarm clock, or your cell phone – to beep at a specified interval. Then, let your child decide whether she wants to use the bathroom. Kids should control the process as much as possible.
Q. Is it better to let kids go au naturel, move directly to underwear, or trade diapers for pull-up training pants?
A. Going naked makes it easy for kids to use the toilet when nature calls. Switching to big-girl panties puts the happy (and not-so-happy) consequences of potty training front and center. “But these can be messy approaches, figuratively and literally,” Wittenberg says. They may also be hard to maintain in public or over the long haul.
“A gradual process using pull-up training pants can make potty training more relaxed for everyone,” Wittenberg says. There isn’t a single right answer. Choose a strategy that fits your child’s personality and is sustainable for several weeks or months. It is confusing and counterproductive to do naked toilet training at home on the weekend if your child must wear diapers at daycare.
Q. How should I handle an accident?
A. Accidents can be upsetting for everyone, but an angry or punishing response is never helpful, Wittenberg says. Kids who feel ashamed of accidents may begin withholding poop to get back in control. This can lead to constipation and other digestive problems.
Try to keep calm and “get your child involved in the cleanup process as much as possible,” Obelman says. This emphasizes the natural consequences of not using the toilet and motivates kids to do their business in the bathroom.
Learn about toilet training for kids with special needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers pointers for parents of kids with physical challenges and learning disabilities.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and the author of “Detachment Parenting.”