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Your Potty Training Handbook: Expert Tips and Real-Parent Advice

learning to use the toilet

Denis Horan

There are parents who believe in early training. But most experts say it's not worth it. A child can't go independently without these skills:

  • Staying dry for a few hours. "This proves the sphincter can hold urine in the bladder," a muscle skill needed for peeing when you want to, says Mark Wolraich, MD, author of The American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Toilet Training (Bantam). Most kids are there by about age 2.
  • Alerting you to her dirty diaper. This is big for two reasons: (1) your child is aware of what's going on down there, and (2) she's able to communicate it.
  • A curiosity about the bathroom. Your child will watch family members go -- or watch friends at daycare or preschool -- as a way of preparing himself.
  • The dexterity to pull her pants and underwear down. If she needs too much help from you, she's not ready. But help her out with elastic-waist pants.
  • A drive for independence. Your child is more apt to use the potty when he decides he wants to be a big boy and do things himself.
  • Anticipation and awareness. The final breakthrough is when your child can recognize she's about to go. "What most of us define as 'trained' is when a child senses she has to go, indicates the need, and then does it," Dr. Wolraich says. For many children, all these pieces fall into place around age 3.

Books such as Potty Train Your Child in Just One Day (Fireside) teach you that by devoting a day to a "potty party," you can kick off training, if not have it finished by sundown. But when Brooklyn, New York, mom Allison Lucas tried it with 2-1/2-year-old Alexa, she discovered that it's not as simple as it might seem:

"Per the book, we bought a stuffed animal (we chose Curious George) and a squeeze bottle for pretending that the monkey urinated. I even sewed George 'big monkey' underpants. We bought streamers and balloons for atmosphere and baked cupcakes. And then we woke up one rainy Sunday, made Alexa's favorite pancake breakfast, and greeted her like it was Christmas morning. Only instead of Christmas, she was having a potty party.

"All the hoopla worked for 30 minutes. Alexa was thrilled to teach George how to use the potty. She helped us read a potty book to him and was surprised when George had his first potty 'success' (we impressed ourselves with our own sleight of hand).

"Then Alexa asked to put on underpants. According to the book, she wasn't supposed to put on her own underwear until later. Could we deviate from the instructions? We tried it.

"Unfortunately, Alexa, unlike George, refused the potty. She wouldn't sit on it unless bribed with candy. Then she stood up and wet her pants. She seemed mildly upset, but more amused. We changed her and partied on. We read books, sang songs, then went in our room for a change of scenery -- where she promptly clambered onto our bed and wet it. She regarded us with eyes that seemed to say: 'What did you expect? I am nobody's monkey.'

"We slapped on a diaper and put her down for her nap. We scoured the Web for advice (searching for "potty-party resistance") but found none, so we took a nap too.

"We met the afternoon with renewed vigor, plying Alexa with juice and, shamefully, as this is a potty-party no-no, the TV. Late in the day, she proclaimed that she had gone in the potty. All we saw were drops of water from George's 'pee.' But we wanted to encourage her, so we gave her a present. She knew the truth, and we knew the truth, but what could we do?

"She wandered into our bedroom, found an open suitcase that my husband was packing for a trip, and peed in it. We threw in the towel, put a diaper on her, and called it a day."

Update: Alexa is now 3 1/2 and trained.

learning to use the toilet

Denis Horan

"Sticker rewards worked for my first two boys. The third wanted dollar bills every time he went number two! He saw his brothers getting dollars for doing chores and losing teeth."
-- Jaime Bruno, Wilmette, Illinois

"I just made sure to take Emma to a potty every hour or two, no matter where we were -- even at the beach."
-- Christina D'Appolonia, Brooklyn, New York

"My son would pee in the potty but wanted a diaper for pooping. Finally one day we said, 'You're lucky, your diapers run out today! You don't need them anymore!' We tricked him into being excited. Eventually he realized what was up and cried. But he was also 3 at that point, so he accepted it and moved on."
-- Steve Wilson, Austin, Texas

"I gave candy bribes every time William went in the potty."
-- Laurene Chavez, Huntington, New York

"Cool new SpongeBob underwear, and Zoren was trained."
-- Elissa Mastel, Kingston, New York

"Lucinda was only 2 1/2 when she noticed her 3-year-old best friend in underwear, and she made it her mission to join her. Never underestimate a child's will. And the influence of friends begins really early!"
-- Jennifer Wing, Seattle

"We did a week of naked time. I just had to pay $75 at the end to spot-clean where there were some accidents."
-- Amy Roberts, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

"I was ultra laid-back. Neither of my boys trained until the age of 4, and then each sort of did it himself, using the grown-up potty over the summer. Going to preschool finished the job."
-- Vicki Routs, Topanga, California

Q. My daughter, Lindsay, who just turned 3, got accepted by a preschool that requires kids to be potty trained. She uses the potty only a little bit. What can I do?
-- Pam Hansell, Levittown, Pennsylvania

A. "It's always best to be honest with the staff," says Sharon Bergen, senior vice president of education and training for the Knowledge Learning Corporation, which oversees KinderCare preschools. "Let them know that your daughter is newly trained and will need frequent reminders and encouragement. Most preschool teachers are accustomed to working with kids who've just turned 3 and are still learning to make using the toilet a regular habit."

Daytime Accidents

Yes, you've heard that your child won't be wearing diapers to college. But still, the training process seems to go on and on because 4-, 5-, and even 6-year-olds can have daytime accidents. Usually they happen when a child is so engrossed in an activity that he doesn't heed the need to go. The standard advice is to stay unfazed so your child doesn't feel ashamed, but it's okay to remind your child to tell an adult as soon as he needs to pee. Keep a spare pair of pants and underwear in your bag, keep a full change of clothing at school, and keep your chin up. This will all be over eventually, we promise!

Nighttime

According to research, it can be a full year or more before children who use the potty all day can also keep the bed dry at night. Talk to your pediatrician about it if you're concerned, but for the most part, patience and nighttime diapers will get you through this longer phase of the training.

Life Changes

A sibling, a move, a new school, or any other kind of upheaval can result in potty regression if your child decides she needs to be babied again. Try not to scold. Offer reassurance instead.

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.

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