Potty-Teaching Dilemmas

How -- and when -- you approach toilet-teaching can mean the difference between success and a lot of wet undies. Here's everything you need to know to help your child become a potty pro.

Your Questions Answered

I'd love to get my daughter out of diapers before her second birthday. What's the ideal age to begin?
Whenever your child shows an interest and readiness -- but that's usually between ages 2 and 3. "You can try before 2, but it usually takes longer," says Maureen O'Brien, Ph.D., director of parenting and child development at The First Years, in Avon, Massachusetts, and author of Watch Me Grow: I'm One-Two-Three. Younger kids usually don't have the language skills to let you know when they need to use the toilet or the physical dexterity to pull their clothes off and on. And because they're also more easily distracted by play than older children are, they're less likely to make it to the potty in time.

I've been toilet-teaching my 2 1/2-year-old for six months -- and he's still nowhere near ready for underpants. How long should this take?
Longer than you think -- roughly a year, according to a study from the Medical College of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. "The two big surprises are that toilet-teaching isn't fast and it isn't smooth," Dr. O'Brien says. "Several areas of development need to line up first. The child has to communicate well, be aware of his bodily feelings, and understand how much time he needs to get there."

I'm ready to ditch the diapers. Should I put my son in cloth underpants or disposable training pants?
Consider your lifestyle and how you think you'll react to accidents. "If you can't deal with mess, or if you know you'll be in three different places throughout the day and can't bring three changes of clothing with you, then use disposable underpants," Dr. O'Brien says. But if you're at home most of the time and you're really sure he's ready, use underpants so your child is better able to feel when he's wet.

Are girls easier to teach than boys? My daughter used the potty by the time she was 2 1/2, but my son is almost 3 and still shows no interest.
According to the Medical College of Wisconsin study, girls learn about two to three months earlier than boys do. But it's not that girls are necessarily easier to teach than boys, notes Timothy Schum, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics and lead author of the study. "Parents usually start earlier with girls, so they finish earlier. One reason may be that girls tend to have more advanced language skills, but it might also be mind-set: Parents just assume that girls will be easier to teach."

My sister used a portable potty with her children. My neighbor swears by the toilet ring. Which is more effective?
Whichever one makes your child feel more secure. If you're using a toilet, however, make sure your child has a stool she can use for climbing to the seat and then for resting her feet.

Should I teach my son to pee standing up or sitting down?
Sitting down, at least in the beginning. "It's not just because of the mess factor, " Dr. O'Brien says. "When a child is learning, you want to keep the number of variables that he needs to think about to a minimum. Deciding whether to sit or stand can cause him to hesitate a few seconds -- and those seconds can be crucial."

My son hardly ever makes it to the potty on time. Any suggestions?
Put the potty wherever he is, even if that means leaving it in his bedroom while he plays, in the family room when he watches TV, or even in the yard. Over time, you can gradually increase the distance he has to travel.

What's the best way to reward my child for using the potty?
It depends on what you're comfortable with and what your child responds to. "I'd start with plenty of praise," Dr. Stavinoha suggests. "A lot of kids are motivated by the sheer pleasure they give their parents. But if you feel that your child needs an actual reward in order to feel successful, that's fine. Just be aware that as you up the ante with gifts, your praise becomes less potent."

My child will pee in the potty but won't poop. What do I do?
Having a bowel movement in the potty is a skill that's usually acquired one to two months after peeing. However, refusing to poop can make a child constipated, says pediatrician Cathryn Tobin, M.D., author of The Parent's Problem Solver. "This makes the stools harder, so they're more painful to pass, and the child becomes even more reluctant to sit on the potty." Gently encourage your child to sit on the potty, but if he says no, offer him a diaper, Dr. Tobin says.

I just learned that my child's preschool won't take kids in diapers. She starts in a month, and I haven't begun to teach her! Start now, but don't expect miracles. Talk to the preschool staff about whether you can send your child in disposable underpants. Many schools are amenable to the idea as long as they know you're working on toilet-teaching. And your daughter may be more eager to use the potty once she sees her classmates using it.

My 3-year-old is adamant about not using the potty. How can I motivate her?
Put toilet-teaching on the back burner for a few weeks, or even months. "If you push, your child will resist, and if you push harder, your child will resist harder," says Pete Stavinoha, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at the Children's Medical Center of Dallas. "Watch for your child's natural inclination toward toilet-teaching, and then jump on it."

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