We've all been there: You get your kids all buckled up for a long car ride, and as soon as you're on the road you hear the familiar cry, "Mommy, I have to go potty!" Of course, when you're out and about, it's no fun making bathroom stops with your kids. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, so here are some suggestions on how to keep your family germ-free and safe when using a public restroom.
Teach your child to go to the bathroom before long car rides. He might say he doesn't have to go, but encourage him to empty his bladder as much as possible, suggests Mark L. Wolraich, M.D., a pediatrician in Oklahoma City, OK, and author of The American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Toilet Training. Kids get distracted easily, so directing them to use the bathroom can help them realize they actually do have to go. One trick: Make it a rule in your house that no one gets in the car unless he at least tries to go potty.
Don't cave in every time kids say they have to use the potty. Kids can learn to hold it in, depending on their ages and the amount of time you're out. Newly potty trained children will have less bladder control and less awareness of whether they can wait to go potty until they're back home. In some cases, you might have to pull over at a rest stop. For older kids who have been potty trained for a while, ask how badly they have to go and how long they can hold off going to a restroom. You know your child best, and experience will let you know if it's a true emergency.
Some experts say that a parent -- even one of the opposite sex -- should always accompany children under the age of 6 into restrooms, but others recommend that they do not go alone until they're preteens. If and when you decide your child is mature enough to enter the bathroom solo, stand outside the door and wait for her to come out, suggests Donald Shifrin, M.D., spokesperson for American Academy of Pediatrics and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.
Moms should take daughters and fathers should take sons into gender-appropriate public restrooms. If you have to accompany your child of an opposite gender into a restroom, follow a basic little etiquette. For fathers with daughters, look for a family bathroom to ensure privacy (and avoid any embarrassing situations). If that's not possible, peek into the men's bathroom to determine that no one is there. If the bathroom is unoccupied, the daughter can sneak into a stall while the father waits outside and asks others politely to wait a minute or two until she's done.
There are germs and bacteria in all bathrooms -- especially public ones. Cover the toilet seat with toilet paper or paper covers or use a baby wipe to clean it. When flushing, don't bother using your foot, Dr. Shifrin says. It's fine to use your hands to push the handle because they will be washed anyway. To teach your child how to clean his hands correctly, encourage him to rub his fingers together with soap first and then run them under (warm) water while singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
"About 15 to 30 seconds of friction emulsifies the dirt off the hands," Dr. Shifrin explains. If there's no soap available, your child should still wash with water and then use hand sanitizer. Last, use enough paper towels to dry hands because hand blowers tend to hit young children right in the face and the loud sound can be frightening. You can also use a paper towel to bend the door handle on your way out.
If you're going on long car trip and there might be extended periods of time with no bathroom in sight, it's wise to bring a portable potty seat, diapers, or Pull-Ups, depending on your child's age. Always bring a change of clothes in case your child has an accident. If your child needs to go when there isn't a rest stop or a public bathroom nearby, stop by the side of the road but don't make a big deal out of it -- just move away from the ongoing traffic and have your child go potty behind the car. Stand in back of your child and shield her the best you can with your body or with a towel.
Public bathrooms are not necessarily dangerous places where strangers are lurking -- the likelihood of anything bad happening is remote, Dr. Wolraich says. According to the American Psychological Association, the vast majority of predators already know their victims. Although it's always important to remain cautious and aware of stranger danger, the risk of exposure to germs is higher than the possibility of someone harming your child. Still, you shouldn't be too alarmed: Your child is just as likely to catch something in a restaurant, mall, or other public areas as in a bathroom. When it comes to avoiding germs, teaching proper personal hygiene is the best way to protect your child.
Dina Roth Port is the author of Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decisions. She has written for publications such as Glamour, Parenting, and The Huffington Post. Visit her website at www.dinarothport.com.