Can Childcare Providers Tell You When Your Kid Has to Be Potty Trained?

Policies differ across preschools, daycares, and states. Here's what parents of toddlers who aren't toilet trained need to know.

girl on potty
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Given how stressful potty training can be for parents and kids, the last thing either needs is to contend with discrimination from a daycare or preschool that refuses to accept a child who isn't yet trained. And yet, every now and then, families face this very ordeal.

In 2011, a child was told not to return to her Arlington, Virginia, preschool until she stopped wetting her pants. Five years later, in 2016, the New Jersey Attorney General's office filed a discrimination suit against a preschool that allegedly expelled a toddler with the disorder for failing to toilet train.

Not only are "potty training deadlines" harmful, but they're ill-advised by most education and pediatric experts. Here's what parents of potty training toddlers need to know.

Potty Training Deadline Regulations

Policies differ across daycares and schools, making this a challenging area for parents to navigate. While some daycares and preschools require kids to be out of diapers and relatively accident-free before they're allowed to attend, there are some that don't have a requirement for a child to be potty trained beforehand, such as the federally-funded Head Start program.

"Typically, I note at age three and up the daycare or preschool may ask for a potty trained child to enroll in their program," says Lisa Lewis, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician in Fort Worth, Texas and author of Feed the Baby Hummus, Pediatrician-Backed Secrets from Cultures Around the World. "I have met many parents in the clinic who had to search for 'potty training friendly' daycares or preschools for their children over three."

Some states have their own policies in place. Tomitra Latimer, MD, Medical Director at Lurie Children's Pediatrics at Clark-Deming in Chicago explains, "It is true that preschools in Illinois require children to be toilet trained before enrolling. This policy was established by the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), a regulatory and licensing agency for Illinois state preschools."

Conversely, daycares in Illinois "do not require infants and children to be toilet trained because they have not yet acquired the developmental skills. Furthermore, children with special needs do not need to be toilet trained in order to enroll."

On the national scale, KinderCare, a child care and early childhood education center with 1,700 locations nationwide, steers clear of potty training deadlines.

"At KinderCare, we would never reject a child because they're not potty trained," says Hattie Mae Covington, a toddler teacher at the Providence Road KinderCare Learning Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Every child develops at their own pace and some may have medical reasons for potty training later than their friends, or not at all. We try to meet each child where they are and work with their family to figure out what we can do to best support their child."

That said, parents must investigate their state, preschool, or daycare's individual policy before enrolling a child who is not yet potty trained.

When to Start Potty Training

Laura Jana, M.D,, FAAP, a pediatrician, author, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that the best time to start training depends on parents' expectations and how they define potty training.

"That's because if someone's expectations are that when you start training your child, they need to quickly master the concept, it's a very different discussion from the one I recommend having, which starts by considering potty training to be potty learning," Dr. Jana says. "This importantly suggests that potty training is a learning process that can be done over time."

She advocates starting as soon as a toddler can accompany you to the bathroom. They can "get to sit on a potty seat alongside you or siblings, even if they're resistant to taking clothes/diapers off and/or don't sit for very long, flush for you, only when supervised, of course," Dr. Jana explains. "A lot of this early exposure and potty learning is based on preventing later struggles/fears, such as fear of flushing, not sitting still, etc."

Ellen Lestz, M.D., a pediatrician with White Plains Hospital Medical & Wellness in Armonk, New York generally asks parents about it their child's 2-year visit.

"This usually involves more of an introduction: reading books, trying before bath, going into the bathroom with mommy or daddy," Dr. Lestz notes. "I find more of an average age of success closer to three, although some are younger and many are older. I really try to let the child figure out when they're ready, and most will let the parents know, either by asking to use the toilet, to wear underwear, or waking up dry in the morning."

But if a child isn't ready and a parent tries too hard to "train" them, they might be more likely to resist, Dr. Lestz points out.

The AAP echoes Dr. Lestz advice, noting that, in general, starting before age two (24 months) is not recommended, as "the readiness skills and physical development your child needs occur between age 18 months and two-and-a-half years."

When to Hit Pause on Potty Training

If you're fighting tooth and nail with your child, you might wonder when it's time to give up on potty training. Taking a break is an option, Dr. Jana says. "It's always good to pick your battles, and trying to force children to pee/poop in the potty rarely ends well if you are engaged in battle, rather than working on the same team," she says.

Other red flags that might serve as proof it's time to take a step back, according to Dr. Jana: Constipation or events in a child's life that can throw them off of learning, like a new child care, moving, travel, the birth of a new sibling, etc.

"This is a great subject to discuss with one's pediatrician, because at the end of the day, it's best—and most likely to be successful—to start out and to end on the same team, and make it a point to figure out what your 'teammate' (child) needs most to be successful, whether that's more routine, more positive encouragement, more 'education' (getting to flush, talk about and reinforce the process), or some time to take a break and try again later," she notes.

Reassurance for Stressed Out Parents of Preschoolers

Dr. Latimer acknowledges that parents whose children aren't yet toilet trained might find themselves stressed, anxious, and fearful as the school year approaches—especially if the school requires them to be ready to go sans diapers.

But this moment might actually provide an opportunity for parents and kids to get to the finish line, according to Alex Ryan, M.D., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Academic General Pediatrics at Lurie Children's. She found that all three of her kids seemed to wait until the "last minute" before toilet training was achieved. She used scheduled bathroom breaks, potty charts, reward stickers plus effusive praise to navigate this challenge.

Dr. Latimer reassures parents that "the majority of children can achieve toilet training within one to two weeks. Since many preschools are only serve half days, most children can remain dry for the two to three hours they are in preschool."

If possible, moms and dads should try to work with their child's daycare or preschool on their L.O.'s goals. As Dr. Jana shares, "Having owned and educational child care center for nearly 10 years, with 200 kids mostly under the age of six, I can tell you that partnering with child care providers in a collaborative, positive approach gives children the consistency and support they need—and, conversely, can really throw off your efforts when you're not working in sync."

What's more, a child's daycare or school environment may actually serve to expedite the process. According to Dr. Lewis, "Attending daycare or preschool is one of the best ways to potty train a toddler. Toddlers love to learn from other children, and 'follow the leader' to the potty is a great facilitator for potty training success."

Parents looking for back-up for Dr. Lewis' argument would do well to check out Caring for Our Children, the suggested national health and safety performance standards for child care and early education, which advocates that teachers/child care providers assist young children with toilet training, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children's description of a high-quality program, which includes support with toileting.

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