Potty-Training Regression

I hate changing dirty diapers. They’re messy and gross and throwing human waste in a landfill is disgusting. So when my son was eight months old, despite warnings from experts about the dire effects my efforts might have on his psyche, I put him on the potty. To my surprise, he pooped and peed. He did this nearly every morning with astonishing regularity. His willingness left me with two options: either these experts don’t know what they’re talking about or I am unwittingly causing irrevocable harm to my child’s core.

A look at the prevailing opinion would give any mother pause. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns on its website that training a child before age two can “create stress for the child and ultimately prolong the toilet training process.”

T. Berry Brazelton, godfather of the popular child-led toilet training philosophy, takes the argument further. He warns that pushing a kid to toilet train can cause a host of problems including constipation, incontinence and bedwetting. A constipated toddler might end up with GI tract issues that lead to X-rays, catheters and other invasive procedures. But that’s nothing compared with the woes of a bedwetter who can’t have sleepovers. “Bedwetting can make the child feel hopeless and helpless,” Brazelton writes in his book Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, Birth to 3 – The Essential Reference for the Early Years. “Tinged with guilt over his developing sexuality . . . the night wetting can affect his future self image.” Bedwetting can lead to excessive masturbation.

Excessive masturbation! It’s enough to make a parent hoard cash for future therapy bills.

I watched my son for signs of psychological damage. I didn’t see any. He seemed like a happy fellow, peeing and pooping once a day in a little plastic pot. I found it hard to believe that encouraging my son to sit on a potty and play with empty shampoo bottles while he relieved himself would cause serious harm. My husband and I wrote off Brazelton’s warnings and figured we’d have a toilet trained tyke by his first birthday. After all, in the 1950s, ninety percent of American children were trained by age two, according to conservative family psychologist John Rosemond, who referenced a Harvard University study.

Well, I don’t know what all those 1950s babies were doing, but our little boy wonder didn’t make many strides beyond his morning forays. His first birthday came and went and the diapers stayed. His interest in the potty ebbed and flowed as often as his bladder. Around eighteen months, I decided enough with the diapers and took them off, along with his pants, and let him trot around the house naked. I assumed he’d eventually figure the whole thing out.

I wouldn’t exactly say he figured it out. Toilet usage at our house goes something like this:

My son stands before a puddle of pee on the living room floor. “Pee pee, yay!” he cheers.

“Pee pee goes in the potty,” I explain as I rush him to the bathroom. He compliantly sits on a cushioned ring atop the toilet seat for a startlingly long time. He greets his penis. (“Hi! Hi!”) He unfurls the toilet paper from its roll and scolds it. (“No paper! No!”) He grabs his toothbrush, then mine, then his father’s. No more pee emerges. He asks to leave the toilet. He pees on the floor again.

At other times, he seemingly pees on command. “If you want to flush the toilet, you need to pee first,” I suggest. He furrows his brow, glares at his penis, as if willing it act, and then magically pees. “Pee pee, yay!” he cheers and reaches back to flush the toilet.

The word regression comes to mind. For days, he’ll pee in the potty enthusiastically and then, without warning or reason, reject the whole business for a week. His wavering makes me wonder if the experts have a point: maybe we rushed into this whole bathroom business.

The most common bit of toilet training advice is to wait until the child shows signs of “readiness,” which could come as late as four years old. There is a checklist that includes things like staying dry for two hours at a stretch and showing interest in the toilet.

“Parents need to keep their expectations in check,” Dr. Peter Stavinoha, co-author of Stress-Free Potty Training, told me. “If you’re pushing too hard, you raise the risk that their resistance will pick up. That’s something you don’t want to have happen . . . You take a child who might have been ready and slow the whole process down.”

Teri Crane, author of Potty Train Your Child in Just One Day: Proven Secrets of the Potty Pro, thought my son’s backtracking might have less to do with pushing him too hard and more to do with his will. “One, he’s immature. And two, he doesn’t have the incentive,” she said.

The next day, when my son gyrated in place and grabbed his crotch, I found an incentive. I suggested he take his stuffed dog to the bathroom. Eager to engage his puppy, he willingly hopped on the potty, narrating the event. “Doggy go pee pee,” he explained as he peed. I suggested that maybe his doggy wanted to flush the toilet. For the next several days, we had virtually no accidents at all. But then we spent a week at my mother’s wall-to-wall carpeted house where going pants-less wasn’t exactly ideal. Add a few energetic cousins to the mix and we had one distracted – and suddenly not-so-potty trained – tot.

I called up Rosemond, who advocates traditional parenting, a method that includes toilet training kids before they turn two. In his opinion, the child-led method is “a bunch of hogwash.”

“One of the things that’s going on here is we’ve scared mothers half to death with psychobabble about this, and I hold T. Berry Brazelton responsible,” he said. “Mothers think that if they mishandle the situation it’s going to cause some problem.”

Being halfway there isn’t terrible, just messy.The reason it takes parents so long to train their kids, he says, is because we equivocate and our kids play on our ambivalence. Rosemond put me firmly in that camp. “You’re doing something that’s counter cultural, but you’re not doing anything wrong here,”‘ he said. “The next time your child has an accident you have to be very firm about this. I might even put him in the bathroom until he uses the potty. If that took an hour, so be it.”

But I’m not ambivalent. I want my son to use the toilet. And I don’t want to lock him in the bathroom to get him to pee. What I am is unenthusiastic. It takes a lot of effort to keep on top of a twenty-month-old, partially-trained toddler. Although changing dirty diapers requires effort, following a toddler around the house and reminding him to pee in a pot is no walk in the park either. It requires vigilance. As much as my son has to be trained to participate in this new system, so do I. I have to remember that he needs to pee when he wakes up, before we leave the house, after his meals and before bedtime. If we’re out for a long time, I have to find bathrooms for him and convince him to use them. Sometimes, I lose my mojo.

A study published in 2003 in the journal Pediatrics found that children who were trained earlier took a longer time to accomplish the task. But is that so bad? After all, I’ve changed far fewer dirty diapers than I would have had I not trained him at all. So, being halfway there isn’t such a terrible thing. It’s just messy.

“Many times parents think of potty training as an event with a start time and a stop time,” said Stavinoha, adding that toilet training is part of a continuum. “Parents should be communicating to their kids from very early on.”

A week ago, when my son was playing at his friend’s house, he pointed at the bathroom door. “Pee pee,” he said. I took his hand and led him to his friend’s little potty. He peed. Perhaps the path we’ve taken will take us a bit longer than it would have if we’d waited until his pediatrician gave us a green light, but I’m comforted by the knowledge that it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, we’ll end up at the same place as everyone else.

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