Best Potty-Training Methods
There are probably as many potty-training methods as there are children (or at least families), and many parents mix and match different techniques along the road to a diaper-free child. With potty-training, as with so many elements of parenting, only you know what’s right for you and your child.
Still, over the past few decades several major schools of thought on potty-training have emerged, most of them differentiating themselves along the axes of timing (when a child should be trained) and tactics (how a child’s control over his or her bladder and bowels should be achieved).
It’s probably a good idea to learn about several different methods and figure out which elements of them feel right to you: Are you a big believer in rewards and charts or are you staunchly opposed to them and believe that motivation should come from within? Are you a boot-camp/let’s-get-this-job-done sort of parent or more into taking direction from your kid, reading his moods, and shaping your goals and timing to suit?
The truth is, many of us are probably each of those things at different times and in different situations – and more importantly, our children probably respond to different approaches depending on the circumstances. So it often makes sense to borrow bits and pieces from lots of different methods.
If one method isn’t working for your kid, try another approach – or try waiting a while. But once you settle on a system that seems to be working, strive for consistency by making sure that all of your child’s caregivers – your sitters, your daycare providers, grandparents and other family members – follow your child’s potty-training routine.
Click through the following pages to learn a bit about the most popular potty-training methods.
Less a method than a philosophy, and perhaps best exemplified by the work of pediatrician and child-rearing guru Dr. T. Berry Brazelton (who pioneered the approach in 1962), child-oriented potty-training is based on the idea that potty-training depends on a child’s readiness. It also demands a parent’s willingness to work both with her individual child and confront the “demons in the nursery” of her own childhood that might get in the way of gentle, effective potty-training.
Unlike approaches that advocate adherence to a strict timeline or method, the concept here is that children are ready to give up diapers on their own schedules (based on their physical, cognitive and emotional development), and parents who can watch and wait will profit by doing so. There’s no set of rules or steps, but parents are encouraged to be calm, straightforward, and patient while working with a child as she makes the transition from babyhood to young childhood.
Key concepts in child-oriented potty-training:
- Don’t try to force a child who isn’t ready to use the toilet
- Don’t make potty-training about discipline
- Make sure your child feels she has a choice
- Try to remove barriers that could impede your child’s attempt to use the bathroom independently, such as clothing they have difficulty removing themselves
- Try to remain outwardly calm and confident; your child may pick up on any anxiety you display
Child-oriented potty-training is one of the most popular overall potty-training philosophies. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society have crafted their toilet-training guidelines by taking a child-oriented approach, not starting before 18 to 24 months of age and beginning when the child displays interest.
Yet the method has its detractors, especially among the older generation and others who feel that children potty train far too late these days. Proponents, however, say that although this gradual approach can take time, it’s just as likely to proceed quickly. By waiting for your child to be ready, she’ll move through the potty-training process more rapidly than she might if the motive comes from without rather than within.
Parents who embrace the child-oriented potty-training method also note that it may avoid many of the power struggles and emotional turmoil (not to mention constipation!) that were common in previous generations that prized earlier training.
Parent-Structured Behavioral Potty-Training Techniques
Somewhat out of favor among academics and pediatricians, potty-training techniques that involve external props, such as stickers, rewards, charts and so forth, are still popular with many parents. The idea is that parents can mould children’s behavior through positive reinforcement and that this is the most effective way of transitioning a child from diapers to using the potty or toilet.
Parents following these methods typically set the times their child should sit and “try” to pee or poo and offer a reward – candy, stickers, gum, small toys – in exchange for compliance.
Advocates of this approach stress that though your child may be rewarded and encouraged for making positive steps toward potty-training, she should never be punished or discouraged for failing to do so. They take a behavior modification approach in which desirable behavior is reinforced and undesirable behavior is ignored.
Proponents of parent-structured behavioral potty-training techniques also suggest taking a step-by-step approach, rewarding progress incrementally and setting clear, achievable, realistic goals. You might, for instance, make up a weekly chart with tasks to be completed or goals for the week, with each of the days of the week clearly marked in the grid. Realistic goals might be, say, sitting on the toilet a certain number of times (perhaps two or three) each day, or telling a parent in advance that he or she needs to use the bathroom, or peeing or pooping in the potty. You get the idea.
How effective rewards are is somewhat unclear. Some parents swear by their starred charts, but there’s no evidence that establishing a reward-system trains a child any quicker than any other method. And starred charts are one thing: candies and stickers and toys may be another. Anecdotally, it’s clear that many kids wise up pretty early to the potential to manipulate the situation. (Depending on what you’re using for a reward, the method could get pricey.)
Another potential drawback: It may be difficult to transition away from your reward system and keep your kid motivated – or from feeling betrayed when the rewards for pees and poops dry up. Somewhere along the line, your kid has to find the motivation from within to use the bathroom independently – unless you plan to send him off to college with a fistful of stickers or a baggie of M&M’s.
Quick Toilet-Training: One-Day, Three-Days, Boot Camps
A cottage industry of books, dolls and other accessories has sprung from one groundbreaking book first published in the 1970s: Nathan H. Azrin and Richard M. Foxx’s Toilet-training In Less Than A Day. Written by two psychologists – Azrin is Harvard-trained expert in the psychology of learning – the original and all its imitators hinge on specific step-by-step instructions that parents must follow to the T, with the promise that their child, no matter how previously unwilling or unable, may be trained in just a few hours. (The publisher promises, too, that Azrin and Foxx’s guide will “make this significant transition a rewarding and pleasurable experience” and “deepen the parent-child connection” – certainly no small vow.)
Also note: The short timeframe is a bit misleading: A fair amount of preparation must be done by parents in advance of the time set-aside for the training itself.
Key concepts in the quick toilet training/boot camp approach:
- Teaching through pretend play (with dolls)
- Using food rewards as positive reinforcement
- Employing practice drills
- Responding strongly after accidents.
How does Azrin and Foxx’s toilet-training process work?
Fast-track toilet-training methods often instruct parents to dedicate a day – or at least a 4- to 6-hour window of time – to devote to the program.
In preparation for the big day, they are instructed to set up an area for training (relatively spacious and easy to clean – often the kitchen) with a potty chair, a doll with a diaper that can be removed (could be a special doll that “pees” or you can fake it with a regular doll), edible treats and beverages.
Parents are also advised to remove anything – or anyone – that may distract their child during training, including the child’s siblings or any other family members.
What to wear
Parents are told to clothe their children in only loose-fitting training pants.
Parents are advised to encourage their child to drink lots of fluids, so that he’ll pee frequently during training.
Pretend play: the doll
Parents use the doll to take their child through the entire potty routine. The doll is given a drink, and then the child is told that the doll has to pee. Parents then guide their child through the process of taking off the doll’s diaper, helping the doll sit on the potty, waiting until the doll pees, and then, when the doll has peed, offering praise and a reward, emptying the pee into the toilet, washing hands, etc.
Checking for dryness
After your child has completed this procedure with the doll, he or she will check the doll’s diaper to see if it’s dry. If it is dry, the doll is rewarded again. If it’s wet, the child is told that big kids do not wet their pants.
When the doll has an accident, the doll is taken through another potty practice routine – often guided by the child.
Moving from the doll to your child
Once your child has repeated the potty routine with the doll several times through and understands the steps (it’s not supposed to take more than an hour), the child then goes through the same steps him or herself.
Love it or hate it
Many parents who have had success with this method absolutely adore it. Others criticize it sharply for being too strict and structured and somewhat dated. Fast-track toilet-training techniques often seem to appeal most strongly to parents who have been frustrated after trying other, more gradual methods. But even with this method, your child has to be motivated and cooperative for it to succeed.
How effective is it?
That’s not entirely clear. But according to Azrin and Foxx’s own data, the method works extremely well for kids who are ready – no younger than 20 months, and preferably six to twelve months older than that.
John Rosemond’s Potty-training: “Naked and $75″
Christian conservative psychologist Rosemond, whose parenting books stress parental guidance and leadership, advocates a quick-training method that eschews the use of the doll but adds his own wrinkle: the proper “window,” he says, for effective potty-training is much earlier than many of today’s parents believe: 18 to 24 moths, period. After that, he says, parents face an uphill battle (though he offers no data for this assertion).
Although many may disagree with his early window, many elements of the overall method Rosemond describes are similar to what a number of parents figure out on their own: Basically, remove your child’s diaper and most of his or her other clothing, make the potty easily available, direct your child to it at key moments, and let the kid figure it out.
Somewhat surprisingly from a parenting guru known for his advocacy of spanking, Rosemond argues for a gentle and low-key approach to accidents (in many ways, his approach mirrors what many less “traditional” parents do, only it’s undertaken earlier).
Your attitude is the most important ingredient in this toilet-training recipe. A technique is useful to a point, but without the right attitude (and this applies to any disciplinary effort), no technique will produce lasting results. Approach toilet-training with the same casual, matter-of-fact attitude with which you approached teaching your child to eat with a spoon. They are, after all, both self-help skills. Despite psychobabble to the contrary, neither is fraught with apocalyptic psychological ramifications. When spoon-training your child, you encouraged without being silly, conveyed a clear expectation, and tolerated the temporary mess. If you can muster that same attitude with regard to potty-training, you’re half-way there.
Steps in the Rosemond method of potty-training:
- Keep the child as close to naked as you can stand. Rosemond recommends that, if your child is a girl, she should be kept naked from the waist down – without a diaper – even when she goes down for a nap. Boys in training should be dressed only in the thinnest cotton underwear available. The idea is that when your child pees (or poops) it will run down their legs and irritate them enough that they’ll use the potty. (Parents, on the other hand, should not show any irritation as they clean it up.)
- Potties should be amply available and conveniently located – placed in areas your child normally hangs out, but not in the bathroom, so as not to “inadvertently invoke the Out of Sight, Out of Mind Principle.” Also, warns Rosemond, “They should be simple, Spartan contraptions, not ones that do silly, superfluous things like play Barney songs when sat upon.”
- Rosemond encourages parents to set aside a week when they can plan to spend most of their time at home for training. And he says that should “maintain a calm focus” during the time they’ve set aside, so their child understands the point of the exercise.
- Children should be taken to the potty immediately upon waking and then, once seated, left there to do their business, with a promise from parents that they should tell them when they’re finished and they’ll return to help clean them up. “Do not hover or otherwise act nervous,” Rosemond advises. “If your child refuses to sit, so be it. Make this into a power struggle and you’re done for.”
- Set a timer or “potty bell” to ring every 60 minutes (or whatever interval works for your child), and when it goes off, let your child know that it’s time to sit on the potty (whether or not your child produces anything). Again, Rosemond stresses that the child should use the potty more or less independently (though parents help with clean-up).
- Messes should be cleaned up with minimal drama but also without reassurances that it’s no problem at all. (Clearly, it’s not a picnic.) When you’re child has an accident, you’re supposed to remind him or her to be sure to sit on the potty the next time he or she needs to go. “Be firm and resolute,” Rosemond says, “but don’t be angry.”
- Parents should give their kids positive reinforcement for successes, but refrain from over-the-top enthusiasm and should not give rewards or offer bribes.
Oh, and the $75? That’s to clean the carpets when it’s all over.
SUB: Infant Toilet Training
Sometimes called “elimination communication,” this is a philosophy deriving from some of the world’s oldest civilizations. Not surprisingly, it gets mixed reviews here. The idea is that babies need never wear diapers at all, so long as a loving caretaker is there to read their cues and signals and communicate with them about when and where to pee and poop. Though it may sound particularly strict and structured to expect your child to learn to use the toilet when they are still only a few months old, infant toilet-training has been embraced by some parents as a particularly “natural” sort of alternative approach to potty-training: chucking the corporate machine that’s peddling diapers to you and ignoring the doctors who tell you to wait until your child is “ready.”
When to begin
This training generally takes place between birth and the age of six months, which is considered by advocates to be the ideal window of learning, with the idea start time sometimes considered to be around four to five months old. Proponents of this method, however, suggest that even with slightly older children, a modified version of the method can be used.
How does it work?
Basically, the idea is that parents can often anticipate when their child needs to use the bathroom by learning to read their cues (vocalizations, changes in body language or behavior). Then, when they think that moment is about to arrive, they give the baby a verbal cue, like a long “sssss” sound to signal that it’s time to pee, while holding baby over a toilet or sink. Or if the child pees unprompted, the parent makes the sound as well. The idea is that the baby comes to associate the sound – and eventually the locale – with peeing or pooping.
How long does it usually take?
Brace yourself: Though some children can get the hang of controlling their bowels and bladders (more or less), fairly quickly, generally speaking, children aren’t completely toilet-trained, with very few accidents, until they are about two years old. That’s a lot of months to be cleaning up messes around the house – and a lot of stress (Will my child have an accident in public?) when you leave the house.
What are the advantages?
Proponents of infant toilet training or elimination communication (EC) note that, if a baby is toilet-trained right away, the expense and skin irritation often caused by diapers can be avoided completely. EC advocates also contend that it helps parents and babies build strong bonds. It’s a method that has worked for centuries in many non-Western cultures, including China, where babies and young children wear pants with an open crotch to allow for easy on-the-go potty breaks.
What are the drawbacks?
Drawbacks to the EC method include the intense level of time commitment and difficulty adapting to a different set of cultural expectations (in China, babies can pee and poop on the street and nobody bats an eye; here, not so much).
Is this method all-or-nothing?
Not really. Some books devoted to the EC philosophy – such as The Diaper-Free Baby: The Natural Toilet-training Alternative – stress that parents can adapt it to their situations, choosing to be exclusively EC or only occasional EC parents.