It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Trends in Parenting: Potty-training

When I was newer at this business, I had my first doctor as a client. I was a little intimidated by this, truth be known. I’m a daycare provider. She was a DOCTOR.

And then one day I was giving her a piece of advice about something or other, can’t recall what. For the purposes of the story, we’ll say it was potty training. I was giving her advice, and then I sort of caught myself up short.

“But why am I telling you this” I said, a little sheepish. “You’re a doctor.”

She shrugged. “So? They don’t teach potty training in med school!” She shook her head, half amused, half exasperated. “I get this all the time. People expect me to know stuff about child-rearing. Why should I? I have one kid. She’s nine months old. That’s the extent of my expertise. Now, ask me about vaccinations or fifths disease, and I’ll have an informed opinion. But potty training, how to get your kid to eat veggies, what to do about tantrums? You know WAY more about that stuff than me. You’re the expert on that stuff, not me.”

Which gave me a bit of a paradigm shift, you know?

As the years have passed, as I’ve gained more experience and become more assured that yes, I really am an expert in this stuff, I’ve come around to her viewpoint. Now, she was a young doctor. A family physician who’s been in practice for twenty years will have a wealth of data that this young woman didn’t. But still, when it comes to hands-on toddler-parenting experience, they have only what they’ve gained with their own children.

Whereas I have child-rearing experience with dozens of the little critters.

So when I read an article about potty training which implies there is one way to train your child, I say, “pshaw!” — even though it’s written by a medical professional. It’s a valid way, for sure, but it’s not the only way.

The pendulum has done a full swing on this topic, at least where I live. When I was a young mother, common wisdom (and the Parenting Pundits) were poo-poo-ing pissing on roundly eschewing the previously-popular early potty training. Potty training, we were now being told, if deferred till the child was ready, could be accomplished in a matter of weeks! Less than a month!

Consequently, that’s the way I do it.

Now though, I’m noticing a distinct swing back in the early direction.

And you know what? That’s fine. If you don’t attempt it before the child is physically ready — they gain control of the requisite muscles sometime after 18 months of age — there is no harm in a long, slow, gradual potty training. There is little doubt that an early start and a long process does get the child out of diapers somewhat sooner. If diapers drive you insane and you CAN’T WAIT to be done with them, you may well choose to do it this way.

But for me? Ms. Not-All-That-Patient? The idea of a long, slow, gradual potty training is little short of horrifying.

“Make sure that you have lots of time and patience,” says the article. “Toilet training happens gradually, over many months.”

Over MANY MONTHS? No, no, noooooooo… The very thought makes me wilt with dismay. I would be tearing my hair in sheerest boredom within a month, I’m sure. For me, that approach is utter torture. Utter.Torture. I would far, far, faaaaar rather keep them in diapers and deal with poopy bottoms for those extra few weeks or months.

With the start-late-do-it-quick way, you go from poopy bottoms to daytime dry in two or three weeks. Progress is quick and clear. Independence is achieved in record time. It suits me down to the ground.

But it might not suit you. Maybe it’s the thought of waiting those extra months to start training that make you wilt with dismay. Maybe you’re thrilled by the thought that “every pee in a potty is one less diaper to change!!!” That thought could be so totally motivating for you that the months spent monitoring incremental process are inspirational, not horrifying. It’s all baby steps to the goal. You LOVE the feeling that you and your child are moving toward the goal, gradually. And if that’s how you respond, well, early and slow is the way to go!

Does it matter to your child whether you start early and go slow, or start late and go fast? No. As long as you’re not pressuring them, guilting them, getting angry or punitive… as long as the process is a fun game, full of accomplishment, it rarely matters to your child how you get to the goal.

Despite what the article implies, early and slow is only one way to train your child. Even though it’s my preference, late and fast is not the ‘best’ way, either. Fast or slow doesn’t matter, so long as we reach the goal and maintain respect and a sense of accomplishment for child (and parent!). That is what I know, after 25 years of toddler-raising, and dozens of children happily potty-trained.

August 23, 2011 - Posted by | parenting, potty tales |


  1. “every pee in a potty is one less diaper to change.” This was our take on it, and we were using cloth so it was also one less diaper to wash, and poops in the potty, oh so so much better. I don’t know if she actually trained any earlier, she was out of diapers day and night around 22 months, but it seemed less stressful than it was for some of my friends who waited and suddenly had stubborn toddlers with an opinion about that matter. We started very early though, around 9 months, and it was very laid back, with very little expectation on my part about catching pees in the potty. I just put her on the potty at times I knew she needed to go so she would get used to it, we still used diapers until she started telling me on her own that she needed they potty.

    When you start that early, you’re almost doing Elimination Control. Most experts would discourage people from beginning before at least 18 months, since that’s the earliest most children develop control over the muscles involved. (i.e. They physically can’t hold their pee or poo before then.) However, I suspect the experts would discourage people because most people would get frustrated. If you can do it as you did, with the expectation being only that you’re acclimatizing her to the idea, not actually expecting to catch anything yet, then, so long as the child isn’t resisting, I see no problem with it. Perhaps I’m only projecting my own impatience onto others, but I suspect that many people would eventually try to speed the process, thus putting pressure on a child who just isn’t capable yet. But maybe not.

    At any rate, 22 months, particularly for the nights, is indeed early. Though I’ve had early trainers — the youngest was a boy who trained at 18 or 19 months — I often don’t even start kids for another two to six months after that! Even with 22 months as my carrot, though, the months of training before that is too big of a deterrent to make it something I’d try. It comes down to personality, is all.

    Comment by Courtney | August 23, 2011 | Reply

    • (replying to Mary’s reply to this comment) I disagree that children can’t develop control over their sphincter muscles before then, especially since in many countries children are completely trained before 18 months. Even here in the US most children were trained by 14 months as recently as 1950. I’m sorry I can’t provide citations, I’m commenting via mobile phone. My personal experience with EC says that my kids were capable of purposefully “holding it” for up to 15 minutes (long enough to find a potty) after telling me they needed to pee at 13 months. Maybe they weren’t actually “holding it” so much as they were telling me early?

      I think what’s happening here is differing definitions of “trained”. Years ago I had a client who was Chinese. She told me that at home in China, all children were trained by 12 – 14 months. I was astounded, but it turned out that for her “trained” meant urine and feces were caught in a potty through a combination of a child’s signals of impending output and parental alertness. Fair enough.

      For me, however, “trained” means the child knows they need to eliminate, can hold it for the time they need to get themselves to the potty, pull down their own pants, and produce, followed by wiping their own bottom… without any adult assistance at all. (If an adult deems the child needs help with wiping and hand-washing to get sufficiently clean, they may opt to help with those parts, but that’s the adult’s call.) It seems to me that the closer your definition is to the first, the earlier you will consider your child trained, but if your children could do all that at 13 months, then even by my more persnickety definition, they’d be trained.

      Comment by Patricia Cross | August 23, 2011 | Reply

  2. We’re late trainers in this house. I take the path of least resistance, I guess, waiting until they seem ready – we started a few months back with our 2 1/2yr old but she got sick three days in and had a messy accident which scared her off. We started again four days ago and already she is only having one accident a day (wet), and only when she is busy with something.

    Every family should do what works for them, but for us, we didn’t see the point in doing it before our child could get their pants off and on and carry out most of the process themselves – I still help, of course, but she does everything she can and I offer assistance when she asks – if I had to watch for signs she needs to go and remove clothing etc, it almost seems like more work to me than changing a nappy! lol I have three very busy kids, so the fast track is definitely for us 😉

    That’s my attitude, too: start late, train fast is less work. I’m all for conserving energy when I can!! For some people, changing diapers feels like more work than the observation and incremental progress. Personally, I can’t imagine how, but if that’s how they feel, then they should go with the start early, go slow. It doesn’t matter to the bottom line, which is that your child gets (happily) trained either way.

    Comment by J.C | August 23, 2011 | Reply

    • My eldest was 25 months and potty trained in 4 days. Seriously. (she was dry at night already). Started my second at 25 months and had to back off and try again. My youngest is already 30 months and we’re just introducing the potty. I think he’ll be slow like his sister.

      Night-time dry before day? Wow. I’d say she was ready!! That’s quite something. Since you’re working on your third, I don’t have to tell you what you already know: he’ll get there!

      Comment by Bridgett | August 23, 2011 | Reply

  3. In my experience, I couldn’t even figure out why it was called potty “training” (except that *I* needed some training to remind them to go before they left the house, just before bed, etc). I have a boy and a girl, two very different people, and they both “trained” almost instantly once they decided they wanted to do it.

    When you start really early, it seems to me that what you’re doing is ‘acclimatizing’ them to the idea of the potty. Sometime over the ensuing months, they move from that to an actual understanding of the process. One of the reasons for starting early is to avoid starting something new during a peak negativity period (two years!), and while that certainly has validity, it’s been a trade-off I’m more than happy to make. (Nor do I generally find the negativity to be such a big deal; if you make it fun without pressure, they’re usually more than happy to prove how capable they are.)

    Comment by lisa | August 23, 2011 | Reply

  4. I agree that each child is different. I have b/g twins so the poor kids always have a built in comparison. My daughter told me at 14 months she wanted to pee on the potty. I laughed, but decided to indulge her. She went and I was amazed. I put her back in diapers (she was 14 months old after all) and for two weeks she never once had a wet diaper, always telling us when she wanted to go. We went ahead and let her start wearing underwear and she had two accidents. She has been daytime potty trained since that day. People ask how I did it and I can honestly say I didn’t do anything.

    My son wanted to go like his sister and was staying dry longer so we talked about it. We decided to start potty training him at 21 months. He had a few more accidents than his sister, but within a month we were done. Neither is night time trained and I don’t think they are physically capable yet.

    Each child is different and needs a different technique when you take into account family dynamics and expectations. Of course, that is true for more than just potty training!

    Twins can teach you a lot about the effects of parenting, can’t they? In a prenatal class I taught years ago, a mother had identical twin boys. Identical, and yet, even at six weeks they had different temperaments. One was an easy, efficient nurser and a decent sleeper (for three-hour stretches, not bad for six weeks). The other was a fretful nurser and a restless sleeper. Had she not had two at once, mum would probably have assumed the baby’s behaviour was due to her mothering; as it is, she understood that, fretful or calm, that’s just who they were, and she adjusted her response to each accordingly. Isn’t it interesting?

    Comment by Jessica | August 23, 2011 | Reply

  5. My son just turned three and we seem to be in the long, slow training process. Actually he has gotten quite good about urinating in the toilet, and often wakes up dry in the morning. But so far he has absolutely refused to use the potty for anything else, which means at least one very messy underwear accident daily. I’m really not sure why he’s holding out on this particular issue (and the accidents don’t seem to be deterring him). Even when we catch him mid-bowel movement, he’ll still insist he doesn’t need to go. It’s kind of frustrating but we’re trying to just be patient and hope that eventually he’ll change his habits.

    Though I normally hate them, this might be a situation for Pull-Ups. Now some children (boys more often than girls, for whatever reason) deliberately withhold bowel movements. One way to test to see if that’s the case would be to offer him a diapers for his poos. If he can tell you when he needs a diaper for a poo, then you know you have a child who understands what’s going on, but has a resistance to the potty. Take heart! He will use the potty for poos eventually! Your approach of not pressuring him is appropriate.

    Comment by Jaimie | August 23, 2011 | Reply

  6. I remember my Emotions professor, who was head of the Psychology department, going on a rant about late potty training in class one day. She said that she went to Ontario to visit her son, and his kid was FOUR and still not potty trained.

    “My son was potty trained before he was two years old!” she beefed. “But my daughter in law says that he’s “not ready yet”. Well, one day she opened his diaper and said, “yeech!” and my grandson responded with “I know. What HAVE I been eating?” Well, when your kid can talk to you about the contents of his diaper, HE’S READY TO POTTY TRAIN.”

    I was highly amused by her disgust. To her, diapers were a BABY thing, and the idea of a walking, talking child capable of discussing his poop while his legs waggled in the air shocked her.

    I don’t loathe diapers, but I have no intention of changing a four year old, either. One of the many benefits of cloth diapers – kids often train earlier to avoid the discomfort of a wet nappy. My diaper service says that if my child isn’t potty trained by 30 months, service becomes free. That’s how confident they are.

    I am pleased.

    You know what? I’m with your prof on that one. If I were faced with a healthy, normal four-year-old in diapers, I would be grossed the heck out. My emotional reactions dictate a statute of limitations on wiping shit off butts. Three is it. Early three, at that. Bleah.

    Grace is in cloth diapers, but the wet doesn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. Still, she has shown interest in the potty, so we’ll be starting with the training in the fall. She’s 28 months. We’ll see how it goes! She probably could have started in the summer, but my enrollment was crazy and my days waaaaay too full to add that to my agenda.

    Comment by IfByYes | August 23, 2011 | Reply

  7. I was totally on board with the “late but fast” train. Right up until I started training the Girl, which was by most standards late, but it has been by no means fast. Poops she had down right away. Like, within a week. But pee? *sigh* It’s been 5 months, and every time she goes to pee in the potty, she has already peed in her underwear, and usually her pants too. The maddening thing is that she not fussed by the wetness AT ALL. Is there any way to teach a 3 year old how to do kegels? 😛

    How frustrating!

    Usually they get pees down first. (Probably by dint of getting more practice, I figure.) Have you checked with your doctor to make sure she doesn’t have a low-level bladder infection? It’s probably not a physical problem, but after all this time, it’s something you might consider eliminating as a possibility.

    Comment by Grace Goldragon | August 24, 2011 | Reply

    • Bladder infection is what I thought at first too, especially after she complained off and on of discomfort when she peed. I took a pee sample in a couple of months ago, and the tests were clean, so we figured the discomfort was from a diaper rash (she still has a diaper at night). She hasn’t complained of any discomfort since, so I discounted it as a possibility. But, I should probably mention it to the doctor anyway and frame it as a potty training issue, rather than a bladder infection issue.

      Comment by Grace Goldragon | August 24, 2011 | Reply

  8. Personally, I take the path of least resistance. I let my son decide when he was ready. When he decided he was ready…1 week and done. No accidents(not even at night)!! However, I can say that doing childcare has shown me that every parent does things differently. I don’t always agree with their choices but I try hard to respect their feeling on this issue. There have been a few times where I approached the parents and told them their child would benefit from taking a “potty training” break and re-address toilieting later. Right now…I have a family who REALLY wants their child using the toilet. They don’t care how this gets done…but get it done! The twist is that if their child goes potty in the toilet they get to wear underwear…if the child doesn’t potty they want a pull-up put on the child…if the child poops in their underwear/pull-up put the child in a diaper. I PROMISE I WAITED UNTIL THEY LEFT BEFORE LAUGHING!! This was a new one for me. Day one–child arrived wearing underwear. Day two–child arrived in a diaper. Day three–child arrived in a pull-up. Day four…child arrived wearing a diaper. Day five–child arrived in underwear. Day five–I talked with parents about “other options”.

    Oh, goodness. Could they make the messages any more mixed, I wonder?

    While I respect a parent’s feelings on the matter, that doesn’t necessarily translate into doing it their way. Usually what I do is promise to try it the way they want for a week. Not a half-baked attempt, either, a real one. (Of course, there was that family who was convinced their son was more consistent with the potty training if he was allowed to pee into a bottle. Faced with the thought of helping him tuck his small self into the neck of the bottle, and then holding the bottle in place while he peed, I rebelled. I would have felt utterly ridiculous. Just couldn’t do it. Even without the bottle, he was trained pretty shortly thereafter.)

    Mostly, though, for most issues (not just potty training) I give it the old college try. At the end of a week, I evaluate whether we’re making sufficient progress to warrant continuing, and whether I think I can keep it up. Sometimes I can, but sometimes I can’t… and I expect them to respect that. Because, though they are the parents, I am their expert resource, and I expect my input to be taken seriously. And while there’s no arguing the benefits of consistency, it is also true that kids can adjust to different sets of expectations. (Just look at all the tots who chomp down their veggies for me, and kick up an almighty fuss at home!)

    Now that I’ve thought through the toilet-training issue, however, I think I will simply be up front with incoming parents and let them know that unless the child genuinely is training themselves, I train ‘late and fast’, and if they have their heart set on ‘early and slow’, they’d best look elsewhere. Because for me, early and slow is torture, and there’s no way I could be as calm and patient about it as is required. Better to have a client move on to a better fit, than to end up in a frustrating tug-of-war with them!

    Comment by Theresa | August 24, 2011 | Reply

  9. Late and fast…. that was by far my preference. Having just one child, we thought it was cute to let him sit on the potty at 2 years old, but after a few episodes of sitting on the potty and producing nothing, then sitting on the couch and wetting through his underwear five minutes later, we went straight back to diapers (or nappies as we call them in Australia). I couldn’t stand the extra clean up of wearing underwear compared to changing a wet nappy a few times a day and a dirty one, once a day.

    Then the day after he turned three, he said, mummy I don’t want to wear nappies anymore, and he was done. Fully trained for wees and poos immediately, and fully dry at night within a month with a couple of accidents in total.

    What blew my mind, was that I did nothing in this process. There was no weeks/months of training and wet clothes, we just supplied him with a potty initially and then a seat with steps over the toilet a few weeks later. Of course, we helped with wiping and hand washing and rebuttoning if he was wearing jeans, but that was it!

    Late and fast…..and easy!!!

    Comment by Tammy | August 24, 2011 | Reply

  10. One of my soon not-to-be clients is a five yr old boy (in late Oct). Besides not fitting the daycare hours very well, the parents just wouldnt listen to any advice concerning his Number 2 potty issues. He would have his mum put a diaper on him and he would go to it in his room, yell when done and have mum clean him up. This from a child who was taught to change his own just pee diaper the summer before he turned four. I told her she must start to put the child in the bathroom while wearing the diaper to poo, small but big steps, yes? I was ignored but he was enrolled in Poop School at one of the major hospitals here. I was quite proud that the doc in charge’s first suggestion was to diaper him but get him in the bathroom……

    Comment by Kathy | August 24, 2011 | Reply

  11. We did late and fast with my son and it worked like a charm. One day he said he was ready. He had a couple of accidents that day. The next day he was dry, 100%, nap and nights included. I figured that was how to do it. He was 3 1/4 at the time.

    My daughter is now 3 1/2. As a second child and a girl, I have to say, I thought we’d be done by now. We have been asking for awhile if she’s interested. Now we’ve moved on to giving her a piece of chocolate if she’ll sit. Twice she’s managed to pee in the potty. The rest of the time, she just sits. Her diaper is generally dry in the morning. She’s now also staying dry 8:30-4pm (!!!) while at daycare. When they ask if she wants to sit on the potty, she says “Not today.” We have not put any pressure on her, but I am ready for this to happen. She did have a gross motor delay so many things have come more slowly to her. I’m just hoping she will do it late and fast rather than late and slow…..

    Comment by Sarah | August 24, 2011 | Reply

  12. We opted for late and fast with my son. He’s had some physical delays which led us to waiting and then when he was turning 3, we were in the middle of having a new baby, followed by him having surgery, and then us selling our house. With all of the major changes in his life, we opted to not add another one. Especially since he gave us no indication that he was interested at all. Finally at 3.5, we took him to daycare one day without diapers and left a pile of extra clothes. Four days later and he was completely switched over. We still did pullups for nighttime for awhile but even that ended a month or so later.
    Our biggest source of advice for timing with both our kids though? Daycare. We waited and talked with them about when they thought it was the right time and so far, I’ll do whatever they tell me. 🙂 I figure they’ve gone through this with a lot more kids than I have and why not take advantage of the expertise.

    Comment by Dani | August 25, 2011 | Reply

  13. I did nothing at all with Grace – seriously, nothing – if someone asked me advice on potty training I wouldn’t have a clue what to say! I bought two pottier when she was 13 months old, because they were Eco ones on clearance offer and I didn’t know if I would be able to get them again. We were living in two rooms at the time, so had to store them in the lounge. She used them as ride-on toys for ages! At 21 months she started raising hell at every nappy change and I said that if she didn’t want to wear nappies she had to wee in the potty. She said ok, and that was that – dry day and night. She did need help to get clothes back on, and we used dresses a lot at the start so she only had undies to deal with, but she never looked back – I can count the accidents on one hand, and in almost every instance she threw up violently shortly afterwards.

    Think I was very lucky….I have no illusions that number two wil be so easy!


    Comment by Angie | August 26, 2011 | Reply

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