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Dear Dr. Batya,
My son just turned two and my mom has been pushing me for the past few months to start toilet training him already. I've seen my friends fight with their children about it and I would really like to prevent this with my child. Can you tell me how I can do this?
Toilet training can be easy and even enjoyable if you approach it the right way and at the right time. Your child will begin to gradually let you know when he is ready, and if you are watching for his signals, he will help guide you. Learning to use the potty is not as simple as it seems. Your son needs to: have, and understand, the sensation of a full bladder or bowel, get to the bathroom and physically learn to both contract and then release his sphincter muscles in the right sequence and at the right time, not to mention, undress on time.
The process requires both physical and emotional maturity and that is an awful lot to ask of a young child. If you wait until he seems ready, your job will be easier and faster and you'll both be happier. Trying to rush the process will frustrate you both, but maybe your mom, having been there, has started to see some of these signs.
Here are a few questions to help you determine if he is ready: Does your son have periods of at least a few hours when he is dry during the day? Does he wake from a nap dry and is he occasionally dry in the mornings after a full night's sleep? Is he at all regular in his bowel and bladder routines and does he let you know in some way through words or actions that he is moving his bowels? (This often happens after a meal.)
Can he follow simple instructions, signal in words and actions his need to use the potty and does he respond to your praise and encouragement? Does he seem at all curious about the toilet or toileting process and interested in watching others in the bathroom? Is he physically able to help pull his pants up and down and get himself to the bathroom? Does he let you know that his diaper is dirty or seem at all uncomfortable in it?
If you answer "yes" to most of these questions, you are well on your way. Remember, you can always start the process and if he shows no interest or is not ready, there is no harm in waiting a few months and trying again.
Here are a few additional things for you to think about: Do you want your son to use a potty chair on the floor or have him learn to use the toilet directly? The advantage of the potty chair is that it is lower, smaller, sturdier, provides a sense of greater control and is more child friendly and accessible. For some children, the move to the "big toilet" can become an issue. A toilet with a stool, steps or an insert on the other hand makes clean up easier and can be found wherever you go. You may also want to use a combination of these two.
Will you teach your child to urinate while standing or sitting? Some children like to stand on their parent's feet, making them the perfect height and things such as paper targets and other cute devices have worked miracles for those children who may otherwise need some encouragement.
You may also want to browse through the bookstores to find a book or two on potty training and read it with your son. Talking about it not only makes it real but fun as he learns to identify with the boy in the story. If you are comfortable with it, you may also want to have him watch others, as children learn best by observing their family. Remember too that you will want to praise any and all "toilet performance" initially; just having your son sit on the potty fully clothed for just a few minutes is deserving of applause.
Never force a child to sit on the potty but rather praise him and move on to something else when he has had enough. Don't forget too that you are introducing a new vocabulary. Make sure he understands what you are asking of him and use words that you are comfortable with as they may very well last a lifetime. Be aware that some children who may be dry during the day may take a longer time to go all night long without a diaper, and even after a child is bladder trained, he may request a diaper to move his bowels. Finally, don't forget to involve any other caregivers fully in the process so that they will know what you are doing and can help by consistently doing the same.
Now I ask you the most difficult question. Are you ready? Are you prepared for a few months of accidents? It often takes at least three and usually closer to six months before your son will be out of diapers. Are you able to be consistent, supportive, attentive to his needs and patient during this period? Are there any other stressors such as a new baby or a move, which might make things more difficult for both of you, and suggest you wait for a better time? If not, close your eyes for a minute and think how wonderful it will be to leave behind the diaper bag and shop instead for "big boy" underwear.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. firstname.lastname@example.org