ALL ABOARD THE POTTY TRAIN
Long before becoming a mother, I feared potty training. Years of being told horror stories of poopy pants and carpet puddles will do that to you. Teaching a tiny human how to neatly eliminate waste into the proper receptacle can’t be that hard, right? Wrong. There is a reason there is an entire industry devoted to propping up this process.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
There is much made these days of the idea of “readiness” for potty training. There are multiple facets to that readiness, including physical, psychological, and emotional. A great deal of importance is placed on watching your child for signs of readiness before undertaking the potty adventure. Some sources say that children as early as 18 months can be ready, where others insist that to even attempt potty training with a child under 3 years old is borderline abuse.
In Montessori circles (see last month’s column), the popular refrain is that there is a “sensitive period” for toilet learning from 12 to 18 months. This doesn’t necessarily mean every child is 100% ready to go completely diaper-free during this window, but rather that Maria Montessori observed that this period of time was the easiest and most gentle time to introduce the concept of toileting without encountering heavy resistance.
Many Montessori parents (and plenty of others who don’t practice that specific philosophy) engage in what is known as Elimination Communication with their babies from birth. This is essentially a way of helping a child, from the very beginning, identify the feelings of urinating and defecating.
Some people do it by leaving their children bare-bottomed nearly all the time, and holding them over a potty every time they think they have to pee even a little. Others use sign language and sound cues to help pre-verbal children communicate their need to eliminate. There is a wide spectrum of practice here, and a wide spectrum of results. Some people insist that doing this from the start means they can have a fully potty-trained child at 12 or 13 months. Others say it merely helps lay the groundwork that makes potty training at an older age much easier.
My son was 16 months old when we first dug into Montessori philosophy. We hadn’t done any sort of EC with him and I didn’t feel like he was anywhere near ready for actual potty “training,” but I was determined to help him feel comfortable about the process far in advance. I had heard so many tales of kids who were just terrified of the toilet and I didn’t want that for him. So I grabbed a little toddler potty and placed it in his bathroom. He would sit on it (both clothed and naked) to read books, and he quite enjoyed the sense of achievement he got from managing to back up to it and sit down, then rise unassisted.
Then one day, much to his surprise, while he was sitting on it before bath time, I heard a little “splash, splash” and his eyes widened. He seemed a bit scared at first, so I just kept my tone very calm and said something to the effect of “Wow buddy, you went pee pee in your potty… that’s great!” He stood up and stared at the bowl, amazed at his handiwork, before turning to look at me with a smile a mile wide.
It’s only been five months since that day, but honestly my memory has already gotten a bit fuzzy. I struggle to remember exactly how things unfolded from there, because for once in my life, I didn’t stress that much about it. I was in no particular hurry to get him out of diapers, nor did his daycare require him to be trained, so we just went with the flow. He would pee or poop on the potty occasionally, but he also peed in the tub sometimes. He hadn’t pieced together the idea that some places are inappropriate to eliminate, but I trusted that would come with time.
TESTING, TESTING 1, 2
In early August, after a month at his new Montessori daycare, I thought I’d test the waters and see how he did with some naked time at home. The idea behind letting your kid run around bare-bottomed is to help them recognize both the sensation of eliminating as well as the feeling that leads up to it so that they can better identify—and eventually master—their own bodily functions.
I’ll provide a disclaimer here: my kid loves being naked. Given the opportunity, he might join a nudist colony. So naked time was easy and fun for him. He ran to his little potty every 10 to 15 minutes, depositing the slightest sprinkle and then triumphantly running around the house yelling, “Pee pee, mama! Pee pee!” When it came time for number two, though, he got a bit more uncertain.
It seems odd to us as adults, but imagine you’d spent your entire life up until this point just peeing a little all the time and having it absorbed magically without any discomfort to you. And when you pooped, it was contained. Now, someone is asking you to hold your pee and wait for a certain time to put it in a special place. And when it’s time to poop, you have to sit over a hole, air blowing on your tender bits, just waiting for something to happen. It’s a lot to take in.
At this point, he was still mostly in diapers 24/7. I would give him a few hours of naked time in the afternoons, but otherwise our only visits to the potty were when he was visibly having a bowel movement. I would say, “Hey buddy, let’s go try to do that on the potty, OK?” For the first few weeks, this wasn’t his favorite activity.
He would get flustered because he knew he needed to go, but he also didn’t want to sit and wait for things to happen. So we started reading books and singing songs to distract and help us relax. One afternoon I spent 15 minutes on the floor of my guest bathroom whisper-singing “Yankee Doodle” to an insistent toddler who just kept saying “more Mama more” to me every time I finished.
But with each successful bathroom trip and each “caught” poop, he gained confidence. Eventually he started saying “poo poo” and running to the bathroom on his own, asking me to remove his diaper and help him get on the big potty.
Yes, I said big potty. He weirdly went through a phase for a while where he only wanted to pee on his little potty and all poops had to go in the big potty. I cannot explain it, but I rolled with it. I bought a step stool and a seat reducer for our toilet so that every time he entered the bathroom, he had a choice. Choices are like crack for toddlers; offering some level of control is often the only way to keep the peace.
After discussing his progress with his teacher, he also started visiting the big potty at school. As August flew by, he spent more and more time naked at home and more time visiting the potty successfully at school. We had a long weekend coming up for Labor Day and we decided to make a go of it.
The “Oh Crap” method of potty training is somewhat famous in parenting circles. It essentially promises that you can potty train your child over a three-day span. I didn’t read the book and we did not abide strictly by its plan, but what we did was somewhat similar, I think. In this method, author Jamie Glowacki suggests three days of fully naked time (except when sleeping), followed by days (or weeks if needed) of “commando” time—a.k.a. shorts or pants only, no diaper or underwear. Once a child has gone accident-free for a certain period of time, they can “move up” to wearing big kid underwear.
We had already spent weeks being naked on an off, and he hadn’t had a single potty misfire in all that time, so we felt confident that he had mastered that stage. What we needed to know now was if he was ready to go completely diaper-free. So after preparing him for about a week in advance (reminding him that soon he would only wear diapers for sleeping), we woke up on the morning of August 31st and put him in just a pair of shorts.
I had expected piles of wet pants over this weekend. What happened was totally unexpected. Rather than wetting his pants or going to the potty, he chose to hold his urine for hours at a time. Peeing every two to three hours is normal for a toddler, but holding it four or five hours is not. I was terrified that I was pushing him too fast and that he’d get a UTI. But when I reached out for support, I had a light bulb moment.
For most kids in Montessori programs, dressing is part of the practical life lessons they work on daily. Because my guy had been late to the game, he didn’t know how to pull his pants up and down on his own, so once we put the clothing barrier there, he felt out of control of the potty experience. And if you’ve read any of my columns before, you know that the ability to be in control of his environment is essentially my kid’s driving force.
So we shifted to working on this new skill. We found that wording was especially important, as toddlers are very literal. So instead of “pull” your pants down, we taught him to “push” his pants down. Once he got the hang of things, we saw nearly immediate improvement. When he went back to school after the long weekend, he’d had no accidents. He’d even peed in a public restroom twice with no issue.
On day one back at school, though, he peed his pants. Two days later, it happened again. And again and again. His teachers were asking him regularly if he needed to go, but in typical toddler fashion, his answer was always “No.” He would pee on the potty and half an hour later have an accident.
When he was home with us, he had zero accidents. We even went on outings—to the grocery store, to the museum, to church—and he never had a slip-up. I was beginning to worry about why it only happened at school, when a friend reminded me that his school had moved locations during the holiday weekend.
So while he returned to familiar faces and toys/activities, things were different. A new bathroom. A new outdoor play space. A new nap spot. It’s amazing how sensitive little ones can be to change, and in these early days of learning how to use the potty, the smallest things can trigger a regression.
BYE BYE DIAPERS?
As this issue goes to print, my son has been out of diapers (aside from naps and overnight) for nearly four weeks. We’ve just celebrated his first full week without any accidents at school. He is on a nine-day streak of no accidents and we’re cautiously optimistic. I don’t think we’ll be going back to diapers at this point, but I also expect our days of accidents aren’t quite over. We’re riding the wave and supporting and encouraging him however we can.
I’ve had people tell me that there is no use trying to train a child under two years old. And If he were upset about this process at any point, we would not have pushed him. I don’t think it earns me bragging rights to say he potty trained at 21 months, but I am certainly happy that I won’t have to do this while facing down a stubborn 3 year-old.
There are a million “tools” and “tricks” out there to help with potty training. Some people swear by rewards like candy and screen time. My kid is not motivated by external things nearly as much as he is by his own sense of achievement, so I doubt that kind of system would have worked for him. Also, nobody is giving me a Reese’s cup for going to the bathroom, so it doesn’t make sense to bribe children into doing something that is completely natural and expected of human beings.
The biggest thing that helped me with this process was to reframe it. Instead of potty “training,” we embraced the idea of potty “learning.” It wasn’t a quick-fix weekend, but rather a process with natural ups and downs. You train an animal; you cannot train another person’s body to do what you want it to do.
Also, your kid has to learn how to eliminate in the toilet just like they have to learn how to walk and speak. Did you shame them for falling over when they were learning to walk? Did you entice them to walk down the hallway by lining up Skittles for them to eat? No. Then why fuss at them for wet pants or teach them that if they withhold poop long enough, they can score a whole pack of M&Ms?
Our plan was to follow our child’s lead, to hold his hand when he needed us, provide guidance where we could, and have patience. Below is a quick resource list of what helped us while going through this process.
We grabbed the Baby Bjorn potty with the high back, since he was still young when we got it and we wanted him to have support. They also make one with a lower profile, though. I’ve heard good things about the Ikea potty as well as the Summer Infant potty that looks like an adorable tiny version of an adult toilet. I would caution you to avoid anything with lights, noises, or cartoon characters, though. Try to keep this process as normalized as possible and don’t let Elmo enter the equation if you can avoid it.
Toilet Seat Reducer + Step Stool
We have the Munchkin brand seat reducer and the Tundras brand two-step stool. This allows my son the option of sitting on the big potty if he prefers. It’s also helping him get used to going on a bigger potty, which is helpful for when we’re out and about. The stool also allows him to reach the sink to wash his hands.
A big part of successful pottying for us has been about routine. We potty, we flush, we wash our hands. My kid loves water, so being able to spend 30 seconds making “bubbles” and splashing water is enough to entice him to go to the potty. Our faucets are set far back on the counters though, so originally he couldn’t reach them unless I held him over the sink. In a move towards increasing autonomy though, we got the Munchkin brand faucet extenders to pair with his step stool, and now he can wash his hands all on his own!
We placed a basket in each of our bathrooms next to the potty that contains a small roll of toilet paper, some cloth wipes (which we wet and use for poop cleanups), a wet bag, and some potty-exclusive books (they are literally not allowed to leave the bathroom). We did cave and get one branded book, because my kid loves the Daniel Tiger potty song. But otherwise, we wanted to focus on books that discuss and demystify the elimination process. We went with Potty by Leslie Patricelli, Everyone Poops by Tarō Gomi, and What Is Poo? (a lift-the-flap question and answer book) by Usborne Books.
A Million Pairs of Stretchy Pants
We also try to keep fresh pants handy at all times (a few in each bathroom, a few in his backpack for school, a few in the diaper bag for trips out etc.) so that it’s a total non-issue if he has an accident. Just “Whoops, you’re wet—let’s get some dry pants” and go on with your day. Simple shorts or pants with an elastic waistband are ideal: they’re easy for your kid to push down and pull up, and they’re loose enough to not give them that diaper feel (too-tight leggings or jeans could confuse them in the early stages of learning).