Potty training. The words alone are enough to strike fear into any new mom’s soul. It sounds so daunting and scary. What if they don’t like it? What if it’s too much stress? What if your house becomes a toddler sized litter box? I had all of these same fears- even though I’m no newbie to potty training.
I have been working in the childcare field professionally since 2012. From daycares, to preschools, private nannying to in home child care. Its no surprise that I’ve worked with kids who are potty training. The difference was always that there was always a system in place before they got to my door. I would always take the parent’s system and carry it on, or (like in daycare) there is a school wide “protocol” set in place which kind of helps with herd/immersion learning. Going potty isn’t so scary when there are literally 20 other kids doing the same thing as you. With Charlotte, I’m the mom! So when she figured out how to pull her pants down and take her diaper off (leading to her having accidents around the house without our knowledge) there was no one to really ask “what do we do?”
I reflected on all of the other major milestones she had already crossed. Walking, eating, talking, bathing… How did we approach those things?
1. We looked at signs she was ready.
When she wanted to walk- we KNEW she wanted to walk. We didn’t just throw her down the stairs in the hopes that she would figure it out- we waited till she showed signs that she was capable and we supported her in learning how to take tiny steps in a safe space.
The same went for potty training. She was so ready. She hated wearing diapers and any time she saw mom go to the bathroom she would want to sit on her little potty. I was fighting her so hard one day to let me change her diaper I threw my hands up in the air and said “why am I doing this?? Why am I fighting her so hard for something I want to stop doing in a few months anyway”
I’ve heard some people say they will wait till the child can tell them that they peed or are currently peeing as a readiness sign. I’ll be honest- I think that’s too late. Why would they have any inclination to know how to communicate that to you? At that point, peeing is more of a non voluntary action. It’s like blinking. Why would they tell you when they would need to blink and how would they know to tell you before it already happened?
The problem with waiting too long is the older the child, the stronger the will. They may have developed a preference for diapers in that time and now you get the unfavorable task of ripping it away. We loved that Charlotte was still too young to really have any kind of preference toward her diaper- she just hated having to stop playing long enough to get it changed.
2. We Supported her interests.
I remember when she was learning how to crawl, we could tell it was frustrating for her because she couldn’t move her arms in sync with her legs. So she would just end up shuffling in one spot. We put a cookie sheet under her hands and it acted as a “scooter” or walker and she could go tiny distances with it. In education lingo, you might call that scaffolding. We saw where she was getting stumped and came in with a solution to help her continue to learn and stay interested.
We did the same thing pre potty training. As soon as she showed a fascination with the toilet, we got her her own little potty to be kept right across from it. Then she could copy mom and dad and see that this was a normal process before throwing her into it. We put the potty out around 12 months, maybe a little later. She hardly ever actually knew what to do with it (I think she peed on it once as a fluke around 15 months) but I think showing her the process when she was already interested went a long way when we were actually potty training.
3. We rarely ever used external rewards
Okay, to be fair, we did encourage her to crawl across the floor with a corn chip one time but we didn’t let her eat it (choking hazard) but really, what is happening that warrants something as extreme as a “gift”? While I was so incredibly proud of her for learning how to sleep thru the night, I wouldn’t intentionally give her a sticker for it, or a toy or treat. It’s just a part of life that everyone has to get to at some point.
I feel the same way about potty training. It’s so exciting and you should tell them how proud you are and how amazing it is- but why reward them for something that they are literally going to be doing at least 5 times a day for the rest of their lives? No one can sustain that kind of reward system. So you’re left with two options: you either never run out of hello Kitty stickers and HOPE they stay interested in that reward, or you’re constantly upping the ante and trying to find some new incentive to get them to do something that is really just a part of being a living breathing human being.
Toddlers are creatures of desire, and when you dangle a carrot in front of them, they are 100% aware of the situation. You are telling them “if you do “blank”- then you get “blank”‘ it becomes an exchange situation. When you run out of stickers or you think they will do fine without it, you just broke that agreement you had previously made and THEY WILL REMEMBER. It might not be right away, but it will happen. This is when you get into power play situations where they can revert because you took away their motivation- or maybe you didn’t take it away but they lost interest in whatever the prize was.
This is why intrinsic motivation is such a crucial thing for children to lean. Contrary to external rewards, intrinsic motivation comes from within the child. It is a sense of ownership and pride they develop on their own (with some encouragement from parents) that propels them to keep doing what they are doing. Instead of putting a sticker on their chart- tell them how proud you are of them! Explain why it’s so important and amazing that they just did that thing.
4. Never discipline!
This goes along the same lines as “no external rewards” – no external punishment. Not only is it unnecessary, it can be extremely damaging. If you shame them for having accidents, it won’t magically teach them to recognize when pee is coming out- it will only make them stressed, and they may just hide and have accidents which is the exact opposite of what you want. You can’t help them solve their problems if they are too scared to show you there’s a problem in the first place.
Let’s go back to the example of them learning how to walk. Would you ever yell at a one year old for falling down? Of course not! They are still learning and just the fact that they are trying is amazing! What you might do instead is tell them it’s okay, but next time they might want to go around a toy on the floor instead of trying to walk on top of it. This is constructive criticism.
The same constructive criticism applies to potty training. When Charlotte would have an accident (which she did- many times!) We would take her to the potty and calmly explain to her “that pee goes in the toilet so if you feel it coming out again, say ‘potty!’ and Mom and Dad will help you, okay?”
5. Make them a part of the process.
It’s so tempting in stressful situations to just take over and do it for them. I think of this with setting a timer. Sure, it can be really helpful in those first few days. But after that, are you really teaching them how to go potty or are you just keeping their bladder empty so they never have to think about it and never have an accident? I tried not to rely on a timer because I wanted HER to know what the signs were. We wanted this to be about Charlotte learning and not just about having zero accidents. There were even times that we would have her help clean up the floor. Not as a punishment but just as a natural consequence. We want her to see that it’s just easier to go potty than to have to stop playing, clean up the floor, then go change clothes.
6. Consistency is key.
Anyone else want to shove a fork in their ears when someone tells a parent they need to be consistent? It’s one of those obvious answers that we all know isn’t so easy in real life. Obviously the world would be a better place if I never gave in to my kid- but sometimes you’re tired, or you think it won’t hurt. In the context of potty training- all I’m saying is don’t go back wards or try to change things up on them.
I remember when we were about 5 days in to potty training Charlotte and she had 5 accidents in one day. I was so worried that this just wasn’t going to work for her, or that it was too stressful for her, and I even considered putting her back in diapers until we moved into our new house. But then I remembered that it’s not a big deal unless I make it a big deal and if I show her that going potty is optional and that we can always rely on diapers, I would be taking away from her intrinsic motivation that she is currently developing. That would be so unfair to her to undo all of the hard work she has done over one bad day.
The same goes for rewards. Unless you’re planning on supplying an m and m for them every time they go potty for the next 3 years, don’t even start. Keep things simple and consistent.
7. Don’t wait for the day without accidents
When your child was learning how to walk, did you throw your hands in the air out of frustration when they tripped after not falling for a few days? No. Because not falling is not the same is walking- falling is just a part of walking.
Having accidents if a part of potty training. They’re going to do it, and you have to get rid of that chalk board in your head that says something like “0 days without an incident” not having accidents is not the same as being potty trained. You will see that every time their world gets a little shaken up, they may regress. Maybe a little and maybe a lot, but it does not mean they failed. It means they have to learn how to navigate thru it. I believe that as parents, we owe them the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Putting them back in diapers takes away that learning experience. Getting frustrated that they broke their ongoing record of “good days” takes away the pride they had worked so hard to build up.
Just know that with any new phase of life, there will be ups and downs that you have to ride out. Potty training is no different. They will take their time and they will get there as long as you give them the space and opportunities to do it.