Parenting, Stages, Toddler & Preschool

3 key steps you need for potty training success.

by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.

Left to their own devices, most toddlers learn to use the potty without much fuss.

They peek at mommy or daddy as they engage in the target toileting behavior. Or they run around in their birthday suit and observe the wonders of how their own plumbing works. A potty chair that contains the golden flow with a prideful child becomes the object of great adulation from adults nearby.

Cue images of rainbows and a pot of gold.  However, the element of hurry and then worry can too often be imposed on little ones.  For some reason, there are certain badges of honor that parents want to win. The rapidity of Baby making his first boom boom in the toilet is one of these.

In addition to the pride parents feel when junior is able to poo on cue and in the correct location, daycare has become a more formidable source of angst in the potty training game. Some centers have arbitrary age expectations about toileting that causes a rush. This is a problem.

A key element of harmonious toileting progress is that it must be something the child wants to accomplish. Problems occur when a child feels pushed, prodded, or manipulated into doing something he is not really interested in doing. Toileting is the first real thing a child does to take charge of their body and behavior. It’s kind of a big deal emotionally.

I think this is why it can become such a power struggle. In their book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, Davis and Keyser advise parents to look for three things to gauge a child’s readiness for toilet learning. (Toilet learning is different from toilet training in that it is the child who directs the process, not adults.)

First is physical readiness.

During infancy, children understand the sensations in their body and develop a rhythm to their biological functions such as sleep, eating and eliminating.

Next is cognitive awareness.

Children who are cognitively ready to learn potty protocol understand what is expected of them. They can sort things like shapes, put things where they belong, and understand where we want them to put their poop and pee.  They are interested in the process, at least intellectually- as evidenced by wanting to watch others and learn. The above two areas of readiness tend to happen on a predictable developmental schedule.

However, the third readiness signal is the most variable from child to child. Emotional readiness is when the child decides that she is “all in” for the enterprise.

Let’s face it, no matter how much we praise, cajole or fuss, a child will NOT go in the toilet unless she wants to. For children who decide they have been rushed, there is monumental resistance. The danger here is that children have an amazing ability to retain stools and urine in their little bodies.

In extreme cases, this can lead to megacolon, trips to the doctor and great stress and worry. The best course of action is for children to be in charge of their toilet learning. Allowing visitors in the bathroom, encouraging the child to sit on their toilet chair in a relaxed way- even with their diaper on, or using ‘play to learn’ by putting the baby doll on the pot are natural approaches to sensitive toilet learning.

Avoid over-praising or rewarding when the child is successful. It is best to match his own degree of excitement. The child strolling around nude in the privacy of the backyard with a pot nearby can still become the pot ’o gold we wish for!


Pat Blackwell, Ph.D. is a licensed developmental psychologist at Pelts, Kirkhart & Associates. She also writes our award-winning “Learning Years” column. Check out Pat’s latest article ‘Mastery and Achievement‘.

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