The Straight Poop About Potty Training

By Deirdre Wilson

Jonathan and Elizabeth Kirschner are two adventurous, imaginative, busy kids. They've had a boundless energy since they were toddlers. And their mom, Anne Hutchins, remembers well the effort it took to toilet train them no effort at all, actually.

"I never really trained them," Hutchins says. "They trained themselves."

When Jonathan, the oldest, began showing signs of readiness, Hutchins bought a potty and a children’s book about using it. But then, she says, “I let him run around naked. He quickly became aware that something was happening. He never had any interest in the little potty. He had watched us in the bathroom, and he eventually went right to the toilet.”

The process was just as easy with Elizabeth, who also went bare-bottomed when she seemed ready to start learning, although her first efforts were humorously primitive. “She took great joy in going outside, running behind a tree and peeing,” Hutchins says.

Toilet training – or toilet learning as some child development experts prefer to call it – isn’t always that stress-free. There are dozens of toilet-training books and products on the market today, and most of them acknowledge up front that toilet training can cause tears, frustration and arguments between parent and child. Toilet training is also a milestone that many parents feel pressured to complete.

Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a psychiatrist who has co-authored several child-development books with renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, including their most recent, Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way, says he fields many questions from parents about toilet training.

“Toilet training is right up there, primarily in the context of pressure to get the child ready for preschool by 2 years and 9 months,” Sparrow says. Many preschools require that a child be out of diapers.
Parents may also feel pressure from relatives and peers, or from a sense that they’re failing as parents because they still tolerate a child in diapers, parenting guru Vicki Lansky notes in her updated book Toilet Training: A Practical Guide to Daytime and Nighttime Training.

The trouble is that the more pressure a parent feels, the more important it becomes for that parent to toilet train the child. Yet, if attempts to toilet train the child occur before he or she is developmentally ready, those efforts can fail, says Sparrow. “And if you fail, you’re much more likely to set up a vicious cycle,” of repeated failures, anger and frustration, he adds.

Changing Philosophies and Environments

Most of the experts parents turn to today – Brazelton and Sparrow, Lansky, William Sears, Penelope Leach and others – agree that before any attempts at toilet training can take place, a child must be mature enough to understand the need to urinate or have a bowel movement, and to control when and how this will occur.

Brazelton writes that in the 1960s, toilet training was a rigid practice that parents were expected to begin when their kids were only 1 or 2 years old. Stories of failure and rebellion – toddlers holding back bowel movements, older children bed-wetting – were rampant. So Brazelton decided to try a more child-centered approach, one that encouraged parents to be more patient and wait until a child showed signs of readiness. He gave that advice to 1,190 families in his practice and recorded their progress. The new approach worked, he says. Constipation and bed-wetting were reduced to a minimum. Brazelton published the results in the journal Pediatrics and he claims that this new philosophy about toilet training took hold soon after.

But family life has changed in the last 40 years. More parents are working, more kids are in childcare, and there is renewed pressure to toilet train at earlier ages, according to Brazelton, who believes this has lead to another surge of toilet-training problems and delays.

When to begin?

Continue to Potty Training: Ready or Not?