Robin Barker’s thoughts on potty training

Kinderling News & Features

Robin Barker is the acclaimed author of parenting guides The Mighty Toddler and Baby Love. 

Historically, the ‘right’ age to potty train small humans has varied around the globe, and still does.

In Western culture the potty training age has run the gamut from holding out baby from birth to today where the age of starting training has moved from eighteen months to a time closer to three years, even later. In the US the average age of being nappy-free in daylight hours has jumped from age three to four. Australian toddlers seem to be following this trend.

In the non-Western world a variety of toilet training methods have been observed and reported. In many traditional cultures (for example, in Africa, India and China) nappies were (and still are in many parts of these countries) non-existent. Babies are held out from birth, training begins in a gentle and nurturing way at a very young age so bladder and bowel control is achieved between twelve and eighteen months. Other traditional cultures use more regimented methods with similar results. 

So it's reasonable to assume that the factors that dictate potty training age are more related to convenience, lifestyles, the communities in which families live and the attitude of the parents rather than early childhood emotional, physical and cognitive development on which the much touted 'signs of readiness' are based.

'Signs of readiness' obviously mean nothing in communities where babies are trained by their first or second year. Parents here who wait for the signs of readiness to arrive before giving potty training a whirl may wait a very long time indeed. Other parents discover that signs of readiness are irrelevant if the toddler digs in and won't co-operate.

Despite a lot of Freudian waffle and input from developmental experts, precisely how babies/toddlers achieve bladder and bowel control is still not fully understood. In former eras when nappies were burdensome and parents were motivated to put in a bit more time and effort, most toddlers were trained by age two, certainly by three although that was considered to be late.

The laid-back let-them-train-themselves approach favoured by advisors today has resulted in more and more three and four-year-olds still in daytime nappies (or ‘pull-ups’ which are nappies by another name).

Delaying training prolongs financial cost, doubles the number of disposables and the amount of human waste going into landfills, robs toddlers of the independence they so eagerly seek, is inconvenient and messy (even though initially it can seem the reverse) and limits care-free enjoyment of toddler activities (swimming, pre-school, outings).

Parents who are looking for guidance should be offered a few more options than they are at the moment where the laid-back let them train themselves approach is the most common advice given.

Potty training options

My intention here is not to encourage a rigid, uniform approach to potty training – therein lies disaster - but to raise awareness of the subtle changes in our culture that are resulting in delayed training, and to offer a few alternatives.

I know only too well that despite parents' best efforts there are always going to be a small number of toddlers who resist until they are older however most healthy toddlers are well capable of being out of nappies in daylight hours well by age three, if not before, with some consistent input.

Note: Day training comes before night training. The following suggestions all relate to daytime training. Most children who are out of day nappies between two and three will be dry overnight by three or four. A small number continue wetting the bed until seven or eight or even longer. This needs specialised professional help and is a separate issue to the following information.

Nappy-free

There is a tiny group of parents who are dramatically minimising nappy use by holding their babies out over a pot (or the laundry sink or the lawn) at regular intervals from birth.

Parents taking the nappy-free route need to be united in the decision, have a great deal of commitment and tolerance for messy moments and ideally a home and lifestyle to accommodate their choice.

If it is done with the right attitude (relaxed not competitive), for the right reasons (suits the family rather than to impress the parent peer group) it can be a very rewarding, self-sufficient way to go.

Early training approach

This involves doing what our great-grannies did and between the ages of three and fifteen months making a daily habit of placing babies on a pot to ‘catch’ their pee and poo. This is not strictly speaking ‘training’ but ‘conditioning’ so by about fifteen months (or even sooner) through association the baby has learnt how to pee and poo only when he feels the potty under his bottom. This works well with some babies and not others and again, parental attitude is crucial.

A structured parent-led approach

The aim here is to provide consistent guidance and support to complete the process in a timely manner.

Start discussing toileting sometime after twelve months. Read your child a book. Show them the ropes.

Any time from eighteen months onwards (or before providing you are relaxed and flexible about it) sit your child on a pot or a toilet seat adapter before a bath or at other times of the day. If they are agreeable sit them on the pot every two-three hours.

Leave your child out of nappies as often as possible especially out of doors when accidents are easy to manage. Re-usable towelling training pants are preferable to single-use ‘pull-ups’ as toddlers are aware of what’s happening in training pants.

Be prepared to tolerate accidents but use nappies if an accident is going to cause disaster, for example, on your friend’s new carpet or in the car seat. It's okay to go in and out of nappies according to the day's activities.

Rewards can be useful, if not overdone (as in treats) or highly exaggerated (as in praise).

This option has to be put on hold if the toddler absolutely refuses to comply. Wait a month and try again.

Non-structured child-centred approach

This involves waiting until the toddler is prepared to comply, which realistically for many toddlers may not be until they are three or even older. At this time the toddler is shown the pot/toilet and what to do. The decision of if and when to use the pot is then left up to them.

Check out Robin's books on Pan Macmillan's website and Booktopia, and her e-books on the Xoum website. She is also the author of Close To Home, a book of short stories about love, life and family.