It’s no secret: Kids are taking longer to learn to use the toilet than their parents did. “There may be some who train before age two,” says Dr. Michael Dickinson, chief of pediatrics at Miramichi Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick, “but the majority are two-and-a-half, three, three-and-a-half or even four.”
But is there a perfect age to start trying to teach your child about using the toilet? A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Urology earlier this year suggests that the ideal time to initiate the process of toilet training—or toilet learning, the term preferred by the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS)—is age 24 to 32 months.
Regardless of age, waiting until your child is actually showing signs of readiness—as opposed to trying to force the process—eases the stress for parent and child, says Alice Moore, a Toronto mom of two. Her son Alden, a couple months shy of three, just went into undies this month. “I like to be pretty sure they will have some success, because I’d rather they feel positive about it and get to build on that, so I’ve not been in a rush with either kid but let them lead the way.”
There’s nothing wrong with a parent initiating the process of toilet learning sooner than that, but the strategy can backfire and lead to further delays if the parent becomes too pushy, Dr. Dickinson cautions. “In this case, the kid always wins.”
A more sensible approach is to help your child develop the skills required for using the toilet (getting her diaper up and down and getting on and off the potty) and to watch for the signs of emotional and physical readiness: interest in using the toilet, ability to follow a few basic instructions, a desire for independence, regular and predictable bowel movements, ability to stay dry for several hours at a time, ability to communicate the need to use the potty and not liking the sensation of wearing a wet or soiled diaper.
So what do you do once you think your child is ready? Explain the basic process, sticking to a consistent vocabulary and asking other key adults in your child’s life to use the same terms (e.g., “pee,” “poo”). Let your child see you and/or your partner using the toilet, and read toddler books about why we use it.
Consider starting out with a potty as opposed to a toilet-seat adapter and footstool. Your child will be able to keep his feet on the ground, which aids with pushing, and you won’t have to worry about him being scared off the toilet learning process by a splash from the big toilet. Keeping the potty within dashing distance also ups the odds of your toddler making it on time. Teach proper wiping (front to back for girls) and handwashing right from the start, and be prepared to assist with wiping until your child is at least three or four.
If your child doesn’t make it to the potty in time, don’t overreact, advises Vancouver mom Alexis Hinde. “Any accidents that my son had were cleaned up with calm explanations that they do happen. And soon enough he was making it to the toilet.” She’s proud to report that her son has been accident-free for six weeks.
Finally, don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Two steps forward and one step back is par for the potty-training course. The arrival of a new baby, a move to a new house or a painful bout of constipation can lead to a previously trained toddler or preschooler regressing back to diapers temporarily. The CPS recommends holding off on training your toddler if you have a stressful family event coming up. The best strategy is simply to give her time. But don’t worry. It won’t last for long. Eventually, she’ll find her way back to the potty, but if the behaviour persists for more than a few months, consult your doctor.
Ann Douglas is the author of the newly updated The Mother of All Pregnancy Books (2nd edition, Wiley Canada) and a mom of four who have given her much training in the art of giving up diapers.