Child Development and Parenting: Early Childhood
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Development During Early Childhood, Toddler, and Preschool Stages Parenting Your Todder, Preschooler, and Young ChildToilet TrainingDisciplining Your Toddler, Preschooler, and Young ChildNurturing Your Toddler, Preschooler, and Young Child
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Child Development and Parenting: Infants

Early Childhood Toilet Training Methods

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

After having educated children about elimination, and receiving the proper signals from them that they are ready to transition from diapers, parents can swing into full toilet training action. Throughout this process, parents need to communicate a positive attitude to their trainees. Parents should remain calm, warm, encouraging, upbeat, and consistent with regard to the messages they communicate to their children. Parents need to rejoice with children in their successes and to provide support and encouragement in their challenges, time and time again.

Parents also need to pay attention to their children's reactions throughout the toilet training process. Children may seem exuberant about learning to use the potty on one day, and avoidant or oppositional on the next. Parents should watch for both obvious and subtle signs that children are becoming overwhelmed and back off from toilet training for a day or two when this occurs. Parents who continually push potty training on children who do not want to participate may find that children ultimately shut down and refuse to use the toilet for some time.

In the scheme of things, it is perfectly okay to lose a few days' progress towards toilet training when a child is overwhelmed, when the alternative is to lose a month or more due to regression. Toilet training tends to be a long-term project spanning months and even years, and not something that can be accomplished in a weekend. Parents who go into toilet training with the idea of providing a weekend intensive boot camp will probably do more harm than good.

One major technique used for toilet training is the practice session. In a practice session, parents take children to the bathroom and direct them through the various toileting steps during times when it is likely they will need to use the bathroom (e.g., before bedtime, after a nap, first thing in the morning, or an hour after a big meal). This strategy is also useful when young children show signs that they need to use the restroom, such as crossing their legs, doing the "potty dance," or passing gas.

During the first few practice sessions, parents may have to physically and verbally guide their children through each potty step in checklist fashion in order to ensure their success. For instance, Mom could say, "Ok, Meagan, when your bladder feels full and you feel like you have to go potty, you're going to come into the bathroom, pull down your pants and panties, and sit down on the toilet," while leading Meagan by the hand into the bathroom and physically helping Megan complete these steps. Mom can also help keep Meagan entertained and patient while she goes to the bathroom.

"Letting go" of waste products does not come naturally to all young children. Some children are nervous about the process and are too tense to perform. Parents may need to encourage such children to relax and to let their bodies respond naturally. For instance, Mom could say, "Meagan, just relax. You'll feel something trying to squeeze out of your bottom. That's OK. That's your body letting go of the poop. Don't try to stop it. Just let it slide out. Take a deep breath with me. You might feel a little pee come out, too. That's OK."

Often, children find it easier to start to defecate than to urinate while sitting on the potty, so parents can instruct their children to focus on defecation first. Many children automatically urinate while they are defecating. Sometimes it may be helpful to encourage children to push a little bit in order to help themselves poop. However, parents need to watch that their children don't take this advice too the extreme. Pushing too hard or straining can make the elimination experience quite uncomfortable or painful and end up making the situation more frustrating then it has to be.