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Goodbye Diapers: A Pediatrician’s Guide to Potty Training

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Why you need a Pediatrician’s Perspective on Potty Training

There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts out there, people who claimed to have potty trained 12-month olds, or maybe even cats. Good for them! I’m not here to discredit their accomplishments. I’m here to make sure that YOU have the most painless experience possible while potty training.

While there are some potty training prodigies out there, the truth is that most kids can’t be fully potty trained until age 2–4. This has nothing to do with the “method” of potty training that the parents use, or any of the other controversial issues out there. It’s a matter of physiological development.

As a pediatrician, I can walk you through what developmental changes are happening to your child at this time, and how that can affect how successful you are with potty training and assessing whether your child is ready.

If you’ve already started and are experiencing challenges or frustration, hopefully this will help you see what the real underlying issue is and to have a little more patience with your child or reset your expectations.

What is happening to your child’s PHYSICAL development

  • Bladder control
  • Bowel control
  • Ability to recognize urges
  • Ability to sit on a toilet
  • Ability to manipulate clothing

What is happening to your child’s SOCIAL development

  • Ability to communicate needs clearlyNow that your child has learned to recognize and control their urges to pee, and the bladder itself, they need to learn to communicate those needs clearly to you, the parent. For example, if you’re in a crowded mall and your child starts feeling the urge to pee, and exercises control to hold it in, she next needs to tell you “Mom, I need to go potty,” so that she doesn’t pee her pants.

    Parents don’t realize this, but oddly, this can be one of the most difficult parts of potty training.

  • Learning about privacy and social valuesYou might notice even before you start potty training that your child retreats to privacy or to the corner of a room to poop in his diaper. That’s good! That means your child is starting to understand the social norms of defecating in private and is likely a better candidate for successful potty training.

    Potty training is all about helping your child understand the social values of making sure their excrement goes in the correct designated place. This might sound weird, but it makes sense. Toilets themselves are different around the world. But one thing is consistent anywhere you travel: there’s a designated place for excrement to go, and anything other than that is uncivilized, aberrant behavior.

    Your child needs to be capable of learning this value (at a very conceptual level). Otherwise, there will be nothing stopping them from just peeing on the floor of the department store.

Building confidence, self-esteem, and dignity

Learning to use the toilet is a huge milestone and a HUGE accomplishment for your little one. It is, and rightly should be, something they will be very proud of! Encourage this! You don’t have to throw a parade, but this is a good opportunity for you to help build your toddler’s self-esteem.

On the other hand, negative reinforcement, negative talk, and punishments for accidents can be very destructive for little ones and undo a lot of the progress they’ve made. Under no circumstances should you EVER “let your child sit in it” to teach them a lesson. This is extremely undignified and confusing for young minds. Think about it: if you are telling them that their poop needs to go in the potty, why are you letting them sit with it in their pants? It’s totally inconsistent, ineffective, and downright cruel.

When your child has an accident (note the use of when not if), your best bet is to take them to the potty, remind them where their excrement is supposed to go, and remind them to let you know next time they need to go. The important thing is that they are making progress, and as long as that’s happening, celebrate every success!

Potty training is a big step toward growing up! And that’s a hard thing for some parents to face. But if your child is ready, don’t put off potty training for your own nostalgia. Learning to use the toilet is a great experience for a toddler and helps them build a lot of confidence.

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Feeling a a bit uneasy about having "the talk" with your son or daughter?
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