It would be so much easier if there were a magic age at which to potty train your child. You could simply wake up on the morning that he reaches, say, 26 months, plonk him on the potty – and hey presto!
However, every child is different. Some gain the necessary physical, mental and emotional developmental skills as early as 18 months, whereas others aren’t ready until they’re 3 or 4 years old.
Some get the hang of it over a weekend, while others take months. By responding to your child’s signals you can let him set the agenda, so that you’ll both find the transition from nappies to pants as painless as possible.
Weeing or pooing on the potty is a highly complex process. Really, it is. It may not seem very difficult to you, but when you break down the number of skills that are needed to succeed it’s incredible that someone as young as a 2- or 3-year-old could ever master it.
Your toddler has to be able to recognize the signs that he needs to go to the toilet, and then hold on to it long enough to get there. He then has to remember where the potty is, walk to it, grapple with his clothing and pull down his pants – and all this before he even sits down to do his business. Finally, he needs to wipe his bottom, get dressed and wash his hands.
In order for a child to succeed, he has to be physically and mentally ready. Scientists have identified a number of stages your child will go through while developing bladder and bowel control:
1. He becomes aware of having a wet or dirty nappy or clothing. This can occur from 15 months.
2. He recognizes when he is doing a wee or a poo, and may learn the words to tell you all about it. This takes place between 18 and 24 months, or later in some children.
3. He can tell you in advance that he will need to go, with sufficient warning for you to get him to the potty in time. On average, this occurs between 21/2 and 3 years.
4. He gains more control of his bladder and can ‘hold on’ for a while. This takes place from 3 years onwards.
Research has shown that a child cannot voluntarily use the muscles that control his bladder and rectum until he is at least 18 months old. There is a gap of roughly 2 years between the age when a child first starts to recognize that he’s wet, and the time when he can actually hold on and wait before he passes urine. Potty training will be faster if your child is at the last stage before you start; although with perseverance you can certainly achieve dryness earlier, it will be a longer, more drawn-out and, probably, messier process.
A child who is physically ready may still not be prepared to let go of her nappies. Motivation is the key, and a toddler who is becoming more independent and keen to do things for herself will be more interested in going to the toilet like a grown-up than a child who is at an earlier stage of her emotional development. Many children will show strong signs that they are physically, mentally and emotionally ready for potty training before the age of 3. However, at least 15 per cent of children are not potty trained by that age, and 4 per cent still haven’t mastered it by 4 years. It’s important not to panic that your child is falling behind. One research study presented at a European conference for bladder and kidney specialists revealed that for healthy children, bladder capacity increases significantly between the ages of 2 and 3 years, so that by the time they are 3 most children are able to hold on and stay dry for longer periods of time. Your child will get there, in her own time.
In the USA, pediatricians have a saying about potty training: ‘If you start at 2, you’ll be done by 3. If you start at 3, you’ll be done by 3!’
Research is now confirming what parents have known for years: that boys tend to be a little slower to gain control of their bladders and bowels than girls. One study showed that, on average, boys both started and completed potty training later than girls.
According to American research, the average age for completion of potty training (day and night-time dryness) was 35 months for girls and 39 months for boys.
This difference is thought to be due to several factors:
1 Boys’ nervous systems mature later. Girls can begin to gain bladder control from the age of 18 months, whereas with boys it may not be until after 22 months.
2 Women still tend to be the main carers, so boys do not see a same-sex role model as often as girls do.
3 Boys appear to be less sensitive to the feeling of wetness against their skin. But don’t get bogged down in the detail. Every child is different, and if your son seems ready then you should go for it, whatever his age.
Most children will show characteristic signs when they are ready to take on potty training – you just have to be able to recognize these and act on them. If that sounds too much like taking part in a complicated detection exercise, take heart from the fact that some children, especially those with older siblings, can make it very easy for you.
Is your child ready? Many children’s signals are subtler than my daughter’s were. Although there isn’t a checklist you should tick off, there is a gradual accumulation of indicators that your child is becoming physically, mentally and emotionally ready to learn to go to the toilet.
Your child may be ready to start toilet training if:
‘I can do it’ becomes a regular refrain, showing that your toddler wants to become more independent.
He has regular, formed bowel movements, and he may go red in the face and gain a very concentrated expression when he’s about to go.
He has the dexterity to pull his pants up and down by himself.
He’s very interested when his father goes to the toilet and imitates his actions.
He is developed physically so that he can walk and sit down on the potty.
He knows what wee and poo are and may talk about them when you’re changing his nappy.
You may notice that his nappy is dry for longer periods, up to three or four hours. This shows that his bladder capacity and control are improving.
He can understand what you are saying and follow simple instructions, such as ‘Go and get your teddy.’
He starts to recognize the sensations that he needs to go to the toilet and demonstrates this by looking uncomfortable, holding onto himself or grunting. Soon he’ll learn to tell you before it happens.
He may become uncomfortable and complain if his nappy is dirty. He may start to rip off his nappy every time he does a wee in it, which means he can go through ten nappies a day. If this is the case, simple economics dictate that it’s time to reach for the potty.
Potty-training practices have changed considerably over the years. Mothers from previous generations were encouraged to start extraordinarily early, and it was not unheard of to balance babies on the potty as soon as they could sit up, or even earlier. While it is important to balance the advice of previous generations with modern ones, perhaps it is best for all to sense when your child is ready, and then work towards it.