I always prefer the term toilet learning to toilet training, as it evokes a sense of a relaxed and interactive process. To my mind, the term “training” feels more militant and adult imposed. The word “learning” gives me the sense that we are all in this together and honors the process of discovery and change. It can certainly be argued that these are all just semantics and irrelevant to the potty process we are speaking of. But in my experience, the language we use affects our thoughts, which then shape our views about the world around us, which then directly influence our behavior. So I can think of no better place to start a conversation about toilet learning than by looking at how we think about toilet learning.
Supporting a child through toilet learning involves, most importantly, a positive and relaxed attitude. If a parent approaches the learning from a rigid place and is filled with anxiety about this process, they will pass this way of being onto their child. This can create embarrassment and shame within the child that can make the entire process much more charged and difficult. There is no room for shaming or blaming language when it comes to accidents, as they are a natural part of the process. Using a matter of fact approach, much like the one you might use when they spill something at the snack table could sound like, “Oops. Let’s clean up.” Then you could help them be a part of washing the soiled clothes and putting on dry ones. Approaching this learning process with the same ease in which you approach the process of learning to walk or eat solid foods will support your child’s positive sense of themselves and their body.
The trend in the U.S. over the past decades has been to move toilet learning to a later and later age. In 1957, studies found that 92% of children were trained by 18 months, and in many parts of the world, children are still out of diapers much earlier than in the U.S. Following the guidance of T. Berry Brazelton, American physicians and parenting experts began counseling parents to hold off longer and longer, waiting for the child to lead the process. Diaper manufacturers happily responded by making more comfortable diapers in ever-larger sizes. (Brazelton was paid by Proctor and Gamble to consult and appear in Pampers commercials.) However, some recent research indicates that later isn’t always better. As long as parents are encouraging, positive, and avoid shaming a child, starting earlier can be very successful. Children who are trained between the ages of two and three seem to fall into the “sweet spot” in terms of speed of training, reduced “accidents,” and avoidance of later physical complications such as urinary tract infections, constipation, and incontinence. Children who wear cloth diapers, as opposed to disposables, seem to learn about a year earlier—probably because they get better feedback about the process. While deciding whether it's time to start potty training, parents can encourage their children by modeling how to use the toilet, explaining what children are feeling when you notice their “signals,” allowing a child to “play” using the potty even before you’ve removed the first diaper, and treating toilet-learning in the same confident, matter-of-fact way you treated your child’s first efforts at communicating or learning to crawl.
It may seem like forever, but your child will eventually be completely potty trained. Think of it not as a race to the finish line, but a meandering journey where there will be leaps forward and inevitable temporary regressions! It is important to not only recognize your child’s signals of readiness for potty learning, which can occur around 18 months of age, but to help your child recognize them him or herself. Once awareness has begun your child is really on the way to mastering this bodily function! Your attitude and feelings will be communicated to your child and play an important role in the ease of the process and the developing relationship in general between you and your child. A calm and accepting attitude without the extremes of rewards for success and disapproval / shame for accidents can make the process a natural part of acquiring a life skill as mentioned before, rather than some sort of game or contest that is to be won.
There is much information out there on potty training, with compelling choices and methods that will appeal to parents. From all of this, find what is comfortable for your child and family, shore up your patience, and never give up!! Once your child has crossed this frontier of development that seems to take forever, you will find it hard to remember what it was like in the previous diaper days. Believe me, as your child passes other milestones throughout the months and years ahead, you will marvel at how quickly time has really passed during these precious early years.