Dear Dr Justin,
We are having some serious toilet training woes.
My daughter, who turned 3 in June is struggling, as am I, with toilet training. She is good with wees and has the occasional accident if she is playing and forgets to go, and has a night nappy which is super full in the morning.
Her number twos are driving us bananas and we don’t know what to do. She essentially hides to do a number two and it is not uncommon for her to do 2-3 poos a day. When we encourage her to go to the bathroom, she refuses.
Some days we revert to nappies but mostly she gets new undies when she has an accident. We’ve also tried to not react and keep it cool but this is getting very hard to do now.
Advice from older generation parents is to sit her on the toilet or potty at regular times in the day until she goes. The trouble with this is that we can’t even get her on the toilet without it turning into a massive emotional episode/tantrum. She literally will only sit on the toilet (with a special seat) for as long as she needs to do a wee, then she wants to get off. I can’t encourage her to sit and just sing songs or talk.
I’ve tried reward charts, praise, asking her what’s wrong etc to find out the reason… Any advice or tips would help and be appreciated greatly!
Dr Justin responds:
There are many poop-ular methods for toilet training our children. Let’s flush out the myths and aim for the proper science to help with this messy, stinky problem. Frantic dashes for privacy, constantly asking, “Do you need to go to the potty?”, and regularly finding unexpected ‘surprises’ on the floor (usually by treading in a puddle while wearing socks) – these are the things that are consigned to history once successful toilet-training is achieved. And doesn’t it sound exciting?
Myths about toilet training
These are the most common myths I encounter around toilet training:
First, if you put your children on the potty early they’ll figure it out. It appears that rather than being helpful, this makes children resist the potty and feel resentful about toileting. Forcing a child only creates a reciprocated force in return, usually in the form of tantrums.
Second, your child should be toilet trained by x age. All fruit doesn’t ripen at the same time. Our children develop different abilities and capacities at different times and we need to be patient with that reality.
Third, once you start toilet training, there’s no going back. This is also untrue. If a child is not ready, then give them another three months in nappies, and then try again if they’re showing a desire to use the potty.
Fourth, it’s all about discipline. This is a troublesome myth because toilet-training can easily turn into a power struggle. Parents may tell lies to their children about the shop running out of nappies, or may offer bribes for using the potty. Some parents withhold love or threaten some form of discipline or withdrawal of privileges when a child won’t use the potty, or when he makes mistakes and has accidents. Yet it’s often the power struggles that lead to ongoing anxiety, fear, and toileting issues. By keeping power out of toilet-training and making the process as autonomous as possible for the child, we reduce the risk of anxiety, fear, and other issues.
Fifth, star charts and stickers (or other bribes) will motivate my child. There’s no doubt that we should celebrate our children’s successes. But going gung-ho on rewards and prizes for toileting can actually promote pressure and anxiety. Nerves can increase rather than decrease, and children may regress. It’s far more effective to be patient and calm, supporting our children’s autonomy, rather than to rely on bribes. Then, when our children experience success, we can be excited with them.
What are your options?
There are three approaches to toilet training. The old-school approach is a parent-centred approach that relies on our size and ability to control our children. We’re supposed to sit them on there until they go. We use carrots and sticks (rewards and punishments) to shape wanted and unwanted behaviour, and by sheer force of will, we ultimately prevail.
There is zero scientific evidence to support this as an effective approach. The potty battle-ground is littered with strong opinions but very little research. Much of what passes as ‘gospel truth’ is nothing more than opinion. It may be educated opinion, and some of it is related to scientific studies, but a lot of the more ‘common’ wisdom is based on best guesses. In some cases it is simply bad advice from people with opinions but no credentials.
The most recent review of the scientific investigations was published in 2012, and states that when it comes to toilet-training options:
“very little scientific information is available for the physicians who care for children.”
A more positive option?
In situations like yours, I recommend the following:
First, in an unemotional moment, chat about expectations around toileting. Ask your daughter if she can explain what those expectations are, and the reasons for the requests you are making.
Second, ask her how she feels about those requests. Does she have any problems, concerns, or uncertainties? Does she feel like she can do it, or does she think it could be too hard?
Third, encourage initiative, collaboration, and problem-solving as you work together on the process.
Fourth, if she is not ready, be patient. Very, very patient.
There are a few don’ts to mention as well
Don’t use guilt, coercion, manipulation, or power to make her do something she’s not developmentally ready for.
Don’t make her clean up her mess, especially if you are angry.
Don’t stress when she has accidents. Just accept, clean, and move on.
I have really whizzed through these ideas, trying not to get too bogged down in detail. This is a fast-flowing, easily digestible overview of what might work.
Your daughter will get the hang of things. It may take a little while. There may be control issues, jealousy issues (if there’s a sibling), or some other fear. An understanding, soft and gentle approach will be your best way forward.
If you’d like a more detailed overview of how to help your daughter, take a close look at my ebook online at the Happy Families Shop. It’s called “Toilet Training: Easy as One, Two, Wee?” You’ll get many more helpful ideas.