POTTY TRAINING BEFORE POTTY INDEPENDENCE

When I began potty training Oliver back in January, many people questioned why I would bother potty training a 17-month-old, since it would be at least another seven to 12 months before he would be able to perform all of the necessary potty-related skills (pulling pants up and down, getting on and off the toilet, etc.), without assistance. Would it not be me being potty trained, they asked, rather than Oliver?

I admit — it was that very same thought that had deterred me from initiating the potty training process when Oliver was 15 months old, and in retrospect, clearly capable of being potty trained. However, after thinking about it for a couple of months, I came to the realization that potty training and potty independence are two separate and distinct milestones. Unfortunately, they are commonly conflated.

Potty training involves a child being able to recognize the need to eliminate, communicate that need, and then hold his pee or poop until he reaches the appropriate place to eliminate.

Potty independence includes potty training, plus all of the accessory skills, such as manipulating clothing, getting on and off the toilet, wiping, and washing hands.

I realized it was silly to keep Oliver in diapers just because he couldn’t pull his pants down by himself, or because he needed someone to lift him up onto the toilet seat. It would not be me who was potty trained, just because I had to assist Oliver with the task. I would be helping him, as I would with any other skill, until he could do it by himself.

Think about it — when else in parenting are we advised to hold a child back from achieving a milestone until he has first acquired all of the skills associated with that milestone?

Do pediatricians instruct parents to keep children crawling until children possess the necessary strength, balance and coordination to competently walk without assistance? Of course not! Instead, we hold our children’s hands until they take those first few tentative steps on their own, and continue to provide as much assistance as they need, until they eventually they can walk (and run) independently.

In deciding when to introduce solids to children, we don’t wait until they possess the ability to chew foods of all different textures, or until they can manipulate utensils without assistance. Instead, we introduce age-appropriate textures, and we help our children with their spoons and forks, gradually reducing our support until they can manage on their own. We would never say that a one-year-old is “not eating solids,” just because he may still require help to get those solids into his mouth.

When you consider the above analogies, it really doesn’t make any sense to hold off on potty training just because your toddler needs help pulling his pants down, getting seated on the toilet, wiping his bottom, pulling his pants up, and washing his hands.

The Canadian Paediatric Society states, “By the time a child reaches 18 months of age, reflex sphincter control has matured and myelination of extrapyramidal tracts has occurred; both processes are necessary for bowel and bladder control.” In other words, children are physiologically capable of controlling their bowels and bladders by 18 months old. Once a child also possesses the necessary cognitive skills to participate in the process, he is ready for potty training — even if full potty independence does not follow for a year or more.

This morning, at two years old, Oliver used the potty independently for the first time ever! J was cooking breakfast, when things suddenly got quiet in Oliver’s bedroom. We all know that a quiet toddler is a suspicious thing, so J went in to check on Oliver. He found Oliver in the bathroom, underwear and shorts pulled up, in the process of emptying his little potty into the big toilet.

Oliver has been making gradual progress towards potty independence ever since we potty trained him, but this was the very first time it all came together for him. He was so proud!

For those who are interested, here is the rough order in which Oliver has been acquiring his independent toileting skills:

  • flushing the big toilet
  • with pants and underwear off (removed by an adult), walking to the little potty, sitting on it, and using it
  • pulling down own pants and underwear before sitting on little potty (or before being lifted onto big toilet)
  • emptying pee from little potty into big toilet; flushing
  • washing own hands at daycare (toddler-height sinks)
  • pulling down own pants and underwear, climbing up onto the big toilet with a stool, getting down from big toilet and calling for parental help
  • wiping with toilet paper after peeing
  • using the small potty or big toilet for pee, fully independently

The skills he has yet to master are:

  • washing own hands at home (he is still too small to reach the faucet, even on a stool)
  • wiping after a poop (and let’s face it: we will be overseeing this skill for a couple more years at least :) )

Most of the major parenting websites, such as Babycenter, What to Expect, and even government sites like Zero to Three and Healthy Kids, will tell you that your child should be able to pull his own pants on and off before he is ready to potty train, but when you consider the accessory skills as separate from the potty training process itself, it is quite clear that children can be taught to control their bowels and bladders at a much younger age than they can achieve total potty independence.

Having a potty trained child who still needs assistance with clothing and wiping is certainly no more work than having a child in diapers who needs to be changed. But the benefits of potty training to the child’s self-confidence, dignity, independence, self-efficacy and hygiene are enormous, and well worth the effort.

Oliver's bathroom, set up so as to be conducive to learning potty independence.

Oliver’s bathroom, arranged to support his emerging potty independence.

30 responses to “POTTY TRAINING BEFORE POTTY INDEPENDENCE

  1. Hi Carli, I’m curious to know, if in all of your research, you came across something called Elimination Communication, and if you have any thoughts on it.

    • I read about EC before Oliver was born, and we ended up doing a very modified, *very* part-time and casual version of it, where we offered the potty to Oliver at diaper changes, beginning as early as six months. He started to resist the potty a couple of months later, so we backed off completely, but then he regained interest at around 13 months. I definitely credit this early potty familiarity for the fact that Oliver was capable of being fully trained at such a young age.

      I do have a couple of issues with the way EC is commonly practiced here, the first being the idea that children should be able to eliminate anywhere, so long as they are “diaper free.” I don’t think that works very well in an urban/suburban context, and I think it’s important that we focus on teaching children to eliminate in a way that is socially appropriate (i.e. into a potty or other receptacle, rather than up against buildings and in back alleys), even if that means they have to remain in diapers when they are out of the house. The other issue I have is that EC can sometimes be so process-focused that there is not a lot of information out there about how to make the transition to actually “sealing the deal” and formally potty training. But otherwise, I think it’s truly amazing that kids as young as a few months have been show the ability to communicate their elimination needs with parents.

      • I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of EC. I think many people use the phrase “diaper free” to mean that they aren’t *relying* on the diapers, but are just using them as backup. My kids both used diapers almost all of the time until they were 18 months old, but both also used the potty a huge proportion of the time from 0-18 months too. I didn’t let them pee or poop anywhere and everywhere, and if we were out and about without a potty nearby, I would hold them over their diapers so that they could pee/poop in the diaper without having to wear it while they did so. It’s frustrating to me to hear EC’ers painted with this brush of letting their kids pee and poop everywhere. It doesn’t have to be that way. And the benefits of EC have been huge for our family. I am so sad when I hear people being scared away from it like it’s some all or nothing thing. Honey, you DID ec! Giving your kid a chance to use the potty at diaper changes starting at 6 months old is EC! Anyway, I appreciate your post, I agree with everything you said, and I just hope that this comment doesn’t make people shy away from EC thinking that it’s all or nothing. My youngest used the potty from birth, and whether it was me trained or her didn’t really matter. All I knew was that I had a heck of a lot fewer diapers to wash than most of my friends…(and in the end, potty training just naturally sort of happened along the way without much fanfare or stress).

        • Hi Carlyle,

          I think we are actually arguing the same point! I have no issue with EC as a concept, and I totally agree that it does not have to be an “all or nothing” proposal that entails people letting their children pee and poop everywhere, so long as it’s not in diapers. The trouble is, much of what is out there on the Internet encourages this style of EC. When I first heard about EC (before Oliver was born), I was quite fascinated by the idea at first, but then I was completely put off by all the stories, photos and even YouTube videos(!) of things like “Oops, I was letting my kid pee between these parked cars in this lot, and then out came a surprise poop. Sorry to the person whose driver side door poop is sitting beside.” I’ve seen it in my own neighbourhood – parents encouraging a baby to poop on the grass beside the sidewalk, when there was a coffee shop with a perfectly serviceable toilet only 50 steps away; kids peeing on the grass in the park, which is located on top of a community centre that has freely-available public toilets.

          I really like the idea of putting babies on potties from an early age and showing them that there are alternatives to soiling themselves (indeed, that’s exactly what we did, and you’re right that it is a form of EC!). But if a child is simply free to pee/poop wherever and whenever, it’s not really that different from being in diapers – just that the world effectively becomes their diaper.

          Hope that clears things up a little :) .

          P.S. As if to underscore my point, this link appeared on my Facebook feed today (a photo from a local mall): http://www.vancitybuzz.com/2013/08/meanwhile-in-richmond/

          • Yes, I think we are arguing the same point for the most part. I just wanted to comment lest your original comment only add to the problem that you saw on the internet when you did your search–more confirmation that EC is all about being “diaper free” and peeing and pooping in inappropriate places. As we both know, it doesn’t have to be that way and it doesn’t have to be fringe and weird. I just wanted to make sure that this perspective (that EC can be done responsibly and even easily even in our urban and suburban culture) was mentioned in the comments here since your article could be a great intro to EC for many families.

            Here are some resources that I found really useful when starting with my oldest (who was 3 months old at the time): http://www.diaperfreebaby.org/ the book “Diaper Free Baby” by Christine Gross-Loh, and this site (although it has changed a lot since my daughter was 3 months old!): http://www.parttimenappyfree.com.au/Nappy-Free-Meaning.htm The use of the name “Diaper Free” drives me a little nuts because it’s so misleading, but they were good resources (and I guess that’s what spreads the word is that “shock value” publicity title…”elimination communication” is a lot less exciting when you’re pitching an article to the newspaper).

            Some of these resources do mention having babies pee in grass, but the amount of advice and help that I got from these sites is worth going “well that piece doesn’t work for me” for that one little bit and moving on to the things that do work. Thanks for listening.

  2. We are in the same boat with our 23 mo as you are with Oliver. We are slowly working with our son on being able to pull down his pants and he is so proud when he can do it by himself. He can get up and down off the big toilet with a stool since we don’t use a small potty chair. I’m glad that we started potty training two months ago with him and listened to him when he kept complaining that he didn’t like to wear diapers. Our little ones are people too.

    • One thing I have found helpful is to only buy pants and shorts with elastic waists. I avoid buttons, snaps, belts, and anything else that might make things any more challenging for Oliver. We have taught him to hook his thumbs into the sides of his pants/shorts and “push them down” (as opposed to “pull”), and are still trying to reinforce that he needs to pull from the back when he pulls them up… otherwise they get caught on his bum :).

      That’s really cool that your son actually decided by himself that he didn’t like to wear diapers anymore. Even more so that you listened to what he was saying and seized the opportunity to potty train when the motivation was there!

  3. This is perfect timing as we are going to do the three day intensive pants free potty training this weekend with my 2 year old. I was worried that he hadn’t hit the milestone of taking his pants on or off, but he does know how to use the potty, just needs to learn the “feeling” before he goes. I’m very excited for this weekend!

    • I have heard many positive things about the three-day method. I’m sure he will have great success! And yay for not having to stress over whether or not he can take his own pants off, right? :)

    • Are you offering to sit for us, or just trolling? Because it would sure be nice to occasionally get out of the house without having to pay $15/hr for the privilege of doing so.

  4. Sweet! My little dude is showing signs of being ready to potty train. He is only 15 months old, but sits on the toilet several times a day, and one day last week he asked me to go potty when I was letting him run around without a diaper. He went up the stairs, got his toilet insert seat out and I picked him up and put him on the toilet. There is no way he is old enough for doing it by himself”, but he has the ability to hold pee at least. So I would really love to get him potty training soon!
    Bananaleafy, I read up on elimination communication. We did some with my little guy, but he started to get upset about sitting on the toilet when he was about 7 or 8 months old. I didn´t push it at that point because I didn´t want him to have bad feelings towards to toilet later on. I didn´t do EC all the way though. I mostly focused on pooping the toilet, and when he was diaperless I would take him potty.
    We talk a lot about the process to him, and use regular words to tell him what toilets are for, and I think the biggest this has been clothe diapering. From what I understand it makes them much more aware of their bodily functions.

    • It sounds like your little guy is showing the exact same signs of readiness as Oliver was at that age! Doubtless you’ll have him trained long before the new baby arrives. Check out Oh Crap Potty Training – even though Jamie’s recommended age for starting is 20 to 30 months, her method totally works for younger kids.

  5. We did EC from birth, in a sure-okay-whatever kind of way. I wasn’t attached to the idea of using no diapers whatsoever, and I wasn’t particularly optimistic from the get-go that it was the *right* thing to do. However, I will, without hesitation, do EC in the future with any babies we have. Z never had to deal with diaper rash, I washed far fewer cloth diapers and in 19 months, I’ve only changed poopy diapers for about 3 of those months (during a potty pause from 10-13 months).

    All that being said, I am still confused about logistics. She only pees and poops in the potty at home, however, if we’re out she still wears a diaper because public restrooms scare me and getting a toddler out of a diaper to pee, and then back into it, is a little more effort than I am inclined to put forth in the grocery store restroom with two kids in tow. At home she wears dresses with no underwear. If we practice with underwear on, I’ll get distracted and suddenly I’ll see her sitting on the potty, peeing with her unders on. She loves to empty her potty and that is sometimes problematic because her aim isn’t always perfect.

    Some of our family commented that she’s not potty trained because she can’t take off her pants–this was aside from the fact that we did not use a single diaper when visiting them for a week. They insisted that she should be in a diaper “like a regular baby” (?!). She clearly has the idea and I know we’ll get there–it is just kind of an odd window of time for little ones.

    • We did a sort of public toilet “boot camp” in the early stages of potty training. Went to a bunch of places all over the neighbourhood and made sure to use the potty at every one. It was as much for me as it was for Oliver ;). I like bringing Oliver’s toilet seat insert when we go out, as at least I know he has a clean seat and somewhere to put his hands (it has handles). In the last couple of months, though, he has gone from having to pee every 45-90 minutes, to being able to hold it for an entire outing several hours long. So fortunately we just don’t have to use as many public toilets as we used to.

      So odd that your family would suggest you put Z in diapers when she clearly knows how to hold herself and use the potty instead. Perhaps they have forgotten that just two generations ago, most “regular babies” were actually potty trained by Z’s age!

  6. I love when you simplify things like this – I had not thought of this process as 2 separate areas of ability + learning. Perhaps a form of denial on my part because I want to be lazy and not bother until he can also drive…but that’s another blog/therapy session…I will be starting to challenge J more on his learned skills. When he goes back to school in a week or so, I also hope that their routines and seeing the other kids in class learning will go a long way to helping with his desire to move to this ‘big boy’ stage. Thanks!!

    • The second part of your comment is really interesting to me. I’ve recently realized that there are things Oliver does by himself at daycare that we still do for him at home, either because I’ve assumed he couldn’t do them yet, or because maybe I’m not always as patient as I should be with waiting and letting Oliver figure out how to do things on his own.

      This morning, for example, when I dropped him off, the kids were getting ready to go outside. I helped Oliver put his jacket on (as I always do at home), whereupon he pulled it off, threw it down on the floor, and said quite emphatically, “No! I do it by myself,” Then he picked it up and put it on without any help. He’s probably been doing it by himself at daycare for months, and I didn’t know :). So now I’m wondering… what else he can do for himself that I shouldn’t be doing?

  7. Hi. My son is 11 months now and I showed him his potty three days ago. When I felt he was pooping I just out him in there. After that for the last 2 days he came to me when he wanted to poop and squatted. I quickly put him on the potty and immediately he had eliminated (3 times in a row). It’s unbelievable how fast they learn when they are ready.

      • Also I must add that in india it’s only recently that people are training kids as late as 2 and 3. All these years babies were trained around one or 18 months because no one waited till the child gained independence. It was a given that like everything else the parent would guide the child until she gained the required independence herself. Until I read this post I was pretty confused about the two different mind sets. But now I am alot clearer the way you’ve spelt it out.
        Thanks great post.

  8. We did EC part time with both our kids, starting at about 4 months, and my son was in underwear fulltime at 18 months. I didn’t night wean till 28 months so that took a bit longer. My daughter started fighting diaper changes so I switched her at 15 months. I thinking using cloth and introducing the potty concept early is helpful to have them learn early because they feel the wetness in cloth and they recognize there are other options!

    • Wow, two kids out of diapers by a year and a half! That’s impressive! We will definitely be doing the same thing with the second one as we did with Oliver (introducing the potty early), in the hopes that we can have him/her out of diapers as soon as possible. A year and a half was long enough for me to be doing diaper laundry :)

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