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.