We hopped in the car -- Gabriel diaperless under his sweatpants -- and headed for the local department store, where we picked out a dazzling array of size-2 cartoon-character underpants. In the dressing room he donned not one but three pairs to wear home. He was thrilled. I was thrilled. As we rode home singing potty songs, he soaked through everything, which left a giant wet spot on the car seat. No problem -- this will take time, I said to myself, all patience and optimism.
But a week or so later, when Gabriel had his second bowel movement in his underwear, I was less patient and less optimistic. As he careened around the bathroom, soiling everything, I grabbed some baby wipes and began cleaning him, the walls, and the floor, thoughtlessly tossing the wipes into the toilet. By 8 PM, the plumbing system in our old house had backed up, and sewage was spilling across the basement floor. Hundreds of dollars later, I declared, Diapers forever!
I used to think that if you provided the thrill of underpants, a colorful potty seat, and reminders throughout the day that it might be time to go, you'd eventually train your child. But instead I found myself facing this murky, in-between stage where the nuances escaped me -- though they turned out to be familiar scenarios for the parents and experts who've been there. Here's how they deal with them:
Q. My 2-year-old says she's peed in the potty when she hasn't. Do I point out that she's lying?
A. A youngster at the earliest stages of the process may need a little encouragement, so just say, "Good job," recommends Ann Stadtler, a pediatric nurse-practitioner and cofounder of a treatment group at Children's Hospital, in Boston, for kids 4 and older who still haven't toilet-trained. Another way to get her used to the idea: Let her sit or read on the potty when she's fully clothed. "Then you can start to have her use it whenever you're dressing or undressing her," says Stadtler. What's important is establishing a routine that will make your child feel comfortable.
Older kids who say they've gone to the toilet when they haven't may be feeling pressured. In that case, continue to encourage the effort they're making.
Q. My 2-year-old insists that he won't wear diapers anymore, and he also refuses to use the potty. What can I do?
A. Children quickly realize that wearing underpants is a big achievement much desired by their parents, so they often want to proceed before they're developmentally ready, says Barbara Howard, M.D., a pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. But you can satisfy your son's desire by letting him wear underpants for an hour or so, then returning him to diapers.
On the other hand, a child who's already mastered the skills needed to use the toilet may just require a nudge in the right direction (see "Is Your Child Really Ready?"). Nancy Shulman's daughter Amy was only 2 when she said she wanted to wear underpants like her big sister. Shulman, of Germantown, MD, was so confident that her 2-year-old was ready to take a step forward, she told her, "'You have to make a choice -- either you use the potty or you wear diapers.' Amy made a commitment, and that was it."
Q. Every hour or so I ask my toddler if she wants to use the toilet. I feel like the potty police!
A. Maybe you need to turn in your badge. If your child's training is being directed entirely by you, then you could be depriving her of the chance to learn how to identify the urge to go to the bathroom.
She may even rebel and have more accidents to defy you, says Marilyn Jeffs, R.N., a pediatric nurse who runs parent-infant-toddler support groups in Ann Arbor, MI: "A child wants the control, and the independence."
You can still remind her to go the bathroom -- when she wakes up, before or after her nap, or before you go out; just make it a cooperative event. "You can say, 'Before we leave the house, we all try to use the potty -- Mommy and Daddy, too,'" says Jeffs. "But if she won't, don't fight it."
Q. My son pees in the potty, but he refuses to poop there. How do we encourage him?
A. A relaxed routine is key, says Stadtler: "Sometimes the whole process feels out of control to a little child -- he has to stop, take off some clothes, and sit there until he goes." She suggests setting up a regular potty time after mealtimes or whenever he normally has a bowel movement.
That's what Jody Rolnick, of Cottage Grove, OR, did when she noticed that her 2-year-old son, Gabriel, had begun withholding his bowel movements for up to four days. "Every morning, I'd sit him on the toilet from 7 to 7:15. I'd hold his hand, or tell stories or read books, just to try to distract him so he could relax."
Whatever you do, don't turn the issue into a power struggle. The next time your child says he wants to poop, suggest the potty. But if he refuses, put him in a diaper without further comment.
And remember, kids who refuse to have a bowel movement can become constipated, so make sure your child is eating enough fiber and drinking plenty of liquids.
Q. Friends have said that giving their kids candy helped toilet-train them. So is it OK to use treats to reward my 3-year-old?
A. Some parents find them to be a useful incentive, especially for children who are capable but aren't showing much interest yet in using the toilet. Michaela Utsunomiya, of Ann Arbor, MI, said that her pediatrician assured her there's nothing wrong with a "well-placed reward." So she dispensed M&Ms to her 3-year-old -- successfully. "If you use them too early, a kid may ask for a potty treat every time she goes," she said. "But my son was very ready, and after just three times, he started going by himself. Pride totally took over."
But others are not so sure. "Bribes sometimes work, but I often say, 'Beware of what works,'" said Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., coauthor of the Positive Discipline book series. "Once a child doesn't care about the reward anymore, the improvement stops. Or she'll begin to manipulate you for a larger reward." And big rewards may reflect too much parental pressure, backfiring when the child says, "That's okay, I don't want a trike anyway!"
Q. My son will use only his own potty. What can I do to change his mind?
A. Sometimes the simple act of bringing your child's potty wherever he goes can free him up to start using strange toilets. (It's cumbersome, but worth it, say experts.) If he's afraid of falling in, bring along a foldable potty seat that fits over an adult-size toilet, or sit him on the toilet seat backward, says Dr. Howard. The back is narrower, and your child can balance himself on the tank.
A more cautious child may need help to overcome his fears. Dr. Howard suggests conducting "potty tours" of toilets whenever the two of you are out, or drawing pictures of them together or pointing them out in books and magazines.
Q. My toddler was completely toilet-trained for several weeks. Then she announced that she wants her diapers back. Should we give in?
A. No, say experts, though they do recommend monitoring your own behavior. If you've been telling your child she's such a big girl after her potty successes, she may demand her diapers back as a way of staying little. In that case, says Dr. Howard, "talk about how she'll always be your baby." Excessive praise can feel like pressure, too. It's enough to say, "I'm proud of you" and give your child a hug.
So keep your daughter in her underpants, and be prepared for accidents: Bring spare sets of clothing when you go out, and cover the car seat in plastic. When she does have an accident, show her, in a nonpunitive way, how she can help clean up: You can have her push the button to start the washing machine, for example. Responsibility, not punishment, should be your aim.
Q. We've been trying to toilet-train our 3 1/2-year-old for a year, but he still wets his pants several times a day. Any advice?
A. Instead of directing the entire process, get your child used to a routine by creating a chart together: Cut out pictures from magazines or catalogs to represent the best times of day for using the potty, and post it at eye-level in the bathroom or bedroom. This isn't supposed to be a sticker chart with rewards -- it's a reference that the two of you have made, says Nelsen. It is the boss.
Her strongest word of advice: Relax. "Parents often wait for signs and then rush their children," she says. "But using the toilet is a natural function, like eating and sleeping, and kids will eventually learn it on their own."
A few months after our plumbing system backed up, I heard a loud bang coming from another part of the house. When I investigated, I found my son padding out of the bathroom, his shorts around his ankles. "Mom, I peed in the potty," he said casually. He'd removed his diaper, used the toilet, and crashed the lid down afterward.
Although, on the surface, his using the potty had almost nothing to do with me, I'd helped: I'd stepped back and told him to let me know when he was ready. And he did.
Candy J. Cooper writes for the Bergen Record, in New Jersey.