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Toilet Training: Trials and Triumphs

What's he like?

Okay. Everybody's ready and you want to get started. When I began to train Michaela, the process seemed so simple:

  • Buy a potty.
  • Introduce the potty to your child and let her sit on it clothed.
  • Have her sit on it unclothed at times when kids usually wet or soil their diapers (like first thing in the morning or after meals), and give her lots of applause and praise.
  • Buy her fun underwear that she likes.
  • Be patient and upbeat.

Except that with Michaela, this took nearly a year. In retrospect, it was a personality thing. Michaela, now 15, has never liked to be rushed into anything -- not walking, not talking, and definitely not potty training. And because she took her time, I assumed it wasn't working and stopped several times to try again later.

I realize now that she would likely have been trained much sooner if I hadn't kept quitting! Michaela was simply going at her own pace, as she always does.

Though it never occurred to me to consider personality in toilet training, it's the key to making it work. Think about how your child has approached milestones like walking, trying new foods, and socializing. The way he approaches giving up diapers is likely to be the same. Is he bold and adventurous, or more tentative? If he's brave, presenting potty training as something new and exciting may work well, and he may have no problem going cold turkey and ditching diapers completely. If you have a cautious kid, like Michaela, "new and exciting" might be plain scary. Read potty-training stories together and talk up the subject before buying a potty. Proceed gradually: You can have your child wear underwear while at home, even just for an hour or two at a time, and then go back to diapers. Many kids are somewhere in between bold and tentative and may need an approach that's in between.

If your child is clearly upset by what's going on  -- he's tearfully refusing to sit on the potty or clingy all of a sudden -- or if accidents are far outnumbering successes, you really should stop and try again later. (Keep in mind that most children will need diapers at night for a while after they are trained during the day. Wait until your child's diapers are dry in the morning before having him wear underwear to bed, and make sure you've got a plastic cover on the mattress: Nighttime accidents are common through age 6.)

But sometimes struggles are part of the process. Elsa, who's 8 now, has always hated change -- all change. By 3, she didn't like being in dirty diapers but refused even to discuss wearing panties. And she hates to be the center of attention. When she once used the potty by accident (she had agreed to sit on it in the living room clearly just to humor me and ended up pooping while distracted by a TV show), my husband and I applauded and cheered. She was furious. "Don't be happy at me!" she yelled, and refused to sit on the potty again for weeks.

Finally, when months went by with no progress, I took her diapers away. She'd glare at me when she couldn't hold it in any longer and had to go sit on the potty. We did this for about four days, and just when I was about to give in because I felt like the Evilest Mommy (and was beginning to worry about medical trouble  -- click on Problems to Watch For

Standoffs should be a last resort, and stopped if your child is upset. But if your child is a standoff kind of kid -- Elsa certainly is -- toilet training may not be much different.

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