When my daughter Violet was 18 months old, I had one of those days that briefly made me feel like a world-champion mother. She and I were rummaging around in the basement, and we came across her older siblings’ blue plastic potty. She immediately recognized it for the toilet substitute it was and hauled it up the stairs to our kitchen. And there commenced, for several hours, the most amazing display of self-education I’ve ever seen.
Off came her diaper, down she sat, and — presto! — out came a stream of pee. I stood there open-mouthed. My older kids had taken years, and endless cajoling, to get to this point. Here was Violet, girl genius, conquering the potty in a matter of minutes! And still practically a baby!
Yes, well. For a good four hours, she used that potty beautifully when she had to go. She peed, I applauded, we admired it, we flushed it, then she peed again, I clapped, she grinned, and so on. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Alas, it didn’t last. Suddenly, Violet began to dance about in agitation. “Sit on the potty!” I said. “No, no, Mommy!” she replied. “Yes! Sit, sit!” I repeated. Too late, the poop arrived and half landed in the potty. “Aargh!” cried Violet, bursting into tears.
So alarming was this episode that Violet didn’t venture near the potty for another year and a half. Which is how she and I joined the ragged band of veterans of potty-training-that-doesn’t-quite-go-according-to-plan. The bump we hit — sudden lavatorial success followed just as suddenly by back-to-diapers — is just one of several that sow dismay in households. True, many kids motor smoothly through toilet training: They make the occasional foray to the potty at 2½ or so, and six months later they’re swaggering confidently into any bathroom. But many others hit a snag in the process. The most common roadblocks, and how to handle them:
Meghan Cox Gurdon is a mother of four and a columnist for National Review Online.
Won’t Poop in the Potty
Many kids easily learn to pee in the potty but balk at doing anything more substantial. Shelly’s 3-year-old, Sam, flatly refused to use his toilet. “He’d cry and throw a fit,” says the Washington, DC, mom, “so I put a diaper on him at bedtime, and sure enough, he pooped every night in his bed.”
For months, she and her husband helped Sam get accustomed to sitting down and letting go. Eventually, they found that all they needed to do was put the diaper on briefly, which helped Sam recognize his urge to poop, and then quickly take it off so he could use the potty. After six weeks of patient persuasion, Sam made the transition.
Lisa of Portland, Maine, got no results from coaxing. Her 3-year-old, Aaron, simply wouldn’t finish on the potty: “I encouraged him, tried to bribe him, suggested we go buy underwear.” In fact, her cajoling turned out to be counterproductive. “Aaron’s intense — the sort of child who won’t eat something if you tell him to eat it.”
Lisa’s advice to fellow moms: Tailor potty training to your child’s personality. “In my frustration, I’m sure I said, ‘Come on, you can do it!’ But I should’ve backed off and left it up to him — that’s what ended up working in the end.”
This isn’t to say that bribery never works: Charlotte of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, had great luck when her son, R.J., was reluctant to use the potty for pooping. “We rewarded him with mini-M&M’s, and it worked like a charm. One day he just forgot about the candy.”
Occasionally, a child clings to diaper use for years — but only for bowel movements. One mom I know has a 4-year-old who still insists on pooping standing up in a diaper. It’s a surprisingly businesslike arrangement: He asks for the diaper, he tells his mom when he’s done, and he wants to be changed right away. It may seem a little strange, but he’s regular, and the longer she postpones confronting his unorthodox method, the less likely he’ll have trouble switching to the toilet, she figures.
Holding It In
Kareen of Alexandria, Virginia, thought her son had his training all figured out. At 2½, Cedric had mastered urination and was progressing nicely to being fully potty savvy. “Then for some reason,” she says, “he started holding his poop — for days. It was horrible. He got really constipated, and I was so stressed.” Doctors say if a child is nervous or not ready, he may “withhold,” leading to constipation. In addition to distressing mom and child, it can complicate the toilet-learning process, because as the child’s rectal pouch is stretched by the withheld poop, he actually loses the signal that he needs to go.
Kareen’s pediatrician suggested she was putting too much pressure on her son and recommended she put him back into diapers. This is common advice, and for good reason: It works. A couple of months later, with the stress a distant memory, Cedric announced that he was finished with diapers.
Afraid of the Potty
For some kids, the toilet itself becomes an object of fear. Chris of Washington, DC, finally resorted to a musical potty for her apprehensive son. “He was scared of the toilet, and it was a problem getting him to poop, but he loves the potty we bought him. It’s got a sensor and lets off a triumphant trumpet blast when something liquid or solid crosses it,” she says with a laugh.
Charlotte recalls that whenever R.J., now 4 years old, needed to use a public bathroom, she had to cover the toilet seat and any deodorizers, which he called “dings,” with tissue paper. Eventually, having gone through many reams of paper, R.J. outgrew his fear and now uses public toilets with ease. The fact is, working around your child’s bathroom eccentricities — which usually do no lasting harm — is often much easier than trying to eliminate them.
On Again, Off Again
Some kids, like my Violet, have lavatorial zeal one day and zero interest the next. Sometimes a child stops using the potty because she associates it with an unhappy or even tragic event. One mom told me her daughter spent two extra years in diapers because the girl’s grandfather had died the same day she first pooped in the toilet.
Other times, the child simply isn’t bothered by wearing diapers (after all, you’re the one who does the work when she needs to be changed). Moms who’ve been there suggest letting her run around naked or having her wear underpants and then bracing for the inevitable accidents.
This past summer, my 2-year-old, Phoebe, spent five lakeside weeks in the nude, and she quickly learned to tell me when she needed the potty. I’m afraid I couldn’t quite keep the triumph out of my voice when I gushed to my envious friends, “Why, of course I’m proud. She’s barely two and already potty trained!” Now what’s that saying about pride coming before a fall? The minute we came home to city life — no more strolls in the buff — she reverted to her old, unpredictable ways. Which is why, like many moms, I find that keeping a box of baby wipes and a spare pair of undies handy is crucial to maintaining my maternal cool.
When a child’s potty training doesn’t go smoothly, the hardest thing for many parents to handle is their own feelings. Naturally, we think our kids are marvels — we wouldn’t be parents if we didn’t — so it can be dismaying to see a beloved toddler struggling with what to us is a simple process. Yet there’s one overriding lesson to be learned from potty-training veterans: Relax. The goal of toilet training is to teach your child to listen to her own body rhythms — to know when to go — and it won’t help her if you’re agitated. What’s needed most in this enterprise are qualities that, as a mom, you probably already have: patience, humility, and good humor. And a willingness to clean up a lot of messy spills.