“Susan’s nearly three and still in diapers? Hmmm. I had every one of my kids trained by eighteen months, and they never even wet the bed after that.” Wouldn’t you like to have a nickel for every time you’ve heard a comment like this?
Chances are that if you have been subject to such remarks, they came from a member of an older generation who parented at a time when early training was popular. It is easy for adults with grown children to forget the many accidents and regressions that almost certainly followed such early training.
It is also true that toilet training was defined differently back then compared to how we view it now. One-year-olds were placed on the potty after meals, for instance, and held there until they eliminated. In some cases, such ill-advised methods as enemas, physical punishment, shaming, and even strapping the child to the potty were used to make sure she eliminated before leaving the bathroom. Such procedures are based on conditioning rather than real learning—more like housebreaking a pet than helping a child achieve self-mastery. While the one-year-old may have eventually learned to connect sitting on the potty with urinating or passing stool, success still depended on the adult’s noting that it was time for potty use, physically placing the child on the potty, and keeping her there until she eliminated.
The other skills that a fully toilet-trained child must acquire—the ability to recognize her own need to use the bathroom, wait until she gets to a toilet, lower her pants, and sit long enough to achieve success—depend on cognitive, emotional, and physiological developments that usually emerge only after about age eighteen to twenty-four months.
The truth is that most popular assumptions about the best age to toilet-train—in this and most other countries—depend more on the adults’ needs, desires, and cultural attitudes than on a typical child’s readiness to control her bodily functions. In many African and South American cultures, where mothers and babies stay in almost constant physical contact and babies don’t wear diapers, mothers “train” their babies from birth by positioning them over whatever place they wish them to eliminate into the moment they sense that the child is about to void. In Finland and other northern European countries, children are traditionally placed on the potty after a feeding from infancy onward—and if the child happens to urinate or defecate while she’s held there, she is praised.
One reason why toilet training was usually initiated during the first year in the United States until recently is that it reduced the workload of the caregiver, who had to clean many cloth diapers daily. Toilet training this early is still common among families for whom disposable diapers or a diaper service is a major expense or who must, unfortunately, depend on a child-care facility or preschool that enforces a no-diapers rule.
Generally speaking, initiating training before eighteen months is unlikely to do any damage as long as your expectations for your child’s performance are realistic and no punishment or abuse is involved. But child-development experts now believe that toilet training works best for most families if it can be delayed until the child is ready to control much of the process herself. Children younger than twelve months not only are unlikely to be ready in terms of bladder and bowel control, but may not yet have the physical skills needed to get to the potty and remove their clothing in time.
There’s also the question of emotional readiness: The desire to use a potty, a positive attitude toward the training process, and the ability to manage any bathroom related fears are all part of emotional readiness, and they may not occur until age two, three, or four, or may come and go as your child grows. Her verbal abilities, which enable her to learn through conversation and instruction and to express any fears or anxieties that arise, may start to expand quickly only at age two or three. Even the social awareness that motivates some children to imitate their siblings’ or playmates’ bathroom use increases steadily through the toddler years and into preschool.
Each of these aspects of development occurs at different times for different children, and you are the best judge of when your child has acquired enough of the necessary physical, social, emotional, and cognitive skills to begin training. You or other members of your family may also find that you yourselves are better able to manage the training process at one time than at another—a period when you are not feeling particularly stressed, when you have time off work, or when you foresee no major changes at home.
Since the fluctuations of a child’s development and her family’s situation are impossible to predict, it’s best to avoid assuming that your child will begin training by a certain age. Instead, consider taking the readiness approach—reading about the telltale signs of readiness, looking for them in your child, and only then beginning training, regardless of your child’s age.
In general, the longer you wait before beginning toilet training, the easier and quicker the process is likely to be since your child will have become more self-sufficient. Still, even toddlers can learn to use the potty quite easily during periods when their natural negativity has abated somewhat and they are highly motivated to learn.