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The Power of Association During Toilet Training

We have discussed the importance of creating associations in your child’s mind between the physical sensations that precede elimination and the act of urinating or having a bowel movement. As you begin to observe your child picking up on this association—announcing that she needs to poop, removing her diaper when it’s wet, or hiding when she’s about to have a bowel movement—you can step up these reminders. When you are at home with no outsiders present, make a habit of having the same-sex parent or other adult announce the need to use the bathroom and invite the child to accompany him or her to the bathroom.

Encourage other members of the family to demonstrate bathroom use as well—particularly older siblings, whom toddlers and preschoolers love to imitate. If you have twins, invite both to observe your or another relative’s bathroom use, but don’t be surprised if one shows interest and the other doesn’t. Eventually, the other twin’s interest will kick in, and by that time she may have her sibling’s potty-training example to help speed her toward potty success herself.

As your child observes the elimination process, explain to her what is happening (“See, Cindy—the pee comes out of Allie and goes into the potty. Then she flushes the pee away, and she stays nice and dry. Soon you’ll be able to stay dry, too.”). It doesn’t matter if your child understands everything you are telling her at first. Eventually the meaning of your words will start to sink in. In the meantime, be sure to avoid comparing your untrained child negatively to the toilet-trained person she is observing. Remind her instead that soon she, too, will start using the bathroom “just like a big girl”—thus inspiring her to do her best.

During this preparatory phase of toilet training, it’s important to explain and demonstrate every step of the process. Skipping steps now can create habits that may be hard to change later. Point out each time how she will need to:

  • Pull down her clothing (if boys are standing, they must learn to use the fly front)
  • Remain on the potty (or in front of it if he’s standing to urinate) until completely finished
  • Wipe carefully with toilet paper (always front to back for girls to prevent urinary tract or vaginal infections) 
  • Flush the toilet (if that’s what she will use and she is not afraid of the noise) 
  • Wash and dry her hands

Explain in simple terms that we always wash our hands after we poop or pee to be sure they are clean. If your child’s increasing curiosity about toilet use prompts her to try to play with her feces, you will need to calmly stop her and explain, “This is something to flush away, not to be played with.” Keep in mind that your facial expression and body language are as important as what you say. Avoid implying a sense of shame or blame. Your child is highly attuned to your emotional responses and will “learn” that toilet use is healthy and positive or dirty and nasty, depending on what you communicate.

Last Updated
Guide to Toilet Training (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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