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Early Childhood Toilet Training Introduction

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

image by Manish Bansal (lic)This topic center covers parenting and child development of preschool children (early childhood aged 3 to 7. For a complete review of the theories of child development upon which this article is based, please visit our Child and Adolescent Development topic center. For coverage of child development and parenting topics applicable to infant children (ages 0-2) please visit our Infant Parenting and Child Development topic center. For information on parenting and child development of middle childhood children (ages 8 to 11), please visit our Middle Childhood Parenting and Development center and Child Development Theory: Middle Childhood center. For information on parenting adolescents (ages 12-24), please visit our Adolescence Child Development and Parenting and Child Development Theory: Adolescence topic center.

Children's successful mastery of potty training is a golden key of independence for families with preschoolers. Parents can rejoice that they are free from buying and changing diapers. Children can enjoy the start of preschool, as being toilet trained is often a requirement they must meet before they can enter such programs. Perhaps most importantly, children can take pride in their very real accomplishment of learning to use the toilet just like a grown-up.

Mastery of toilet training is the ultimate demonstration of children's independence because they alone have the power to choose to participate. No matter how much parents beg, plead, bribe, or scold, kids will not use the potty in lieu of their diaper until they are ready and willing. Potty training has to be a team effort between children and parents, and not a unilateral decision on the part of the parents, or it will tend to fail.

For most adults, using the toilet is a simple thing they don't even think about. This apparent simplicity is deceptive. Toileting is only simple for adults because they have practiced it again and again many thousands of times. In actuality, toilet training is a complicated collection of coordinated skills and steps. Some of these skills may be new to children (as they have not previously been required). First, young children have to learn to recognize and discriminate sensation signals from their bodies that indicate their need to go to the bathroom. These sensations must be detected in advance of when they become urgent so that there is enough time available to act upon them. Children must also develop the self-control and cognitive skills needed to get themselves to an appropriate bathroom, rather than urinating and defecating whenever and wherever the urge first hits them. Once they get to the toilet, they need the physical skills necessary to remove their clothes and sit or to stand comfortably (and safely) at the toilet. Letting go in the appropriate location is a milestone but it is not enough by itself, either. Children must also learn to aim properly, to remain at the potty long enough to finish, and to recognize and respond to body signals that tell them when they're all done. Next, they must clean themselves properly and put their clothing back on. They must master the art of flushing waste away or alerting an adult to empty their potty seat. Finally, kids have to wash their hands so as to remove dirt and germs. Children must master all of these skills before they can be said to have gained full control over their toileting habits.

To fully master toilet training, children must demonstrate that they can adequately complete all of the above steps and skills in order every time, repeatedly and consistently. As a result, toilet training requires maturity across many developmental (physical, cognitive, and emotional) realms. Every child develops differently. While some children quickly learn to use the bathroom on their own at a relatively young age, others take longer before they have mastered all the required skills. In other words, children accomplish toilet training across a wide range of ages, just as they achieve other milestones of childhood at different times. Because toilet training is not a quick or simple trick, both parents and children may have to patiently invest substantial time, energy, and practice in the development of the prerequisite skills before the grand goal is ultimately accomplished.

The most important tool parents can use while teaching their children toileting skills is their positive attitude. Throughout all stages of potty training (including inconvenient moments and messy accidents) parents need to remain as calm, patient, and supportive as possible. Children are most likely to be motivated to use the potty and to feel extremely proud about their accomplishments when they have been genuinely and warmly praised and encouraged by their parents. Parents' provision of consistent toileting rituals, expectations and assistance reinforce toileting gains. Parents should do their best to not show disgust, frustration, or angry disappointment when children inevitably have accidents. Adults' strong negative and emotional reactions can discourage young children from continuing to work at developing toileting skills by causing them to feel ashamed of their body processes or abilities.

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