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The Right Time to Start Toilet Training: Family Readiness and Red Flags

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

Parent and Family Readiness

While it's extremely important for young children to be ready cognitively, emotionally and physically prior to their potty training, it's also important for parents to be ready to undertake this large step. Before introducing toilet training, parents should take time to consider the attitudes and feelings they may have concerning such training. Mastery of toilet training means that children have reached a milestone of independence. Not every parent is emotionally ready to say goodbye to that last hallmark of children's babyhood, the diaper. If parents don't first work through any ambivalence they may have concerning toilet training, they may instead convey that ambivalence to their children, making it hard for them to stay excited, consistent, and encouraging of the process. Adult ambivalence concerning toilet training will only confuse children or get in the way of their toilet training progress.

In addition to working through any ambivalence they may be feeling, parents also need to think carefully about their stress level before launching into toilet training. Toilet training can be a stressful activity for a family. If Dad has a particularly demanding project at work or Mom is caring for Grandma who has just gotten home from the hospital, it may not be the best time to start potty training.

Red Flags

Several "red flags" help families to know that it is not yet time to start toilet training. If young children show absolutely no interest in parents' or older same-sex siblings' toileting habits, they probably will not show any interest in their own toilet habits. Moreover, if children avoid or actively resist any attempts at "potty talk" (e.g., parents' attempts to introduce the idea of toilet training), or appear completely uninterested in investigating the toilet or how to use it, they are definitely telling adults that they aren't yet ready. If children do not display any awareness of their own bodily elimination, or if they lack the basic abilities to get dressed and undressed or to sit on the potty comfortably, it's not time to start yet. Finally, if a big life change (e.g., a move, a change in daycare provider, a new sibling coming home, a loss, or a divorce) will be happening soon, life may be too hectic or too confusing for a child to successfully concentrate on potty training.

Some children may show subtle signs of resistance against toilet training. They may, for instance, ask to read a different book when Mom brings out the toileting book, or simply walk away when potty talk starts. Other children will be more obvious in their resistance. They may have a temper tantrums when the topic of the potty comes up in conversation. Other children may participate in potty training, but show tantrums and misbehavior in other areas of their lives.

If parents are ready to venture into the realm of potty training but their children aren't ready yet, they should not lose hope! All that is needed is for a little time to pass. If children aren't ready to start potty training today, they may become ready (more excited, interested, and prepared) a few weeks or months down the road. In the meantime, parents can help nurture their children's interest in and development of skills (such as gross and fine motor skills, patience skills and communication skills) that will promote successful toilet training at a later date.

Parents should not force children who aren't ready to begin toilet training. There is no specific way to speed up the physiological maturation of children's bladder and digestive tracts. Neither can children be forced to develop an interest in the potty seat or toilet. Children have to be allowed to mature to the point where they want to become toilet trained. When this is allowed to occur, the process goes much more smoothly. Parents can foster the process of toilet training by themselves demonstrating patience and by maintaining a relaxed demeanor and a positive attitude regarding the topic of toileting. Young children who are cared for by such parents will naturally feel more relaxed and at ease in the world, and will more likely be positively disposed to toilet training when the time is right.

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