With my first child, I approached potty training in the typical post-modern American way. Babies wear diapers, and you change out those diapers periodically. Duh. Then, when they’re toddlers, usually around two and a half, you introduce the potty and “train” them in a new way of life. Potty training is something you start thinking about when your kid can run and climb and talk, and it’s an event, one that usually lasts anywhere from a day to a few weeks.
But when that potty training didn’t go so easily or quickly, I knew there had to be a better way. My first son would occasionally pee in the potty with ease from the time he was 19 months old, but didn’t go number two consistently in the potty until about a month before his third birthday. It was a long and challenging process.
Why are so many kids so resistant to having bowel movements on the potty? And what can be done to change that, other than crossing your fingers and hoping your kid “gets” it before they’re three or four?
With my second child, years later, I had heard a lot about “elimination communication” and decided to try it. While elimination communication may not be for everybody, I discovered a lot of practices that very easily can be for everybody, and in fact I believe should be.
These are simple, easy, and nearly effortless practices that you can use with your baby that will make potty training later, easier.
They are not difficult, complicated, or stressful, but they do go against certain preconceived notions we have about babies. If you can get past that, you can have a lot of success both now and later on, and hopefully potty training will not only be a lot easier and more natural when you decide to do it, but it can also happen a lot earlier than the current “norm” of 2.5 to 4 years old.
1. Acknowledge when baby is having a bowel movement and associate a word or phrase with it
When your baby is having a bowel movement, it is almost always obvious. Grunting, a look of concentration, stopping whatever they were doing, getting in a certain position, a reddened face – whatever it may be, all parents know when their child is going, and it’s usually clear from the day of birth onward.
Whenever you see you your child going number two, say a word or phrase. We simply have always said, “Poo poo. Poo poo. You’re going poo poo. Good job, go poo poo.” and continue to repeat while he goes. Your baby will learn to associate the word (“poo poo”) with the action / sensation. This will be helpful later by:
- Helping him to know what you mean when you will later put him on the potty and want him to go, or when you’re teaching him that “poo poo goes in the potty”
- Keeping him aware of the sensation, instead of learning to ignore it (most kids learn to ignore it by toddlerhood, which makes potty training very difficult as they don’t even pay very much attention to when they’re going)
- Keeping pooping a “social” event between you and him. Many toddlers, even babies, will begin to poop in private (by hiding, etc), and it becomes very difficult to accustom them to sitting on a cold potty, with you hovering and encouraging them, and still be able to let it go if they have become used to solitude
- It prevents the “stigma” that many parents accidentally associate with bowel movements, such as by reacting with “eeww, gross” or similar phrases, or showing their disgust when they hear their child pooping or while changing them. This can be counterproductive to potty training if the child’s whole life you have shown your aversion and disgust, then all of the sudden you are encouraging it and trying to praise them for it.
2. Let your mobile baby watch you go to the bathroom
Another no-brainer activity is to let your child watch you go to the bathroom. Especially when they start crawling and walking around and become interested in playing in the toilet, let them come watch you go and tell them what you are doing.
“Look baby, Mommy is going poo poo. Do you see the poo poo in the potty? Mommy goes poo poo, see? Look, there is pssss [sound to describe urinating]. Pssssss. Mommy is going psssss. Ok, now poo poo and pssss go bye bye. Say bye bye.”
Now I’ll admit, this is not a conversation you probably want to be having with your baby when company is in the other room. Nor is it really something you’re going to want to be discussing at the local mother’s group. But, it’s your baby, here, people. They don’t care. Really.
Here is how it will help later:
- Reinforces what the words for bowel movement and urination mean (be sure to use the same words that you use when your baby goes)
- Reinforces the concept of toileting as a “social” event (see first tip), preventing the “stage fright” many kids feel when you try and get them to have a bowel movement on the potty after a lifetime of going in private
- It creates the definition for “normal” from the beginning of their life. If all the child knows is going in a diaper, and is oblivious to the concept of toileting (and that the whole family does it), it can be met with some serious resistance to the “newness” if you wait until they are older.
- Babies love to mimic, and to be like Mommy and Daddy (or big brother and sister). The desire to copy and mimic can be later lost to the desire for independence and autotomy.
Difficulty level: super simple
3. Buy a small potty and keep it around, long before you plan to use it
Sometimes, when potty training, parents can get a lot of traction by introducing a “brand new potty!” and making a big deal about it.
While this might work for some, for others it just doesn’t, and for many it can actually backfire.
Why having a potty around essentially the child’s whole life can make it easier to potty train later because:
- There will be no fear of newness later on. It will be an object the child will be very familiar with and comfortable with.
- Your child can explore it, look at it, and when he is strong enough to sit up, sit on it – an important line that you won’t have to cross with a resistant toddler.
You can either keep the potty just in the family living area, where your baby can see it and pass by it every day, or you can keep it in the bathroom, where you baby can either look at it every time you take him in with you to go, or he can sit on it while you go. Either way, just have it somewhere where you baby can see it (and preferably sit on it – clothed or naked) often.
Difficulty level: very easy
4. Have your baby sit on a potty sometimes while he goes – even with his diaper still on
Remember in the first tip where I talked about how parents pretty much always know when their child is going number two?
Well, this is an extension of that tip (tell your baby a word, such as “poo poo”).
The thing is that pretty much as soon as your baby has a bowel movement, you gotta change them. For one because you don’t want your baby sitting in it and getting a rash, and secondly because, quite frankly, it stinks, and you want to get rid of the offending aroma as soon as possible. Thirdly, leaving it to sit leaves the potential that it is going to get squished and leak out and you’re going to have a mess on your hands – gross, I know, but we’re talking about potty training here, you had to expect a little poop talk, right?
So one thing is clear for parents of diapered baby – if the kid poops, you have to stop whatever you’re doing to change them.
However, most of the time parents will wait a minute or two from the time they notice their kid starting to poop before they change them. Why? Well cause you gotta give them some time to finish, of course. So the parents just sit there are and watch while their kid poops, waiting for them to be done, then change them.
I am proposing that you do something a little different, though. It’s not going to take any extra time. You already have to jump into action when your baby goes. But instead doing that pause and watching while they go in their pants, why not just pick them up and sit them on the potty while they finish the deed?
You don’t even have to take their diaper off if you don’t want to. You can seriously just pick them up, take them to the changing table (I kept a potty on my changing table), sit them on the potty while they finish going (don’t forget to say “poo poo” or whatever words you choose), and then when they’re done you can change them. Or do the above except as soon as you get your baby above the potty, unhook the diaper and set it down on the changing table, then sit them on the potty naked (you don’t have to wipe yet, as they will ideally go some more in the potty).
I have found that this practice has actually saved me time and work, since by responding to my baby as soon as I notice him going rather than waiting a couple of minutes until he’s done, it is less mess to clean up on his bottom (as he doesn’t have the chance to sit in it) and it also means it pretty much never leaks out of his diaper.
Here are some ways this simple tip will make potty training later easier:
- You are preventing your baby from ever getting used to (and even comfortable with) sitting in a poopy diaper, and they will keep that inborn aversion to soiling on themselves
- You are establishing the place to have a bowel movement (on the potty), rather than teaching the child their whole life that the diaper is the place to go, then all of the sudden changing the rules for everything they have ever known
- You are getting them used to and comfortable with having a bowl movement in the sitting position. Often times children become accustomed to squatting very low, or some other position to poop, and it can be very difficult for them to relearn a new position. Imagine if you had to relearn to have a bowel movement from another position – it wouldn’t be easy.
- If you take the diaper off before you put them on the potty, you are accustoming them to the sensation of pooping without a diaper. This is often the biggest hurdle of potty training, as many children are unable to poop without the feeling of a diaper secure against their bottoms. But by taking this simple little step you can prevent them from ever having that fear.
There is really no need to become consumed in always catching when your child poops. Sure, there are going to be times when you are busy, or maybe not even in the room, and you don’t notice that your child pooped until after it happens. That’s not a big deal. The point of this tip is to just do it as much as you can.
The goal is to simply accustom your baby to a more healthy sense of “normal” and prevent him from getting used to and attached to something that we are later going to tell him is all wrong.
Difficulty level: simple
5. Let your baby go diaper free every now and then
Newborns are born being aware of when the pee, and having a natural aversion to eliminating on themselves (as all mammals do). This is why they so dislike having a wet diaper, and for the first few months will pee as soon as their diaper is off.
However, because of the nature of disposable diapers, they often lose this awareness. Disposable diapers pull the wetness away from the skin, and a lot of times by the time a child reaches toddlerhood (or even before), the child can get in the habit of just urinating without even thinking about it, and their awareness can be difficult to regain.
Letting your baby go diaper free every now and then will keep them aware of their own bodily functions. They can keep that connection between the sensation of needing to urinate, the decision to let it go, and the resulting effect.
This is, obviously, not an activity for sitting on the couch while reading a story. Let your child go diaper free while playing outside in the summer, or, if it’s in the winter, let them play on a tile floor. Another option is to put them in the empty (water free) bathtub and let them play with a few toys – if they’re sitting in water, they aren’t really going to feel the sensation.
How this will help later:
- It will prevent your child from loosing their awareness of their own urination, which can be a significant hurdle if the child learns to simply urinate without even thinking about it, they won’t be able to make it to the potty.
- Many times babies can become uncomfortable with being naked, not as a modesty issue (as babies are obviously oblivious to modesty) but as a sensory issue. Since they always have a diaper on, the sensation of their naked bottom on a cold, plastic surface can be very uncomfortable for them, which will make it difficult to get them to sit on the potty. By giving them early exposure to the sensory experience of a naked bottom sitting on various surfaces, it won’t be a shock to them later.
Difficulty level: easy, but can be a little messy. Doing this activity in the right environment will make the messes simple. This will be an area where you are exchanging one small inconvenience for another – a little mess now can mean a lot fewer messes (and diaper changes) later.
Toileting and elimination awareness, exposure, and habit forming can and should be established very early in life, rather than ignoring it for a lifetime and then simply introducing all of the concepts at an “event”, expecting your child to take the transformation in stride.
Whether you adopt one or all of these tips, I hope that they can put you and your baby on the road to success from the beginning and, hopefully, make it so they can be diaper free long before age three!
Damien is currently 13 months, 1 week old, and is in the process of being casually potty trained