Should potty training be child led or adult led?

Child Led

In previous generations potty training, like many other aspects of parenting tended to be led by parents and the protocol was generally to wait until their second birthday and then to go for it.

Things are different now; potty training is starting later and lasting longer, and children are on average spending up to a year longer in nappies than those who trained before the 1980s. (The Restraint Project UNSW, Anna Christie et al)

We carried out research in the summer and asked over 1,100 parents about their potty training experiences. One of the questions we were really keen to learn about was how parents decided it was time to start potty training. 

The following graph shows the results:

Graph Showing Survey Results

Children appear to determine when potty training begins as just over half of parents made the decision to begin potty training because their child decided it was time. A further 23% of parents made the decision it was time, while 13% based their decision on the child’s age.

We completely agree that potty training should start when the child is ready, however this does not necessary mean waiting until the child decides they want to start toilet training.  The reason for this is that there is a window of opportunity at around 24 months, where it is more likely that potty training will take the shortest time to complete. This is obviously dependent on the child being ready and therefore age alone should not be used as the only sign of readiness.  Some of the other signs that a child is ready to start can be seen in this article, What are the signs of readiness?

The reason we say not to wait until the child decides they want to potty train is that some children are happy to stay in nappies and don’t want to ever potty train.  Nappies are convenient to them as they don’t need to stop playing to go to the toilet and modern nappies are very dry and comfortable to wear. 

The other issue is that the longer you leave it the more entrenched the nappy wearing habit becomes, therefore potty training is more likely to become a battle of wills. If they are not ready to potty train then we would say hold off from starting, but in an ideal world if you child is ready to potty train getting started straightaway will help shorten the length of time it takes to complete.

Some parents we speak to say they put off training as they thought it would just ‘happen’ when the child is ready. Regardless of age potty training won’t just magically happen, it is a learnt skill and requires teaching in the same way as learning to ride a bike does. 

As children get older they can also become much more able to articulate the word ‘no’ and this is often when a battle of wills occurs.  This is especially true of bright children who know exactly what to do and say to resist parental pressure to potty train.  We spoke to a Mum recently whose 3 year old son refused to sit on the potty before getting in the bath, but then delighted in telling her that we was weeing as soon as he stepped in the bath.  This was understandably very frustrating for her!

Furthermore, a study in Australia carried out by Anna Christie et al reported that some children who do not receive bladder training at a suitably early age are developing dysfunctional bladder, with associated incontinence problems.  This finding has been backed up by Belgian researchers who interviewed the parents of children in grade school and middle school (Bakker et al 2002a, Bakker et al 2002b) and found that school-age children with bladder problems – like daytime accidents, bedwetting, and recurrent urinary tract infections – were more likely to have started toilet training after 32 months.

So in conclusion, we believe potty training should be child led, in terms of making sure the child is ready, and it’s much easier if they are also interested and motivated to want to learn, but this does not mean leaving training until the child agrees it’s time to ditch the diaper, as that can mean training can take longer and become a battle of wills, with more chance of bladder complications occurring. 

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