From diapers to the big flush, potty training requires patience

Potty training
Carmen Herzog and her son Liam pose for a photograph in their home in Saskatoon, Sunday, March 16, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

With winter soon to give way to spring, many parents of toddlers may be looking ahead to warmer temperatures as the best time to start toilet training their little one without the added challenge of snowsuits or other layers of cold-weather gear.

But just because parents are keen to ditch the expense and mess of diapers, it doesn’t mean their child will be prepared to embrace the potty or a grown-up toilet, says Dr. Michael Dickinson, a pediatrician in Miramichi, N.B.

“This really is a child-driven process and sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the parents want or how badly they want it, the child will train at their own pace and time.”

Dickinson says there is no right age at which a child should be toilet trained, and the range of normal when kids will drop the diapers for the potty can be quite broad.

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“The vast majority of kids I follow will toilet train between their second and fourth birthdays. Maybe age three would be an average. The early ones are closer to two, the slower ones closer to four.

“Certainly, I think parents should be looking to the kids for some cues that their child is ready to start the process,” says Dickinson, a spokesman for the Canadian Paediatric Society. “These are kids that would have some communication skills … (and they) would say they’re wet or they’re dirty.

“Often they will show signs they want to use the bathroom or the toilet.”

Carmen Herzog knew she could start potty training her 2 1/2-year-old son Liam when he began going off by himself to the playroom and coming back with an obviously messy diaper.

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“They like to just go somewhere quietly and go poop, and they’ll come back and then you’ll know,” says the Saskatoon mom. “Some of the kids will go under the table, some will go back into another room.

“When they start doing that … then we know it’s time.”

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Dickinson advises parents to have a potty on hand before training begins so their child becomes familiar with the object. Either a potty or a toddler-sized insert for the toilet can be used, depending on which works best for the individual child, he adds.

“Some kids can be afraid of the big toilet and the big flushing noise,” he says.

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“That being said, I think there are some kids who will see an older brother or older sister or Mom or Dad sit on the big flush and they want to imitate that. And for those kids using the insert that goes on the toilet is not a bad thing or a wrong thing.”

Herzog and her husband Eric went the potty route, placing one in each of their three bathrooms so their son would have quick and easy access to the pint-sized facilities.

Heeding the advice of her mother-in-law, who raised five children, Herzog set a timer to go off every 20 minutes, at which point Liam was taken to the bathroom to see if he had to go, and to get him used to sitting on the potty.

“Some of them have a really hard time getting on the potty at first, some kids are really scared of the potty or the toilet,” says Herzog, who has a five-year-old son and is expecting her third child in mid-April.

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On his first day of potty training, Liam held off having a bowel movement the whole day. Knowing he was a “twice-a-day pooper,” she and her husband knew something was amiss when 10 p.m. rolled around and her toddler hadn’t gone.

“We sat down with him and we read books, and we told him to push his poop into the water in the toilet. He didn’t want to at first, but eventually they have to go. He was nervous his first time on the toilet, the look of fear in his eyes, he didn’t know what was happening,” she recalls, laughing at the memory.

“But then he learned that he got a candy. So we definitely had a reward and we made a big deal out of it and we phoned Grandma so he could tell her he pooped on the potty.”

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Liam had been getting diapered on the baby change table, but that’s now in the room set up for his soon-to-arrive sibling.

“So we started talking about how diapers are for babies, not big boys. It kind of motivated him that he wanted to be a big boy. He didn’t want to be getting his diapers changed like the baby would.”

And at Christmas, Santa had put underwear in Liam’s stocking, so that’s also given him a reason to get out of diapers, she says.

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“They have characters on them, so they’re a lot more exciting to wear than diapers,” says Herzog, adding that Liam is close to fully trained and now is wearing pull-ups only at night in case of accidents while he’s asleep.

Dickinson says it’s important that parents don’t force the issue if their child is initially reluctant to use the potty. He advises rewarding successes and being patient with failures and mishaps, which he says are all part of the process.

Presenting a child with stickers, a treat or reading an extra book at bedtime for having peed or pooped in the potty or toilet helps reinforce the behaviour, he says.

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“But anything that seems kind of punitive or disciplinary or forceful, more often than not can do more harm than good. And oftentimes, that will cause kids just to dig their heels in further and sometimes make a bad problem worse.”

Jenny Lutes has been through toilet training with her seven-year-old daughter and will start the process with her two-year-old sister this summer, when her youngest is a bit more mature and doesn’t have to deal with layers of clothing.

“How we did it was when she was in her early toddler months, say 14, 15 months, we had a potty in the house,” the Vancouver mom says of her older daughter, asking that her daughters first names not be used.

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“So from a young age she understood how it worked, and she’d play around it, put her dolls on it, sit on it herself fully clothed. So she got it,” says Lutes, who writes a blog entitled Ruminating Mommy (

“But I didn’t want to put any pressure on her,” she adds, noting that between 18 months and two years old, her first-born on occasion would successfully use the potty on her own initiative. “She took off her diaper, sat on (the potty), used it and asked for toilet paper.”

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Still, Lutes and her husband didn’t push it, sticking to their plan to begin toilet training when their child was halfway between two and three.

“It took two weeks of active potty training. It was four months of a successful bathroom routine after that, and she was completely independent for the start of three-year-old preschool.”

As she prepares to go through the diaper-to-toilet switch with her youngest, Lutes has this advice for other parents: “Be willing to be flexible if one way doesn’t work. Ask friends or people at work what worked for their kids.

“Just keep in mind that patience is the key. Don’t get discouraged and keep with it.”

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