Potty Training Challenge: This series of blogs will cover some common challenges that parents run into with potty training, such as withholding bowel movements or urine for long periods of time, or a child that does not initiate potty visits (only going on a parent’s suggestion).
Potty Training Challenge #2: The Child Doesn’t Initiate
So you’ve been potty training for a little while, and things are going pretty well. Your child uses the potty regularly and successfully. She said goodbye to diapers and has a drawer full of princess and Dora underwear that she loves and tries to keep dry. A few accidents here and there are expected for most children, even if your little trainee has been using the potty for a few weeks or more. You used rewards for the first couple of weeks but have now phased them out and she didn’t seem to mind.
You only have one problem: she goes when you tell her, but she never really initiates on her own.
Potty training is not completed until the child is recognizing the signals their own body is providing and getting to the potty without a parent being the “trigger”.
An expert view from Dr. Barton D. Schmitt in Contemporary Pediatrics, March 2004:
Toilet training can be considered completed when a child uses the toilet or potty on his own with no reminders from his parents.
It’s normal to depend on reminders and parental prompting early in the process, but at some point you need to let your child be in control. Some children turn potty training into a battleground because they want that control early on, while others are happy to go to the potty when you tell them. Personality and temperament can play an important role here.
Here are some common reasons that your child might not be able to initiate.
This is one area where your potty training method can be playing a role. Did you use a potty training schedule, where you put your son or daughter on the potty every 30, 60, 90 minutes? Did you try the timer method, where you set a timer and if they don’t go you set it again for half the time, and so on? Did you hang out in the bathroom with your child on the potty for 30 minutes at a time, reading books and blowing bubbles? These types of training methods don’t teach the child that they are supposed to be listening for their body to tell them when it’s time to visit the potty. I would argue that the parent is more trained than the child. These methods tell the child that YOU (or the timer) are in charge of potty time, and you are in charge of their body.
Some children will naturally progress from here, and start initiating on their own relatively easily. Others will need some help. I actually prefer a training approach that doesn’t start out this way at all, because then you don’t have to “undo” the problem that it causes.
Some parents don’t use the methods described above but still find themselves with the same problem, but for a different reason. You may have avoided scheduling your child’s potty visits and only provide prompts at normal times in your routine, such as before nap, before leaving the house, and before bath time. Inherently there is nothing wrong with this; children need to learn that there are certain times in our routines that we all visit the bathroom. But if your schedule is extremely busy with several outings a day, then you might be telling them to “try” or putting them on the potty 3-6 times per day. Most children don’t use the potty more than that.
If your child is prompted to use the potty more regularly than necessary (i.e. before the bladder is full), then she will never know what a full bladder feels like. She will also never get a chance to recognize the need to relieve herself, because you are always keeping her bladder half-empty.
C) Use of Diapers / Disposable Training Pants During Awake Times
Some children are doing great with potty training, but due to long road trips or daycare, they are put in diapers or pull-ups. This won’t hurt your potty training progress with every child, but more often than not I’ve seen this cause a huge regression. One type of regression might be constant frustrating accidents, where the child no longer cares to get to the potty in time. Another type of regression is where the child still uses the potty pretty consistently but no longer communicates their needs, and you feel like you have to “put” him or her on the potty.
This is all very logical. The child has gotten the message that the potty is optional. If it’s okay to use a pull-up when on a long car ride, or at daycare, then quickly the child will learn that going wherever/whenever (whether in a pull-up or underwear) is much easier than listening to your body and using the potty like a big kid.
Prevent these issues by using cloth trainers, plastic underpants over underwear, piddle pads and a variety of other products to appease daycare or protect car seats in the event of accidents. My favorite products can be found here.
What Can You Do?
The fix for this problem is relatively easy in theory: hand your child control of potty visits. In reality, this can be a frustrating process, because in the short term it can result in more accidents than you were having before. Sometimes it takes 2 steps backwards to go forward again on the right path. Try not to view accidents as a sign of failure or lack of readiness. In order to initiate, your child has to learn what a full bladder feels like, hold the right muscles, get to the potty in time, and then relieve herself. These are several steps that require practice and patience.
Let the child know that she is in charge of her body. Her amazing body gives her a signal before it’s time to pee or poop. She has to listen to that signal, stop what she’s doing, and hustle to the potty before it’s too late. If she has an accident, see if she can finish on the potty. Be sure to let her know that it’s okay she had an accident, but she needs to help clean up the mess, and change into new clothes. This isn’t a punishment, but a natural consequence (just like wiping up spilled milk is a natural consequence for knocking over a cup at the table). Give her a hug and let her know that she can try again next time.
You may find that a full bladder leads to a full release / full accident several times. When the bladder is very full and the muscles release, it can be hard to stop it. As infants, our children peed in small amounts and very often, never holding for long periods and then releasing. Listening to the body’s signals was not part of the process, so this is all new and requires complex workings of several muscles and the brain.
It’s not the number of accidents that will determine if you’re on the right track – it’s the size of the accidents. You want to see the accidents getting smaller and smaller, indicating that the child is controlling the flow and able to finish on the potty. Once she is able to stop peeing and finish on the potty, the next step in muscle control is being able to prevent the accident and get to the potty in time.
When you’re working on training your child to be the initiator, I recommend limiting “routine” potty vists to no more than 2-3 a day (e.g. before bed, before going out, etc).
This can be a quick fix for some families and be a long journey for others. Once you conquer this hurdle your child will be officially potty trained!