“YOU take off the nappy, stay inside for three days straight, put newspaper everywhere, and be careful where you step,” said my friend. These were the words that instilled fear in my soul when I first broached the subject of potty training. Stay in the house for three days? With a toddler and a newborn? I started to break out in a cold sweat.
Among parenting milestones — trying solid food, starting to crawl, taking first steps — potty training lags behind in the excitement stakes. For many parents, it’s a chore more than a milestone, and one that can be stressful when it’s not going well — especially taking that first trip out into the world with a nappy-free child.
Mum of twins Aileen remembers her first time with horror. “After toilet training the twins, I brought them to McDonalds as a treat. We’d had five days with no accidents so I was feeling confident. But then my daughter stood up and just let go. It reminded me of my waters breaking - thank God the seats were waterproof! I was mortified. I ran over, pulling napkin after napkin from the dispenser, thinking I could stem the flow and eventually I put my leather jacket under her thinking that would stop it. Needless to say, it didn’t.”
Mum-of-three Anna had a similar experience, but in a supermarket. “One of mine did a wee in an aisle of our local Tesco. I was torn between legging it and owning up. I owned up... then legged it. Mortifying!” And even when a child has been trained for a while, it can still happen, as mum-of-three Susan discovered. “We checked into a hotel, and the room was very, very far from reception. My daughter said she needed a wee – I said to wait till we got to the room and walked past the public loo. But the key didn’t work so we had to traipse back to reception, with the child asking where the toilet was, followed by a dramatic, ‘Oh, it just comed Mam, it’s okay don’t worry.’
“On the carpet of the hotel corridor. I was alone with her and had no bag as I’d left everything outside the room. So we had to leave the puddle to go ask for a new key and mention the puddle too. On the way back, we could see people walking through the puddle and then she shouted, ‘Those people are walking in my wee Mam!’”
Perhaps my friend’s advice to stay in for three days has validity after all? But no, even in the home, there are disasters. Linda, who has two children, remembers potty training her eldest. “I correct professional exam papers, and when the scripts arrived, my eldest decided to pee into the box on day one of training! About 20 scripts were soaked through. I will never forget trying to dry them, as they have to be returned!” But the prize for best domestic-noir story goes to Niamh – look away now if you’re squeamish. “I said to my daughter recently, ‘Where are your knickers?’ She told me she’d taken them off. I asked her if she’d peed in the sitting room, and she said she had. I smelled something else then, and asked her if she did a poo as well. Again she confirmed. I looked all over the rug to find it but couldn’t. ‘Where is it?’ I asked her. ‘Max ate it,’ she said. Max is our dog.”
While there may be no bullet-proof formula for avoiding the horror stories, there are some tips for helping training run more smoothly. “Potty training is a developmental milestone and like every other skill, it can happen more easily for some toddlers than others,” says specialist paediatric occupational therapist Fiona O’Farrell. “Generally, as a guide, your toddler may be ready for potty training anywhere between 18 and 24 months. Some will be later than this, and that’s okay.” She advises looking for developmental signs that indicate a child is ready. “Some signs include the following: your toddler tells you when he is about to wee in his nappy, refuses to wear nappy or requests to take nappy off to wee, shows an interest in sitting on the potty or weeing in the garden, or has dry nappies for two- to three-hour stretches.”
So is there any particular time of year she recommends? “Summer is the easiest season to potty train your child. It’s generally warmer, making it easier to remove the nappy and allow your toddler to play outdoors. When your toddler has an accident, it’s much easier for parents if it’s outdoors. Your toddler needs to experience these accidents to make the connection between the urge to go to the toilet and making a wee.”
Of course, some children may be ready much sooner than others, as mum-of-four and blogger Kellie Kearney (MyLittleBabog.com) discovered. “I was trying to train my three-year-old when one day his younger sister, my 20-month-old, whipped off her cloth nappy, sat down and did her thing. From that moment, she refused to wear a nappy so we followed her lead. It’s like it just clicked with her. She’s never had an accident in public but unfortunately she has very few words, so her cue is to strip naked from the waist down no matter where we are. She’s also fully trained at night and again we cannot take any credit, she wakes herself up just before midnight and calls us to bring her to the toilet. It’s been a dream. Her older brother on the other hand is still struggling but I’m not putting him under any pressure, it will click with him soon too.”
Fiona O’Farrell explains that boys can be later at showing signs of readiness. “It’s more to do with developmental milestones — girls generally tend to acquire developmental milestones ahead of boys. And to reassure parents, it’s not unusual for a child to be closer to three when fully trained.”
So really, there are no rules — but if you have a nappyless toddler in training, do keep an eye on the dog.
Fiona O’Farrell’s top tips for potty training
1. Wait for signs of readiness, and try in summer months if possible.
2. Set aside a two- to three-week period so you can focus on responding to your toddler’s signs.
3. Let your child play outdoors without a nappy. When your toddler asks to go to the toilet have a potty close to hand.
4. A potty is much easier for your toddler to use than the toilet, as it’s not as big and therefore not as scary.
5. You might like to have an alarm, so in addition to your toddler asking to use the toilet, set the alarm to go off every two hours and take your toddler to the potty then.
6. Reward with lots of positive praise, hand-clapping and exaggerated facial expressions - emotional praise is more important for your child than using a reward chart, which can bring stress and negativity if your child doesn’t receive a reward.
7. If it’s not going well after about three weeks, put on the nappy and leave it for another few months.
8. Periods of relapse can occur especially if there is any form of stress such as starting preschool or illness – try to remember that your child is not misbehaving when he or she has accidents.