As with so many issues around modern parenting, whether or not your child is out of diapers and using the toilet by a certain age can be stress-inducing. The impetus for this deadline is often requirements that a child be able to use the toilet in order to attend day care, preschool, and organized children’s activities, or simply pressure from society itself.
Because children develop cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically at different rates, there is no one “right” age when a child should start to use the toilet. Some children show signs of readiness at 18 months old, while others may not show signs until 3 years or older. However, most parents are afraid to allow children to use the toilet on their own timetables. They are often told that for their own good children should be toilet-trained by a certain age. So, as more time passes and their child is still using diapers, some parents begin to feel increasingly helpless and concerned.
But there is no more reason to try to hurry your child into using the toilet than to worry about her walking, talking, riding a bike, or reading. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William Pieper suggest in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “It might be easier for parents to relax if they considered the unlikelihood that their child would some day play Little League, go to high school, or be married wearing diapers.” By taking the long view, parents might find it easier to give their child the time she needs to make the inevitable choice to use the toilet."
A Child’s Opportunity to Grow
Smart Love’s approach to “toilet-training” actually takes the focus away from “training” and instead encourages parents to allow a child “to choose” using the toilet for himself. We prefer the term “toilet choosing” because it highlights the true nature of the transition from wearing diapers to using the toilet. It is an opportunity for the child to gain greater autonomy and confidence in his abilities.
When you offer your young child the option of choosing the toilet with the same relaxed attitude that you offer him opportunities to play with crayons or blocks, then at the point that he chooses the toilet he will feel only pride, competence, and closeness to you. What route you decide to take—potty chair, training pants, or child-sized toilet seat—is not as important as your relaxed attitude.
Keep in mind that encouraging your child to use the toilet is different than cajoling him to do so, which can add unnecessary pressure or cause conflict. Given children’s natural curiosity and their desire to be like their parents, simply having a potty chair available and introducing it in a casual way will encourage your child’s interest in using the toilet. You can say something like, “Mom and Dad got you a toilet that is just like ours but in your size. It is here for when you want to try using the potty like mom and dad.” When your child chooses to try the potty (and on his own time he will), you can support his effort by saying something like, “I see you are trying to use the potty!”
Of course, even if parents choose to adopt a relaxed attitude toward toileting they can face challenges along the way. The following are some issues that may come up and how to deal with them.
Peer Pressure—No doubt many parents have experienced family members and friends commenting on their child still being in diapers at an age they consider to be “too old” for them. Sometimes, in attempt to persuade a child to start using the toilet, they may make comments like “I didn’t know you were still a baby!” or “Come on, let’s show your Dad that you really can use the toilet and get rid of those babyish diapers!” Although well-meaning, comments like these end up shaming a child and can cause him distress and further delay the transition to toileting.
In these instances—and whenever other adults criticize your child in your presence—it’s important to defend your child. You can say something like, “Billy can use the toilet when he feels ready! There are lots of kids his age wearing diapers. They are also for kids who haven’t decided they want to use the toilet!”
Backsliding—Sometimes children may choose to use the toilet and then prefer to go back to diapers. For example, your child may see an older sibling or cousin using the toilet and then want to try using the potty chair that has so far gone unused. Thinking that she is well on her way to switching to using the toilet, you may become confused and frustrated when she doesn’t seem to show interest in using the potty again. It could simply be that after trying the potty she may have decided that she would rather stick with using diapers.
In this case, it’s best to wait until your child shows interest in using the potty chair again and then encourage her in a low-key manner. She will eventually choose to use the toilet on her own and stick with it going forward.
Toilet-training Requirements—It’s fairly common to encounter the requirement that children be toilet-trained in order to attend preschool or participate in activities, such as day camp or sport lessons. As a result, parents often feel that they should speed up the toilet-training process. However, how you proceed should depend on what works best for your child without forcing the toilet-training issue.
For example, if your child really wants to take swimming lessons and will be disappointed about not being able to take them, you can explain that in order to do so, he must use the toilet while he’s at his lesson. Your child may decide that he wants to swim enough to comply with the toilet-trained rule. If he feels that the lessons are not worth giving up diapers, it’s important to respect that choice and avoid pressuring him to use the toilet. Instead, you could try to find activities he can participate in that do not have a toilet-training requirement.
Many families send their children to day-care and must find a way to make this work for a child who is still in diapers. If possible, try to find a day-care center or preschool that accepts children still in diapers. For children who’ve just started using the toilet, sometimes preschools will allow them to wear pull-ups. If you’re finding that your preferred schools have a toilet-training requirement, perhaps it would be better to wait until your child is more ready and is using the toilet on a regular basis.
A Note on Rewards The above challenges are enough to drive many parents to use rewards, such as a toy or a special outing, to motivate their children to use the toilet and stop wearing diapers. Smart Love suggests that it’s best to avoid such rewards because they only show your child how important her using the toilet is to you. Rewards end up putting pressure on your child, which can make her feel bad about herself if she doesn’t feel ready to give up her diapers. As discussed in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “If you can avoid trying to accelerate your child’s toilet choosing by offering rewards when your child decides to use the toilet, she will feel an unconflicted sense of mastery and control over her life, and you will have avoided the dreaded 'toilet wars' altogether.”
Although pervasive, parenting advice that focuses on getting children out of diapers by a certain age or at a certain time is misguided since it is likely to cause exactly the kind of conflicts that all parents want to avoid. Instead, it’s best to avoid bargaining, cajoling, or even demanding that your child use the toilet instead of diapers. Giving your child the freedom to decide to use the toilet will support the fundamental goal of protecting and enhancing your child’s sense of competence and your loving relationship.
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Harvard Common Press. 1999.
How to Start Potty Training, Dina DiMaggio, The New York Times, May 8, 2020.