Unsolicited advice : The potty training edition.

I posted a reply about potty training on a local parenting group. As I was writing it, it occurred to me that I had already given the same advice on the same group page. And elsewhere. Many, many, times. In fact, if I had a dime every time someone asked me for potty training advice and I answered, I would be a millionaire. In fact, I would be a “Parenting Expert”. Heck, by now I may even be on Oprah… Or whatever show people are on these days.

Maybe you came to that post through Google. Maybe you did a Google search about “potty training advice” and the robots lead you here. And maybe right now, you are expecting me to tell you how I trained my kids in 3 days with no accident. Maybe you are expecting to read on how to train your kid in 3 days with no accident. Presumably, and unfortunately, you’ve been trying for 3 months with no success and you are desperately looking for the magic word, the key to unlock your child’s underwear potential. This post may disappoint you.

Because I am not going to tell you how to train your child, even though several of my 6 potty-trained children trained in (almost) 3 days without (barely any) accident. Nope. In this post, I will tell you how to train yourself so your child can train herself.

(I feel like I should add that this post applies to children and parents who do not have any physical or mental illnesses that could undermine the potty training process. But we knew that, right? Goes without saying.)

Whenever parents write to me for potty training advice, their story comes in variations of:

–          We started potty training. It worked at first, and then we had a setback (new baby, travel, illness etc.).


–          We started potty training and it never worked.

Now potty training is a scene right out of a horror movie. There is screaming, crying and threatening and that’s saying nothing about the child. There is hiding in a closet to poop or pee, and when not hiding there is laughing while soiling pants in front of the parents. Poop and pee is either coming out in inappropriate places, undies being the least of it, or has completely stopped coming out.  There is suffering the complications of retained fluids and feces: bladder infections, anal injuries, severe constipation. The relationship with the child is going down the drain (pun intended). Every week brings a new gimmick, a new approach, a new potty training miracle method. Parents and child go through positive reinforcement, threats, punishments, rewards, stickers, Smarties, in short cycles of emotionally charged back-and-forth.


There are a few important principles of potty training that need to be well-understood before success can be achieved. Accepting them may not lead your child to toilet reliability overnight but it will save your sanity and prevent any long term physical and emotional damage in your child’s toilet parts.

Principle 1 : You cannot use the toilet for your child and you cannot make your child poop or pee. This may sound so obvious, but this is where most parents bite the dust and stay down. Potty training may be the first time parents have no control over what their child does or decides not to do. Your children’s sphincters are completely out of your reach. The interaction between your child’s brain and her sphincter is ever farther out of your reach.

When parents ask me for potty training advice, I often feel like they are asking me “How can I control my child’s sphincters?” You can’t, you never will. None of us who have achieved early potty training success have done so because we could control our child’s bowel/bladder function. We did because our children were willing, able and receptive to potty training.

If you feel like potty training is a loss of control and you are grasping for a way to retain control; if you feel like you are caught in a battle of wills with your child over potty training, stop. Put your child back in diapers and start again when you accept that this matter is out of your hands.

Principle 2: There is a difference between normal potty behaviour and abnormal potty behaviour. Don’t ignore abnormal potty behaviour. When emotions run high, it is too easy to lose perspective. Toddler is stubborn: normal. Toddler is defiant: normal. Toddler screams in pain when using the toilet or holds back urine for days: not normal!!  Too often, I get potty training stories that include all of the above in one sentence. Whoahhhh… If your child sounds like she’s delivering triplets, maybe it’s time to back off and let her body heal. Put your child back in diapers until her bodily functions run normally and you learn the difference between stubborn and severely constipated.

Principle 3: Using sphincters won’t happen if pain is the outcome. Toddler soils his pants; he gets a clean-up in the cold shower. That’ll teach him, right? Wrong! A cold shower was the outcome of using his sphincters. You are holding baby on the potty until she pees. She screams, you get mad, eventually you win. Right? Nope. She now associates using the potty with intense frustration and anger. Toddler poops in the closet so he gets a spanking. He was willfully defiant and you had to act. Fine. But now he associates pooping with a spanking. Don’t make pain the outcome of using the sphincters. There is two kinds of response to bowel/bladder movement: the positive response and the no response. Don’t allow pain or shame to become part of the pottying equation: remember Principle 1.

Principle 4: You potty trained a long time ago; you are conditioned to pee and poop in the toilet. Your frustration comes in part from not understanding why something so simple can be so complicated. Sit, pee, done. Right? Wrong! Deconstructing peeing and pooping really helped me understand why my child was struggling. Since birth, your child has never held a pee. He doesn’t associate the sensation of holding pee with the need to go. He doesn’t associate the need to go with the need to hold it. He doesn’t associate the need to hold it with the need to hold it long enough to find a toilet. Once he’s learned to hold it, he needs to learn to let it go, which is not the same as just going in a diaper. Then he needs to learn to let it all go and recognize the sensation of an empty bladder. It’s not that simple, it is difficult, and you getting mad only add an emotional component where one shouldn’t be.

Until you understand these principles, put your child in diapers and don’t meddle with her healthy body. Don’t allow potty training to become a battle of will: this is your responsibility. Once you have accepted those 4 principles, write to me, I’ll tell you how I potty trained my children. It may not have taken 3 days; it may not have been accident-free. But we never cried, never screamed, and only got mildly constipated.

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