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Who decides when to potty train: you, baby or Big Diapers?

At my moms’ group a few months ago, another mother noticed my then 2-year-old & 1 month daughter wasn’t wearing a diaper and said, “She’s young to be without a diaper”. Used to hearing this since we’d started her on the pot at 16 months, I just said “oh”. She continued, “Yeah, you potty train at 2 and a half”. (For visuals, see video Potty training at 16 months: meet the potty and your poop).

I wanted to laugh at her certainty. My sister had just spent the past year agonizing over whether she’d started too early. A neighbor worries she started too late. A dose of uncertainty seems to be part of the protocol for potty training these days. Part of the problem is moms are mostly given advice like don’t “start it before your child is ready“, “don’t push your toddler to potty train” and “there’s no ‘should’ about it“.

So if you choose not to wait until your 7-year-old asks you to let him wear underwear, you’re left with trying to guess when your child might be expressing a “dawning awareness of when pee pee and poo poo are happening” or quizzes asking you to evaluate: “Your child has been sitting around in a wet or dirty nappy. What’s his mood like?”

Removing the diaper at 16 months

Given all this pressure to let your child find his own way out of diapers, I was a bit hesitant when my mom suggested she begin potty training my 16-month-old during our 2 month visit last summer. But I was buoyed by the knowledge that she had done the same to all 6 of us kids and none of us seemed to be suffering any long-term incontinence or “feelings of failure, inadequacy or general stress” around bathroom visits.

Plus, I knew that it wasn’t just my mother who thought it normal to remove the diaper by 18 months, but most of her generation and those before her. In the 1950s when nearly all kids used cloth diapers, 95% were potty trained by 18 months, but now that nearly 95% of kids are in disposables, only about 10% train by 18 months, and the average age for completion of training has advanced from around eighteen months to thirty-six months and beyond. Given that kids kids go through about 2,000 to 3,000 diapers per year, this extra time hanging out in their excretions adds a lot to our landfills (for more on this see my post Diaper wars: the decades old battle of cloth vs disposable).

She couldn’t talk, but she was ready for the potty

When I arrived at my parents’ house in California last June, my mother had the potty seat ready. A bit nervous after reading articles that training too early “could result in feelings of failure, inadequacy or general stress associated with toilet training”, I was happy to discover that from day one Inés seemed quite relaxed sitting on her blue plastic potty. My mom was a natural at this stuff; she kept Inés pantless, or naked, while at home and the potty became just another chair where she sat reading, drawing, eating and learning about what she was doing. (Here’s a video of the summer and my mom’s theories on potty training).

Within that first month, she started pooping consistently on the potty: first waiting until she was placed there and then asking to go by the end of our stay. But she didn’t always know to ask for pee and if we forgot to sit her down on her throne every few hours, she’d leave us a puddle. Back in Barcelona for her 18 month birthday, we fell into a rhythm of putting her on the potty and we had few accidents (a video at 18 months).  It worked well to simply sit her on the potty every couple hours at home, but I started to worry about her starting pre-school that next month.

Blaming early training on my mom… and her generation

I didn’t want to make things more difficult for her teacher and I was already learning just how “young” Inés was to be diaperless. When parents at the park noticed her underwear, I was told as much. In Spain, they seem to start a bit younger than the U.S., but it still seemed the average age of training was closer to 2 and something (it seems to depend less on their age and more on the arrival of spring weather).

When I mentioned my fear of sending her to school without a diaper, my neighbors- whose kids were going to the same nursery- simply said, “oh she’s young”. I hated feeling like I was a competitive parent trying to prove something via my daughter’s success on the toilet so I would say things like, “yeah, well, my mom did it. You know, it was a different time when they all used to be trained this early”.

So I succumbed to peer pressure and on Inés’ first day of class she was back in a diaper (though just for her few hours there). I went to drop her off at school a bit saddened that I was breaking with my mother’s tradition- and that of people like my friend Susan who had commented on one of my early diaper videos (How do you flush a diaper) that “my mom had my sister and me out of diapers at 18 months. So to really cut down on excess diapers—start potty training earlier.”

Where “around 2” is the norm for losing the diaper

When I mentioned to her teacher that we’d started to potty train, but had put a diaper back on, she echoed all the rest with, “oh, she’s young” but added, “we usually take off their diapers around 2”. I was pleased to hear 2 and not 3 (closer to the average age in the U.S.), but a generation or two ago, 18 months wasn’t young, so I was curious what had changed?

How did we, in just one generation, go from believing that an 18-monther was ready for the potty to feeling like we needed to let them discover their own way, at least for an additional year and a half?

Waiting until they’re “ready” and creating toilet “refusers”

I didn’t get my answer for another 8 months, but meanwhile I started to hear my sister’s doubts about her 2 and a half year old son who had to be potty-trained for pre-school. She had begun the process and thought he was trained- for a bit he didn’t even wet at night-, but he now gone back to having accidents unless left naked. She hadn’t had any problems training her first child (a girl) at the same age, but was thinking it was either because he was a boy or just his very laid-back personality.

After a couple months of accidents at preschool my sister decided to resort to pull-ups for her son when out of the house and she started talking about how everyone says it’s so easy to train them in no time when they’re ready. Her neighbor had just told her that she’d heard they won’t train until they’re ready no matter how early you start (from her email: “For example, if your kid isn’t really ready until 3 then even if you start at 2 it will be about a year of training”).

I do believe all kids are different, but it still didn’t answer my question of why things are so different from our mother’s generation. Online, I could find plenty of advice echoing my sister’s neighbor’s approach- “I don’t believe in “training.” Wait until they are ready – around three years old and do it in a day!”-, but it seemed overly simplistic, especially when you consider the thousands of extra diapers that get wasted with all that waiting.

Plus, I was beginning to question if all kids really had a magic age when they just understood how to use the potty. I had started to hear stories from parents at the park of kids over 3 who had their own set of problems. One mother explained that her 3 and a half year old daughter refused to poop on the toilet and would hold it for days until she put a diaper on her.

After our chat, I did some research and found that “stool toileting refusal” has been linked to late training (Taubman 1997). “Of the 19 participating children who trained by 24 months, none refused to poop in the toilet. Only 4 of the 90 kids who finished training between 24 and 30 months were “refusers.” The vast majority of refusers (101) came from the remaining 373 kids who finished training after 30 months.”

A desperate mom emails: “Start now, don’t wait…”

This March, a few months after we took off Inés’ diaper for good at 22 months (see videos How to pull down your pants and Learning to use underwear) and a month after her 3-year-old cousin suddenly stopped having accidents, my sister emailed me a thread from her Seattle moms’ group which finally helped me discover why our generation is so confused around potty training.

One of the moms lured into the training philosophy of “don’t force it… when he’s ready it will happen practically overnight” had emailed the group that she’s now dealing with a “strong-minded 3-year-old who really seems to enjoy resisting the process”. She sent along a link to an article as well as her advice: “Start now, don’t wait, even if he doesn’t prefect the process until he’s three or more. Set the groundwork as early as possible.”

I clicked on the link as quickly as I could and found the Mommy Files blogger Amy Graff explaining how she had potty trained her 2-year-old son in 3 days. Using advice from potty training guru and ex-nurse Julie Fellom, she explained, “Children are typically ready between 15 to 27 months. This is a great age because toddlers are compliant but ready for some independence. If you wait longer, you’ll be dealing with a temperamental, strong-minded 2-year-old who will likely resist the process.”

This comment hit a nerve with the mothers in my sister’s online moms’ group. The email responses came quickly from moms who had waited, and were still waiting, for when their kid was ready like this one from the mother of a 3 and a half year old son who “can almost change his own diaper these days”.

She explained that she’s tried subtle incentives to get him to use the potty and keeps hoping that one day he’ll just decide to use it, “but he just keeps DECIDING NOT TO USE IT and he’s too mature to use most of the methods that work for 2 year olds. As he always reminds me, ‘I’m putting on a training diaper, but I’m not training myself!'”

Another mom emailed: “I have a cousin (now 18 and potty trained J) who resisted potty training until he was 4. He was very precocious, and my grandfather used to grumble “D*mn kid talks like an English professor and can debate with you why diapers are better, but won’t poop in the toilet!””

How Big Diapers have helped determine when a child is ready to be trained

It was a book recommendation from one of the moms that finally clued me in to the disposable-diaper industry’s role in convincing American parents to wait and wait and wait (in their disposables) until their kid was good and ready. Linda Sonna, author of “Early Start Potty Training” explains that the “child-oriented approach” to training began in 1961 when Procter & Gamble started test-marketing the first disposable diaper. “The company began looking for a pediatrician to promote them”, she explains in her book, “it signed up T. Berry Brazelton, who began extolling the merits of the company’s product and recommending that parents not begin potty training before children are physically, mentally, and emotionally ready.”

Even child-raising guru Dr. Benjamin Spock fell into line with the Pampers-pitching Brazelton. “Spock used to say younger was better, 14 months was considered late for training,” Sonna discovered while researching for her book. “In 1961 everything changed and Spock began quoting Brazelton. That was the year Brazelton signed up with Procter & Gamble. He came out saying it was cruel to train babies too early.”

With the power of P&G advertising budgets behind him, Hazelton’s advice began to change the nation’s ideas about when a child was ready for the toilet. For one Pamper’s ad, he extolled what has now become a common concept among mothers: “Don’t rush your toddler into toilet training or let anyone else tell you it’s time! It’s got to be his choice!”

Early training advocates take on child choice believers

But now, nearly a half century after the first disposable diaper hit the market, there is a growing backlash against child choice potty training. Partly motivated by the huge impact of diapers on our landfills and water supplies (all that untreated sewage) and their potentially toxic chemicals (dyes, fragrances, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, dipentene and super absorbency gels (SAP)), an increasing number of parents, healthcare providers, and authors are calling for a return to early toilet training.

Just how early seems to be up to the parent. Some choose to practice Elimination Communication: holding their child over the pot beginning as early as one-month-old. Here are a few other opinions:

  • Sonna says for most kids, 6 to 12 months is a good age.
  • Christine Gross-Loh, who clarifies in her book The Diaper-Free Baby that “believe it or not, your child was not born wanting to go to the bathroom in a diaper”, had her two children diaper-free at 15 and 18 months.
  • Potty training guru and pre-school teacher Julie Fellom, who has trained more than a thousand San Francisco toddlers (all under 28 months) in her diaperfree toddler classes, suggests starting kids before they reach the 2-year-old independent streak.
  • Mommy Files Blogger Amy Graff suggests training between 15 to 27 months. “This is a great age because toddlers are compliant but they’re also ready for some independence. If you wait longer, you’ll be dealing with a temperamental, strong-minded 2-year-old who will likely resist the process.”
  • Diaper-free Before 3 author Dr. Jill Lekovic who recommends beginning as early as 9 months agrees that “parents have been taught to fear “pushing” the issue”.

A culture clash around the potty

Last week at the park, I noticed that a 2-year-old friend of my daughter’s was not in a diaper, and he was a boy (who are said to take longer) so I asked when he stopped using diapers.

“When he turned 2,” she replied matter-of-factly.

“Didn’t it take awhile?” I pushed for more. “I mean, they say with boys…”

“He was used to it. I started putting him on the potty at 18 months,” she continued. “I noticed he would always go poo mid-day so I would just sit him there after lunch. Pee took a bit longer.”

I was surprised. This woman was a preppy. She always looked so put together. She was a working mom with nanny help. She didn’t buck the system. I would have assumed that lots of wipes and diapers were her norm. I asked what made her think to put him on the toilet so young.

“It just seemed obvious,” she almost mumbled. She seemed embarased by the question. Obviously, for her, putting an 18-month-old on the toilet wasn’t bucking the system, but part of her norm.

There’s no question potty training inspires a bit of culture clash, whether geographic or generational. Author and pediatrician Dr. Lekovic explains how this often plays out in office visits “between a grandmother who was trying to potty train the baby and the mother who wanted to do it the “new” or the “American” way”. She used to refer to the Hazelton-influenced child-oriented American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines until she herself became a mother.

“My husband’s family came from Serbia, and we hired someone from the “old” country to care for our son when I returned to work… when she wanted to start sitting my son on the potty at six months old, I said no and my husband and I had a good laugh at her “crazy” ideas. But she was so patient and persistent, and loved us all so much and so well, that we finally agreed to let her “try” to sit him on the little potty chair when he was almost nine months old.”

Her son was accident-free between 18 and 24 months and the experience changed her entire attitude on the child-oriented approach to training.

Don’t be afraid to push the issue

Today, she has different advice for all those frustrated parents who come into her office “with their three-year-old children, who are ready to start preschool, able to hang from monkey bars, sing the alphabet, tie their shoes, and even copy shapes, but are still in diapers”. For Lekovic, and a growing number of Americans, the answer is obvious. “Clearly, these children are “able” to be trained, but parents have been taught to fear ‘pushing’ the issue”.

For nearly a half century, Americans have been indoctrinated to fear “pushing” the issue. It won’t be easy to reverse the tide. In fact, I hesitate to say I’m certain there’s a clear answer for every kid. There are plenty of parents very convinced that by waiting they avoided unnecessary messes and additional work. If I, like my sister, had spent 10 months cleaning up “mushy poops”, I’d be very ready to believe there was a more perfect age when things just “click”. It’s possible there is, for some kids. But for others, waiting for that perfect age might mean creating a toilet “refuser”, an independent 3-year-old who just won’t be trained.

So maybe the perfect moment is before 2, or maybe it’s after 3, depending on the kid, on their sex, etc. But perhaps instead of trying- often in vain- to determine what it is for your child, maybe it’s just easier, and healthier for our planet, to go back to training the parents, or caregiver, a bit.

Maybe we’ll spend a few extra months putting our 18-month-olds on the toilet after a meal, instead of waiting for them to run there themselves, but in the end, the child will learn earlier, which means less diaper rash, less chemicals in contact with their tush, less loss of trees, less landfill and less of a chance your 3-year-old will “debate with you why diapers are better, but won’t poop in the toilet.”