Toilet Training

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If toilet training isn’t going smoothly, take heart; many families encounter bumps in the road to toilet training. Here are parents’ most common complaints, along with suggestions on how to handle them.

My child won’t use the toilet.
Strange as it sounds, children sometimes refuse to use the toilet because they’re afraid of it. Imagine the toilet from your child’s point of view: It looks cold and unwelcoming, it makes loud noises, and things disappear into it, never to be seen again. From his vantage point, the toilet is something to steer clear of! The best thing you can do in this situation is to try to help your tike get comfortable with his own little potty chair. Start by letting him know that it’s his very own. You can personalize it by writing his name on it or letting him decorate it with stickers. Let him sit on it fully clothed, put his teddy bear on it, and lug it around the house, if he wants to. To help him get more comfortable with the big toilet, you might take his soiled diaper, empty it into the toilet, and let him flush down his poop, watching it disappear. Reassure him that this is what’s supposed to happen — roaring noises and all — and that it’s helpful!

Maybe your child is simply telling you that he wants to stay in diapers a while longer. If he genuinely seems uninterested in potty training now, give him a break and then watch for signs of readiness ahead.

If your toddler exhibits all the signs of readiness but is still unwilling, something may be preventing him from focusing on potty training just now. Any big change — such as starting a new school, the arrival of a sibling, or moving to a new home — can temporarily disconcert a toddler. Wait until your child has settled back into a comfortable routine before resuming training.

When I suggest using the toilet, my toddler says no or gets upset.
Your child might resist potty training for the same reason he sometimes refuses to take a bath or go to bed: He’s discovered that saying no is a way to exert power. The first thing to do is defuse the issue by backing off and letting him feel as though he’s in charge of this project. These tips will help:

Resist reminding. Though it’s hard not to intervene when you think an accident is imminent, too much reminding can make your child feel corralled and controlled. Instead of frequent repetitions of “Don’t you need to go potty?” put a potty chair in a central location and, whenever possible, let your child run around bottomless so he can use it at the spur of the moment without your involvement.

Don’t hover. Enforced potty sitting (“Let’s wait a little longer and see if anything comes out”) can sow the seeds of rebellion. If your child sits for a moment, then jumps up to play, bite your tongue. The result may be an accident, but it’s just as likely that he’ll hop back on the potty when he feels the need.

Be calm about accidents. It’s not easy to stay serene in the face of a yucky mess, but keep in mind that overreacting to accidents can make your child fearful about having them, which in turn may stir up anxiety about the whole process. Be reassuring when your child wets his pants, and do whatever you need to do for your own peace of mind, whether it’s putting away a favorite rug or spreading out layers of towels. No matter how frustrated you get, don’t punish your child for having an accident. It’s not fair to him, and it can lead to long-term resistance.

Reward good behavior. Break the resistance cycle by praising your child’s efforts. Celebrate when he first gets something into the potty and make a big deal out of the first time he stays dry all day. (But don’t make a big deal of every potty trip, as the glare of the spotlight could make your toddler nervous and skittish.) If your child responds well to positive strokes (and who doesn’t?), don’t wait until he goes potty to compliment him. Tell him now and then how nice it is that he has dry underpants (or a dry diaper). This will give you many more opportunities in the course of the day to encourage him.

My child isn’t having a bowel movement on the potty as often as he should, or refuses to go at all.
It’s common for toddlers to easily pee in the potty but resist using it for BMs. Most likely your child is fearful of making a mess — maybe he had a bowel movement accident at preschool and people overreacted, or maybe he witnessed another child having such an accident. Helping him successfully have a BM in the potty and then heaping him with praise can go a long way toward overcoming his fear. If he has bowel movements fairly regularly, make note of the times (right after he wakes up from his nap, for example, or 20 minutes or so after lunch, maybe) and try to make sure he’s near a potty then. Get his daycare provider or preschool teacher in on the plan, too. However, if your child remains just too anxious to handle a BM in the toilet right now, try an interim solution: Suggest that he ask you to put a diaper on him when he thinks he’s about to poop.

Another reason your child may be refusing to use the potty for BMs is that he’s constipated. If so, the pain he feels when he tries to poop may heighten any discomfort he has about using the potty in the first place. The vicious cycle goes like this: He withholds poop, which exacerbates the constipation, and when he finally goes it’s painful, so he fears using the potty.

Fiber-rich foods such as such as whole-grain breads, broccoli, and cereal can help keep your child regular. A good rule of thumb is that your child should eat enough grams of fiber to equal his age plus five (for example, a 4-year-old needs 9 grams of fiber each day). It’s also best if the fiber is distributed equally among the three meals, rather than eaten all at once. Make sure your child is getting enough fluids, too. Water, prune juice, and other diluted fruit juices are good choices. And be careful not to give him too many dairy products, which can make the constipation worse.

If your child is still constipated, you may want to consider using pure honey to help to soften his stools. Honey is a mild natural laxative that can be given to a child over 1 year without the recommendation of a healthcare provider. (Never give it to a baby younger than 1 year — babies are at risk of getting botulism from honey). If nothing else works, consult with your child’s pediatrician about using laxatives.

Ease your child’s anxiety by talking with him about his body’s functions, making sure he understands that they’re natural and universal. A great tool for this is the delightfully scatological book Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi.

My child won’t use the toilet at his daycare center or school.
Start by finding out everything you can about his program’s bathroom routine; some specific procedure may be confusing your child. Maybe the teachers take the kids in groups and your child likes his privacy, for example. If this is the case, ask if it’s possible to modify the routine. Perhaps a teacher can take your child privately, or allow him to go with his best buddy.

Or it might be the toilet itself. If your child is having trouble switching from his own potty chair at home to a built-in toilet at the center or school, it might be worthwhile for you to buy a second potty chair just like the one he uses at home for the center’s bathroom.

My child was toilet trained, then started having accidents again.
Seemingly small changes — going from a crib to a bed or starting a swim class — can throw a toddler’s equilibrium off, making him long for the familiar. And if he learned to use the toilet quite recently, the familiar might mean diapers. Be careful not to make him feel bad or ashamed about that. You don’t want to push him toward toilet training if he’s reluctant. At the same time, try to find ways to make him feel like a big boy and reinforce any steps he takes toward independence.

Choose a relaxed moment to have a little talk, letting your child know that you think he’s old enough now to be in charge of learning to use the toilet. Then just lay off the subject for a while. When he starts trying to learn again, use some incentives to encourage him. Place shiny stars on a calendar each day your child uses the toilet, or reward dry days with an extra bedtime story or an after-dinner walk to the park. (It’s not a good idea to use rewards like candy with a child younger than 3; he’s likely to focus solely on the sweet, which may trigger temper tantrums. Besides, you don’t want to teach your child that the way to reward or console himself is by eating sweets.)

However, if your child asks directly for a return to diapers, don’t make an issue of it. Put him back in diapers for a few weeks or until he expresses an interest in using the toilet again.
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