Potty Training: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Mary and I had planned on sharing our potty-training stories over a year ago. We had two very different situations, but didn’t want to write about them until we had successfully got our kids trained.

Fast forward one year, we think we finally have some things to share.

Disclaimer: This is not a how-to potty train post. This is simply our two stories and some weird (yet common) things we ran into in the process.

Mary’s Story

As a pediatric OT, I would educate parents on potty training. Recommendations would vary from implementing a reward system, to potty breaks every hour, to activities on how to “listen to our bodies.” So last year, when it came to teaching my then 3-year-old son, A, how to do his business on the potty, I thought it was going to be a breeze. Complete and utter lie.

Most sources would consider a child potty trained when they can initiate going to the bathroom and can get in and out of their clothes to pee or poop successfully. However, this does not consider that a new potty-trained grad can (AND WILL) have accidents.

Like eating, this is an area is where your child is ultimately in charge. They are the only ones who can listen and interpret what their body is trying to tell them. All we can do is give them pointers and direction on how to do that. This can be hard for parents to reconcile. There is no competition for fastest kid potty trained…

Interoception is the sense of understanding what is going on within our body systems internally. This includes: hunger, thirst, sleep, and even when we need to make a run to the bathroom. For toddlers, that urge doesn’t make sense to them. As they become more aware of that sensation, it can be confusing and scary, especially without context.

At the start of our son’s potty training, he pooped the first few times in the toilet. We were so proud. And then, he no longer wanted to because he realized a huge solid mass just came out of him. He thought something was wrong and began associating pooping as a negative. As we talked about in a past post about forming memories, the more negative an emotion or situation, the less we want to revisit it. Despite our rational talks about why we poop and that all living creatures do it, he couldn’t help his hesitancy.

We needed to create positive moments and successes using the toilet so that A could figure out what his body was telling him. It wasn’t easy though. Here’s what we encountered during our son’s full year of toilet training:

  • Hiding in the closet or in a corner – As our son was learning these potty signals, he would conceal himself in a dark area and eliminate. Children who are figuring out what their body is telling them may try to reduce the amount of other sensory inputs to focus. Hiding in the corner limits visual and auditory stimuli. Taking off all their clothes to lessen tactile input is also common.
  • Using a reward system – This helped him understand that pee and poop are now done on the toilet, not in Pull-ups. He achieved the goal of peeing in the potty independently with this tactic. Not so much with Number #2.
  • Not enough stimulus – Although he figured out the basics of potty training, A still had accidents. When we asked him what happened, he would say he didn’t feel it, or at least not recognize what was happening. Some kids, like mine, require more proprioceptive input to know that they need to use the potty. We worked on recognizing the body signals to pee or poop, like if he felt like dancing out of nowhere, or if he feels like he needs to stop what he’s doing because he feels pressure at the bottom of his belly.
  • Waste of time – To A, sitting on the toilet was boring. We went through a phase where he would try to hold his poop so he wouldn’t have to stop what he was doing. We had to explain to him that it takes more time away from play having to clean up, rather than just going in the first place.

For a while, we were on our way to successfully being potty trained. And then, a small bout of constipation caused a regression. That painful pooping experience made a whole new set of negative memories. Because of this, he developed encopresis, a dyscoordination of muscle movements during elimination due to continuously holding it. Sounds like fun, but I digress…

Currently, A is back on track. He may need a verbal prompt every now and then, but we try to be positive and proud coaches as he finishes his journey to diaper-free independence.

Patti’s Story

When the girls hit 22 months, I was super excited to start potty training. The girls had been giving us all the signs of being ready for weeks and according to Oh Crap, Potty Training, the girls were about to be in the “sweet spot”.

We were two months into pandemic and had nothing to do. It was also Memorial Day weekend, so that gave us a solid three days at home to have our first training Naked Day. Naked Day is when you have your kid go completely naked (or just without bottoms) so that they and you can better pay attention to the feels and signals before going potty.

Troy and I both stayed in the living room all day, watching for tells and prompting the girls every two hours. It was mentally exhausting and boring AF.

Because we were potty training twins, we did not use the reward method. Could you imagine one kid getting the process and getting multiple treats or stickers per day, while one who was having trouble got nothing? The injustice!

After the first week, that is exactly how it happened. Z got a hold of the feel and process, while A was still not feeling the signs and having accidents. In fact, we restarted Naked Day twice for her; a way to reintroduce the process if you feel like your kid is starting to regress, according to the book.

We still used Pull-ups during nap and sleep, but went with underwear during the waking hours. One stayed dry but inconsistent during nap, while the other seemed to save all her pee until she had a nap Pull-up.

We went to the pediatrician once when A seemed to have 10 accidents in one hour. We thought it might be an infection, but the doctor said she was actually dehydrated. Then said we probably started training too early. You’ll find pediatricians don’t really have any rules on potty-training; opinions will vary from patient to patient, and from doctor to doctor.

As a parent, it was frustrating because it seemed like our girls were halfway there. They liked wearing underwear. They could go when prompted. But they would still have regressions, accidents, and at one point, actively took off their sleep diapers and we had to duct tape them into their footie pajamas to avoid nighttime messes.

A year later, as you can guess, we have better potty habits and the girls are confident enough to go to our home bathroom by themselves, but we do have an odd accident here and there. They can make it on long car trips, full days at school, and can start the bathroom process by themselves when they need to. Next month, after the girls turn 3, we finally feel confident enough to start night training.

Potty Training Things You May Not Have Heard Yet:

  • Drink Water and Eat Some Fiber. It takes one bad experience with pooping to send you back a few weeks. Drinking fluids and keeping fiber (fruits, veggies, whole grains) in their diet will allow for regular, softer stools.
  • Start when they’re ready, not when YOU think they should. Many sites give an average when it would be a good time to start potty training. In truth, it’s not about the age, but rather, when they show interest to learn. Signs of readiness include:
    • Indicates that they need a diaper change or if a poop or pee is coming
    • Shows discomfort when their diaper is dirty or wet
    • Imitating/copying what their parents or older children are doing
    • Curious about the toilet and its purpose
    • Wanting to do things to receive praise
    • Has dry diapers for at least 2 hours during the day or is dry after naps or overnight
  • Model Behavior. Be careful on how you respond towards potty training. If you show disdain or a disgusted, sick face when your child poops, they will think that poop is gross and will be afraid to do it. Be positive, stay calm, and learn to hold your breath discreetly. You can also let your kids watch you go to the bathroom. This may test your comfort level, but you are your child’s biggest influence.
  • Patience of a Saint. Seriously. You need patience and consistency. Your kid is learning to understand their body, learn a new routine, and handle accidents out of their control. That’s a lot. It won’t help losing your cool for every mess that comes during this learning process.
  • A love/hate relationship with the Pot. We had both a training potty and a toilet seat to go on the full-size potty. Patti’s girls would go through times where one would only use the pot, and one would only use the seat. We would move the pot back and forth from the living room to the bathroom, and sometimes to our back deck. It had to be within arm’s reach, then other times, they would quit it cold turkey. Be prepared for the potty to be the most special, kid-sized thing ever, then be a source of dread.
  • All done. A&Z still tell us that they already went to bathroom this morning or that they pooped yesterday. Kids may not get the fact that poop and pee happen multiple times every day. Normalize going to the bathroom multiple times daily, like before and after every meal and before and after sleep.
  • No Means No. No matter how many times you prompt them with “Do you need to potty?”, if they say no, then it’s no. You as a parent need to understand that it’s their body and they need to be able to connect to dots with their interoception. It’s not worth forcing them to sit on the potty, kicking and screaming.
  • Regression can be caused by a lot things: Changes in daily routine, switching from cribs to toddler beds, vacations, preschool/daycare, diet, fear of public restrooms, sleepovers at the grandparents. Try to be sensitive to these changes and anticipate what your kid might need to get back to regular.

Taking from one of our favorite parenting authors, Emily Oster, don’t worry if your child has stumbles during potty-training. Most typical kids will learn how to use the bathroom eventually. Chances are your kid will NOT still be in diapers during college orientation. Keep calm, and keep the diaper bag handy.

Toilet Training | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Encopresis Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, & More (webmd.com)
Delaney, T. (2008). The Sensory Processing Disorder Answer Book: Practical Answers to the Top 250 Questions Parents Ask. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc. 

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