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Wait until your child is ready.

“A lot of parents think their child should be trained by such and such an age,” says Peter Stavinoha, PhD, author of Stress-Free Potty Training. “But potty training is a process.” Start slow, and to pique interest, let your child watch you use the bathroom, let her pick out underwear decorated with her favorite character, and cheer her on if she does use the potty.

Look for the signs.

When is it time to consider the Spider-Man underwear? Some good indicators are that he can stay dry for several hours; has regular, predictable bowel movements; asks that a dirty diaper be changed; and shows interest in the bathroom. Jennifer Macchiarola’s 2-year-old Brian recently began to say “pee pee,” so she started putting him on the toilet. “His two older sisters and I make a really big deal out of it and cheer for him,” says the mom of three from Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

Every child is different.

“[Potty training] is a normal process of development,” says Mark Wolraich, MD, a pediatrician in Oklahoma City and the author of the American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Toilet Training. “When it occurs varies from child to child.” Push it and you might end up back at square one, he warns. Just ask Erika Riley, a mom of three from Minneapolis: “My biggest regret was listening to my mother instead of taking readiness cues from my own son,” she says. Riley’s mother bought Griffin, then 2, a potty seat, but his interest in it waxed and waned, until Riley let it go altogether. “My son wore a Pull-Up until he was two months shy of his fourth birthday,” Riley says. “Then, over the course of a weekend, he decided he was ready to use the potty.” Griffin is now 5 and has never had an accident, Riley says.

Rewards can motivate.

With most kids, hugs, tickles, kisses, and praise should be motivation enough, Stavinoha says. But some toddlers may need a little extra incentive. Alisa Fitzgerald, of Boxford, Massachusetts, gave her older son, Zachary, a few M&M’s each time he used the potty. With her reluctant younger son, Andrew, however, she upped the ante with a trip to the toy store. Some families swear by sticker charts, while others promise bragging calls to Grandma and Grandpa. Whatever road you take, “emphasize what the child did rather than the reward,” Stavinoha says.

Day and Night are, well, like day and night.

She may be a potty pro during waking hours long before she’s able to get through the night without an accident. In fact, “it’s very natural to wet the bed up until 5 years old,” Dr. Wolraich says. For most parents, it just means your child goes to bed with a Pull-Up until she’s better able to master the sleeping hours.

Don’t tackle potty training during another major change.

Moving to a new home, the arrival of a sibling, or switching day-care centers disrupts your toddler’s routine and causes stress — and may set him back in toilet training. “[Stress] can make it more difficult for a child to demonstrate a skill that he has not entirely mastered,” Stavinoha says, “so he reverts back to a more comfortable level.”

Going number two can be scary…

…and may take longer to master than number one. Kara Casten, of Downers Grove, Illinois, realized this with her oldest, Gwen, 5. While Gwen was “practically immediately pee trained, number two took an entire year,” Casten says. Nashville mom Jennifer Williams says her daughter Alexa used to complain, “My tushy hurts.” But eventually Alexa realized if she went in the potty, it didn’t hurt anymore. Indeed, “some kids can find it threatening,” Dr. Wolraich says. But there could also be an underlying problem, like constipation, making the process painful. If you suspect constipation, consult your pediatrician about dietary changes, fluids, and possibly a stool softener, he says.

Unfamiliar potties can be scary too.

Public toilets often flush louder (and automatically, which can be jarring), or they’re higher from the ground than your child is accustomed to. Stavinoha’s familiarizing tactic: next time you go to the diner or the library, immediately locate the bathroom and have your child flush the toilet so he gets used to it. “Don’t wait until the critical time,” he says. Another option for public bathrooms, playgroup, or even Grandma’s house: travel with your porta-potty.

Accidents do happen.

As the experts say, potty training is a process, and there will be setbacks. Macchiarola tried to provide fewer opportunities for oopses. Every couple of hours she would say to her daughters Erin and Maggie: “Let’s go to the bathroom.” It was a preventive tactic. “Eventually you’re saying that less because they get it,” Macchiarola says. “It took about a month for each of my girls to master the pee thing, but then for six months, there were still accidents.”

She will eventually be potty trained!

Casten recalls her experience with Gwen as “my toughest parenting challenge so far.” But she feels more confident as she thinks about tackling training with her younger daughter, Audrey, 2: “I realize she’s in charge, and I’m going to just let her call the shots.”

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