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Follow the Zing of Potty Training

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There is certainly a plethora of diverse and contrasting articles and books out there on the subject of potty training. I am happy to add to the collection. First let me just say that while every child, family, and situation is different, there are some basic developmental stages and approaches to potty training that are backed by research.

Research and global trends indicate that children (both boys and girls) should be ready to participate in potty training at around 18 months. By the time children (both boys and girls) are 12 months old, reflex sphincter control can be elicited and the myelination of the neurons necessary to ready the body to control the bowels and bladder is completed. This myelin acts as an insulator (kind of like wrapping electrical tape around a live wire), and makes the neuron send the message more quickly. This keeps it from getting confused with impulses from neighboring neurons. What does this mean? The child is now able to feel the impulse to control her bodily functions and needs to learn to execute that control.

All children experience periods of intense absorption and focus in certain areas of their development. This is their "zing." If we, the parents, can learn how to follow the zing, to feed the zing, we will have happier, more confident, self-assured, and independent children. It’s a win-win.

Hence, the child is in her toilet training zing sometime between 12-24 months. Look for the signs. Your child's zing may be indicated in an obvious or subtle way. Remember, these zing moments are temporary and if missed become remedial teachings. Developing new skills is most effective when in the zing, not after the fact when teaching takes much more work, backtracking, and sometimes even force. Like other areas of child development, the child is often there and ready (in their zing) before the parent is aware or ready.

This is where the adult’s keen awareness, positive support, and matter-of-fact attitude come into play. Family psychologist Dr. John Rosemond often warns that parents approach toilet training with great trepidation, insecurity, and anxiety, thus elevating the likelihood that they will not clearly communicate their expectations to their children. This sets the stage for lots of frustration on the part of all concerned and greatly increasing the chance of failure.

So, how do we prepare the environment to facilitate successful toilet training?

  • Make the choice to begin the process and BEGIN. If you are hesitant, your child will be too.
  • Maintain a tone that is matter-of-fact, confident, and encouraging through the process.
  • Place small potties in the bathrooms so the child can sit independently, as needed.
  • Allow your child to see family members using the toilet.
  • Periodically mention to your child that she will no longer be using diapers and will use a toilet soon. Begin these conversations prior to the change to allow the child to begin to absorb the idea.
  • Find a period of time that can be devoted to this project, that syncs with both your child's zing and your own ability to be around home more for a week or two.
  • When that time comes, put away the diapers for good and set your sights on this goal.
  • It is helpful if the child can be naked or nearly naked to feel or see the trickle of the urine and associate it with the feeling that preceded it (muscle tension and full bladder).
  • Prepare yourself and your house for many puddles. After all, making it to the potty is less hit and more miss at first.
  • From the beginning allow your child to participate in the clean-up.
  • See other fun tips here.

This process is described clearly in the wonderful book, Montessori From the Start:

The goal is not dry pants but a child who feels appropriately in control of herself and her life. Let her be as independent as possible in getting her wet pants off and putting them in the pail of water in the bathroom. If they are soiled, have them hand them to you for preliminary cleaning by rinsing them in the toilet. The child can soak up her urine from the floor with the small mop and cloth, and she can wipe herself with her wash cloth and towel. (p.155)

Parents say (myself included) that successful toileting comes if the child is in underpants or naked both day and night. I’m a big proponent of doing away with all diapers (including nighttime) once you know your child is ready. It’s a bear for a week or so, but if you are giving the message to the child that he is ready, then it is appropriate to acknowledge that he is ready day and night. Otherwise, it can be confusing to the child that sometimes it’s okay to rely on diapers and sometimes it is not. Plus, it’s to your advantage to use this new heightened sensitivity of a full bladder or the trickle of pee to help along the nighttime routine.

Unfortunately, when this process is challenging, many parents abandon the mission and put the diapers back on. When you begin to second-guess this, or are discouraged by skeptical, unsure, or jealous friends, remember that studies indicate that in the 1950s, 92% of children (both boys and girls) were potty trained by 18 months. Parenting has changed in the past 50-60 years, but children's developmental capabilities have not.

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