Self-Help Skills in Babies and Toddlers (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Toilet Training and Learning.

Toileting toddlers is another area where values of independence and interdependence can collide. Just as no culture produces adults who are unable to feed themselves, no matter how late they start, no culture produces adults unable to toilet themselves. But the approach and the timing are different depending on whether you believe in toilet training or toilet learning, which can be related to whether your stress is independence or interdependence.

When most professionals discuss toilet learning, they consider it from the independence perspective. Their advice is to watch for signs of readiness, which fall into three general categories: physical, intellectual, and emotional. Physical readiness means the ability to hold on and let go. A first sign is when children go for longer and longer periods with a dry diaper. Physical readiness also is determined by children’s ability to handle their own clothing—pulling down pants, for example. A sign of intellectual readiness is when children tell the adult after eliminating or indicate in other ways that they are aware and can communicate what is happening with their own body. Emotional readiness comes when children show a willingness to use a potty or a toilet instead of diapers. The timing for these signs varies with each individual, but in general they seldom appear before the second birthday.

An adult with a priority of interdependence may look at toileting from an entirely different point of view. This person won’t wait for a child to reach the age of 2 but may start when the child is as young as a few months; some may even start at birth, as they try to “catch” the baby and hold him or her over a potty. Readiness takes on a whole different meaning when the goal is interdependence. This approach emphasizes the training aspect rather than the learning aspect of toileting. It involves a conditioned reflex.

Interestingly enough, a new trend toward early toilet training shows the idea is growing. Instead of being “old fashioned” it’s becoming the latest thing. An article in Twins Magazine by Kahwaty (March/April 2006) explains not only how to train a baby, but how to train two of them at once. The article points out that the United States is a “diaper culture” so babies using potties is a “foreign idea.” The trend even has a name—Infant potty training (IPT) or elimination communication (EC)—and at least one Web site (

Professionals in the United States frown on training children during the first year, partly because in the past this approach has sometimes been associated with using harsh methods. It is important to recognize that toilet training differences can be cultural—or not—and that harshness is not necessarily a part of the process. The Twins article warns against using either rewards or punishment, or even showing disappointment if the methods aren’t successful. The article stresses that the adult should be relaxed and not have an opinion about whether the child goes or not.

Here’s how toilet training using a conditioning method works. Timing is crucial. Sometimes the adult can predict based on the baby’s regularity. “Time to hold her over the potty,” says the adult periodically. Also, the adult learns to read subtle body messages that indicate the baby is about to wet or defecate. The baby learns to let the adult know, and the adult trains the baby to let go at a signal—usually a shoosh or a whistling sound. It’s truly amazing to a teacher whose only experience is with toddlers to see how young babies with the help of an adult can manage dry, clean diapers most of the time.

“It’s the adult who’s trained, not the baby!” is a common reaction to this interdependence approach. Teachers who use the learning approach rather than the training approach are sometimes critical of those who train—and vice versa—yet each method works well for the adults and children who are using it. Both approaches eventually result in fully trained children who are able to handle all of their own toileting.

Toilet training or learning can become difficult when the child perceives that his or her autonomy is being usurped and who then fights back. Some children even feel that the adult is depriving them of something that is rightfully theirs—their body products! The resulting power struggle can be ugly and its effects long-lasting. Some children with an unfortunate toileting history may be left with big control issues that pop up in a variety of arenas. But don’t assume that every family who believes in toilet training before the first year uses harshness or force.

When a difference between pottying methods becomes apparent, it is important for the early educator to set aside assumptions and judgments and talk about the differences until each party understands the other.

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