As with most things in parenting, timing is everything. Some parents are always in a hurry…But sometimes faster is not better. Physiotherapist Karen Swanepoel shares her top techniques for successful potty training.

When should you start potty training your toddler? When your child is ready.

As a parent you need to assess your child’s emotional readiness for potty training. Starting too early might save a few rand in the short term, but could impact negatively on your toddler, both physically and emotionally.

Studies have shown that children who develop digestive problems have lower scholastic performance and quality of life. So starting in the right way, at the right time, will make the process easier, less frustrating and less emotionally draining on your toddler.

There is general consensus in literature that readiness to start can occur somewhere after 18 months up to 36 months. A toddler who is more mature, with better communication skills makes the process easier.

Most toddlers will show signs of potty readiness like:

  • Having a dirty nappy at more or less the same time every day. This enables the parent to know when to put the toddler on the potty for a ‘number two’.
  • Longer stretches between wet nappies: The toddler urinates less frequently, for instance one large wee every two hours instead of small wees every few minutes. Parents might notice that they change nappies less frequently during the day.
  • The child will indicate to the parent that their nappy is wet or dirty – this shows you that the child realises he passed urine or faeces.

The first potty

A potty does not have to be expensive to be effective. The position on the potty is the most important factor when you are considering which potty to buy.

You must ensure that the toddler is comfortable and relaxed on the potty to enable him to finish his business completely. Both of the toddler’s feet must be supported on the floor or a level surface at all times, with the whole sole of the foot touching the surface. Most toddlers start out on a stand-alone potty on the floor. The knees may be higher than the hips.

When a toddler is on the toilet/potty the nappy/trainer pants or underwear must be pulled all the way down to the feet. When the clothing pushes the knees together, this can cause tension in the hip muscles, which overflows to the pelvic muscles. The knees must be apart. Think of a nice deep squat.

The toddler must not use his hands to keep himself upright. This creates tension in the upper body and trunk, which in return prevents the toddler from breathing comfortably. If the seat opening is too wide, the toddler might feel that he is ‘falling into the loo’ and then tense up while seated. Resting the elbows on the knees works well to relax the upper body.

Some parents use a toilet stool adapter that fits over the normal toilet. This reduces the opening of the toilet seat, so that small buttocks don’t fall through the seat into the bowl. For older children, a toilet seat adapter and a step under the feet will be more suitable than a stand-alone potty.

Children should not be in a hurry to finish their number ones or twos. This causes unneccesary anxiety and stress. When the toddler is completely relaxed on the potty, the bladder and bowel empty completely. Complete emptying of the bladder prevents urinary tract infections. Complete emptying of the colon prevents constipation.

The colon is most active just after eating a meal, so sitting on the potty for five minutes after a meal is a great way to stimulate a bowel motion. Let the child sit on the potty and distract him with a song, blowing bubbles or doing deep breathing to aid relaxation of the abdomen and pelvis.

Do not over-emphasise rewards for passing stool or urine. Some children might resort to frequent urination just to get a reward. They need to respond to the urge to go, not to the need to get another reward. Accidents are also not bad behaviour and should not result in scolding or punishment. Compliment a successful potty episode and encourage when things don’t go the right way

What a child must learn about toileting

  • Toileting habits consist of many skills. Reward the child for all the skills, not just for a splash or a blob in the bowl. Toileting is a great time to create a trusting relationship with your toddler. They must know you are on their side, no matter the outcome.
  • Learning about how my body works – teaching your toddler that poo and wee is normal – this does not have to happen only in the bathroom. Children can be taught at the dinner table, while having a bath, while dressing.
  • Tell your child about how your body forms urine when he drinks water. Teach your child that water washes his body on the inside too. Remind him about how clever his body is to take all the good things from the food he eats and how his body disposes of the rest it doesn’t use. Make it a fun story. Normalise poo and wee – give children confidence in their bodies’ ability to work normally.
  • We want our children to be able to talk about these ‘uncomfortable things’ to us as parents – when they are older many other uncomfortable topics might arise, and by then a trusting relationship has been formed. Use a simple drawing of the colon or kidney that they can colour in. Normalise the normal function of the body.
  • Being able to dress and undress themselves is an important skill for potty training. Help them with child-friendly clothing that can be removed easily.
  • Teach them that we use only the bathroom for poo and wee – when a poo happens in the nappy in another room, take your toddler to the bathroom and show him that you flush the poo down the toilet. Let him associate the bathroom with toileting. Keep the potty in the toilet. Don’t let children use the potty in the lounge or kitchen – only in the bathroom.
  • Wiping in the correct way after using the potty is crucial to prevent infections. Girls should wipe front to back – this prevents bacteria from the anus travelling to the urine opening. Don’t use dirty toilet paper to re-wipe the same area. Teach them about hygiene.
  • Washing hands after each wee or poo.
  • Drinking enough water – make it fun with a reward chart. About six drinks per day is sufficient (milk or water).
  • Eating healthy foods – show your child healthy food in a magazine and involve him in food preparation.

Toddlers need to learn about trusting their bodies to use the potty with confidence. A gentle and supportive approach will ensure positive potty training.

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