Potty Training a Toddler — Doing What’s Best for the Child

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Reader’s Question

At what age would one begin potty training a toddler, and under what conditions (i.e. weather, etc)?

My toddler does not live with me. She lives with her father. It’s a long story, but I am trying to get her back through the courts. I am concerned that he has started potty training her, although she is only 20 months old. And, where they live, it’s freezing at the moment.

When I saw her last, before he started potty training her, I noticed that she would go to a corner or hide to make a mess in her nappy. I let her run around without a nappy (it was still warm then, two weeks ago), and she messed on the floor in the bedroom. When I came to find her, she pointed at it and said “poo”. She has done that a few times when I have been with her over the last few months, but this time she was very concerned about it, almost afraid I think.

I am very worried that he has started too early and is forcing her. He reads baby books, etc., and he goes by the book. I have two older children, and they also used to hide when they made a mess in their nappy, but I never forced them out of nappies. I would let them run around without nappies when the weather permitted and, to them at that age, weeing or messing on the spot was very natural; it never seemed to bother them. They only went out of nappies in their twos and almost towards three years, when they just pulled their nappies off all the time, and it became a complete waste of money. He has completely taken her out of nappies. But I am guessing he still uses nappies on her at night (I hope).

I really am worried.

Psychologist’s Reply

As I am sure you already realise, each situation is different. And, as you say, it should not be dictated by a book. But equally, it should not be dictated by other children’s experiences, nor other people’s opinions… Of course, though, these can all be useful guides.

The timing of toilet training is driven uniquely in each case by factors such as the child’s level of maturity, including awareness of and control over her body, and by her ability to understand what is wanted by her parents and to express her own needs. Most important is the quality of the relationship between the child and parent, and how closely they are able to understand each other and work together. It is also driven in each case by the parents’ own particular style, practical circumstances and preferences. But, as you imply, the most important consideration is that the child should not be hurt or traumatised by the process — and that calls for parents to be closely tuned in to their child. So, if your little girl is distressed or afraid, that certainly calls to be investigated; questions need to be asked — as you are doing.

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However, another question is the extent to which this is all affected by some other issue or issues between you and your daughter’s father. I have the sense that there are difficulties between the two of you, and I wonder whether these may be clouding your judgement about potty training. I hope that you are able to fully listen and carefully speak to each other — perhaps with the help of a third person whom you both trust.

Coming back to your child’s potty training, there is no clear-cut, objective right or wrong way to do it, as long as she is not distressed about it. It is not obvious to me exactly what her distress was about in the situation you described. It’s also not clear to me from your description, what her father’s ‘method’ actually is, or how he is thinking about her. Those seem like important questions to ask. I don’t think that cold weather is necessarily a problem. Toilet training can be done in a variety of ways. It does not necessarily require a naked bottom all day!

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