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Deadline for preschool adds to pressures of potty-training

Toilet training happens best when fueled by the child, not the parents, according to child development specialists.
Toilet training happens best when fueled by the child, not the parents, according to child development specialists.

If you'd asked her eight months ago, Gail Kaufman of Lunenburg probably would have said that toilet training daughter Jenna, then 3 1/2, would be a snap. The day after Jenna started preschool in January, she announced she wanted to wear underwear. A playmate had seen she was wearing disposable training pants and called her a baby.

Training went smoothly until April, when husband Dana took a new job and wasn't home as much. Jenna took it hard. Despite a potty-training doll, stickers, candy, and rewards big and small, there have been accidents, lots of them. Almost on a daily basis, Kaufman cleans couch cushions, scrubs rugs, or washes floors or clothes.

"Is it something I'm not doing, or something I'm doing wrong?" she wonders.

Despite the challenge, Kaufman is lucky. Unlike many preschools in Massachusetts, her daughter's does not have a policy requiring children to be toilet-trained. Such policies could be open to legal challenge, says David McGrath of the state Office of Child Care Services, but many preschools have them.

Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which accredits preschools, says preschools historically have wanted children to be trained because diapering is time-consuming and they lack the facilities for it. What parents may not realize is that even when there is a policy, it's rarely rigid.

"We understand that even children who are trained sometimes have accidents," says Judy Wood, a preschool teacher at the Lunenburg Primary School, which has a policy on training. She's more aware of it this year than before, however.

"Kids are training later than they used to," she says. "In the past two years, more kids arrive not trained."

While no one keeps statistics, pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and child development specialist Claire Lerner of Zero to Three National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families sense the trend and think it's good. It means parents are finally recognizing that training happens best when fueled by the child, not the parents.

"I tell parents that to give in to pressure from preschool, from their parents, from themselves takes a big risk with a child's self-esteem," says Brazelton. "It makes a child feel like something is wrong with him. I would say that anything that puts the child in control is worth it. If it takes longer, so what?" Brazelton is co-author of "Toilet Training the Brazelton Way" (Perseus).

Mary Thurston, also of Lunenburg, remembers feeling awful last year at this time when she was facing a preschool deadline to have her son Matthew trained.

"Even though in the back of my head I was telling myself it's OK, I was also wondering, `Why are all these other kids trained and mine isn't?' " she says. She thought about not sending him, but in the end she told the school he was "close" and sent him in underwear and rubber pants. He had only two accidents in five months and was accident-free by mid-year. Six months later, he's still wetting at night, something pediatrician Mark Wolraich of the American Academy of Pediatrics says is very typical.

"Just last week, he had his first dry night," Thurston says of Matthew. "He was so pleased, it was wonderful!"

That sense of accomplishment is what Brazelton would like every child to feel. If a child is 3 or older and training isn't happening, he recommends backing off, deadline or not.

"I would tell a child, `Let's take a break from the potty and go back to diapers. When you're ready, you tell me and we'll try again,' " says Brazelton. A variation on that is to offer a child a choice each morning: "You decide where you want your poop and pee to go today. In a diaper, disposables, or the potty?"

Backing off may make you more nervous, but it could empower your child.

"It's more important to read a child's cues than to worry about backtracking," says Lerner. "What matters is for a child to get the message that it's her body and she's in control." When parents are anxious or forceful, children tend to seize control in a negative way, withholding or having accidents. In other words, forget the deadline and do what your child needs, even if it means he goes to preschool in disposables or has accidents in underwear.

"In eight years. . . only one child wasn't trained in two weeks, just from the influence of peers who were," says Wood.

Wolraich, a professor at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center and editor of "Guide to Toilet Training" (Bantam), urges parents to be collaborative, not punitive. If a child has yet another accident, be matter-of-fact: "Let's get paper towels and clean up," rather than, "Oh no, you peed again." If he decides to wear underwear, be supportive: "OK. If you want to wear underwear, you're going to need to sit on the potty. Let's figure out what time of day we should do that."

There are two other theories why children are training later. One is that parents aren't clear on the signs of readiness.

"Many expect a child to say, `I want big-boy underwear.' That may be a little more than a kid will give you," says pediatrician Alison Schonwald of Children's Hospital, author of a recent study on difficult-to-train children. Look instead for: a child's awareness that she has to go; unhappiness with a wet or dirty diaper; an ability to express the need for a change; and some curiosity about the activity of toileting.

The other commonly held theory is that disposables prolong the process because they satisfy a child's need to feel grown-up without the consequences of underwear. Willer, of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, laughs about a new disposable that is being marketed as "less absorbent."

"Why not save the money and just use underwear?" she says.

The advantage to underwear is that it offers the best opportunity for recognizing the need to go and learning to hold it: "Oh, that's a yucky feeling to have wet underwear. Let's get a clean pair and the next time you feel the pee-pee coming, tell me and I'll help you get to the toilet in time."

With a difficult-to-train child, in addition to backing off, Schonwald recommends:

Checking with the pediatrician for constipation or other medical issues.

Lowering expectations. "Instead of asking him to poop in the toilet, ask him to flush the toilet after you empty the poop from a diaper," Schonwald says. After a week, move on: "You flush really well. Are you ready to try sitting?"

Removing the stress. She says, "Stop bragging about what he has accomplished, or complaining about what he hasn't."

Kaufman has had lots of time to speculate about her daughter's toilet training. "If I had it to do over again, I would go directly from diapers to underwear, except at night, and the only reward I'd give is a `Good for you!' and a high-five."

Recently, Jenna had her first day with no accidents. She and her mother both felt terrific.

Contact Barbara Meltz at

potty patter
The best reward is a verbal one, but the trick is to neither under- nor overpraise. Keep it simple and matter-of-fact: ''Good job, you went on the potty. You know what? You don't have to change your clothes!''

If you do use material rewards, keep them simple: putting a penny into a jar; reaching into a bag for a dime-store item; playing a board game with mom or dad; 10 extra minutes of a favorite activity. If you use a sticker chart, be sure that the reward for accumulating a week's worth of stickers is similarly small: getting to watch a favorite video with mom or dad, not getting a new tricycle.

A child with a documented disability cannot be turned away from preschool based on toilet needs, according to state regulations.

New studies show that more typically, a child becomes constipated and wants not to use the potty because it will hurt, rather than becoming constipated because he holds it in. Another recent study shows that children who temperamentally are less flexible tend to have a harder time toilet training. The more they feel in control of the process, the better they are likely to do.

It's OK for a child to be in underwear during the day and disposables at night.

While underwear may be a faster teacher than disposables, if accidents create an unpleasant dynamic between you and your child, disposables may be a better choice.

Rather than suggest repeatedly that your child sit on the potty, look for signs that he needs to go, including facial expressions or leg-crossing. Many children are very regular. Keep track of when she urinates and poops or has accidents and time potty-sitting to maximize success.
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