Will It Ever Happen? Why Potty Training Takes Time

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My son is 4 years old, and not fully potty trained. It has been a 12 month struggle, and we're not quite there yet. I've been feeling discouraged, and a little like a failure, until I spoke to Dr. Deborah Gilboa, family physician, parenting expert and Everyday Family contributor, who assured me that age 3 or 4 is not too old to start, and really, there is no real ‘suitable' age to begin potty training. 

“There is a huge spectrum of ages at which kids can start potty training. The important thing to keep in mind is a nerve called the Splanchnic nerve. This is the sensory path impulses must travel from the bladder and rectum to tell the brain ‘Hey, it's full here!'  Kids have to be able to feel that and associate it with needing the toilet. Then they need to hold the bladder and bowel tight, stop playing, and go use the toilet. The Splanchnic nerve doesn't work fully until age 2 or so for girls and age 2 1/2 or so for boys. The rest of the process takes a lot of cognitive development too! So it's easy to see why this takes longer than parents wish it did!”

She did warn against starting too young, as kids around the age of 18 months may get it ‘right' on occasion, but will miss the process of identifying the cues to go to the toilet. This may lead to frustration and sense of failure around toileting issues. 

Clearly, I am not alone with the issue of potty training my preschooler. Some mothers shared their struggles and experiences with us.

Image via iStock
Image via iStock

Adrienne Bolton, blogger at The Mommy Mess, and homeschooling mother of two boys said, “My youngest had a really hard time potty training and wore a pull up to bed until about age  6. He had no bladder control during the night. Our doctors explained that every child's body develops differently and some just don't develop the muscles needed for potty training success until a little later. He was just a late bloomer. Eventually he got it. We didn't really do anything, it just happened when his body was ready. He had the desire, but he had to wait for his body to catch up.”

Elaine Alguire, blogger at The Miss Elaine-ous Life and  mother of three shared that her oldest son had issues that she did not understand, as he was literally afraid to poop, holding it in, but never said outright why he was afraid to go. She said, “He initially resisted potty training and I decided not to push it too much until after my second son was born. B was just over 3 and was still in full time daycare. I think he got mixed signals there because the morning teacher was really trying but the afternoon teacher was NOT. Eventually he just started doing it but he still had accidents here and there ,and would only do a number 2 every 2-3 days, if that. For him it just took time and getting over those fears.”

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Image via Flickr/tourist_on_earth

The next question is – what methods should you use if your children are resistant to the  conventional methods of reward charts and stickers, especially for older kids?

Dr. Gilboa said, “The best method I've found is linking the toilet use to an activity that child really wants to join. If there is, for example, a gymnastics class or a playdate that your child can't go on in diapers, use that carrot! Also, grab some pull ups or take them shopping for some big kid underwear. Once you know your child understands the mechanics of using the toilet and has some small successes, start the day in a pull up or underwear. If he wets or dirties that, don't be angry or show frustration. Just be matter of fact, and put him back in a diaper for the day. Tomorrow is a new day and a chance to try again.” 

A few moms shared their less-than-conventional methods of getting their children potty trained.

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Image via iStock

Shannon Weiss Ellis, blogger at Orange On said,  “My oldest son was mostly trained by 3 but had some problem with number 2. One weekend when I was out of town my husband let him poop in the backyard. He loved it. The next day his Dad told him he could go in the backyard again if he agreed to clean it up. Never had a problem after that. With our second son I tried the one-day method with the timer, and it worked perfectly.” 

Melisa Smithwich, blogger at Mommy This and That said, “I used a timer. I think it was more for me than him. We tried conventional potty training methods and ended up frustrated. We tried again when he was 2 1/2 ,and it clicked for him. I set the timer for every 15 minutes and had him sit on the potty. After two days I extended it to 20 minute,s and by the end of the week he was potty trained. He is now 4 1/2, and we have never had an accident.” 

All that said, when it comes to potty training, the important thing is to take our own pride out of the potty training equation. As Dr. Gilboa advises, “There is no prize for potty training at an earlier age, and having a potty-trained toddler is not a metric of our parenting. Don't equate good parenting with potty trained and bad parenting with using a diaper. Just learn about your child and all the ways she learns.”

What age did your children potty train? Did you use any unconventional methods? 

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Will It Ever Happen? Why Potty Training Takes Time

Alison Lee is a former PR and marketing professional turned work-at-home mother. After a 10-year career in various PR agencies, and of the world’s biggest sports brands, she traded in product launches and world travel, for sippy cups, diapers, and breastfeeding. Alison is a former blogger (Writing, Wishing), and her writing has been featured on Mamalode,On Parenting at The Washington Post,The Huffington Post, Everyday Family, Scary Mommy, Club Mid, andDrGreene.com. She is one of 35 essayists ... More

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12 comments

  1. Profile photo of Samantha Samantha says:

    I like this article because my son is 3 years 8 months and is now in potty training. We have been doing it during the day for a week now and he is getting the hang of it. He let’s me know when he has to go and we run him to the toilet. I have him sit because it’s easier and makes him more comfortable. People in my family have judged me and called me a bad mom because he isn’t already fully potty trained but until now he wasn’t ready.

    • Profile photo of Kim ShannonEditor Kim Shannon says:

      Hi Samantha! I waited until my daughter was ready as well; and because of this, it was much easier and we barely had any accidents. Don’t worry about what other people think or say – you are the mom, and you know what’s best for your child. Good luck!

  2. Two of mine (girls) just decided one day that they were done with diapers (one about a month before she turned 2 and one a few months after her second birthday). They each had maybe 1 or 2 overnight accidents but that was it. My other two not so much. One was about 3.5 and still have overnight problems until 5 (girl) and another was 3.5 and is still having overnight problems at 7 (boy). It really is true that boys mature more slowly than girls at least in my son’s case.

  3. Profile photo of Alyssa Alyssa says:

    I started potty training my now 3 year old at 2.5 years and she was doing great with it. Once she went pee on the potty she had it down, 3 days in she pooped on the carpet and I said it was ok to have a couple of accidents. Then the next day she did it again and I was having a bad day and I got mad that she did it and since then I havent been able to get her to go poop on the potty since. I dont know what to do anymore. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

  4. Profile photo of Nat Nat says:

    potty training comes when it comes both my sons “got it” around 3.5-4years my oldest daughter at 2.5 she just decided she wanted to be a big girl one day and never had an accident again with the exception of maybe 3 or 4 over night ones in the first couple months. my youngest daughter will be 3 in just over a month and still has no interest despite my best efforts…some days she will others she just looks at me like I’m crazy!

  5. Profile photo of stephanie stephanie says:

    I started potty training early with my first daughter when she was 1 1/2 but when her baby sister started doing more then wiggling and was crawling she went back into diaper mode, at 2 we tried potty training again and it took her about 2 weeks and shes now 3 and hasn’t had any accidents. Now I started potty training my now 2 year old youngest daughter and she was having a hard time the first two weeks but so far shes doing really good and almost fully potty trained. I need her out diapers fast since I’m having a boy this December 2nd possibly sooner. My method is just get them big kid underwear tell them its not a diaper it doesn’t hold pee pee or poo poo, they’re will be many accidents at first but regardless if the accident happened sit them on their potty tell them that that’s were their excretions go and get ready to do a lot of mopping and sterilizing. If you have a carpet I don’t know if id recommend this method haha

  6. Profile photo of Aurika Aurika says:

    Mine was train by his 3rd birthday and I am glad I waited and listed to his cues. He was fully potty trained with in a week and a month or so later learned to pee standing up.

  7. Profile photo of markav19 markav19 says:

    my daughter is onealmost two and I’m gonna start early I know itll be hard but its a must for me to teach her early

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