photo by ezola via Flickr

photo by ezola via Flickr

Potty training is one of the most challenging and stressful things… for the parents.

For a kid, diapers are a pretty sweet deal, when you think about it. You don’t have to stop playing because somebody else is going to clean up your mess. Why would you want to give that up?

Maybe that is why it is much more stressful on the parents since they are the ones tired of wiping poop out of crevices they never knew could exist.

Potty training doesn’t have to be stressful, if you have the proper perspective and a few smart tips. Recently, we spoke to Child Psychologist, Pull-Ups® Potty Training Partner and mother of four Dr. Heather Wittenberg of BabyShrink.com from her home in Hawaii. The questions and answers below are edited for clarity.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Heather Wittenberg bio-photo

Dr. Heather Wittenberg

I’m a psychologist and early childhood specialist and, more importantly, I am a mom of 4. As a trained child psychologist, I thought I had this parenting thing made but I was blown away about how complicated and frustrating it was. That drove me to start BabyShrink.com in 2008 and connect with parents, psychologists and mental health professionals to find the best answers to what works best for kids based not only on my own experiences but based on scientifically sound advice as well.

What are the signs your child is ready to be potty-trained?

It is a combination of physical and psychological factors. There is the physical ability of whether they can hold it and go on command. But an even more important factor is the psychological willingness. You may have a child that CAN use the potty but just won’t. That is about the psychological development of your toddler. Your toddler is working really hard on becoming independent. He or she may simply not be ready to be independent with the potty. You are imposing this desire to completely change something they have been doing a certain way since day one and they may not be into it.

What if your child is physically ready and shows a willingness but refuses to use the potty?

Resistance and defiance you see in toddler is actually a wonderful thing and should be celebrated. Saying “no” is part of saying “You’re not the boss of me. I’m the boss of me.” Ultimately you want your child to feel ownership of their own body. That is the reason you see the resistance so you have to give your child guidance and stay one step behind them in the potty training process.

When should you become concerned that your child isn’t going on the potty?

If you’re really struggling by the time the child is four, that is the time to get help. Otherwise, there is a lot of wiggle room time-wise until then.

But how should I feel about my friend who potty trained his kids at 15 months?

You know, they are starting to find that earlier trained children end up having more complications later on in the form of constipation and bed-wetting. There are no studies yet that confirm causation between these complications and potty training a child early but there really are a lot of reasons to not rush potty training.

What can dads do to help with potty training?

A really important role for dads in potty training is that dads tend to be more comfortable talking about body functions. Dads are more comfortable having children in the bathroom with them when they’re doing their business. Dads are more matter-of-fact about it. It’s the best thing for kids to be in the bathroom with the dad, hearing poop stories and potty jokes, making it just a normal part of conversation.

Should a dad be frustrated that his child will sit on the potty but not go?

That’s practice. Everything done in that direction is an opportunity to celebrate! Potty training should not be looked at as a day or an event but as an ongoing process.

How should a dad deal with the inevitable accidents?

If you are going to do the sort of boot camp, no diapers, sort of routine, with the goal of it to go faster, of course you’re going to have more accidents. If your whole house is carpeted, you may want to rethink that approach. If you are proactive with taking your child potty you can avoid some of the accidents. Sometimes you will have to go backwards to go forward. Putting the control in their hands is empowering them. When you think about it, you can’t force a child to eat, sleep or poop. They have to want to do it.

Is the potty training process easier with cloth diapers?

Some kids could not care less if they are walking around with a load in their pants for an hour. Even though cloth diapers absorb less than disposable diapers, I haven’t found cloth diapers to be a major key in the potty training process.

Even though your child drops a load in the middle of the floor, how do you keep from feeling frustrated during the potty training process?

(Laughing) I totally get it. Saying not to get frustrated is aspirational and not necessarily 100% possible. I don’t want your dad readers to beat themselves up if they get frustrated occasionally and lose their cool occasionally because that’s the nature of raising toddlers. At the same time, it is important to mentally back up a little and remember this person is two feet tall who is a tiny little person. As aggravating and frustrating as it is in the moment, in the scope of everything, it’s really not that big a deal. Really try to get the perspective, the long term goal of this, to not feel like its a race, not feel like it’s a competition and that it can be a two steps forward, one step back kind of thing. That is normal. That is them learning a really big lesson in life. It’s really about the child becoming independent and learning they are the boss of their own body. And that’s a really tall order for a two-year old or three-year old brain.

What do you do if your child can pee on the potty but won’t poop on the potty?

That is super, super, super common. It is even more common than most folks realize. Around potty training time the child is having a change in diet. The child is becoming more resistant to eating healthy foods, the typical light diet toddlers tend to gravitate towards, so then they become constipated. They have these tiny little bums and it hurts so bad to push it out so they hold it. They end up withholding their poops more than we want them to and that sets up a conflict for them about pooping. It is a really big problem with our dietary habits plus the pressure of many preschools requiring children to be potty trained, so a lot of toddlers end up with a little bit or a lot of constipation and they hold it because it hurts. They’ve just decided to hold it because it doesn’t hurt as bad to hold it in as it does to push it out.

So, what do you do about toddler constipation?

It is a sign that is telling you that your child may not be completely ready for potty training. Back up a step. Ask your child, “Where would you like to poop? What would be best for you?” Putting the diaper back on may be the answer.

The thing with constipation is that this is the secret horrible enemy of potty training success. It is so common and most people have no idea about it. If not pooping on the potty is an issue, you really need to look at nutritional issues very closely in terms of what your child and your family is eating and drinking and how that is affecting your child’s poop habits. It is also important to talk about poop, that it is like garbage and gets stinky and it is really yucky if it stays in your body so it needs to come out. Whatever child friendly language about poop that can be adopted for your family, you should use. Like I mentioned earlier dads, typically, are more comfortable talking about bodily functions. So you can make it fun, make it gross, just make sure your potty humor extends down to their age range.

Your child does want to poop like the big kids, like his or her cousins, like mom or dad. Putting the power in the child’s hands and telling your child you are going to help so the poops don’t hurt anymore is important. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns. There are all sorts of things that can be done to soften things up and are not a big deal.

So you’re saying a diet of chicken nuggets, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and whole milk is not a good thing for toddler constipation?

(Laughing) That’s it! It’s really key to look at nutrition.

What are the three things you would recommend for successful potty training?

 First of all, every child is an individual. Every child is different. Don’t freak out about that. Each child is going to set their own pace so don’t be stressed about it. As long as your pediatrician is good, you can relax.

Another thing I should mention is that night time dryness is totally different than day time dryness. Night time control takes longer to control and seems to be related to physical development and not psychological resistance. Treat night time issues separately. If you have extended night time wetness, strangely enough, you do want to look into constipation. Constipation can cause bedwetting.

The other thing is to make it a fun process. Make it a fun, family thing that every step is something to celebrate so everyone can enjoy it and not make it feel like it’s a chore.

Thank you so much for your time today.

Absolutely! I’m really so glad you’re out there doing this important work with dads. I’m happy to help.

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If you would like to connect with Dr. Heather Wittenberg, visit her at BabyShrink.com and follow her at @BabyShrink on Twitter.

We’d like to thank Huggies® Pull-Ups® for connecting us with Dr. Wittenberg, who is a Pull-Ups® Potty Training Partner,  for this interview.