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The Daytime Caretaker vs. Nighttime Potty Training

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

My mother-in-law took over watching my three children (2.5-year-old twins and 6-month-old baby) when I went back to work from maternity leave. After the New Year, she potty-trained the twins and did a great job with it. It took about a month but they effectively have no accidents during the day, can tell us when they have to go potty, etc. She did all the heavy lifting, supplied the prizes, everything. She is amazingly patient and awesome and we love her so much.

BUT. One of her stipulations was that they could not sleep in pull-ups once they were potty trained. That is the rule. It is hard and fast. We cannot argue. So they have been in training pants/underwear at night for maybe 2 months now and it is terrible. I would say between the two of them we have one night a week where someone doesn’t wet the bed. We are constantly doing laundry, having to get up and change the sheets and give baths at 3 in the morning, all the while trying to keep them quiet so they don’t wake up the baby in the next room, etc, and it is really wearing on my husband and I. Between this and the baby who mostly sleeps through the night but sometimes doesn’t, it is just hard.

This morning my husband told her he was getting pull-ups on the way home. The rate of failure is so much greater than the rate of success in the night time arena and we can’t take it. Her response was that we are making them step backwards to make life easier for ourselves and for our own comfort. But is it really stepping backwards if they aren’t successfully making it through the night consistently? If anything, it seems to be getting worse and we are just tired of feeling like we are in a losing battle.

We don’t give them juice at dinner. We only let them have one sip of water before bedtime and they go potty multiple times during/after the bedtime routine. I’m not sure what else we can do except to say they aren’t ready for this right now and maybe try again in a few months.

I love my MIL a lot and I care a lot about what she thinks (much more so than my husband does) – especially about our parenting. I know that if we switch to pull-ups we will get a lot of comments about how she disagrees with us and that stresses me out.

What is the norm for pull ups at bedtime? Is it reasonable to expect 2.5 year olds to make it through the night? Is it really selfish of my husband and I to make them “regress”? Please help, Amalah!

Pottied Out

Let me skip all my usual wind-up and get right to the main point: Day training and night are two separate processes and require two separate stages of physical development. I’ve written about night-training before — many children are capable of controlling their bladders and bowels during the day, while awake, but have simply not yet hit the physiological milestone where their bladders are capable of WAKING THEM UP and holding urine in all night. And there’s simply no sticker chart in the world that is going to change that. It’s not a matter of discipline or will or general stick-to-it-ive-ness, it’s a matter of your child’s individual physical development and OH DEAR GOD, YOU HAVE TWINS AND A SIX MONTH OLD. GIVE YOURSELVES A BREAK.

Your mother-in-law’s approach to potty-training is not unusual or even necessarily “wrong.” The teacher at Ike’s toddler preschool program is famously known as the “potty-training whisperer” because of her success rate at getting all her little two-year-old charges fully trained and graduated to the primary program by three years old. On our first day she outlined her potty-training plan — wait for interest, let peer pressure do most of the work, toilet seat adapter rather than separate potty chair, emphasis on big-kid underwear and no pull-ups.

I have no problem with any of this, really, but if you think Imma gunna be changing wet sheets five or six times a week instead of putting my kid in something adequately absorbent at night just because I don’t want his preschool teacher to judge me, you cray. You totally, totally cray. My kid, my sleep, my laundry, my say.

My oldest day-trained long before he could stay dry at night. He wore pull-ups for awhile, and eventually I suspected that he COULD stay dry but was mostly just not bothering to get up in the morning. I told him pull-ups cost too much money and he was going to wear the same one-size cloth diapers as his little brother. BAM. That solved that problem right quick.

My second child managed to do both at the same time (around 2.5 years old, yes), though he had a pretty spectacular regression after Ike’s birth. My pediatrician recommended the same thing: Put that kid back in a diaper. Not a pull-up, not a diaper masquerading as some kind of in-between big-kid pant, but a diaper. Like babies wear.

I include these anecdotes for two reasons.

1) EVERY KID IS DIFFERENT. The common wisdom is that boys take longer to night-train in general, but there will always be exceptions to that. But just because one 2.5 year old can stay dry at night doesn’t mean all of them can, and in fact reinforces the idea that kids who wet the bed past toddlerhood have something “wrong” with them, when many of them simply aren’t there developmentally. Their brains don’t wake them up, end of story. Their bladders empty involuntarily, just like it did when they were babies. Forcing a kid who isn’t physically capable to wake up in a puddle of urine and wet sheets night after night, losing precious sleep time to baths and pajama changes, sounds kind of…awful? Once in awhile, sure, it happens. Almost every night? That’s just a bladder/brain connection that hasn’t happened yet.

2) THE IDEA THAT ABSORBENT PANTS CAUSES IMMEDIATE “REGRESSION” ISN’T NECESSARILY TRUE. While my nighttime potty-training experiences were totally different with my first two, both times I was able to use diapers as a motivator. My kids tried harder when faced with the idea of going back to diapers.

I don’t even like pull-ups that much: They’re expensive and counter-intuitive for daytime and lots of kids get attached to them (especially for number two) and will “hold it” until nap or nighttime when they can go in a pull-up. But for a situation like yours, when your have kids who are reliably trained during the day and are maybe one growth spurt away from training at night? They’re great. And they aren’t going to screw everything up and cause death and destruction and a zillion daytime accidents.

I really agree that your twins are simply not physically ready to stay dry all night and you should save your sanity and try again in a couple months. Like when the pull-ups start staying dry a couple times a week. (It helps to get the jump on them, BTW, and wake them up yourself and immediately corral them to the bathroom, rather than letting them wake up and “go” in the pull-up after holding it all night.)

As for your mother-in-law…sigh. Boundaries, man. It’s great that she’s helpful and loving and providing such an invaluable service to your family. But it’s still YOUR family. She is not there at night; she doesn’t get to dictate what happens when your children are in YOUR care. You say you “cannot argue;” I say the hell with that, of COURSE you can. They are your kids. If you disagree with something she’s doing, you absolutely have the right to tell her that. She is the caretaker. You are the parent. You get a say here. You get a say in EVERYTHING. 

Here’s an article on nighttime potty training — one of probably a million out there that says essentially the same thing. It’s impossible for a child to stay dry at night simply because they “want” to. Only 66% of children under three are capable of staying dry, and no amount of bedwetting and sheet-changing is going to make a lick of difference for the remaining 34%. The author also recommends putting your child in pull-ups if they are having more than two or three accidents A MONTH. Contrast that with your two months of almost nightly accidents, omg.

Basically, your MIL is wrong here. Her approach is really nice in theory and obviously worked like gangbusters during the day and that’s awesome. But she’s missing a crucial bit of SCIENCE behind night-training and you and your husband are suffering needlessly because of it. (Your twins, too, as they probably are frustrated with waking up wet and uncomfortable and getting tossed in the tub night after night.) I’m sure she’s afraid that all her hard work at training the kids during the day will be immediately undone if you put them in pull-ups at night. But you’ve done things her way for TWO MONTHS now. It’s not working. It’s not her fault and it’s definitely not yours. It’s just SCIENCE.

Beyond this particular situation, however, I MEAN IT ABOUT THE BOUNDARIES. She shouldn’t get to berate you guys or bully you into doing things “her way” all the time. You shouldn’t be dreading daily comments and general undermining about your parenting. You shouldn’t be driving yourself crazy because of an Invisible Authority Figure is judging what you do during the hours when she’s not there, the hours when YOU are in charge of your children. That’s a painfully high cost for free childcare. Yes, she sounds wonderful in many ways and obviously raised at least one awesome child, your husband. But lady, you have twins and a six-month-old baby. You get to win so many parenting experience badges based on that info alone.

Buy your children some pull-ups. Get them up and out of bed and back into underwear before she arrives if you want to, but refuse to feel ashamed if she “catches” them some days. You did your own independent research into the issue and have decided that they are not physiologically ready and the accidents are taking a toll on the whole family, so you plan to try again in a couple months, end of story. You’re not deliberately undermining her potty-training efforts, and you’d appreciate if she stopped with the comments that seem to undermine your parenting efforts, because NO.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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