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The Pros and Cons of Early Potty Training

The Pros and Cons of Early Potty Training

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I’ve written in the past, you solved the problem I was having with stinky cloth diapers, when you pointed out the obvious of “don’t soak them in hot water”. Ever since we’ve been happily cloth diapering and appropriately braggy about it to anyone who shows the tiniest bit of interest, because let’s face it, it’s awesome. It actually turned out to be for the best that I wanted to do it from the beginning, because my munchkin (now a couple days shy of 17 months) has probably the world’s most sensitive bottom. He seems to have some digestive issues that make it so he almost never has um, solid poops.

And despite our unreasonably deep love for cloth diapers, we’ve kind of had it with the blowouts. They happen several times a week now, at best, and we really want to think about potty training our son! For the record, I’ve checked, and rechecked the fit & absorbency and elasticity of the cloth diapers, and they all check out fine. They hold wet fine, and the once or twice a month that he does have a solid “deposit” they hold that great! But that really is rare. Without going into graphic detail, let’s just say we’re all sick of this nonsense, and I really think it would help some of my son’s other issues (wicked, terrible diaper rash that’s more like an acid burn). So my husband suggested we start the process of potty training, even though he’s kind of young. And a boy.

So! How do you do this? How does one teach someone how to use the potty? I bought a toddler potty, and am working with him on how to sit on it without requiring stepping IN it first (seemed like a good place to start). I bought some board books, that he’s happily chewing chunks out of as I type this. He tells me when he needs a diaper change, by hollering at me and patting his crotch. He sometimes has dry diapers for an hour or two. He can run (in fact, that’s his only speed). I need to work on pulling his pants up & down with him, I think. Um, that’s all that the random checklists I read online suggested. I’ve read stuff online, but nothing really explains it in a “Potty Training for Dummies” type way.

All my friends have girls, and only one of my nephews is potty trained, but it took FOREVER. And then there’s the horror stories people love to tell. It’s like the toddler version of labor horror stories people like to tell you when you’re 8 months pregnant, after they’ve marveled at how huge you are. Or the 4 million pins on Pinterest with mommy-bloggers telling you if you follow 3 simple steps, you can have your Baby Einstein potty trained in an hour! Or something…

I need your help! Please tell me it’s A) possible to do this thing relatively painlessly (and mess-lessly), and B) a few days short of 17 months isn’t too early (and I guess, if it is, what’s the earliest reasonable timeframe to start? Everything I’ve read said basically don’t even consider it before 2, which… I cannot accept, I just can’t.). And also, maybe what steps worked for you & your boys? Does the toddler potty stay in the bathroom? Or should it be arm’s reach from the space he spends the most amount of his time (ie: the opposite side of the house from the nearest bathroom.) When do you start teaching wiping? When do you teach sitting vs standing? How long does he stay in diapers? What kind of training pants do you recommend for this, if any?

Potty Terrified

I get a handful of “early potting training” questions every year (“early,” to me, meaning before 2/2.5) and I don’t think I’ve ever really answered one, because:

1) I didn’t potty train my kids that early, so what do I know, and

2) Many of them seem more like parental humblebrags than actual requests for advice. (“We’re potty training our 12 month old and everyone is being weird about it because they are JEALOUS. Please write a column about how awesome we are.”)

Your question does NOT, thankfully, fall into the #2 reason, so I guess maybe it’s time for me to take a stab at talking about early potty training.

I have to be blunt. 17 months old is too young. Particularly for a boy. While there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about the “right” age to potty train, the most common age range I’ve come across is 18 months to three years. 18 months is the minimum age a child could be considered physically and emotionally ready to potty train, and yes, these early trainers tend to be girls. Boys typically lag by at least a few months.

I remember bringing out the potty seat when my boys were about 18/19 months, “just to see, just in case,” and introducing the picture books and inviting them to sit. I’m not really sure why, other than my own overeagerness to move on past the diapering stage. Results were laughable and absolutely conclusive: My kids were. Not. Ready. Yet. They had the curiosity and ability to mimic — and were quite good at asking for diaper changes, but they throughly and completely lacked the physical control or ability to listen to their bodies’ signals before the fact. It wasn’t a horror story or anything, it was just…too early. It was not going to happen, and I was just driving myself (and them) crazy. I at least recognized that and wisely tabled the issue until they were older. (Yes, until the 2.5/3 range. I’m sorry! I’m now officially one of those people telling you depressing things.)

And I would be remiss here if I didn’t suggest you at least Google “potty training too early” to read some rather passionate — if possibly a tad alarmist — arguments against potty training before three. (Three!) And even more warning against starting before two. Recurrent UTIs, bladder infections, chronic constipation, anxiety over accidents, regressions at school, etc. Statistically these issues seem more common in children who trained early vs. those who trained later.

Now, I certainly didn’t wait until three and I don’t believe I inflicted any horrific, chronic conditions on my kids, but I have to agree with the warnings a little. Asking a very small child with a very small body to hold in urine and BMs before he or she is truly capable of it can have some negative physical consequences, so it’s best to be honest with yourself about your child’s level of readiness…and be mindful that you are taking him to the potty VERY VERY OFTEN and not demanding he hold it in for any length of time. At this age, you will definitely need to train yourself, rather than putting too much pressure on him to control his bodily functions completely.

(There’s still a big aspect of parental training at 2.5/3, since toddlers rarely want to have their day interrupted by potty breaks, so about half of them get initiated by me to ensure that he’s not holding anything in. I don’t think my kids achieved true 100% independence until 3.5/4.) (WIPING YOUR OWN BUTT. IS VERY HARD APPARENTLY.)

And finally, my last caveat and advice you didn’t ask for: Have you made any attempts to figure out the source of his digestive issues? Because chronically loose, explosive and burningly acidic poops does not sound like a good time. I’m assuming he doesn’t have any “red flag” symptoms like weight gain issues, distended belly, bloody stools, but chronic diarrhea in toddlers can be tied to their diet (juice and fruit sugars, excessive fluid intake and a diet too low in fat, for example). Some parents react to loose bowels by reducing their kid’s fiber intake, but that can actually have the opposite effect and exacerbate the problem. Something to consider, if you haven’t tried eliminating certain foods and increasing others yet.

But it can also just be an immature digestive tract. Which leads us back to the wisdom of trying to potty train a toddler with an already immature digestive tract. Think about the last time you had diarrhea. Was getting to the toilet on time an easy or stress-free task? Were you fully capable of controlling everything that was happening down there? I know blow-outs are gross but trust me, sudden and runny toddler poops aren’t any more delightful in underwear or training pants, right in the middle of the grocery store that doesn’t have a public restroom. (BEEN. THERE.)

But okay. Let’s say you’re still convinced that potty training is your solution. (I would check with your pediatrician and make sure he/she is on-board and doesn’t think his pooping habits should be checked/addressed in other ways first, like with a visit to a GI specialist or nutritionist/dietician.) The reason you’ve read everything on the Internet but still aren’t sure how to make potty training successful and easy and quick, is that…well. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it really isn’t. It depends on the kid and things “clicking” at the right intersection of physical readiness and emotional willingness. (Or in our case, my children’s physical readiness and my ability to outlast their epic emotional stubbornness about it.)

Since I remain doubtful that just-shy-of-17-months is going to be demonstrating all the signs of true readiness, I would recommend you mange your expectations and accept that it might be a slow process (since I don’t think I could recommend boot-camping him that young, especially with no prior exposure or discussion of the potty and what it’s for, etc.). More of a long-term goal to get him trained sooner rather than later, but probably not RIGHT NOW, THIS MONTH.

1) Read him the books and maybe buy him the Elmo’s Potty Time DVD, if he responds to Elmo. (Ike worships him, so that video was AWESOME.)

2) Have him watch you and your husband use the bathroom, and go through the motions with a doll or stuffed animal.

3) Take him to the store and show him the big kid underwear (which will probably all be size 2T/3T, so you might need to hit the Internet for properly sized underwear in a design/character of his choosing), and talk about eventually saying goodbye to diapers.

4) Start by having him sit on the potty once a day, before bed when he’ll welcome the chance to stall bedtime. Sitting is usually the best way to start; boys can learn to stand later. Some kids like the little separate potty seats, while others will want the seat adapter on the big toilet with a little footstool. The right potty for your child is the one your child is willing to sit on. 

5) Have him practice pulling his own pants up and down (PJs and sweats are best for this.) Pull-ups will probably drive you batty when it comes to the blow-outs (they have the same sub-par waistband as most disposable diapers), but they might be good for him to practice with. We never used any cloth training pants (beyond repurposing my wool soakers) so I don’t have any specific recommendations on that front. (We trained naked or in underwear, and used cloth diapers for bed and pre-breakthrough outings.)

If at any point he freaks out, runs away, cries or yells “NO” about the potty, DROP IT. Do not force him. I mean it. You will only create problems for yourself later.

But! If he seems genuinely interested and willing to sit on the potty, you can have him sit more often. Set a timer on your phone with his favorite song. If you can hold off a couple months until the weather gets nicer, let him run around naked. Something about playing outside naked and seeing a big, sudden arch of pee seems to be a crucial “AH-HA!” moment for a lot of little boys. If he has a success and goes, praise him and give him a sticker or other reward. If he seems content to sit and do nothing, that’s also normal. It takes awhile for them to even grasp what they’re being asked to do, especially if the physical control part isn’t quite there yet.

Once you see a string of successes — or maybe a sign that he’s willing to initiate going to the potty on his own — move on to the bootcamp approach: Cold turkey, no diapers, hole up at home and just get him going to the potty over and over. (We usually instituted a give/take reward system at this point: One star/token for every success. Five stars/tokens earned you a prize. Accidents cost you a star/token, but that’s okay! You’ll get it back next time, I know you can.) Again, I think that would be too aggressive to do right off the bat at this young age, but it’s something to consider after you’re confident you’ve laid positive groundwork, AND after he has the words and communication skills for potty-related business.

Oh, and this is true no matter what age you start training: If you feel like you’re going to lose your mind over the 15th pee puddle of the day — the one that came less than five seconds after you had him on the potty, God! — make sure you have someone who can take over and give you a break. You do not want to yell or shame or punish. You just need to know and respect your own limits, because on no planet in the universe is cleaning pee or poop off multiple non-baby-butt surfaces remotely pleasant.

Good luck! I hope his pooping habits improve as he gets older, on or off the potty, because I totally hear you on being fed up with that. And also, please feel free to write back and gleefully inform me and my big fat negative mouth when he successfully trains in 72 hours. I can take it, promise.

Published March 19, 2014. Last updated March 19, 2014.
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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