When should kids be potty trained?

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 9, 2009

Back in the 1950s, 95 percent of children were potty trained by 18 months. Now, the average is 37 months.Why are kids today staying in diapers so long?
By Katie Scarvey
Perhaps you didn’t believe your mother when she told you that you were potty trained by the time you were a year or 18 months old old.
She was exaggerating, right?
She had to be, since you know that your own kids ó as bright as they are ó weren’t completely potty trained until they were around 3. And you’ve heard that the average age for completing potty training is 37 months.
Actually, your mom was probably telling the truth. Kids today are in diapers much longer than kids 50 years ago, 95 percent of whom were potty trained by the time they were 18 months old. These days, only about 10 percent of children are potty trained by 18 months, according to some experts.
The 37-month average is a historical high and double the average age at which children are toilet trained in almost 50 countries.
So why does it seem like we’re going backwards when it comes to potty training?
Ask old-school parents how they managed to toilet train their children so early, and you will likely get some version of the following:
“I would put my child on the potty when I thought she needed to go. She began to make the connection between the physical sensations that go along with elimination, and it just wasn’t long before she was potty trained.”
So what has changed in recent years?
Perhaps the biggest reason for later potty training is the disposable diaper, which was introduced in 1961 and was in wide use by the 1980s.
Disposable diapers are so absorbent and take so much of the burden out of having a child in diapers that some of the motivation seems to be gone for parents to get their children out of diapers.
Diaper companies like Pampers began to promote the idea that parents should wait until their child was “ready” to train ó which was defined as wanting to be trained and being able to communicate effectively.Dr. Linda Acredolo, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, says that pediatricians also accepted this new “wisdom” about potty training. T. Berry Brazelton, a very influential pediatrician, advised parents that the old tendencies to push and pressure children were not good, Acredolo says. Brazelton felt that parents needed to relax a little and not worry as much as his generation did about getting kids out of diapers. The American Academy of Pediatrics followed suit in its more relaxed guidelines on potty training.
Although she feels his heart was in the right place, Brazelton “went overboard,” Acredolo says.
Cynics might also wonder about Brazelton’s professional relationship with the Pampers Institute, which was more than happy to have him advising parents to relax about potty training, since it meant more diaper sales.
For their part, many toddlers seem to be perfectly content to stay in diapers as long as they can. These days, you can actually buy size 7 diapers ó for children over 41 pounds.
Many child development experts believe that parents have been misled over the past few decades when it comes to potty training.
If parents wait until their child is “ready,” which is often considered to be after 2, Acredolo says, then the difficulty of potty training can actually increase. Around the age of 2, children are beginning to assert themselves and are more likely to exhibit oppositional behavior, which means that potty training too often becomes a battle of wills.
“The older they get, the harder it is,” says Acredolo, who says that she doesn’t blame parents at all.
“So many sources of information are pushing for later potty training,” she says. Plus, since potty training is not a pleasant task, Acredolo says, “if parents are given any rationale for putting it off, they will.”
Pediatricians have bought the arguments for later potty training hook, line and sinker, she says. “A lot of them are saying that children are not physically able to be trained until 2,” she says. “And that is just not true.”
Acredolo admits, however, that when she was raising her own children in the 1980s, she believed what pediatricians were saying. Her own children not potty trained until they were around 3, she says.
These days, though, Acredolo, along with her business partner Dr. Susan Goodwyn, is part of a movement toward earlier potty training.
Acredolo and Goodwyn didn’t start out focusing on potty training, though.
They were pioneers in baby sign language, using it with hearing babies since the 1980s. In 1996, they published a book called “Baby Signs.”
In talking to parents who were using sign language with their pre-verbal children, they realized that parents were using the signing techniques to potty train their children, with great success.
That led to the realization that signing could help young children potty train at an earlier age. They developed a potty training program with a few simple “potty-time signs” that can be used before children are verbal.
There are plenty of reasons for children to potty train earlier than they do, including the following:
– Expense. Diapers and pull-ups aren’t cheap. Consider how much money is spent per week on disposable diapers or pull-ups. Multiply by 52. Compare to the cost of underpants.
– Environmental concerns. Disposable diapers are hard on the environment. Delaying potty training by a year can mean up to 2,000 extra diapers in the landfill, not to mention the resources used to make these diapers.
Consider that in one year, more than 7 billion pounds of disposable diapers ó which take centuries to break down ó go into landfills in this country.
– Infections. The longer it takes to potty train children, the greater the risk of urinary tract infections, particularly for girls.
In pre-school situations, more bacterial infections are spread as a result of children being in diapers.
“Kids put their hands in their diapers while they’re playing and then play with the toys,” Acredolo says, causing infections to spread.
– Constipation. This can become a serious issue for children who potty train late. Older children will often start “withholding,” Acredolo says, because they know that their parents expect them to use the potty, and then don’t want to. If those aren’t enough reasons, Acredolo offers another: “It’s fun,” she says, to teach children to sign.
Acredolo and Goodwyn’s signing method seems to take some of the difficulty out of potty training. Babies simply shake their fist, with their thumb between the index and middle finger, to indicate that they need to use the potty. That particular sign is used for the word “toilet” in American Sign Language.
Other signs are used in potty training as well, including the sign for “more,” which indicates to a parent that a child isn’t finished.
Acredolo realized just how backward American potty training practices seemed to other cultures when she and Goodwyn looked into marketing their potty training DVD in Poland.
When they mentioned that children who used the method would be potty trained by 18-24 months, “they laughed at us,” Acredolo says, because that would be considered late by Polish standards. —If you’d like more information about potty training with signs, go to www.PottyTrainWithBabySigns.com.