Who really decides the best age to potty train our children? Is it us, our child, our pediatrician, or the diaper companies?
I’ve spent a lot of time doing research on the best age to potty train. Potty training interests me. I know, I’m a weirdo. Being a scientist, I like to trace things back to their roots, find out why things are the way they are. But I have really struggled with that on this particular topic. There is plenty of information out there about different potty training methods, a little bit on the history, even less on how it works in other parts of the planet, and virtually no scientific studies to back anything up. This is something that every human being experiences during childhood, so how can we be so seemingly clueless about it?
As Americans, we have been confused about the appropriate age to potty train from the early 1900s. In 1914 there was a document published entitled “Infant Care” by the Federal Children’s Bureau which stated the best age to begin toilet training was three months old. Three months! I am all about starting young, but even for me, that is a little much. By the 1940s and 50s, the average age of the potty trained child was a much more realistic 18-months. This was in the days of hand washing cloth diapers, so parents were understandably adamant about the issue. By the 1980s, disposable diapers (and washing machines) were in the majority of households. It was also around this time, under the suggestion of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, that pediatricians began supporting the idea of “waiting until the child is ready”, otherwise called the child-oriented approach. Advocates for this method feel that forcing potty training too soon would have negative psychological effects on the child that would prolong into adulthood. No one wants that of course. So by 2001, all of a sudden the average age of potty trained children in the U.S. had more than doubled to 37-months. In the late 2000s, Pampers even launched a diaper for children who weigh more than 41-pounds, the weight of some 5-year olds.
Let’s talk for a moment about age averages across the globe. It has been documented in underdeveloped parts of the world, such as India or Africa, that the potty training age is significantly younger. Many children are potty trained before they can even walk. The main reason? There are no diapers! Here, our babies are wearing diapers from the time they are minutes old.
The disposable diaper industry generates about 6.5 billion dollars in revenue every year in North America alone. In fact, the creator of the child-oriented approach mentioned above, the late Dr. Brazelton, was the chairman of the Pampers Parenting Institute. It leads me to ask, is it possible we are being persuaded by diaper companies to postpone potty training?
Don't get me wrong, I’m not anti-diaper. Both of my kids were in diapers until they were potty trained at 20- and 25-months. Diapers are super convenient. There is no mess, no having to stop what you’re doing to rush to the bathroom, no wet sheets to change. I just don’t think we need them for 3, 4, and 5-year olds. If they didn’t make a diaper big enough to fit your child, you would have no choice but to potty train them.
I’m also not saying the child-oriented approach is bad for all families. You as parents know your children best. But don’t go that route because you feel guilty about taking control over potty training. Just because you initiate it, does not mean it has to be a bad experience. If anything, it can be a great bonding event and if you time it right, it can be much quicker and easier than waiting for your child to say, “I want to use the toilet”. Which, let’s be honest, there is no guarantee that will ever happen. From what little research there is, there is no proof that earlier potty training has any negative effect.
I think that instead of asking what is the best age to potty train, we should be asking what is the best time to potty train. I view these two things differently, and they are likely different for each child. So, to determine the best time to potty train, think of the following indicators:
Communication – You do not want to begin potty training unless your child can communicate to you in some way, either verbally or physically, that they need to go potty.
Easily Impressionable – You will find at some point that your child shows particular interest in the everyday things that you do, and they will often start mimicking you. Introduce them to the potty, show them how it works. Children’s brains are like sponges, they will retain all this information for future use.
Eagerness – Your child will go through a period where they are eager to help and do things for themselves. Use this to your advantage! They will get a great sense of pride from being able to go potty on their own, especially if they feel like they are helping you.
These indicators usually present themselves between the ages of 18 and 30 months. Once you get beyond the 30-month mark, children become more independent, defiant and stubborn. They become their own little people – which while amazing, can be very dangerous for trying to introduce such a big change. This makes the “waiting for them to be ready” tactic a very tricky line to walk.
In conclusion, not only will potty training earlier save you hundreds of dollars in diapers, you will help save the environment, and most importantly, you will save (at least some of) your sanity. Chances are your little one is just waiting for you to take the reins and teach them this new lifelong skill.