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BABY SIGNS - Top 5 Myths about Potty Training

Dr. Linda Acredolo is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California at Davis and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of child development. She and Dr. Susan Goodwyn co-authored the best-selling book entitled BABY SIGNS: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, Baby Minds: Brain-building Games Your Baby Will Love and Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start and founded the Baby Signs Institute.


I remember very vividly what it was like to potty train my two children. The fact that they are now 28 and 23 shows you what an impression the whole business made on me! What do I remember the most? I remember worrying about when to start, how to do it, and how long it would take. My solution was to buy every potty training book on the market. These days the search for advice is both easier and cheaper as more and more parents turn to the internet, both for expert advice and insights from other parents.

Unfortunately, however, not all the information about potty training on the internet is encouraging. Here are just a few examples of the disheartening messages you're likely to find:

  • reports of more and more children nearing 4 and still in diapers,
  • news that diaper companies are accommodating older children with

ever larger diapers (now up to size 7!)

  • nightmare stories from parents engaged in potty training power struggles they can't win
  • negative attitudes about potty training and an aversion to starting the task.
Welcome to the current state of potty-training in the United States today.

Thanks to the convenience of disposable diapers and misguided advice from pediatricians to wait until children ask to be trained, the average age at which training is completed has risen to an all-time historical high (over age 3) and is continuing to climb! And don't be fooled by the term "pull-ups;" these are simply disposable diapers disguised to look like underpants.

This delay in potty training is taking its toll on the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 7.26 billion pounds of disposable diapers end up in US landfills every year, with each diaper estimated to take up to 500 years to decompose. What's more, according to National Geographic, the number of disposable diapers used in one year in the United States alone (18 billion) laid end to end would circle the world 90 times! And, unfortunately, many experts believe cloth diapers have different, but equally undesirable consequences.

How to account for this trend toward later and later training? Thanks to subtle and not so subtle propaganda from the disposable diaper industry, many parenting advice sources continue to perpetuate five myths about potty training, myths that work to the advantage of the diaper industry (by keeping children in diapers longer) but to the disadvantage of children, their parents, and the environment.

Here, in descending order, are the top five myths about potty training:

Myth #5: Children under 2 aren't "physically ready" for potty training

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), to actively participate in potty training, children must be physically able to:

  • Sense when they need to eliminate
  • Delay elimination long enough to get to the potty
  • Sit independently on a potty chair

At what age do these skills typically appear?

The fact that before the invention of the disposable diaper in the 1960s, children in the United States were routinely potty trained by 18 months is clear evidence that these abilities are available at least by early in the second year. Moreover, even today, parents in over 50 other countries seem to have no trouble figuring out how to potty train their children by 18 months. American children simply can't be that biologically immature in comparison to children from other countries.

Myth #4: Children under 2 aren't "cognitively ready" for potty training

According to the AAP, to actively participate in potty training, children must understand what it is they are supposed to do and be able to communicate about it-that is, be able to:

  • Associate the need to eliminate with using the potty
  • Understand simple instructions
  • Signal an adult when they need to go

Again, the fact that children in the past were routinely trained by 18 months indicates that the first two of these abilities are both available quite early and certainly by 18 months. As for signaling an adult, learning simple potty-time signs enables children to do just that even before they can talk. And we know from our two decades of research on signing that learning signs is not only easy, but fun, for children as young as 9 to 12 months.

Myth #3: Children under 2 aren't "emotionally ready" for potty training

Emotional readiness for potty training means a willingness to cooperate. According to the AAP, the likelihood of such cooperation increases after the first birthday with the emergence of the following:

  • A desire for independence and self-mastery
  • An interest in imitating others
  • A desire for approval

Anything, then, that increases the willingness of toddlers to embrace potty training automatically creates the emotional readiness that the AAP says is essential. So, when parents type "How to Potty Train" into their favorite search engine, what they need to be looking for are products that teach about potty use in such an entertaining way that children become inspired to join the "fun."

Myth #2: Children over 2 are easier to potty train than those under 2

This is one of the most misleading assumptions about potty training because the truth is just the opposite: Children over 2 are actually harder to potty train than children under 2! Here are the two main reasons:

The Terrible Twos: Children under 2 are less likely to have entered the dreaded "Terrible Twos" when oppositional behavior drastically increases and the word "No!" is so vehemently applied to anything a parent wants a child to do-including using the potty. That's why parents trying to train 2 ½- , 3-, and 4-year-old children so frequently end up in a battle of wills that they can't win. No parent can make a child use the potty.

A deeply ingrained habit: The older the child, the longer he or she has enjoyed the convenience of eliminating into a diaper and the more deeply ingrained the habit has been allowed to become. And as we all know, the more deeply ingrained the habit, the harder it is to break-especially if children don't see any advantage to doing so. Why should they disrupt their activities to do something they've spent their whole lives doing totally at their own convenience!

And the #1 Myth about Potty Training: Potty Training CAN'T be fun and easy!

What I've learned most recently from my own work with parents is that potty training doesn't have to be a battle ground! With the right attitude, guidance, and motivational resources for your child, this inescapable parental challenge can be met with a minimum of anxiety for you and your child.

I've learned all this from families who have used the resources my colleague, Dr. Susan Goodwyn, and I developed to help toddlers learn potty training more easily. The key is to make communication easier by helping your child use simple potty time signs to indicate their need to use the potty. You can help increase their motivation and make potty training a positive learning experience and a fun time by taking advantage of the various tools available today.

If you do this, I'm betting that 28 years from now what you'll remember is that it wasn't so difficult after all!


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Linda Acredolo, Ph.D. & Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D. are Co-founders of the Baby Signs® Program and creators of the Baby Signs® Potty Training Program, which was recently featured on the television show The Doctors

To see how the program works, hear what real parents have to say about it and down load free potty training resources for your child

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