I have been asked this question twice by friends in the month since my new book, The Practical Guide to Toilet Training the Autistic Child: Sensory-Motor Secrets to Success, came out.
My answer hasn’t changed, but my awareness of how other people view readiness has.
The short answer: You can train successfully much earlier than you’d think, based on popular culture, but only if you know exactly what you are doing, and adapt the standard approach for the child’s developmental level.
The long(er) answer?
The skills a child needs to master using the potty have not changed. Just like the sun rising in the east, their body needs to be able to hold enough urine and stool to not constantly eliminate. Their neurology has to signal urgency and they have to be able to connect those signals AS signs of urgency. Kids need to be able to climb on and off whatever they eliminate into (toilet/potty seat). They need to be able to follow your instructions, remember the sequence of actions, and want to either be independent, please you, or not want the consequences of an accident. They need to be able to remove clothing to avoid soiling accidentally, and they have to be able to wipe decently.
That’s about it.
Neurotypical kids can achieve this as early as 18 months of age.
That’s right. Not all of them. But a lot of them have all of those skills at 18 months. They follow simple directions and remember routines, know the right words, strip off their clothes to jump in the tubby, and run behind the couch when they feel the poop coming. They love pleasing you, and they know how to earn stickers to get treats.
So why are so many kids being toilet trained at 4?
Because many parents don’t know how to train a younger child. It is harder work; work that takes time and skill. By the time a child is 4, they have left some of the automatic defiance behind, they can answer complex questions and perform physical tasks with ease; they can practically do their own laundry. They can negotiate rewards like a lawyer. They can explain their thought process when they refuse to “go potty”.
It is simply easier to teach an older child to use the potty if you don’t know much about child development OR teaching children OR have no patience for kids.
The culture our great-grandmothers grew up in taught mothers how to get a child trained early. Sterilizing cloth diapers on a wood stove was a lot of work. Teaching them to use the outhouse saved a tremendous amount of energy, and got one kid off diapers before you gave birth to the next one. Their sisters, aunts, friends, and every other woman would teach them the tricks to working with a younger child. Everyone had big families, most women didn’t work outside the family or go to college, and were surrounded by kids all the time. These women understood how little kids think and move during toilet training. These tricks include more careful wording, rewarding, and more intense attention to non-verbal cues for urgency. If you don’t know them, you will fail and your child will fail. And the most important trick of all is taking the time to focus on potty training. Training a very young child means that this is a J-O-B. A big one. You go hard. Very hard. Or you will be boiling more diapers on that cloth stove…
Two of the strategies I use in my new book, specifically Targeted Pre-Training and Collaborative Diapering, are essentially what our great-grandmothers did before they decided it was time to go hard on training. Preparing a child to be trained doesn’t happen by sending them an EventBrite invitation! You have to develop skills. It doesn’t take the same amount of time that formal training takes, but it makes it a lot easier on both of you. You will still be diapering them. They will be learning along the way, and so will you. You will learn their strengths and needs, their pattern of elimination, and what types of rewards really matter to them.
For more information on my new book, read The Practical Guide to Toilet Training the Autistic Child: From Diapering Differently to Using Public Facilities . The strategies work for all special needs children, and they make training neurotypical kids a breeze!!