Conventional Westernized baby-rearing wisdom states that the best time to potty train is some time after 18 months, the time at which a child can begin to control bladder and bowel function and respond to parent-led training. For instance, according to the Mayo Clinic, potty training should begin when children can communicate things like a desire to go and an interest in the potty, and remain dry for a period of time.
In recent years however, there is a community of people adhering to a concept called elimination communication, or the idea that you can potty train at infancy. This really begs the question, are we as a culture holding off potty training longer than we need to, and thus contributing to a landfill full of disposable diapers or laundering loads of cloth diapers longer than is necessary?
To attempt to answer this, it is helpful to take a look at potty training in different parts of the world.
Heading across the globe, frequently referenced as an example of infant potty training is the Digo tribe, found in East Africa. In this culture, infants are trained as early as six months! Dr. Steven Parker describes their method on his Web MD blog as a process where the infant is worn at all times and when they show subtle signs of being ready to eliminate, they are whisked outside and held over the ground or other appropriate place. Paramount to this method is a gentle approach with no punishment, pressure, or rush for the child.
But remember, this is an African tribe. It’s warm there. They don’t have costly furniture in the house or need to drive twenty minutes to the grocery store or three hours to Grandma’s. The family structure and expectations on motherhood are inherently different than those of a more Western culture. But regardless, their method does in fact work for them.
And then there’s China. In China children wear split bottom pants – essentially pants that are open in the place that needs to be open when you use the bathroom. These are not subtle, the baby and toddler bums are open to both the weather and the view of the public. The web is full of picturesillustrating these pants, mostly on blogs where Westerners try to make sense of this unfamiliar view. One thing to know about Chinese toilet training is that it is culturally acceptable for the young one to relieve themselves in public, including on public transportation and the sidewalk. It’s hard to imagine these things going over well on the North American continent.
As referenced on the website Potty Training Early, a look back at our own history shows that current guidelines and beliefs have only been in existence since the late 1950s, right around the time the washing machine made its appearance in homes, and the first disposable diapers hit the market. A combination of convenience and recommendations from leading pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton (who incidentally wasbeing paid by Proctor and Gamble, makers of Pampers, at that time) contributed to the ideas that toilet training should be child-led and later in toddlerhood, and the age at which we both initiate and expect completion of potty training has steadily increased since then. Makers of diapers have also increased the size of their product in response, thus allowing a child to stay in diapers as they get bigger and bigger.
One thing that stands out as you look at potty training around the world is that the actual definition of “potty trained” is quite broad. Does it simply mean a diaperless baby who goes in a socially acceptable location? Or does it mean the stage at which parental involvement is minimal and the child toilets more or less independently?
The real question seems to be, is potty training truly driven by child development, or is it by and large cultural? Perhaps Dr. Parker summarized it best:
“As long as it is a positive experience for the infant or toddler, as long as it is not done to win a competition, as long as it is done with humor and flexibility, as long as the child’s needs and abilities are respected, as long as it doesn’t somehow have a negative impact on your relationship with your little poop machine, it’s going to turn out OK, almost no matter how you play it.”