QUESTION: My four-year-old daughter,
who was potty trained when she was 16-months-old, has had problems
with wetting her underpants and the bed. It's gotten so bad that sometimes
it happens more than once during the day and three to four times a
week during the night. I've taken her to see her pediatrician to be
certain there is not a medical problem. Her doctor thinks that it
is just something that happens and that she'll grow out of it. I try
not to make a big deal of it, but its driving me absolutely crazy.
ANSWER: Your daughter may be under too
much pressure to grow up fast. Inadvertently or otherwise, you may
have encouraged her playing with the potty so much when she first
showed interest in it. She then developed in her potty training to
gain approval instead of proceeding at her own pace. It is possible
that her partial regression and forgetfulness is due to being potty
trained too early.
Babies at 16 months of age are not considered developmentally
capable of physical control to the degree your daughter performed
at that young age. Areas of the brain that are involved in controlling
the sphincter muscles are thought to be too underdeveloped at this
age to perform potty training. Your daughter's early potty training
was a remarkable feat and no doubt largely forged upon your positive
reinforcement of the process.
Perhaps your daughter is currently experiencing some
exciting activities that absorb her attention in a new way. It is
often the case that children regress in one area of development when
progressing in another. For example, research shows that when children
challenge themselves to learn to read, it is helpful if they have
something to return to intermittently that was mastered earlier (such
as building blocks). It is thought that this gives them a period of
rest to assimilate new information and that the return to something
mastered lends confidence to the ability to learn something new.
In your daughter's case, a period of developmental
challenge in which she is trying to master greater control in some
area may be putting stress on an earlier part of her development that
was weakly, or precipitously established. Like a foundation brick
that was placed correctly, but not surrounded with mortar, an earlier
building block is pushed out under pressure.
Do not panic. Although you are trying to not make
it a big deal, your daughter is probably picking up your disapproval
and tension around the situation. You may need to work with yourself
in truly accepting her difficulty right now in a compassionate, not
just neutral, manner. Begin to look at the fact that your daughter
succeeds in not wetting her bed almost half of the time. She also
uses the toilet successfully all but once in a day. Instead of viewing
your child as doing something "wrong," consider how much she is doing
Become curious about this little girl's development
and what is so intriguing to her that she is sometimes forgetting
to use the bathroom during the day. How wonderful that she is capable
of such concentration and engrossment. Give her positive support for
her interests and lovingly wonder with her. Try to find out if she
is aware right before she does go to the bathroom successfully. This
may help her identify sensations of a full bladder more acutely. However,
do not pressure her about it. Simply wonder out loud, occasionally.
Laugh with her about how she becomes so involved in what she is doing
that she forgets. Join with her in a loving, even humorous way that
invites her attention to the problem without pressure.
Mostly, focus your energies on what new development
she is doing and establishing an attitude of compassion and acceptance
for working her way through this earlier phase of development. Some
reflection on your childhood and the nature of toilet training that
you experienced might also prove fruitful in helping you to relax
your concern. Were you trained early? Was humiliation a part of your
developmental experience? Did you learn toilet training with pleasure
or dread? Remember that many theories of child rearing have changed
over the past generation. It is your job to sort through what your
parents did in raising you that you want to keep and what you want
to throw away.
Your daughter "grew in" to potty training quite early
according to today's standards and knowledge of child development.
Your pediatrician's advice to you that she will "grow out of it" may
be more accurate than you realize.