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Too Early to Toilet Train?

QUESTION: I believe you should start as soon as the child can walk, but my friend argues with me about this, saying I'm trying way too early. When should potty training begin?

ANSWER: Parenting cannot be learned in a vacuum and you are right to ask and wonder about these questions. One year (or sooner) is an average age for walking to begin. It is not considered developmentally sound to attempt potty training at this time for at least two important reasons.

First, your one year old is too young to consistently be aware of, much less control his or her bodily functions. She or he is too busy mastering the voluntary muscles involved in walking to even consider the nuances of controlling involuntary processes. It would be overloading your toddler's system to introduce an additional developmental challenge, especially one that he or she cannot be successful at achieving. This could cause delays in other areas of development that are primed for this time.

Secondly, an expectation to perform (even mildly) on the potty at this period in development could result in feelings of failure, inadequacy or general stress associated with toilet training. Early pressure could thwart the emotional sense of pride that coincides with successful toilet training later. Your child could miss out on the sense of mastery which is such a critical part of this developmental milestone when it occurs at the appropriate time.

Keep in mind that physical and emotional development are mutually occurring and influence each other. Natural stages of emotional and physical mastery build on each other and are best experienced sequentially in the naturally occurring readiness of the child. The natural period of time that consistent interest in toilet training occurs is usually between two and three years of age.

It is at this age that children have already mastered some sense of accomplishment from being able to successfully manipulate their environment in many ways. They can go get a toy for themselves, reach out to pet a cat, pull a book off a shelf, build a tower and use language to get what they want in the world. It is from this cumulative experience that the emergence of a separate, "confident" self emerges to master toilet training.

Self-regulation is a huge and prideful achievement because the child is aware of the accomplishment. Early toilet training often results in regression later on, which the child may experience as a sense of shame or failure, rather than pride and confidence.

Playing with the potty or observing others on the potty may prove interesting at one year of age. It may even serve as a kind of preparation for later toilet training, but it will not result in successful control of the release of complex sphincter muscles which are largely involuntary.

I am certain that your child will help you learn these things in a more concrete fashion than is explained here. Rest assured that parenting is not only instinctive, but learned from the feedback your child provides. No doubt the experience of motherhood itself will be your best teacher in helping you stay on track.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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