A Case for Delaying Potty Training Until Age Three, if not Four

I get it. You’re under pressure to potty train your child. Maybe relatives are breathing down your neck. Maybe your child’s daycare demands it. Maybe you feel this is a mark of independence. Whatever it is–you possibly can’t delay potty training. But that is exactly why I am writing this article. Maybe if I make a case for delayed potty training, more people around you will be understanding of it.

I’m Amber. I do age-related child development work. I document when children “act up” at age-related times But following this demanding “stage,” children have some new ability. Their brain was going through an upgrade. I document the irritating behaviors and the new abilities. Send your parent friends to www.theobservantmom.com.

Potty Accidents are Not a Stage

I’ve long stayed out of potty discussions. The one and only thing I have insisted on is that potty accidents are not related to the age-related stages.

That potty accidents are just a “stage” or related to stages has been the long-standing view of many, and I cannot lend support to it. Chalking up potty accidents to a stage at least gets parents to back off of the child. But there are pediatric urologists who insist that potty accidents are a medical issue. A child might be constipated, have a UTI, or some other issue. When doctors investigate it, they find real issues. So I am pretty insistent that potty accidents NOT be linked to the milestones. If a child is having accidents, I encourage people to see a doctor (preferably a specialist) or investigate the issue by reading books on the issue. It’s No Accident by Dr. Steve Hodges helped me.

But given I have been involved in parenting activism and supporting parents for years, I have seen dozens if not hundreds of posts about potty issues. Of course, yes, there is a negative bias in the data sample here. I am only seeing parents when they have an issue. In the background, there may be parents doing wonderfully with early toilet training that I’m not seeing. And if you are–cool. I’m not here to stop you from doing whatever it is you find best for your child or want to try out. But of what I do I see, I see that parents can really, really struggle with children who are potty trained at age two and three.

The Issue: Consistently Going

It’s true that children can learn to use a toilet as young as 18 months. They can go through the motions, take off their underwear, sit on the potty, and go.

But what is soon going to be asked of them they may not be able to handle: at any time, if you have to go, get to a potty. But–wait. If you aren’t near a potty, hold it. Go, stop. Stop, go. Like that. No, not like that. We want them to have this consistent disciplined control over their bodily functions, using their cognitive brain to guide all of it, and I am not sure their brain is mature enough yet.

I was told by a teacher once that children absolutely CAN potty train early, because she’s seen it. Ok. I see the parents. I see what happens at home. Children are having both day and night accidents. They don’t want to get into–or out of–a diaper. They get upset their clothes are wet. They get upset they got their parent’s clothes wet. They are waking up at night, upset. And, no–no amount of “letting them get dirty so they want to use the potty” works. They get dirty and just get upset.

Training before they are truly ready can bring on problems, which can compound. Holding too long in and of itself, which two year olds are known to do, can contribute to potty accidents. It stretches out and abuses the bladder. Now add on top of this the typical Western diet, which is low in bioactive foods like fruits and vegetables, high in dairy, and high in processed carbs, which arguably contributes to constipation, and you have a recipe for many potty issues.

Some have told me their child does well with potty training at age two and that they manage night accidents by withholding liquid at night. You see, they aren’t potty trained then. A child should not have to be denied important water or liquid to avoid accidents. This is a sign they cannot actually manage it well. And the night accidents may have nothing to do with “too much” liquid intake. It may still be a sign of a medical issue. Or simply that they were trained too young.

Early Potty Training is Not a Sign of Independence

I propose that it’s entirely OK for children to not be potty trained at a young age. I think the ideal is for them to comfortably go in a soft diaper of any sort, totally oblivious to their bodily functions, until they are really good and ready.

I propose this was the natural state of humans for eons. Children (and people) just went wherever. I mean, within reason. But wherever. Children didn’t have to get to a toilet. If they needed swaddling clothes, moms carried children for so long that they just kept them in such clothes. Potty training is not a mark of independence. It is a mark of compliance with modern adult life. And potty training really does not necessarily make it easier on caregivers.

A Case to Wait Until Age Three, if not Four

I’ve long wondered when the ideal age to potty train is. If your child is super into it, then, sure, go for it. You can always go back to diapers or adjust later. My daughter, my second, was like this. I don’t even remember potty training her. She just took to it instantly. I think she was around age three when we did it. I don’t quite remember.

But if a child isn’t taking to it or it’s not working, I recommend waiting until their early fours, if you want to and if you can. Here’s why.

There is a milestone at 4.1 [year.month] that I named Identification of Internal States. You might be able to tell by the name why I recommend waiting to potty train until this milestone.

At this one, they can identify their internal states. They can recognize they were previously sleeping and now they are not. They babble on and on about what makes them happy and eventually also what makes them jealous and angry. They can identify other’s emotions, as well. And in understanding that other’s have x emotion, they work with the person to find an authentically agreeable solution when conflict arises. Before, in their late threes, they were bossy. They told you to go do what you want. They are going to do what they want. Now they will actually monitor your emotions as they pitch ideas and keep changing until they hit the jack pot. I think that they are capable of this emotional monitoring is of note.

A young child’s ability to correctly identify their own internal state is one that grows in a nuanced, complex way. In their early threes, if you place two stuffed animals facing away from each other and ask the child if the two animals can see each other, they might say yes. They don’t even recognize that the stuffed animal would have to be facing a certain direction to see. This changes at 3.3, Brings Things Close and Booms Things Away. They in fact become intensely interested in how to move things across any theoretical 2-D line, including sight. They’ll line up their stuffed animals and figurines such that they can see the others properly. They’ll have their favorite stuffed animal look through toy binoculars. However, if they put ear plugs in, they think YOU can’t hear them, when it is they who can’t hear you. At around 4.1., this changes. They realize if they have earmuffs on, they are the ones who can’t hear. They realize you see the things you see. In fact, you might expect jealousy if their sister can so as much see something and they can’t.

So this is what we are dealing with as far as a young child’s ability to correctly identify internal states. While they certainly feel the feelings of having to pee, fear, etc., and may even be able to say as such and act on them instinctively, their true recognition and regulation of them before age four is still quite immature. They are very egocentric. Quite simply, if they can see, it means you can see. That’s how they see the world. They are becoming their own separate entity from the world at age three, but they aren’t quite there yet.

Age three is also famous for being highly fantastical, something I write about in Misbehavior is Growth: 3 Year Olds. Three year olds pretend they steered a ship across the sea and can use superpowers to get to Mommy. I argue that these are “shock awarenesses” that kick off important development. Three year olds think they can shrink, that they can boom cars away, etc. But in thinking they can shrink, they try do it–and then get really good at judging distance. See The Hills of Child Development Age Three in which I talk about the developmental cycles that kick off from these shock awarenesses. These wildly fantastical thoughts come on suddenly. Three year olds don’t keep a consistently “rational” view of the world like adults do. They can all of a sudden think something totally whimsical, even if previously they seemed so rational.

So I am not sure we should be surprised that two and three year olds, who haven’t quite refined their ability to judge distance, who haven’t learned to separate their internal states from others, who don’t have a reliable sense of judging time, and who think they can use super powers to do things, end up having various potty issues. All of which may compound each other.

Ultimately when we ask a child to use the potty, we’re asking them to have good regulation of their own bodily systems. We’re asking them to feel something and act in accordance. I just don’t think many, if not most, children will have the maturity yet to consistently do that. Some now describe a Limbic Leap across all of age of four. It is described as, “a sort of bridge connecting our lower-level primitive brain functions with higher mental functions such as thinking, analyzing, and evaluating.” I think the development of this is quite relevant to potty training. And it happens at age four.

The other thing they can do at 4.1 is they can see the overview of a cycle. They can tell you that you plant seeds, they grow, and that’s how you get popcorn. They are intensely interested in debugging problems, such as why the remote isn’t working. They have a high level overview of the cycle itself. They can see the whole thing, the steps, and are able to fix or change a step if necessary. They take pride in not getting the rug dirty, if they are dirty, and they came up with a solution to prevent that from happening. This is another reason I think age four is more ideal for potty training.

So, yes. They can be trained to use the potty at young ages. It’s in consistently doing it, day after day, for the next few years, that I find doesn’t go reliably well for a lot of children.

We are Unfair to Children

Our culture as a whole has long been unfair to children. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault. We inherited it. I blame modern society and a sense that things need to be done on time or on a schedule. Clocks weren’t even synchronized worldwide until not terribly long ago. Children didn’t have to catch school buses by 7:12 am, and parents didn’t have to potty train by September 1. In the late 1800s, there was a big push to make parenting “scientific.” Mothers were encouraged to bottle feed instead of breast feed. They were told to get babies on schedules rather than feed on demand. See my refutation to this at my Infants page. We bossed kids around in the same way we bossed metal around to form into railroad tracks. You can read about this movement in the late 1800s in Ashley Montagu’s book Touching: The Significance of the Human Skin.

Psychology marched along with this, trying to resolve the spiritual with the scientific. The result was blank slate theory. This dominated most of the 20th century. It says a child’s emotions are programmable. We can tell the child what to value and set it at an emotional level. We can thus create anything we want in any child. We can make a scientist or a doctor out of any child whatsoever, as the Behaviorist John Watson liked to brag. I argue in MIG: 3 Year Olds that this is disrespectful to the prewired, authentic emotions in a child, designed to serve a purpose. And if we are unkind to emotions like this, it’s of no surprise that we are also unkind to the management of bodily functions.

Some Solutions

If you are dealing with accidents, I recommend putting a child back in diapers. It is not “failure” to do this. The issue most parents struggle with is patience. The issues that arise with potty accidents can enflame emotions like no other. It’s not worth it.

Urologists are pretty insistent that constipation is quite prevalent across western society and causes potty accidents. The stuck poop pushes on the bladder, squeezing pee out. Liquidy poop slips out. But even they say children with diets rich in fiber and who exercise a lot still face the issue.

I have read books specifically on constipation, and those doctors also insist on fiber–and copious amounts of it. But my own experience has been that fiber is overrated. Instead, bioactive food helped–both for me post pregnancy and my children. This means food as close to just being plucked from the ground as possible. It means lots of fruits and vegetables. If your child won’t eat these, I found what was more effective than fiber were probiotics. I learned about probiotics by reading Dr. Lisa Mosconi’s book Brain Food.

Backing off dairy can help. I also think letting them be in a diaper as long as possible helps. I pushed my first two children to be potty trained early. My first, ag age two. We ended up going back to diapers. My second, I got a bit better about. But, still at age three. We had on and off issues with both. I didn’t pressure my third to potty train. He started doing it on his own in his early fours. And we have yet to have any issue with him. He happily just goes. Some grunting. But he never dropped his head into his hands in tears when I asked him if it hurts to go potty–like my first did at age three, which utterly broke my heart.

I wrote this in response to the many posts I see on it. I don’t have the heart to tell people that, given the issues they are facing, they might stop or delay potty training. I let my blogs do the work for me. So if you know a parent struggling, perhaps send them this article.

See Misbehavior is Growth: Three Year Olds. I have my popular milestones, as well as expanded descriptions, conflict resolution ideas, and ideas to nurture the new brain growth. I argue against blank slate theory and in defense of letting children be true to their own rhythms.

Amber documents the age-related stages that children go through. Send your friends to The Observant Mom.

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