On the Potty: Why Americans Are So Slow to Get on With it?

At two-and-a-half, I thought we were doing quite well with potty training. Our child was out of diapers, on the potty, and we had made dismantling of the changing table a family project (it is now an art center where creation is king, and the clean up of bodily fluids is a mere memory). Then I remembered my few, but impressionable run ins with parents that were practicing elimination communication, a process by which a parent or caregiver uses timing, signals, cues and intuition to address an infantís excretive needs, partially or completely avoiding the use of diapers. My first run in with elimination communication (or EC) was years ago when I noticed a 6-month-old boy in my son’s playgroup was “going commando.” I politely asked his parents and they explained to me the finer points of EC, and how they had avoided using diapers for most of his infancy. These were also the same people who refused to use electricity after nightfall, as they claimed it disturbed their family’s natural circadian rhythm. Regardless, they were living diaper-free, while the rest of us were amassing diaper refuse beyond comprehension (according to a Mother Jones article from a few years back, A typical baby goes through 3,800 disposable diapers in her first 2.5 years).

Now whether you go the conventional route with mountains of diapers in your wake, or opt for a more progressive and ambitious method, like EC, at some point, all children must learn to take charge of their own elimination functions, and all parents/caregivers must be there to make sure everything turns out ok. The average age for “potty training” in the United States is between 24 and 30 months. However, until the 1950s, most children were using the potty in the first few months of life and completely trained by age 1. In the 1970s, 18 months was an average age to start. And for many cultures outside the US, like in certain places in East Africa, 6 months is, and has been, the norm since anyone can remember. What happened America? How is it that our young have become so accustomed to sitting in their own filth?

According to a recent piece on Salon.com by the author Heather Turgeon, ” Kids on the changing table have been getting older through the decades. It’s partly thanks to bigger and more absorbent diapers. But we’ve also pushed back toilet training because in the mid 1900s, psychiatrists and pediatricians started talking about it as a psychologically meaningful stage of life — if mishandled, a minefield for anxieties and personality problems.” Some blame Freud for making the toilet training and anal retention pivotal issues in the development of a child’s personality and ability to socially adjust. Others blame the corporate diaper enablers who manufacture diapers that are such outstanding performers and form fitting for weights up to 40 lbs, that they leave the parents and children unmotivated to make the move from diaper to toilet. Either way, American children are once again lagging behind and paying dearly for it in diapers and clean up.

There exist all manner of ways and motivators to get children out of the nappy and onto the potty, including bargaining, gifts, candy, and humiliating sing alongs (see below):

Still, most children take their own sweet time making the transition, and most parents are loath (no matter how sick of changing diapers they might be) to push the issue. Besides eating and drinking, going to the bathroom is one of the only things a kid can truly control; if you take that control away, the prevailing concern is that you might put a dent in confidence, or trigger long term behavioral problems.

So what is it? Are Americans out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to making the move to the potty, or are we showing our kinder and gentler side by being ultra permissive? Should potty training or EC be the accepted norm at an early age? Has anyone out there tried something entirely new and had success or maybe failed miserably?


Eve S.
Eve Sabout a year ago

To the author of this article... Mystery solved. I'll tell you why Americans are so slow to potty train. There was a famous pediatrician in the 60's I believe, and 70's (I apologize for forgetting the name, I am a sleep deprived new mother!) and he had a very popular TV show where he answered parent's questions, etc. His show was sponsored by the diaper companies. He believed that babies should potty train whenever they were ready, even 3 or 4 years old. He spread those beliefs and the fear of "harming" children by potty training early. Americans bought it, hook, line and sinker and it was a win for the diaper industry. I kid you not, this is true, I read it in a book written by a journalist who interviewed this doctor in his old age and he admitted that the sponsorship was a conflict of interest. Look into it if you like. It would make a great post for you... We are going to take a laid back approach to potty training our baby when she starts walking, which will likely be soon... she's cruising and just turned 10 months. We bought a potty that looks like a grown up toilet, I'll just let her sit on it when I go and we'll see how it goes. I think it'll work better starting in a fun way, young. Kids love to imitate. I'm not worried... Anyway, the truth is, that is not a fact that potty training before age 2 is bad for kids, it was his silly opinion and people took it as the gospel truth because back in the day, if it was on TV or a doctor said it, it must be true. I know many

Joy S.
Joy s5 years ago

Setting your child on the potty right after meals does work...it takes effort but I had 6 children close and never two in diapers at the same time. Of course, you have to be a work-at-home mom which few are these days.

Joanne M.
Joanne M5 years ago

Interesting. Perhaps if parent were not using the super absorbent disposable but the old fashioned cloth diapers their kids would want to use the potty. I know when my daughter was little the only time she was in disposables was when I made my weekly trip into town to stock up. The rest of the time - day and night - she was in cloth diapers and she practically toilet trained herself.

Dawn C.

Sphincter control is developmental and unique to the individual but usually happens as a toddler (http://www.ehow.com/about_5438421_development-bladder-control-toddlers.html).

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Satyavani V.

I am from India, I do know that kids from wealthy families do a lot of things late compared to the children of their servants so to say, one of them is potty training.
If we expand our imagination and try to figure out about those kids in Africa who have to walk quite a distance to fetch a pail of water, how many needs does the pail of water meet? Yet they are alive and surviving and even thriving.
If only the word "disposable" becomes the dirtiest word ever what a wonderful world this would be!

Angie B.
Angela B7 years ago

When my first 2 kids were babies, I started responding to (perceived?) signs and sitting them on the potty around 7 or 8 months of age. They were dry during the day by the time they were 18 months old and dry at night around 3. My son may have been dry at night by the time he was 3 1/2. The rest of my children, all 5 of them, I kept in diapers until they were 18 months old, they were dry during the day by the time they were 2 and dry at night by the time they were 3. So seriously, I think that EB is great if you have lots of patience and time on your hands but I don't think it teaches them much younger than keeping them in diapers until they have a better understandind. Using EB was basically a method in which I was trained....lol. By saying they are dry during the day, I mean that they are indicating their need to use the toilet and having some limited skill with pulling down their underwear. When all is said and done, I've changed ALOT of diapers over the years so I consider myself somewhat of an expert. Although its nice not to have to change as many diapers in total, I believe that in the long run, leaving kids in diapers into their 2nd year is easier on both mother and child. I've seen alot of kids get messed up psychologically by well-meaning parents who push their infants too hard. I vote to relax and enjoy watching your baby grow up...there is plenty of time for toilet training....and school .... and learning to drive.....and leaving home for college........

Marie V
Marie V7 years ago

I'm curious if anyone has any advice for nighttime? My son has been potty trained for over a year, but can't stay dry most nights... but yes, I do send a "mixed message" by putting him in pull-ups at night. But I can't imagine how wet everything would be if I didn't. As it is, I usually have to change the sheets and PJs when he's wet in the pull-up! Pull-ups/diapers - they've always leaked at night for him - since he was an infant.

Julie Day
Julie Day7 years ago

When my daughter was born my mother told me to put her on the potty every time I fed her. I laughed at her and said it was too early, but when she had gone I tried to do this. It worked. She became used to doing this and she was potty trained so quickly.

Jessica B.
Jessica B7 years ago

Janice- I completely agree. We are not letting our kids grow up. My partner has a 16 year old daughter, and if you ask her to do something like call a restaurant to place an order for carry-out, she gets a stressed look on her face and has no idea how to proceed (same thing goes for doing a load of laundry or putting dishes in the dishwasher). All her life, her parents have been doing everything for her. Now, my partner is surprised when she can't do a simple task. I think part of it is that adults have busier lives and it's easier to do something themselves than teach a child how to do it.