Potty Training Tip: Earlier Isn't Better

Early Start Doesn't End Toilet Training Sooner

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April 7, 2003 -- Here's a potty training tip: Starting sooner doesn't mean ending sooner.

Potty training usually isn't easy. Parents in a hurry to get it over with may start potty training before the child is 2 years old. A new study shows this won't do any harm. But for most children, it will take longer than if training started at age 24-27 months.

The study comes from a research team led by Nathan J. Blum, MD, director of behavioral pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The researchers followed 406 children from age 17-19 months until they were potty trained. They focused on when parents began "intensive" toilet training -- meaning asking the child to use a potty more than three times a day.

"For most kids, intensive toilet training the child before about 24-27 months doesn't seem to have that much benefit," Blum tells WebMD. "Your child won't be any younger when he or she completes training, and it will take you longer. Waiting beyond three years doesn't seem to have much benefit, either. The kid is much older, but it doesn't go much quicker."

So what's Blum's tip on toilet training? The potty training tip that's right depends on what the parents want.

"Between 27 and 36 months, it seems parents have a choice," Blum says. "You can start on the younger side, in which case it will take a bit longer, but the kid will end at a younger age. Or you can wait. Your child will be older when toilet trained, but it won't take quite as long or as much effort."

These findings were true for about three out of four kids in the Blum study. But about one in four kids turns out to be a potty prodigy.

"There were 81 kids in our study who toilet trained without their parents ever reporting asking them to sit on the toilet more than three times a day. They just toilet trained earlier," Blum says. "There may be a group of kids out there that is just easier to toilet train. If a parent sees the child is almost there, but is not quite 27 months old, I wouldn't say to them, 'Hold off.'"

How do you know if you're one of the lucky parents? A gentle test can't hurt.

"I think sometime after 18 months, it probably makes sense to make a potty chair available to your child," he says. "Maybe ask them sit on it around bath time, just to get them exposed to it. If you have one of the kids who are really interested and want to do it, and you just make a suggestion and your kid wants to do it and makes progress -- go for it. But for about three quarters of kids, the parents really need to work at it."

Here's another way to look at the findings. Blum found that for most kids:

  • If you start intensive potty training younger than age 2, training takes more than a year.
  • If you wait until age 2 1/2, training takes seven or eight months.
  • If you start around age 3, training takes 4 to 5 months.
  • Waiting longer than age 3 doesn't make training any shorter.

Timothy R. Schum, MD, director of medical pediatrics at Milwaukee's Medical College of Wisconsin, has led several studies of potty training. He says his data generally support Blum's findings. He notes that kids vary by as much as 15 months in when they are ready to toilet train.

"I think there is a window of opportunity for a lot of kids," Schum tells WebMD. "That window is the age of 24-30 months. At that age, kids are probably ready and if their parent sees signs they are ready, they should begin. The things we're routinely telling parents is if the child is interested in going potty, if the child can stay dry for a couple of hours, if the child wants his or her diapers changed, and if the child has some way to let you know he or she wants to go, it's time."

Waiting beyond age 3, however, may not be wise.

"For some children, not all, eventually they can get beyond the stage where they are interested in toilet training. Then they don't want to do anything," he says. "One associate of mine is in early childhood education. She has heard more and more of teachers seeing kids age 4 and beyond who are not toilet trained."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Pediatrics, April 2003. Nathan J. Blum, MD, director of behavioral pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Timothy R. Schum, MD, associate professor and director of general pediatrics, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and medical director, Downtown Health Center Pediatric Clinic, Milwaukee.
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