Every new family has its trials and tribulations. We were luckier than most: breastfeeding was a breeze, weaning a doddle, even the sleep deprivation was bearable. But toilet training? This was our Everest. Our two-year old proved highly resistant to the potty, but was equally adamant she would no longer wear nappies. It was a challenging time, but eventually we got there: our daughter is now a confident three-year-old who happily nips to the loo when nature calls, something that at some dark points last year seemed almost unthinkable.
As I discovered, there's a wealth of advice out there, from parenting manuals to health visitors to threads on mumsnet.com. But it's important to think about your individual child and tailor the solution to fit their personality and aptitude. Every child is different: some are ready to start training at 18 months, others closer to 32 months.
"Potty training is easier and happens faster if your child is truly ready in all three areas: physical, cognitive and social," says Elizabeth Pantley, mother of four and author of The No-Cry Potty Training Solution. "Your child should have the physical skills to walk to the bathroom, open the door, remove and replace his clothing, and wash his hands."
Try to make it exciting and fun from the beginning, with, for example, a shopping expedition for big boy or girl pants and some fun toilet-related reading from the library (There are lots of child-friendly books to choose from). It can be useful to build a routine of going to the bathroom at regular intervals, such as in the morning, after mealtimes and before bed.
"Children need to go to the toilet every two hours or so," says Pantley. "Keep to this schedule, so that your busy child doesn't wait until the last minute and end up with an accident."
It can be useful to have a travel potty so your child can use it in a hurry when out and about. And make sure childminders and nursery staff know the approach you're taking to ensure consistency. Beyond this, the key words are patience and encouragement. "Even those who have been trained for six months or more may have an accident once a week," says Pantley. "The best solution is to be prepared with proper cleaning materials, easy access to a change of clothes, and a relaxed attitude."
Pile on the praise and don't be afraid to use bribery to aid the positive reinforcement. Many parents use sticker charts, while others up the stakes with chocolate buttons or lucky-dip present bags.
Beverley Pickstock, the mother of three-year-old Niamh, swears by the power of the sticker chart. "We'd been potty training for about two months, but were still having lots of accidents, so I felt we had to try something else. I got some stickers and a book to stick them in, which I carried everywhere, and within two weeks we were done. We haven't had an accident since."
Diana Farrington also backs the sticker route. Her son James, now four, was potty-trained within a week at the age of two and a half. "We had lots of cheap potties around the house so he could always get to one, and lots of pairs of fun pants. He collected stickers for sitting on the potty and for every success, and for every 10 stickers he would get a treat. The first couple of days, there were lots of accidents, but within a week he had it."
Not every child makes such an easy transition. Some will refuse to cooperate, possibly because they feel overwhelmed. This is when parents need to draw on their reserves of patience. "Praise him for the things he can do, no matter how small, and build from those," says Pantley.
It's worth bearing in mind that serious problems are rare. According to Dr Debbie Ford, a clinical psychologist with the Luton Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, about 7 per cent of boys and 3 per cent of girls aged five are still having problems with wetting, and by the age of 10 it's about 3 per cent of boys and 2 per cent of girls. But while it helps to get perspective on the problem, at the time it can become an all-consuming issue. Ford says it's useful for parents to recognise how they are feeling about toilet training too. "If you start feeling frustrated or disappointed, that's natural and OK. However, try to deal with these feelings away from your child, using your own support networks. Even the slightest disappointment that they didn't make it to the toilet in time may be noticed.
"It's important to talk to someone, away from your child, so you don't bottle up those feelings, as it can enable you to be enthusiastic and encouraging with your child. Give lots of positive reinforcement, not just about doing the job, but also about your child learning to communicate their toileting needs."
Ford suggests talking with your child about the emotions evoked by toilet training and giving reassurance.
There is an alternative to toddler toilet training, and that's to never use nappies in the first place. Some parents use a technique called elimination communication (EC), based on a newborn's physiology and signing, to toilet-train them. It sounds incredible, but it works, says Amber Hatch, mother of two-year-old Morrigan and founder of an EC support group in Oxford.
"I started EC for environmental reasons, but I discovered there's much more to it than that. It's an amazing bonding experience and an extra way to communicate with, and understand, your child."
According to Hatch, it's best to start young: under four months is optimum, but after six months it gets harder because your child has been trained to use a nappy. "Little babies have an instinct not to soil themselves and EC is about tapping into that instinct," says Hatch, adding that Morrigan hasn't pooed in a nappy since she was three months old and has been largely dry from four months. This is a liberating experience for parents: no change bag, no nappies, no wipes and no nappy rash.
There are, it seems, many routes to the Everest of a happy and toilet-confident child.
Useful websites and helpful aids
Problem-busting tips: www.pantley.com
For support: www.mumsnet.com
Elimination communication: www.nappyfreebaby.co.uk
Bibs & Stuff Potette Plus: a foldaway travel potty and trainer seat, available from Boots for £12.99. A simple solution to toilet training when out and about
My Jungle Family Potty Chair: available from Mothercare for £12.99. More comfortable and robust than some of the smaller potties
Step-Up Stool: a wide range available from Mothercare, from £4.99 to £19.99. A useful aid so children can graduate to independent use of the toilet
My Wee Friend: available from Amazon for £3.95. A sticker that changes into a friendly face when the potty is used.
Pirate Pete's Potty, by Andrea Pinnington. Available from Amazon for £4.72. Learn to use the potty with Pirate Pete and press the "cheer" button as you read each page
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