Life Mothers & Babies

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Family Life: How do I toilet train my three-year-old son?

Toilet-training problems: it's typical, following the arrival of a new baby, for older siblings to regress.
Toilet-training problems: it's typical, following the arrival of a new baby, for older siblings to regress.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Q I have been toilet training my three-year-and-eight-month-old son for seven or eight months now.

He was dry during the day, more or less, for months. We would remind him to go to the potty-toilet and he would generally go. He never really told us he had gone to the toilet or if he had to go; he only told us if he had an accident.

We recently had a new baby and since then all has changed. He has regressed -- wetting during the day and crying when we ask him to sit on the potty. I understand regression is common but I am uncertain what way to continue with things now. He does not do his poos in the toilet and will hold on until night-time when his nappy is on. I'd love some advice and guidance.

A You are correct to spot that regression is common amongst older children when younger siblings are born. Usually it is a very unconscious response from the older child.

They see their new baby brother or sister being helpless, having everything done for them and getting lots of love and attention into the bargain. It is a natural and unintentional association that they make between the helplessness and the love and notice.

It is as if they are reminded briefly of their own experience of being totally cared for, almost enveloped, and so slip back into more immature ways of talking, behaving and interacting in order to try to recreate this warm, nurturing experience.

But how frustrating for us parents! Children who had moved to using cups can want to return to using bottles; older children can revert to using 'baby' voices and it can seem as if all they want is to be on your knee or in your arms. It can feel overwhelming.

In your situation your son has reverted to having many toileting accidents and is perhaps unconsciously trying to give you a message that he isn't as grown up as you thought he was.

So, before you resume your toilet-training efforts, I suggest that you empathise with him about what it is like being a big brother. Let him know that you understand that he can feel a bit left out with all the attention that his little brother or sister is getting.

Even if you have been really diligent in including him, showering him with individual attention, he may still feel a bit left out.

What you are trying to do is to put yourself into his shoes and see the world from his perspective.

Let him know, too, that you recognise that it can be hard to be the big brother who has many expectations made of him and his behaviour. Then reassure him about the many things that you love about him and about the things he can, and does, do at the age that he is.

This is akin to building up his self-esteem and so your focus needs to be on his sense of capability and his sense of lovability. So while you are focusing on all the many positive things that you see him doing, reduce your focus on his toileting and try to ignore or downplay the accidents.

When he seems a bit more secure in his older-brother status then you can have another go at training him to use the toilet for both his wees and his poos.

I would suggest that you get an insert for the toilet (and a plastic step to stand on or to rest his feet on when sitting) and dispense with the potty. Because he is now that bit older and you are having a second go at training him, it should feel different to him to be using the big toilet.

It may fit a bit better with his new-found status as the competent and confident big-brother, perhaps commenting to him things like: "only big boys can use the toilet, babies can't do that yet."

Encourage him to be conscious of the feeling in his tummy of bursting to go when the pressure of the wee in his bladder is noticeable to him. This may get him to be more proactive in knowing when he himself needs to go, rather than being reliant on your prompting.

Similarly, when he needs to do a poo he should feel some level of distension in his lower bowel and an equivalent pressure and urge to poo. Help him to make a conscious link between these physical sensations and the behaviour of going to the toilet.

You may find that a brief reward system might also help to start him into a better pattern of using the loo. Generally any formal system, like a star chart or a points chart, will have a limited time span of effectiveness. Usually they work great for a couple of weeks then stop being so effective.

If you do decide to use a star chart then link the receipt of stars to using the toilet at all, never mind what he performs while there. So, if he has an accident and wets himself but then goes to the toilet to finish off he is still entitled to the reward. This means that he will learn that it is better for him to use the toilet than not.

You might also want to encourage him to stand when weeing -- "like his daddy does" -- and then put a cork or a small piece of bread in the toilet bowl for him to aim at. You have no idea how reinforcing it is for small boys (and even big boys!) to have some target practice time.

Making toileting relaxed and fun will also take some of the pressure and stress from it that may have built up over the last few months of accidents.

I have a whole chapter in my book 'Parenting is Child's Play' dedicated to toilet training and there may be some more ideas there too.

Try not to be too discouraged by his slowness to train. The arrival of the baby and his natural developmental trajectory may have just coincided to put a glitch in the works, but patience and time will have him back on track.

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