Potty Training: What Is The Best Way To Begin Potty Training?

Dear BabyShrink, What is your take on potty training? Just GO FOR IT, or let the child initiate it all? I have heard (or read) everything from "start at 3 months old,"; to "you can do it in ONE (or three) day(s),"; to "they'll get it when they are developmentally ready." We are in the midst of training now, but I feel like we're just limping along. I want it to be DONE, but I don't have time to spend 3 days in the bathroom with her (like some books suggest) or plan an entire party around the event (yes, a real suggestion for a "one day solution). I guess we're doing okay, but it's just a PAIN IN THE ARSE!

Katie Kat

Lawrence KS

Hi Katie Kat,

This is another issue that triggers tremendous parental guilt, stress and competitiveness. We think, “My kid is SUPPOSED to be fully trained by now….My Mom says I was potty trained at 18 months….He’s gotta be out of Pull-Ups before he starts preschool…The kid down the street has been trained for over 6 months now!”

But first, let me ask you this: What is the definition of “potty trained”, anyway?

For some, it means wearing underwear…except for away from home, pooping, and at night. For others, it means wearing a diaper, but (usually) peeing on request in the baby potty. And for still others, it means different things, on different days! Even most preschools, despite their protestations to the contrary, will actually work with your toddler on this one. So once we realize that there is a whole continuum of potty training (what some call “toilet learning”), we can relax a bit. The other thing is the grandparent issue. Yeah, I know your parents put pressure on you to get your kid trained yesterday…but the world is really a different place, now. I mean, if THEY had super-duper- absorbent diapers in the super-duper sizes we have now at CostCo, they wouldn’t have been in such a rush either, would they? And let’s face it, there’s nothing grosser than trying to help a tiny tushie balance on a disgusting gas station toilet…isn’t it easier sometimes to just change a diaper?

Forcing a kid to toilet train when they’re not ready is a recipe for disaster. Remember the “anal stage” from your Intro Psych class? Freud was getting at the fact that toddlers are fighting mightily to gain control over their own bodies. When we interfere too much, we start a struggle over power and control that we truly don’t want to win.

So, what to do?

All kids are different. I would suggest trying out one technique at a time, based on how the technique appeals to YOU and your schedule. TALK ABOUT IT with your toddler, using encouraging, simple language (and model it at home too! Dontcha love that?). Read humorous books together, like our current favorite, “Everybody Poops”. But regardless of technique, attitude is the most important thing. Don't fall into the trap of expectations/pressure/disappointment. Understand that accidents WILL happen, maybe even for months (or years: sorry!) after the initial potty training is "done". Don’t punish or scold for mistakes, and don’t press for progress when there’s a lull. Know that potty training often does progress in phases: dry at HOME, in the DAYTIME first....but diapers outside and at night. Then dry at night, (or not!) and so on. Some are lucky and it all happens fairly quickly....but for most, not so much! :) But it WILL eventually happen.

Good luck and aloha!

~~Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

I’d love to hear readers’ potty training stories and suggestions!

Parenting Tips: Dealing With 'Tics' in Young Kids

Hello BabyShrink! I have a six-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. They are like night and day personality-wise. When my son was between two and four, he had several “tics” including twiddling my thumb with his finger and his own belly button and nipple. He also had a pacifier in his mouth until he was almost four. This wasn’t harmful to him or anyone else so I never really worried about it. My daughter never took a pacifier. She has recently developed some habits that I may be able to overlook like my son’s, which he outgrew eventually – but I feel they are more damaging. She sits and scratches her legs, twists her hair into knots and pulls them out, and not only bites her nails but when she runs out of nail she chews on her fingertips. I thought I might get her a doll with lots of hair to twist and pull on to stop the hair pulling. Any suggestions for the rest of the issues? Some people have said tell her doctor she needs to be medicated but I think that is ridiculous! She is four!~~ Debby, Louisville, KY

Hi Debby,

The issue of tics is not discussed enough. This is a really common behavior, especially in young children. Studies show that between 20-30% of all school children will show these repetitive movements at some time in their childhoods.

Usually, tics peak at age 10-12. However, tics spontaneously disappear in the majority of all kids who have tics. So for most of us (present company included, though to protect a certain kid I'm not naming names!) who have kids who do weird repetitive movements like eye-blinking, shoulder-shrugging, facial-grimacing or throat-clearing, we simply should ignore it, and it will eventually go away.

The emergence of a tic, however, should initiate some thought and concern by a parent. Is there any undue stress in the child's life? How can we help the child to cope more effectively? The tic is a reflection of something else; some new stress or change in the child's life.  Approach the situation in that way, not by trying to control the tic.

It's thought that a tic is a way perhaps of "blowing off steam", and not at all under the child's voluntary control. Shaming them for it, repeatedly pointing it out, or making it a big deal is actually asking for more trouble – it could reinforce the habit, and trigger a power struggle between you and your kid (one you won't win).

There certainly are cases that need professional evaluation and treatment. Since a tic COULD be caused by a medical condition (I know of a case of "shoulder-shrugging" that was triggered by an undiagnosed neck injury), always involve your child's pediatrician in the process. If the tic does not go away over a period of 6-12 months, it starts to interfere with school or social life, or is associated with other problems (obsessive/compulsive behavior, attention problems, etc.), get a thorough evaluation that includes medical/neurology, psychology/psychiatry, and educational consults.

Now, back to your question, Debby. What you describe as "tics" in your son are really more under the category of "weird, annoying, but common toddler behavior". (How's that for a professional diagnosis?)  But what you describe in your daughter concerns me. Her behavior doesn't actually sound like tics to me. It sounds more like anxious behavior, and self-destructive anxious behavior, especially in a child this young, is worrisome. Of course medication is not my first thought, since you need a complete evaluation for your daughter to determine the cause of this anxious behavior. Have there been recent stresses or changes in the family? Has she experienced something traumatic? Those would be some of the questions I would ask if I was involved in evaluating your daughter.

Please reach out to your pediatrician, clergy, school system and friends to find a good licensed child therapist who can help you start to solve this problem. If you have more questions, I'm here.  Good luck and keep us posted!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

P.S. Follow this link to a nice article about tics in school children written by a group at NYU.www.aboutourkids.org/files/articles/tics_6_03_e.pdf

Parenting Tips: How To Handle a Sassy-Talking Preschooler

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a 3-year-old son and he is for the most part a good boy. However, he comes home from daycare upset because a friend at school tells him he isn't his friend anymore, or that he doesn't like him. My son takes it very personally and is starting to use phrases like "I'm not your friend" and "I don't like you" to my husband and me. How do we handle this? I tried talking to his teacher at school and she treats it like they are just typical toddlers. I just don't want this behavior to continue or get worse. We try time out, taking toys and TV away, but nothing seems to help.

Stacey Orlando

Hi Stacey, I know it's really hard when your precious little guy starts talking like that.  But don't take it personally.  He's just trying out the strength and power those new words have.  He sees how much impact they have at school, and wants to "try them on for size" at home.

Talk to him about the meaning you hear underneath the words....not the words themselves.  When he cries about his friends saying those things, say, yes, it's hard when friends say mean things.  I think your feelings are hurt.  We don't like to say mean things in our family.  But try not to dwell on it...the friendships of preschoolers are notoriously changeable.

If he says those things to YOU, try not to overreact, but use it as a lesson.  I think you heard your friend talking like that today, but I know you can talk more nicely.  If you're mad, say 'Mommy, I'm mad' instead.  Can we try that again? It's important that you don't get emotional about it. Remember that he's testing out some new phrases. Staying low-key about it -- but setting the limit about what's allowed (and what's not allowed) -- will help him to learn how to use his words most effectively (and politely).

Otherwise, you run the risk of putting too much emphasis on those powerful words, and he'll be tempted to get into a power struggle with you about it.

Let me know how that works!


Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: Dealing With Sensitive Boys And Emotions

Dear Dr. Heather,

Danny talks about his son, who is only a year younger than mine, having a propensity for tears. Our son is very similar. He is a budding perfectionist (as his mom was) and gets stormy when he can't do things right on the first few tries. It really, really bothers his dad, who was teased unmercifully by other kids when he was young and did the same thing. Danny mentioned that he tries to work through those moments with the Champ, and I was kind of hoping you might get him to share some of those specifics or some of your own. (I believe he did blog at one point about trying to make the Champ laugh when he saw such a situation arising in baseball, but if you or he have any other hands-on solutions, I would love to hear them!)

In one sense we are lucky, because being somewhat overly concerned with success has not kept him from trying things, as it did me. But it took me 20 years to learn that I didn't have to do everything perfectly to enjoy it, and I am hoping we can significantly shorten the learning curve for my son.


Donna, Rossville, KS


Hi, Donna,

I have a five-year-old who's a real perfectionist too (he comes by it naturally, like your son). Sometimes he does give up trying when it's difficult -- that real danger your son has sidestepped, so that's a great start already. As long as they don't give up and keep trying, what you're really asking about, I guess, is the stormy emotional reaction.

Does his reaction get him into trouble, say at school, or with his friends, like what happened to his dad? Or is the real problem your worry about his future possible perfectionism -- and his Dad's worry about his tears? Because there are different approaches, depending on where the problem lies.

If his emotional reactions DO get him into trouble, talk with him about what to do with his feelings, instead of breaking down. Make sure he knows that his feelings are always OK, but it's how we handle them that matters. Make a plan ahead of time, when he's feeling good. Practice some things that he can do instead: take three deep breaths (practice with him and you can make it a silly game). Help him find words for his frustration. "I wish I could do it right! It makes me so mad! "  Et cetera.

If he's doing well and it's really more of your worries, remember, he's young. You might want to observe his classroom; I'll bet there are a couple of other kids in his class who are similar. You might even ask his teacher about it; they have lots of experience in dealing with all sorts of kids, and often have insights that we as parents don't.

His perfectionism can really be an asset -- I'll bet you have found a way to make it work for you. Help him channel his energies into being productive and successful at what he loves.