Potty Training Is a Scientific Mystery

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Photo: Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

I am not a parent, which means my closest brushes with potty training as an adult have been through my Facebook feed, where my friends who are parents post their frustrations over the matter. Sometimes, they post photos. (I really hate when they post photos.) 

But I’m beginning to understand their need to vent. Apparently, there is surprisingly little scientific literature on the best way to approach toilet training, as writer Laura Sanders pointed out in a recent post on Science News.

Some researchers believe you should let the kid “set the pace.”  Others argue parents will get quicker results if they take the lead. But no good study has yet pitted the child-led and parent-led approaches against each other, and so it’s not clear which is the best route. There’s not even a consensus on what age is best to start the teaching process; it seems to largely depend on the cultural context, Sanders writes:

In parts of Africa and Asia, toilet training can start in the weeks after birth, with babies achieving daytime and nighttime dryness around 6 months. On average, kids in Iran are toilet trained just before they turned 2, one study found. That early start used to be the norm in the United States, too. A study of Baltimore children born in 1952 found that about half were potty trained by age 2. Lately, though, that age has been creeping up. A 2004 study found that on average, kids were trained around age 3.

And that lack of consensus on the best age is a potential problem:

Start too soon and you can traumatize your kid, some people say. There’s not much evidence for that idea, but there does seem to be one downside to jumping the gun: Potty training might take longer. Younger kids (between ages 18 and 26 months) were able to toilet train at an earlier age, but it also took them longer, scientists reported in 2002 in Pediatrics.” 

So until the science catches up, what are parents supposed to do but to reach out to each other and exchange ideas? I get it. That doesn’t mean I love it or want it on my news feed. But I get it.