How new approaches to toilet-training reflect our changing parenting styles

by Ruth Nichol / 14 August, 2018
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For the first half of the 20th century, mothers were expected to toilet train by holding their baby over a potty after every feed from the time they were a month old.

Toilet-training is a necessary, if tedious, part of child-rearing. Whatever method you use – and there are quite a few – most children gain control of their bowel and bladder by about the age of four.

Teaching children to use a toilet is important for health and sanitation reasons. It saves time and if, like most parents, you use disposable nappies, it saves money. It’s also proof that you are capable of teaching your children to conform to societal expectations: we are harsh judges of parents whose children aren’t toilet-trained at an acceptable age.

And as Rita Robinson, principal lecturer in occupational therapy at Otago Polytechnic, has found, our changing approach to toilet-training provides a fascinating insight into our changing approach to child-rearing more generally.

“Because it’s done in all societies, but in different ways, it’s quite a good way of taking the pulse of what parenting is, and what child development is,” she says.

For the first half of the 20th century, toilet-training was all about the strict routines promoted by Plunket founder Truby King and driven – at least initially – by the need to reduce the high infant death rate caused by poor sanitation. Mothers were expected to hold their baby over a potty after every feed from the time they were a month old.

“Up to the 1950s, you sat and you did it, and if you didn’t do it, we’d give you prunes or an enema or a suppository to make sure you did do it,” says Robinson, who did research into toilet-training for a PhD.

But the Truby King approach began to change in the 1950s. By then, neuroscientists had established that children were not physiologically capable of controlling waste excretion until they were 18 months or older. At the same time, the arrival of Freudian-based psychoanalytical theories about child-rearing meant there was a growing interest in children’s emotional health.

Rita Robinson.

The result was that although toilet-training continued to be seen as important for children’s physical health, mothers were encouraged to start the process later. They were also expected to take a more child-led approach than they had previously.

“If a child didn’t want to sit, you were expected to respect that. Children started to have more of a voice, because parents were afraid they were going to emotionally harm their children.”

But you couldn’t be too lenient: down that road lay delinquency and poor mental health.

By the 1980s, Robinson says, another layer had been added to the process. As well as attending to their child’s physical and emotional health, parents were also expected to use toilet-training as an opportunity to extend their child’s cognitive development as the concept of “parents as first teachers” took hold.

More recently, environmental concerns have been added to the mix, with parents feeling pressured to toilet-train their children as soon as possible to cut down on the number of disposable nappies they send to the tip.

“The layers of responsibility have increased – it’s getting more and more complicated.”

Robinson says there’s no right way to toilet-train. Parents can use a range of options, from simply ditching nappies in warm weather to practising elimination communication (which involves learning to identify the signs that your baby wants to urinate or defecate) or running a three-day toilet-training bootcamp, which is becoming increasingly popular in the US.

She wonders whether the almost universal use of disposable nappies has made training harder, because children are now less likely to experience the discomfort of a dirty nappy. “Children need opportunities to practise and possibly these opportunities aren’t provided to children as routinely as they were before we had reliable disposable nappies.”

But whatever kind of nappies you use, she says, children can’t learn to control their bowel and bladder on their own.

“It’s not an innate skill – it doesn’t just naturally occur. It has to be taught and it’s about more than getting your poos and wees in the toilet. It’s a skill about communicating with others, a skill about self-regulation and a skill about society’s health.”

This article was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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