Toddlers have a lot to learn. Just as they are mastering basic motor skills and early speech, they also need to start learning how to use the potty and sleep in a “big kid” bed. Below are tips on how you can successfully train your little one to use the potty and sleep in their own bed.
Relax about potty training
Each child is different. Some children may start to potty train before they are three, while others aren’t ready until they are nearing their fourth birthday. Even if you are ready to stop changing diapers and pull-ups, it will be a smoother process if you wait to let your child start potty training when they decide they’re ready.
“The best approach to potty training is not forcing it,” says Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and the Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children’s Health℠. “For children who are having trouble potty training, it can become a battle of wills. It’s not productive.”
Dr. Holland says that children who aren’t ready to potty train can become anxious about this scary, unfamiliar life change, which can lead to resistance. It’s better to wait until your child indicates they are ready to start potty training. This will make the process much easier for both the child and parent.
When your child is getting near the age where they may want to potty train, you can start introducing the topic in positive, low-pressure ways. For instance, you can read them books about potty training, have them play “potty” with dolls, let them play with and even practice using a child-size training potty, and/or model good behaviors by talking to them about how you use the bathroom and wash your hands.
If you do get a training potty for your child, don’t push them to use it. Let them sit on it fully clothed while in the bathroom to get used to it. You want them to build up positive (or at least neutral) feelings about the potty.
When your child gets more interested in actually using the potty, be supportive but not pushy. Give them lots of praise each time they use the potty, but don’t push them to use it all the time. Don’t get angry about spills or messes. Let them move through the potty training steps at their own pace.
“As embarrassing as it may be to have a five-year-old in pull-ups, if you’re still dealing with potty training, that’s ok,” says Dr. Holland. “Tell your child, ‘When you’re ready to move on to the next step, we can move on to the next step.’ If they are given some control over the potty training process, it is often more effective.”
Setting rules for sleep
While it’s important to take a relaxed approach to potty training, parents may have to be stricter for sleep training.
“Many parents will say, ‘It’s okay that they are sleeping in our bed; it’s helping them sleep,’” Dr. Holland says. “But at some point, you have to enforce that sleeping in your own bed is important. You don’t want your child to be 10 or 12 and still sleeping in bed with mom and dad.”
Sleeping in your own bed doesn’t provide the same motivation as an uncomfortable wet diaper, Dr. Holland says. Therefore, parents may need to step in and set rules to change sleep behaviors.
First, try to identify if there are any anxiety issues that are affecting your child’s ability to sleep alone. Are they afraid of the dark? Is sleeping on a different floor of the house than their parents bothering them?
“Sleep problems are often driven by anxiety, especially at young ages,” says Dr. Holland. “You have to push your child beyond their comfort zone, but be sensitive about how to do that, and do it gradually.”
For instance, you may install night lights or sleep in a guest bedroom on the same floor as your child for a short time. If your child sleeps next to you every night, set a rule that they can only do that every other night. The allowed frequency should decrease gradually over time. Enforce the rules, even if your child protests. If your child’s anxiety about sleep persists or worsens, it may be useful to consult with a pediatric psychologist who can work with you and your child to develop an individualized plan to promote improved sleep behaviors.