Once upon a time, there was a 1-year-old who boldly took her first steps toward the toilet, shedding her diaper along the way and liberating her fatigued parents from the financial and physical burden of carrying a diaper bag.
"Yeah, right," said Chris Pawllowski, rolling her eyes. The Gilbert mom quickly realized while potty training her first child, Jake, that the 1-year wonder is just a fairy tale.
Well-intentioned relatives (mostly grandmothers) usually perpetuate that fairy tale, and it’s the perfect example of what George W. Bush likes to call "revisionist history."
Studies show there’s no clear benefit to starting potty training before a child’s second birthday — it just prolongs the frustration of training because the earlier you start, the longer it takes to finish, according to researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
At the conclusion of a 40-month study, the researchers found that children who started training shortly after their second birthday needed 10 to 16 months for training. But those who started at 27 months needed five to nine months.
If parents want to start training before a child’s second birthday, they should keep their expectations realistic, pediatricians said.
Most children won’t have the physical and cognitive abilities necessary to ditch the diapers until 18 months at the earliest, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ "Guide to Toilet Training."
"The biggest mistake parents make is pushing their kids before they’re ready," said Phoenix pediatrician Pamela Murphy.
Still, there’s a lot of pressure on parents to train early. Sigmund Freud linked messed-up toilet training with a messed-up child. Then, there’s the notion that intelligence can be gauged by how early a child is potty trained.
Pawllowski said she felt like she had to start training Jake when he was 1.
"I thought ‘Gosh, he’s getting old,’ but it didn’t help," she said. Jake, now 9, wasn’t fully trained until age 3, which is average for most children, according to the academy.
Young mothers especially find it difficult to resist the pressure to train early. As soon as Amber Sikes’ daughter, Brooklyn, could walk, everybody started giving opinions about how and when the 1-year-old should be potty trained.
"I hear stuff all the time," the 22-year-old Mesa resident said as she watched Brooklyn put a cell phone to her ear and waddle off with a purse in tow.
A co-worker told her that in China, babies start at 3 months and are trained at 9 months. Other suggestions: Let Brooklyn run naked around the house so she’d learn to hold it until she got to the bathroom, or put her on the toilet and keep her there until she goes.
But when Sikes put Brooklyn on the toilet, nothing would happen — that is, until Brooklyn would get off the toilet and firmly state her opinion about the process by leaving a mess for her mother to clean up on the bathroom floor.
Sikes realized that Brooklyn wasn’t ready. She and Brooklyn’s father, Mike Larsen, have decided to wait.
"I don’t want to push her because it stresses me out and it stresses her out," Sikes said.
Sikes and Larsen believe their daughter will learn quickly. She’s already begun to imitate her parents and is quick to demand a diaper change.
"You can only keep sitting in your own poop for so long before you get tired of it," Larsen said.
• "Guide to Toilet Training" available through the American Academy of Pediatrics: www.aap.org
• Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting healthy development of young children:
Parents have tried many different tricks — some creative, some strange — to potty-train their children. Here are some of them. None has been proven by research.
• Turn the faucet on while your child is on the toilet. Running water will stimulate urination.
• Let your child run naked around the house and keep a potty accessible. When he goes on the potty, reward him with praise or a treat.
• For girls, make a chart and give a gold star every time she uses the potty.
• For boys, make the transition a game. Put Cheerios in the toilet and teach your little boy to aim for them.
• Keep it consistent. Take your child to the bathroom every hour and then after meals, snacks and sleep.
• Try Pull-Ups, or "fill-ups" as some skeptics call them. Some parents swear by them while others say they prolong the process.