Month 24: Empathizing with the Diapered Toddler

Dear reader, I want you to pee yourself right now.

Can’t do it?   Neither can I.

Just like you, I find the idea difficult.  It isn’t that I am incapable of peeing myself through my pants and on my couch.  It is just that I have learned NOT to do that so completely and automatically that it is extremely difficult to override that.   I could pee in the shower, but still the idea of deliberately peeing myself in the shower still wearing my pants sets off some inner “no pee zone”  button.

If we use diapers, quite plainly, we teach babies and toddlers to go to the bathroom on themselves.     We may not want to think of it that way, but that is the reality of it.    Modern diapering methods and behavior reinforces this over and over for about two years (sometimes 3) and then, one day, the toilet is introduced and the expectation is that the toddler is to unlearn going in their pants and use the toilet like everyone else.     Okay, toddler, pee in the potty!    At current minimum, they’ve lived through 730 days and 4380 diaper changes, and suddenly it isn’t okay to soil yourself?   Ever wonder if they think their parents have lost their minds?

Unconditioning is really hard.    And I don’t think many people realize just how hard.   A few toddlers make the connection right away (the younger the easier it is), but the majority do not.  It takes time.   If this were not true there would not be countless books covering a dozen methods! Try one of the following experiments:

  1. We all have our own handwriting.   We no longer have to consciously think about forming letters at all.       I challenge anyone to change how they print just ONE letter.    If you print your lower case t with a tail on it, write it without one and if your write your lower case t straight like a cross, put a tail on it.      Be conscious of changing the writing habit of one letter you’ve established over years.    How long do you think it will take before you have to stop thinking about it?    How long do you think it takes to form a new writing habit without a mistake?    How long do you think it will take to not feel awkward writing that one letter differently?
  2. You don’t write a lot you say?    You can do the same thing with typing.    The next time you type up your blog or post, deliberately spell the word “the” backwards “eht”.     You’ll get the same effect.
  3. Not a good typist either?    Recite the alphabet backwards.

Has the toilet been introduced out of the blue?

Diapered toddlers are expected to do this.   Change an established, accepted and encouraged habit of at least two years, in a very short time. They’ve never had a need to be aware of their urine because the diapers soak it up, and they don’t need to be aware of pooping in their pants because no one pays it any mind until the act is done.   Their mind-body connection to elimination nor muscles of deliberate release have been exercised.    If you’ve ever been bed ridden for a while, you know how quickly your muscles become weakened from lack of use.    One of the reasons they do not convalesce people for a long time like they used to after a broken leg, for example, is that recovery became a long, arduous process; now they get you up and walking as soon as possible.   It will take a toddler who has been diapered, especially full-time, a little while to re-connect and learn how to release their sphincters consciously even when their  bladders aren’t full.

Toddlers who have been diapered all along, have been encouraged to ignore bodily expulsions and can not see them.     Some toddlers are more sensitive and come to hate diapers and others become very attached to them and others can not “go” without a diaper because they don’t know how.     Wearing a diaper puts pressure on the area, keeps it warm and there is no breeze.   Urine feels warm, spreads, and vanishes.   Pooping comes out against resistance from the diaper and also feels warm against the skin.   Toddlers often “go” standing up.

Peeing and defecating in a toilet or potty is wholly different experience and can be frightening for some.      There is the sensation of air and breeziness that has never been there before.   When urine comes out it does not spread, it just falls away and makes an odd sound.   Poop is pulled upon by gravity and falls away from the body and does not feel warm on the buttocks and encounters no resistance — a toddler may not even feel the poop coming out at first because that is not the cue they are used to.    Let’s not forget that sitting down changes the angle of the plumbing!    If you are used to not thinking about urinating and go standing up, it is a very difficult thing to sit down and voluntarily release muscles you aren’t aware of or have had little (if any) practice using.       A woman can understand this sensation.  After birth, she may pee unexpectedly just shifting and may find that she can’t release her sphincter to pee when on the toilet at first.

It is so easy to gravitate to the thought that a diapered toddler who seems to know what a toilet and potty is or who can identify pee and poop when they see it, is deliberately being difficult.  We’ve got to try and see from their perspective.   Stairs, for example, are no big deal when you have adult proportions, and quite another when they are half your size!

  • They may not realize that THEY are in control of their own muscles.  For them, peeing and pooping may be as automatic as their heart beating.
  • They may not be able to control or notice their elimination muscles until they feel full to bursting because they haven’t had to before.  And by then its near too late.
  • They may not be able to go sitting down because they’ve been going standing up for so long.
  • They may not realize they are “going” or it is coming out of their body until it is dribbling down their leg.
  • They may know they are going but do not pay any attention because that is what they’ve learned to do.
  • They may be frightened that things are falling out of their bottoms into open air (like suddenly having your ears fall off)
  • They may think pee or poop in the potty means simply sitting successfully and do not associate it with  things falling from their bodies.

It may seem silly to a toilet using adult that pooping might feel like your ears are falling off.    But a child’s world is a very different one from the one we know.       Every toddler is different, yes.   That means that they may have multiple reasons why they struggle with transitions to using a toilet or they may have one that we haven’t even thought of.     Overall, there is too little empathy for the monumental task they face.    After two or more years any parent is tired of the diaper routine and the mounting costs.   There is pressure to have it done by pre-school age too.  That is a lot!    Imagine what it is like to be the toddler going through the sudden changes.      If anything issues get worse not better with the later the age.    A fortunate few experience no problems and quick transitions.

It isn’t that they CAN’T it is that they have UNLEARNING to accomplish at the same time.     It is one of the reasons I am an advocate of diaper cold turkey, being inconsistent about it (diaper okay at this random time but not at this time) prolongs the process unnecessarily.

I asked myself, why does there need to be so much fanfare about going to the toilet?   It is something we do every day, several times a day from the day we are born.   If you live in a place with plumbing it is an easy, thoughtless task.     We don’t have to walk a distance to an outhouse to do our business, we don’t have to traipse through foliage to the communal latrine pit or empty a chamber pot into the sewer, we do not have to physically dispose of or bury our waste.      There is a bathroom in every house and countless public options mere steps away.     Unless you are camping or hiking you may go your whole life without ever having squatted near a bush.      Convenience around every corner and yet the average age of potty learning in the United States has risen to an average age of 3 and still climbing.   Something is not right.

I have watched the size of diapers in the market climb.  I have witnessed the near death of the training pant and the epic rise of the pull-up and little swimmers.   I have watched more and more disposable night underwear for children 4 and older increase.    Potty chairs have evolved bells, books, whistles, tunes, and flushing sounds.        The potty aisle has gotten bigger, the diapering phase gotten longer, and the pottying journey started later and later.    And I have not personally seen anything beneficial come out of any of it.    More money spent, more stress, more books, more power struggles, less time, and less understanding.    This blogger pondered this question:    Who Decides when to Potty Train Baby, You, or Big Diaper? (Why the shift?)

It isn’t that everyone has to start from birth as I did, but I do think it is important that every parent should understand that toileting can be as casual as a baby learning to walk and talk. It isn’t about readiness.  Nature did not design babies to use diapers any more than it designed puppies to wear a collar.   We invented the diapers and we establish when, where, and how often to use them.  Not the babies.        It is about the habits we establish and encourage.

Understanding that babies CAN use the toilet just like we do from day one is a perspective that can really change when and how a parent chooses to start helping their babies and toddlers to use one.    There is no choice if all you hear is that babies can’t possibly control their sphincters and are not aware of their body functions, and that only toddlers aged 2 and older have the ability.      I can offer you all the chocolate and vanilla in the world and deny the existence of all others,  and yet its not a fair choice if I don’t tell you about the other flavors that exist, or worse, tell you that there are no others.    A person makes very different decisions when they are told something can’t be done.

There was a time not so long ago that parents were told that their newborns could not feel pain.   Imagine all of the decisions that were made based upon that one incorrect assumption, and how many would have done something very different had they known.

Be kind, consistent, and understanding.   Have patience for the unlearning process.  Pottying should be a journey of mutual learning.   Make it a pleasant one!


I am glad I stumbled upon EC because without that I would have no idea that babies were very aware of their potty needs.    Why did I personally start so early?    I wanted to give myself time to learn and wean myself from the diapers.      Babies and toddlers do not diaper themselves, so it was all on me.  It was my habits and conditioning I knew I needed to change.  My baby was brand new and had not been taught or shown a diaper routine yet and I didn’t want to establish a habit that I knew would be difficult to unlearn when I “got around to it.”     

It was NOT easy for me to let go of the diapers, it was all I knew.  I had to make a conscious effort to trust my instincts and trust that my baby knew what to do if only given the opportunity.  Just like my baby knew how to eat, it was me who had to learn how to breastfeed!  I’d never seen it done in person!         I had plenty of words of discouragement about breastfeeding and what couldn’t be done — yet, we did it.    One day I just stopped thinking about breastfeeding, just like one day I just forgot to think about helping my baby to potty and just did it.    Once I learned to let go and stopped over thinking  that’s when my instincts began to do their jobs.     I would not have been successful had I thought either couldn’t be done.   I am so thankful for the online communities and the people who shared their experiences and what they learned.


About Laissez Faire

I am 41...42...43...44, married with two children, two cats, and a dog. Writing is my hobby, and learning and teaching my passions. Books! It used to be that I could devour several books a week when I had the time. I am usually too tired to stray awake these days with two kids. Currently my brain and energy levels have steered me to casual games, writing contests, and some inconsistent blogging.

Posted on October 4, 2011, in Parenting, Potty Training, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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