Monday, December 1, 2014

Potty training: remembering an innate desire for cleanliness

Our family used to foster rescue dogs for the Nebraska Dachshund Rescue. We fostered one particular dog that had been living in a puppy mill. A dog would never intentionally soil its own bedding because of an innate distaste for living in filth. However, puppy mill dogs have no choice but to urinate and defecate in their small cages. In time, puppy mill dogs learn that living in filth is normal. When the dogs are removed from their puppy mill situation and placed into a home setting, they crave confinement and usually soil their bedding. It takes time and patience to re-train a dog, and help them unlearn these detrimental behaviors.  A desire for cleanliness is universal, but it can be forgotten.

Human babies also have an innate desire for cleanliness. Young babies are sensitive to soiled diapers: they often cry and fuss when a diaper becomes soiled.  However, most babies grow to learn that soiling their diapers is normal. As they age, toddlers may barely acknowledge that they've had a bowl movement in their diapers.  Some children even violently resist potty training and may scream for a diaper when the need to go potty.  In order to become potty trained, a toddler must unlearn the behavior of soiling his diaper.  As a parent, our job is to train children to understand that using the potty is much more pleasant than soiling a diaper.

Unlearning something you've learned and ingrained is an extremely difficult task.  Some parents have chosen to try and prevent the learned behavior of soiling diapers by practicing a method referred to as elimination communication.  In this method, parents use timing and subtle signals from their babies in order to identify their children's urination and defecation needs.  Even those who use this method usually supplement with diapers to prevent accidents from occurring.  While we had some good experiences with elimination communication, diapers seem to be a necessary evil for most parents.
Because the process of unlearning is so difficult, we need to help toddlers become less reliant on diapers.  The first step is helping them to recognize when they have soiled their diapers.  Disposable diapers absorb liquid almost instantaneously and baby is often unaware he has soiled the diaper.  Cloth diapers are slower absorbing and children will feel moisture as it is absorbed by the diaper.  As toddlers age, they should be given opportunities to practice wearing underwear or have diaper-free time.  This will allow them to quickly discover that they have potty needs, and these needs are best addressed by using the potty chair.
Unlearning undesirable behavior may be difficult, but with encouragement and support, any child can learn to use the potty.  They only need to be reminded that peeing in a diaper is unpleasant. Little babies may not be made of "frogs and snails and puppy dog tails", but they do have one thing in common with our furry friends: they both have an innate distaste for soiling themselves. 

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