Saturday, November 22, 2014

How to Potty Train an Older Child with or without Special Needs

 I am not kidding when I make the following suggestion. When you are potty training your older child, set out a jar or piggy bank and put in a dollar every time someone tells you to have your child pee on cheerios or any other ridiculous, ineffective, and unhelpful suggestion. Put in a dollar every time your voice cracks as you're telling a fellow mom about your potty training difficulties only for them to tell you they know exactly how you feel.  After all, their 18 month old is just not getting it.  If I'd done this I would've had enough to pay for Christmas presents this year! If you're looking for a magic bullet, keep searching, you won't find one here.  If you have been unable to toilet train your child after multiple years of attempts, there is no magic bullet. Realizing this, and settling in for the long haul actually reduced the stress for us.  It's already taken years, plan for it to take at least the next three months. 

About My Son, 'G'
Running away from the Potty Training Experience
     We do have a diagnosis for my son, but most don't consider him to have special needs. He's smart, funny, and very sociable if you get him one on one. He does have mild hypotonia (low muscle tone), some sensory processing issues, anxiety, and he's always been very uncertain of new things. Even as a little toddler he would take off running down the sidewalk behind his walker push toy, but refused to take even one step without holding on to something until he was 14 months old. He just doesn't like to do things unless he's sure he can do it perfectly. My little perfectionist is now fully potty trained at 4 and a half years old.

What Didn't Work
     Attempt #1 Occurred in August. It was a few months after G turned 3 years old and the first day of entering the 3 year old preschool class was fast approaching.  This attempt was comical. First, I tried spending hours camped out in the bathroom with him sitting on a potty seat on the toilet waiting for him to go. We had a portable DVD player, and I gave him unlimited sugary drinks in order to encourage him to go as much as possible. G had NO CLUE what was happening. Seriously, he would look down after he already started urinating and say, "IT'S HAPPENING!" It was a complete surprise to him, every time. We also tried the allegedly easy peasy potty train in 3 days method. HA! It can't work if the child is not feeling the urge to go, and doesn't even realize he's had an accident.  People talk about 'signs of readiness' as being interested in using the potty and being able to tell when they are about to go pee pee or poo. At 3 years old my son didn't display either of these signs. At times he can be a particularly oblivious child (possibly by choice?), and potty training just wasn't going to happen at that time. We nervously explained all this at our first teacher conference and thank goodness the teacher said to just send him to school in pull-ups. She promised he wouldn't be the only one, and assured us that 'boys take longer'.  We happily stopped all potty training efforts.

   Attempt #2 We still held out hope that our March baby would be potty trained by the time he turned 4 years old. After the excitement of the holidays ended we decided to switch to underwear cold turkey (except at night).  I talked to G a lot about it beforehand and told him when the new year started, the diapers weren't going to fit him anymore because he was such a big boy. We let him pick out his underwear and the morning of Jan 2nd we took off the diaper, put on underwear, and sent him to school. We did warn his teachers, and they were very supportive.  There were A LOT of accidents, but he did get a bit more practice in. During this time he also became used to using the potty at school. This attempt lasted about 30 days.  I don't want to discount all the progress we made during this time, but in hindsight I think the problem was that I was waiting for him to 'get it'. Everyone kept telling me one day he'd just get it and he'd train himself overnight. I kept trying different things to motivate him, and tried different strategies geared towards making that magic moment happen. I kept waiting and waiting for it to click and for him to wake up potty trained one day. This attitude of mine was stressing us both out. Instead of improving, he started to get worse and have more accidents. Ultimately we had to stop because G began holding in his BM's in until school and then would make a big mess for his teachers right as they were getting started. They put up with this for a full week before asking us to go back to sending him in pull-ups. I don't blame them! But, then we had no potty training support from his teachers.  He began to PANIC when wetting himself, and in general his anxiety was getting worse. We decided to stop.  This was a painful decision.

Have you ever had to quit potty training? If so, you'll be the only other mom in the world besides me. Maybe I'm being slightly over dramatic, but this time between quitting in February and starting again after school ended in June was tough. It was bad. I had breastfed, made all his baby food, taken him to library story times, and taught him letters, shapes, and numbers.  As a stay at home mom, mothering was pretty much my only job and I like to think I was pretty good at it. But I had failed at potty training.  I tried to hold back tears and share my frustrations with the other moms, but they would always respond by telling me to have him aim at cheerios or give him M&M's when he goes.  No one understood what we had been through. In my heart I knew he wouldn't be going to High School in pull-ups, but I was sure he'd start preK in them. I wasn't very hopeful about kindergarten, either.

This is what went up on the Bathroom door at first, but I added things later
How I Did It

First, I changed my attitude.  There wasn't going to be a magic moment where he just suddenly got it and trained himself.  I stopped googleing potty training methods because they were all for younger kids and we'd tried everything anyways. I also stopped posting about my struggle on facebook. The terrible advice I was getting and the condolences from mom's of little toddlers was...not helping. 

Second, I made a sticker chart. If this was going to take months then we needed to set up a simple, consistent system of rewards and expectations that were easy for he and I to follow.  My sticker chart was epic. It had over 100 spaces and had rewards about every 10 spaces.  In the beginning I had to draw in rewards more frequently because things were going so slowly.  I left it pretty blank in the beginning so I could add more presents and candy squares depending on how quickly he acquired stickers.

Almost to the top!
The day after 3yr old preschool ended, I put up the sticker chart and tried to be positive and excited about it.  I explained that he didn't have to use the potty if he didn't want to, but if he did he would get a sticker on the next available space. If that space had a lollipop or popsicle then he would get that treat. If the space had a present on it then he would get a wrapped present.  Usually the presents were between $3 and $5, but occasionally we'd spring for something he'd been asking for.  Whenever we were at home he would have a naked bottom, and he'd wear pull-ups when we went out. We had all summer, so there was no rush, and I admit I had lost all hope so there was no sense of urgency with this. I expected to be doing this for the next year, so why push him and stress us out? When we went on vacation I brought his potty seat, but he usually would wear pullups the entire time.  Everything was about keeping things low pressure and stress free.

The first 20 stickers took him 45 days to earn.  I cleaned up a lot of horrible poop messes off the carpet, the couch, and my child.  He urinated on the floor so often I stopped bothering to get out the carpet cleaner just for that.  But, he made slight progress all the time, and he was starting to show pride every time he earned a sticker. Looking back, I wish I'd put more presents on it in the beginning because I think it was getting close to that second present that started really motivating him to get stickers. By the end of July he was starting to get one sticker every day, sometimes two! I reserved August just for potty training. No vacations, and at least 4hrs of having a naked bottom at home every day.  I did send him to 3 weeks of morning summer camp at his preschool in August, but he wore pull-ups. I told him he didn't have to, but to tell me if he pee'd at school and it would still count for a sticker. On the 3rd day of camp he ran out to tell me, "I pee'd at school!!" From then on, he still wore pullups to camp, but came home dry because he was using the potty there.  We soon figured out the tightness of briefs was confusing for him, but he could wear knit boxers at home during potty training time and still be successful.

The Last Sticker! We were clapping and cheering.

He slowly got the hang of it as we approached the end of the chart, and I promised him that when he got to the end he could have a potty party with CAKE AND PRESENTS! This was highly motivating and he began having little to no accidents and earning 4 or 5 stickers a day. I hate to say it, day he just got it.  After two nights waking up dry and asking to use the potty rather than his diaper in the mornings I decided to let him wear underwear at night. It's now November and he's only wet the bed 3 times since we switched.  After everything we'd been through on this journey I really wanted his potty party to be special so I admit I splurged on a nice pile of about 10 presents.  He got a pile of presents at his party and got a 'cake mountain with blue frosting' as requested. He ended up using the potty right before the party and earning the final sticker at the party (I admit to 'forgetting' to give stickers towards the end so it would work out just right).  He started Pre K in underwear and has only had a few accidents at school.

Potty training my son was a nightmare and the worst thing about parenting I've experienced thus far. But seeing him ultimately overcome and be victorious was amazing.  So, that's how we did it. I can't promise it will work for everyone, but patience and a giant sticker chart is what ultimately worked for us. Good luck!

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor or a psychologist, just an inexperienced mom. Consult with a medical professional before making any changes to your routine. 


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