Life of the Potty
It's one of the first all-consuming challenges of parenthood: How to get the kid potty-trained.
But today's parents aren't alone in the struggle. They have bed alarms that sense moisture; potties shaped like pianos; anatomically correct boy and girl dolls with internal bladders.
All are part of a growing potty-training accessories market aimed at parents facing pressure from two directions. Child care providers demand that kids be trained, and experts give conflicting advice on how to reach this first milestone: Push the child along or let him figure it out himself. At stake, says the don't-push-it school, is nothing less than the child's self-esteem.
The result is that parents are arming themselves with tools that carp and prod, so they don't have to. At $79.99, a bed alarm rings when a child wets the bed, waking her up and presumably everyone else. For $18.99, the diaper-wearing "Potty Time Singing Bear" will dance and sing, "I'm a super duper pooper."
For every successful use of the potty, Andrew Packard, 3, receives either stickers or candy as rewards. In the bathroom sits a large piece of cardboard covered in stickers, a testament to Andrew's progress. "My biggest thing was for it to be positive, which isn't always easy,"says Andrew's mother, Jennifer, an at-home mother in San Jose. (Andrew's grandmother also bought a potty for Andrew's use, but ditched the musical accompaniment that rang out when duty was done.)
Tara Tucker of Mountain View, Calif., bought a watch that beeps every 75 minutes to remind her daughter, now 5, to use the bathroom. "She didn't argue with the watch," Tucker says. "For parents today," says Tucker, "the challenge is when do you decide you've waited long enough and it's time to teach them."
"Parents are becoming more sophisticated," says Avid Amiri, president of Potty Training Solutions, a Utah company that sells potty-training accessories online. "They know they can't just spank him or make him sit on the potty until he goes. They know it's not a race to the finish line," Amiri says.
But for some parents, it seems as if potty training is a marathon with no finish. While experts say potty training typically takes three to six months, it can go for months, or even years, with older children heading off to preschool in diapers and school-aged children struggling with nighttime bed wetting. Some child-rearing experts, fearing the negative effects of potty training on a child's self-esteem, recommend waiting to introduce potty training until after a child is 3. Compare that to the 1950s when the average age at the start of potty training was 18 months with almost all children trained by the age of 3.
Recent studies show that today somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of children complete potty training around their third birthday with most of the rest becoming diaper-free before age 4.
For Amiri (of Potty Training Solutions), the gentler approach to potty training -- and the lengthening of the potty-training experience -- translates into potential sales. Parents want friendly, cheerful inducements without having a heavy hand. (He estimates the potty-training accessory market to be between $76 million and $150 million, a drop in the potty compared with the $7 billion marketed by North America diapers and wipes). At any one time, 6 million American kids are going through potty training, he estimates.
Potty Training Solutions sells about 100 products, from the "compulsory" potty seats to the "core products" such as the dolls that urinate, he says. Parents, he estimates, spend up to $60 on supplies "depending on the recalcitrance of the child."
Other products have small but intense followings, addressing specific quirks or phobias among the training set. For kids afraid of automatic flushing toilets in public restrooms (and pity them, because the electronic eye does not always sense small kids and continues flushing while they are on the pot), there's the "Flush Stopper" for $2.95. For kids afraid of the dark, "Johnny Light" at $12.50 will illuminate the toilet from within when the lid is opened.
For the child who needs reminders to go to the bathroom, there's the "Vibralite Potty Training Watch," for $39.95, providing children with friendly reminders – and not the relentless reminders from Mom -- to use the bathroom.
Diaper companies, too, have seen their market grow from catering mostly to children under 2 to children under 5. They have created bigger diapers to accommodate the older set, and rather than view potty training as the death of sales, diaper companies have instead positioned themselves as partners in the kinder and gentler approach.
Last summer, Pampers introduced "Feel 'N Learn," a diaper with a "wet sensation liner" so that a child feels moisture. "What we heard from parents is that children needed that extra cue," says Lisa Jester of Pampers Baby Care, a division of Proctor & Gamble Baby and Toddler Care. Pampers recently got into the accessory act, introducing kid-friendly wipes and soap bottles.
But not everyone is happy with all the motivational gadgets. Christine Calfee, a former preschool teacher and mother of Zoe, 3, says there are too many products, all of which deliver the same message – push toilet training (or "toilet learning" as she calls it).
"I feel there's a pressure to buy all this stuff," says Calfee of San Jose. "You feel like, if your child isn't toilet-learned quickly, you are a failure."
That's what worries T. Berry Brazelton, the famed child expert responsible for encouraging American parents to let their children roam in diapers as long as they want. He senses, in the alarms and musical potties, the stickers and M&Ms, that parents have become too invested in their child's potty training, exactly the opposite of what he recommends.