Age of Disposables has Postponed Age of Training

The going concern

Age of disposables has postponed age of training

Monday, April 11, 2005 Fran Henry Plain Dealer Reporter

The faintly triumphant smile on Madison's rosy-cheeked face said it all. The intrepid blond toddler boldly went where few 2-year-olds dare these days.

The toilet.

"I go potty!" she sang out, tinkling musically into the minitoilet at Lakeland Community College's day care, the Training and Learning Center.

Two months past her second birthday, Madison is well on her way to being potty trained. While her accomplishment would have been unremarkable into the '70s, when American toddlers were still regularly trained around age 2, today a 3 - or 4-year-old diapered child is not unusual.

Psychologist, author and child-rearing columnist Sylvia Rimm vividly recalled the '60s, when she was raising her own children. "A few little boys took 'til age 3, but that was whoa!' " she said.

Those were the days baby bottoms were enclosed in cloth diapers. And daily buckets of stinking diapers gave parents plenty of reason to make sure baby learned to use the toilet as soon as possible.

Incentive began to slip away with the arrival of disposable diapers, said Houston-based Narmin Parpia, who dispenses potty-training products and advice online (at

The increasing age of potty training correlates perfectly with the history of disposable diapers, she said.

In the 1950s, virtually all children wore cloth diapers and 95 percent potty trained by the age of 18 months, she said.

The disposable diaper was introduced in the late '60s, and began to creep into widespread use. By the 1980s, about 50 percent of babies still wore cloth diapers, and about 50 percent potty-trained by age 18 months. Today, Parpia said, 90 percent to 95 percent of children wear disposable diapers, and only about 10 percent train by age 18 months.

She blames space-age diaper technology, the superabsorbent gels and special liners, for the changes.

"The child who doesn't feel' wet isn't motivated because they're not feeling uncomfortable," Parpia said. "With the mom, the disposable is convenient. When moms had to clean diapers in the toilet, they were motivated."

Her viewpoint rings true to Dr. Barton Schmitt, pediatrics professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Informed by holding seven years of community forums on toilet training, the Denver-based Schmitt also implicates improved diaper technology, particularly pull-ups, which allow the older child to diaper himself while escaping the stigma of diapers.

"It's not a normal product. It doesn't fill a need. It's so American. We create a product and then create the need for the product. The marketing companies have made it seem like an honor to wear pull-ups."

In fact, diaper sales are declining while pull-up sales are soaring, according to Euromonitor International, a global consumer market research firm. And some pull-ups are sized to accommodate children up to 40 pounds -- the size of an average 5-year-old girl.



The new diapers also do tricks.

Consider Huggie's very latest in diaper convenience, introduced in March: "The Feel and Learn," whose liner holds "a small amount of wetness against children's skin for a short period of time, helping them to associate these sensations with having to go potty," and the "Training Pants With Learning Designs," which has "fading graphics inside and out that disappear when wet, allowing the child to notice the difference between wet and dry."

All pull-ups really do is postpone the inevitable, Schmitt said. A child must learn continence, and that's best done "while it's still simple."

"It's not like there's some terrible toxin in the environment that causes children not to be trainable," he said.

Ann Stadtler, an associate of noted Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, believes that the increased pace of modern life factors into later potty training, too. "Parents are very busy now," she said. "They need to decide when to start."

Ideally, training should be completed around age 3, she said. "At age 4, a child needs intervention. The flip side of this is that toileting problems are a major cause of child abuse. We have to take toilet training seriously."

The toilet school for untrained 4- to 6-year-olds, which she founded 10 years ago at the Brazelton Institute, always has a waiting list, she said.

Psychologist and child-rearing columnist John Rosemond contends that parents have become intimidated by the prospect of potty training.

"Parents have been persuaded that training children under 24 months is potentially damaging and impossible. They're put off because [some] have portrayed this as complex, psychologically delicate and fraught with psychological ramifications," he said.

The season for training, between ages 1 and 2, peaks around 18 months, he said, and parents do the child a favor by taking advantage of that window of opportunity.

Consider two puppies, he said playfully, ages 6 months and 1 year. "Which age dog understands you better? The year-old, of course. Now, which age is easier to housebreak? The 6-month-old!

"Let a child get too old,' and he has to unlearn something that's unconscious. He hardly senses that he's going,' especially with this new diaper technology. The longer you let this go on, the more difficult it is for the child to get it.' "

There should be no more dread surrounding potty training than other developmental milestones, he said.

"We don't agonize over teaching children to eat with a spoon, yet there is no difference. The child makes a mess learning to eat, so the argument can be made that it's easier to just continue feeding the child."

Training "late" encourages the child not to take responsibility, said Donald Freedheim, Case Western Reserve psychology professor emeritus and founding director of Schubert Center for Child Development. "It's just as bad as starting too early."

Ideally, he said, "the child's own wish for autonomy should blend with the child's wish to toilet train."

That's what got young Madison on the potty at the Lakeland Community College day care. "She had an interest and we're going with it," head teacher Cris Vanek said.

"It's amazing how young they want to start. They see their peers. The kids want to take care of themselves. It's all about independence."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:,



Article Categories

Related Articles

Add Your Comment There are no comments on this article. Do you have one? >>