A potty pause or potty strike is very common when pottying (elimination communication). It usually occurs between 6-12 months but can happen earlier or later than this (every baby is different). Many parents stop pottying their baby at this point, but this is not your only option. Read on to understand why a potty pause happens and what you can do about it when it does.
What is a potty pause?
Your baby suddenly decides he or she doesn’t want to use the potty. Prior to this, offering a potty was easy, and you were catching plenty. During a pause, successful pottying becomes a challenge. Some babies just lose interest and some are simply outraged at the suggestion. Some parents swear it’s to do with teething, others say it’s when their baby goes through a “leap”, or major developmental milestone. Amber Hatch, author Nappy Free Baby: A comprehensive UK Guide to the Art of Infant Potty Training explains: “It’s very common to have the odd out-of-sync day, and sometimes days can turn into weeks. These often tie in with illness or teething, or perhaps something that’s preoccupying you1“.
A potty pause can be really frustrating for parents, especially when they are sure the baby needs to eliminate. Suddenly, it feels like a battle. Many parents simply go back to using nappies full time, and stop offering the potty at all.
What causes a potty pause?
When it happened to us the first time, we bumbled along hoping it would pass and eventually it did (but it took around 6 months). Second time around, I was ready to be more proactive. I did some research and found out some pretty useful stuff!
The main thing is to recognise it as a developmental stage. Most authors on the subject agree that it’s part of the learning process2. In particular, a child is learning they have control and how long they can “hold” eliminations for. It may indicate that the child is ready to be more, not less, independent and can be a sign that they want control3. One blogger writes “We need to remember that pottying is like walking. Babies have an instinct to do both. They are processes that grow and develop as the baby does”4. In this way, it’s not hard to understand why it tends to happen as a baby develops other skills, especially crawling and walking.
What can we do about a potty pause?
There are many suggestions within the literature about how to handle this difficult phase. Some suggest that we “focus on communication not catches”5 and other suggest that we need to stay calm and “relax the baby” 6. OK, so we might need to start thinking laterally. Almost all authors seem to agree it’s a signal your baby is ready to be more independent. Here’s a summary of what the experts say:
- Support their independence by helping them use a potty on their own terms. Perhaps this means using distraction, changing a routine, making the potty accessible and offering choices7.
- Don’t go back into nappies if you want to stop using them. Change the pants, not the goal8.
- Don’t badger them, pressurise or insist on it9.
- Consider that you may be “over-offering”. This is a well-known reason for potty pauses. If you’re not sure when to help baby go potty, do your homework with some observation time.
- Stick to the easy catches – times when you know your child is likely to go. Consider letting some of the other times go for a little while, until your child regains willingness.
All sounds very sensible. I took my research a little further and spoke to Amber Hatch, lead UK author on baby pottying. Here’s what she recommended:
“Often the best way to deal with these phases is simply to wait it out – keep offering the potty if that feels right (and doesn’t cause conflict) but don’t worry if you get nothing but misses. Things will likely get back to normal in a few days, and when they do you can help things along by paying a bit of extra attention to re-establish the habit.
“However, at around the 12 month mark, most babies go through big developmental changes, and these can seem to change potty behaviour permanently. Due to their growing sense of self, your baby may be unwilling to co-operate with you at times. Or she may signal a need to go, produce nothing, only to wee on the floor/ in her nappy seconds after leaving the potty. This can be confusing and frustrating. Although this may feel like regression, actually it heralds a new development in your baby as she begins to take on mastery of the potty process.
“Up to now, conditioning has played the biggest part in the mechanics of going to the toilet. From 12 months, however, now her conscious brain plays a big part. It can be difficult for her to learn to release her sphincters at will, even if she needs to go. It takes a lot of co-ordination and practice. So at this stage we parents need to change our expectations of how many catches we can get, and start thinking in terms of help our babies learn to take control themselves. We need to expect lots of misses as they do this. We also need to be sensitive and respectful about the way we handle them, so that the potty doesn’t become a battleground”10.
How far did we follow the advice?
We started putting the potty out more, and we used a nappy belt and cloth so that we didn’t have messy accidents. Observation time using the belt and cloth was absolutely the key to our success. Armed with our refreshed understanding of her timing and signals (which had changed!), as well as the cause of our baby’s resistance, it wasn’t hard to think creatively about how to manage it. At first, we only tried to catch poos. The belt and cloth meant we could offer her a potty the moment we saw her start to strain and these easy catches spurred us on to take it further.
We started teaching her how to sit on the potty by herself, rather than have us put her on it. Here ensued a careful balance – there is no point sitting them on a potty unless there is a good change of it being used – that teaches nothing. But you have to start somewhere. So we also made use of likely times when she would go, e.g. shortly after waking. Sticking to easy catches helped us through A LOT. Gradually, we introduced it at other times as well, since she was relaxed about it. A book also made a big difference in her willingness to stay still for a minute or two.
I’m not going to say we have cracked it permanently (that’s a dangerous attitude on nearly all things baby-related, in my experience!), but I feel that we are back to communication (and co-operation), and with a much better understanding of the underlying processes. That’s made us more enthusiastic, as well as confident.
If your baby is around 12 months, it’s likely they are wanting more control and independence with the process. Trust that when your baby is ready to co-operate, he or she will. Consider ways to help this happen.[ Thank you to Amber Hatch for her wisdom and advice! ]
How did you deal with your baby’s potty pause? Did it work? Do leave a comment and share your experience.
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