The History of Potty Training in America

If you’ve read my recent post on the history of cloth diapering in America, you know that I spend a lot of time wondering how we as parents are influenced by current history–and what we can learn from the past.  Of course, like the history fanatic that I am, I found the information on potty training in America fascinating.

Early potty training in America was completely parent-centered and sometimes disturbingly so. In the early 1900s children were on strict elimination schedules and parents even used suppositories or enemas to enforce regularity. Toddlers were admonished or  physically punished for accidents.  Potty training usually began at six months of age.

Although the harsh potty training methods of earlier decades were abandoned after World War II, potty training still happened far earlier than it does today. One hundred percent of babies wore cloth diapers  in the 1940s and 1950s and 95% of children were potty trained by the age of 18 months.  (Obviously, cloth diapering parents were quite motivated to start training their children early.)

Thirty years later, disposable diapers became more effective and less expensive and the public shift moved away from cloth.  Since many women had entered the workforce, families began to use cloth diaper services or disposables instead of instead of laundering their own diapers. As a result potty training ages started to increase.

In the 1980s Dr. T. Berry Brazelton advocated that parents wait until their children were ready to train, partially in response to the harsh potty training routines that were used decades earlier.  Most parents now don’t even think about attempting toilet training until their children are two or older.  In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until your child is 18 months old, since it will take her that long to be able to hold her bladder or her bowel movements.  (Isn’t that interesting considering that 95% of babies were  potty trained by 18 months in years past, without the harsh potty training methods of the early 1900s?)

In a dramatic shift, today about 90% of American children wear disposables, and only about 10% are potty trained by 18 months.

With new disposables for children up to four and five years old, the average potty training age in America has now moved to 30 months (but can go as high as 60 months).

Our household history of potty training our two children has shown that while there is no reason to feel pressured to achieve early potty training, it’s possible to buy a potty seat and let your child use it now and again even before age one.  We plopped our baby (pictured below)  on the potty seat at seven months when it appeared that she needed to have a bowel movement.  Obviously it wasn’t a chore and she enjoyed the attention she got for her efforts.  She now uses the potty for solid elimination about 60% of the time, but is cloth diapered all the time.  She was using baby sign to show that she needed to poop at about eight months old.  It’s not all that amazing, but it’s something I never would have even thought about with my first child.

What insights have you gained about potty training through talking with parents and grandparents?  Have you experimented with elimination communication? Do you think cloth diaper use has helped with potty training for children in your life?


  1. We’re doing Elimination Communication (infant potty training) with our 5 month old daughter (we began when she was about 1 month old). I was skeptical at first but after hearing from friends who did it, I decided if they could, I could. I’m amazed that my daughter can “hold it” when she wakes up for a couple minutes until I get her on the potty. I’m amazed that she waits to poop until she’s sitting on her BabyBjorn Little Potty. If I’m paying attention to her, she will tell me when she needs to go. She’s still in cloth diapers, but she’s often dry when I put her on the potty. She has associated the potty and the sound I make with having to go to the bathroom. It’s really neat to see what such a young baby can do, all with a little classical conditioning!

  2. I definitely think cloth diapering helps with potty training. My first child (boy) started waking up dry sometime around the age of 2. That’s why we decided to start potty training. He had #1 down within a couple of days. HOWEVER, #2 took months and months and months. It was so frustrating that I decided to begin potty training his younger sister (about 9 months old) at the same time. I wanted to start potty training her before she got used to pooping in her diaper. My first child now is completely potty training — it took 4+ months to get #2 down (and a lot of angst from us). My second child, now about 18 months, poops 90% of the time on the potty. She could probably be completely potty trained by now, but I’m not quite ready for that level of commitment. She often wakes up dry in the morning and after naps, and pees 2-4 times a day on the potty.

    I’ve asked my father-in-law about diapering in the 1930s in Ecuador. He said everyone put their kids on the potty before the age of 1. My mother-in-law tells me stories of hand-washing cloth diapers. That would be a real motivator to begin early potty training!

    I recently wrote a post myself about the history of potty training based on Diaper Free Before 3:

    I’m wondering what your sources are.

  3. Betsy,
    I’m so glad you share my fascination with early potty training! It’s true that elimination communication is the norm in most of the world, and I am planning an upcoming post on how something that seems so fringe in America has been the norm for centuries in other cultures.

    As for my sources, I read a huge variety of articles and left out some icky details of those dark days of early potty training in America. Unlike elimination communication that works on interactions between baby and parent, there were some very punitive methods used. (One original document talked about putting soap into a baby’s rectum to cause a bowel movement. Horrifying!) That type of potty training in the west must be what caused the pendulum to swing so far to the other end in later decades.

    The fact that the AAP states that babies aren’t physically ready to potty train until after 18 months is bizarre. That certainly hasn’t been our experience with our daughter and obviously history backs that up.

    I really enjoyed your article and always love reading your website. Thanks for your input!

  4. We started teaching our son about the potty, the sign and word for it (he now uses only the word) and had him sit on it whenever I knew he would be about to move his bowels and we started this at about 15 months. I wanted to really move forward with EC, but he never EVER showed any sign before peeing. I even videoed him and watched but he never seemed to notice until after he started and made no indication at all, so I abandoned ship.

    But now, at 20 months, we are 1 week in (this is day 7) on real, honest to goodness potty training and he is doing great! I just posted about our first week on my blog!

  5. I have 4 kids… my now 9 year old i tried potty training a year and a half until the day he turned 3 years old he looked me and said “mommy I’m done with diapers” He threw them all away in the trash on his own and from then on, never had an accident. My now 6 year old we tried for 3 years from the time he turned 2 to potty train him and he would never never never poop on the potty. He had Encopresis. He would lose feeling in his rectum and then poop in his pants.. He hasn’t had an accident in about a year. but still has problems with his bowels… he was pee trained by 3.
    My girls are 2 and 1 and we put them on the potty in the morning when they wake up and almost always go pee.. I try and remember to put them on the potty after naps as well but my 2 year old is trying to push out naps all together. so with her it’s a little hard to see when she needs to go.. she won’t tell us.. i can’t see a sign that she has to go and we have used a timer but it’s ridiculous to make a child sit on the potty when they don’t have to go.. or she will hold it and then pee in her diaper on purpose.. I think potty learning is really all about control.. they will go when they are ready.. I don’t see why getting myself all worked up is even worth it.. they won’t be 18 and still in diapers right?

  6. I first heard Mayim Bialik (actress who played Blossom) talk about EC on a podcast and it did not sound good to me. She talked about her boys peeing on the streets of L.A. and peeing in bowls around the house. Then I was at a La Leache League meeting and two girls talked about how you can do EC part time or just occasionally or all of the time. My daughter (now six months) almost always eliminates upon first waking and after nursing. Once I knew I could just put her on the potty and “catch” the elimination, it was like I couldn’t NOT do it. So, I started doing it when she was four months or so and it just works so well. She doesn’t seem to indicate to me when she needs to go but we have a pretty regular schedule of when I put her on the potty throughout the day. I make a “pssss” sound which gets her started once she’s on her potty. I also hold her over our adult potty sometimes. My question to myself is what is my end goal. Early potty training or just better communication with her. Not sure yet but it just feels like the right thing to do.

  7. Joelle,
    First of all, with four kids potty training is an olympic sport! I truly hope that this post doesn’t make you feel like you have to potty train your child at a certain age to be a success. But I think for many of us (me included with my first child) it never even occurs to us to start potty training before age two. With our early efforts at potty training my young daughter I learned that potty time has to be really fun. I put my daughter on a potty seat on the adult potty so that she isn’t tempted to get up and play. We read her favorite books, she drinks some chocolate milk–in short, potty time is party time! I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to accommodate that sort of attention though when you have three other children. Good luck!

    Your experience sounds much like mine. My daughter, Jovi, spends most of her time in diapers, but I know that if I put her on the potty when she first wakes up, after mealtimes, and after nap, she’ll almost always have to go. She’s really comfortable pooping on the potty, which was a tough thing for my son to learn. For me it means less diapers to wash. For my baby, it means a more comfortable bottom. Like much of parenting, I think you’re right that it’s not the end goal, but the process that really matters.

  8. My son is just now potty-trained during the day at 4 and a half. Yes, we used disposable diapers (7th Generation), but the main issue was (and continues to be) that I don’t think he realizes when he needs to pee–so I am always amazed to hear about families where EC works. Also, it wasn’t till just before he turned 4 that we could convince him to sit on the potty without him kicking and screaming. Once we got past that hurdle, getting him to have a bowel movement in the toilet was easy, as he shows definite signs beforehand and doesn’t mind pooping on the toilet. He still won’t indicate when he needs to pee, however, he just holds it in until we put him on the toilet (something he wasn’t able to do 6 months ago). He’s been diagnosed as PDD-NOS (the “other” or “sort of” category of the autism spectrum) so that may have something to do with it.

    I do wonder if things would have gone easier if we’d bought a little potty early on and just presented it as an alternative, rather than something he had to use.

  9. The one thing I have learned potty training two boys is that you can’t make them start until they are ready! We introduced going potty a lot and then they just made up their mind to do it! I found a lot of good potty training gear online at Juvenile Solutions and was happy to find a one-stop shop for what I needed!

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