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Slate's Medical Examiner: Earlier Toilet Training

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Slate's Medical Examiner: Earlier Toilet Training

Children's Health

Slate's Medical Examiner: Earlier Toilet Training

Slate's Medical Examiner: Earlier Toilet Training

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Many American parents are toilet training their children earlier, returning to a 19th-century practice of teaching children to use the bathroom before they could walk. Madeleine Brand speaks to Dr. Sydney Spiesel, a Connecticut pediatrician and Slate contributor, about the new toilet training movement.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY, and now our regular look at health news. Some American parents are reconsidering the age at which they toilet train their children. They're returning to the 19th century notion that infants should be taught to use the bathroom before they can even walk. Well, it turns out that's pretty common in many parts of the world now, and to get to the bottom of the great toilet training debate, I spoke with Dr. Sydney Spiesel. He's a Connecticut pediatrician who writes on medical issues for the online magazine Slate.

Tell us what is new or I should say, perhaps, old in this toilet training practice.

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Pediatrician): What's new is that it's contrary to practice. It's really very consonant with what used to be done in sort of Victorian and post-Victorian England and Germany and in the United States, which was the idea that children have to be sort of trained to go to the toilet, and the sooner it's done, the better the training and the more efficient it will be, and that was kind of the practice. Although, in general, people didn't pay particular attention to how well it worked, and I think the first time people began to rethink the question was in the late-40s when Dr. Spock, the famous Dr. Spock, wrote about this and began to question whether this was a good idea.

BRAND: So now we've got this trend where people are returning to this notion that children should be potty trained very early. What does that entail, actually?

Dr. SPIESEL: How to put this delicately. I'm not sure that people are doing it, but some parents in Manhattan are doing it.

BRAND: I see. A special breed

Dr. SPIESEL: A special breed for sure. Their notion is that if you kind of bird-dog the kid very closely, that you can toilet-train them very early and everything will be neat and wonderful. I think that relatively few parents are doing it, but it seems very attractive. I mean, you know, people are always annoyed by having to deal with poopy diapers.

There is a culture in equatorial Africa called the Dego(ph) in which, essentially, any child who is not toilet-trained by nine months, there is probably something developmentally off with the kid, so people think that it's possible to do it successfully in our culture.

BRAND: Now, you have what you call your third law of pediatrics. What is that?

Dr. SPIESEL: Yes, my third law of pediatrics, which I hope will someday make me famous, is this: the average age of toilet training around the world is directly proportional to the latitude. The further you go from the equator, the slower kids are to toilet train, and that helps us make sense of what happens in equatorial Africa because the further you go from the equator, the colder it is and the more clothes kids have to wear. The more clothes they have to wear, the less they're able to be independent in their toileting practice. So they've got to go find a parent, go over to a parent, pull on a parent's sleeve until they disengage themselves from whatever they're doing, then they have to sort of hop into the bathroom together. They have to get the kid undressed, and it's just so much trouble that kids just said, heck with it. This is just not worth the trouble, and actually, my third law has a corollary which is, frankly, more useful than the law itself, and the corollary is do it in the summer.

BRAND: Toilet train in the summer.

Dr. SPIESEL: Toilet train in the summer because in the summer you don't have the problem of all of these layers of clothes. In fact, if it's at all possible, just let the kid run around naked in the backyard. After a week or two of running around without a wet, poopy diaper, most kids are pretty reluctant to return to that state. There's powerful motivation there.

BRAND: Dr. Sydney Spiesel writes the Medical Examiner column for the online magazine Slate. Thank you.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you.

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