I never thought we'd be the type of parents who needed to employee ninja-like tactics and Jedi mind tricks in order to get our toddler to pee on the toilet. Yet, here we are. My ever-increasingly stubborn daughter recently got to the point of screaming, "NO TOUCHING! NO DIAPER!" and running laps around the house almost every time we had to change her. After playing one too many games of "catch the stinky toddler" with my partner (a game in which the winner actually loses), I decided to give in to her wishes to try diaper free potty training, wherein you ditch the diaper altogether and bare her bottom, and uh, hope for the best.
It's as frighteningly simple as it sounds: You take off your baby's diaper and let them run around butt naked, coaxing them to relieve themselves in the potty with a mop and disinfectant in hand. Some books even claim the diaper-free method works after only seven days, on average. Besides, it's hard to say no to a method that on-screen and real-life genius Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy on The Big Bang Theory and has a PhD in neuroscience, successfully used on her baby. I was desperate and willing to try anything, but the diaper-free method seemed like a shoo-in to potty-training victory.
So just two weeks shy of our baby’s second birthday, and with the warmth of late summer on our side, I placed her potty seat in the middle of our living room for easy access, removed her diaper, and let training begin. I thought I was ready. I thought that we'd ease into potty training, and after a few days, my daughter would get the hang of things. She'd be a pro. She'd be a peeing and pooping wunderkind, and I'd be done with diapers.
So we decided on a week, and we put ourselves to work. Would my daughter respond to the diaper-free potty training model? Would we?
This is what happened.
The first morning when I told my daugher (we'll call her J) that she would go diaper free the entire day, she was as ecstatic as if I’d offered her ice cream for breakfast. She stuck her tush out with a grin, prompting me to remove her diaper. At first, we went about our day normally: we ate breakfast, we played, we cuddled, and talked about where to go pee and poop. She even practiced sitting on her potty, which left me feeling abnormally optimistic.
Two hours passed and I noticed she hadn't gone since a tiny accident she had earlier in the morning. I encouraged her to drink more water by giving her some thirst-quenching peanut butter for snack time, then waited another hour to see if anything would happen. Sure enough, at about the three-hour mark, I noticed a tiny wet spot on the rug. After she admitted that she did, in fact, pee on the carpet, we had another talk about where to go that went like this:
Me: “Where do we go pee or poop?”
J: “I go pee on the potty!”
Me: “What do we say when we have to go potty?”
J: “I have to go potty!”
As soon as I finished scrubbing out her pee and spraying disinfectant on the carpet, I heard a loud thud! and noticed she’d slipped on another huge puddle of pee. This prompted another cycle of talking about the potty, followed by me furiously scrubbing the floors. Somehow the floodgates opened because, for the next hour, she soiled every part of the house except for the potty, and each time I found myself more disgruntled than before.
The best part of the day was nap time, when I slapped a diaper back on her (because nobody owns enough crib mattresses to go diaper free in bed) and breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing I could put down my spray bottle of bleach. I found that she’d unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) pooped in her diaper when she awoke from her nap. At least I was spared of that disaster. Apparently she didn't have to relieve herself all evening, (although bath time will remain a mystery) so there were no other "teachable moments" for the rest of the day, but I did learn my girl can go long stretches at a time without peeing or pooping, followed by unpredictable fountain-like spurts of pee. So far the scorecard read:
After day one, I quickly realized I wasn't anticipating a few things: 1. How slippery and dangerous the floors got, 2. The amount of rags I would need to clean up all the messes, and 3. Her total disregard for actually using the potty. Needless to say, I ended the day quite discouraged and deeply regretting this whole "Diaper-Free" thing, but they say consistency is key.
I began day two still a little optimistic, determined to somehow get my daughter to acknowledge the feeling she has before she goes. My goal was to catch her mid-pee and scoop her up over her potty to instill the connection. This time, she went a whopping four hours in the morning without wetting herself. I started to suspect she was holding it in despite feeling uncomfortable because she was accustomed to relieving herself in her cozy diaper. Not only that, but she grew more defiant during the day, running away from her potty and refusing to eat lunch, sprawling herself on the floor.
Sure enough, after she finally ate lunch and her tiny tank was overflowing, she had two consecutive accidents. To further validate my earlier suspicions, as soon as I put a diaper on for nap time, she started to strain and grunt, which can only mean one thing: poop. My reflex skills were not sharp enough to whisk her to the potty in time, but we repeated the whole conversation about what we say when we have to go potty. I was beginning to feel more like my own mother with the repetitive lectures (though my mother successfully potty trained me so I was oddly OK with that).
I thought the remainder of the day would be like the first when she stayed dry right through dinner, but then she had watermelon, a well-known natural diuretic, for dessert and it was as if someone had stuck a needle through a king-sized waterbed because she wouldn't stop leaking. She anxiously clutched onto me crying, "Mommy, mommy, I need to potty!" as her pee trickled down my legs, but I froze and couldn't get her there fast enough. I felt the embarrassment pouring out of her tears and called it quits for the day. In my head, I kept thinking, holy crap, it's only day two.
Still no hits, and feeling like this no-diaper training fad is just another eBook money grabbing scheme, I had to focus on the positive, like the fact that I'm saving money on diapers (but allocating some of those funds to urine cleaner and laundry). Besides, successful potty training expert Lora Jensen says it takes at least three days, if not more, to get the little boogers to pee in the can. So third time's a charm, right? If I could get her to go in the potty at least once, I would call this day a success.
But day three was rough, to say the least. I tried to be clever by feeding her more watermelon and making her sit on her potty seat in hopes that she would inevitably relieve herself on the toilet, but my plan backfired. After consuming a slice of watermelon the size of her head and sitting on the toilet for 20 minutes, she didn't release a single drop of pee. As soon as I set her down, however, she ran off and tinkled in the hallway. Flustered, I scooped her back up onto the toilet to reinforce the connection between pee and toilet. That's when she projected the feistiest toddler squeal I've heard to date and said, "No Mommy! No toilet! ALL DOOOOONE!"
She probably hated the toilet more than her diapers at this point. I definitely didn't want to create a negative association with the potty, so I decided to go the rest of the day using a literal hands-off approach. When her body started to clench up later in the afternoon, she shyly grunted, “I need to poop.” I goaded, “Go in your potty sweetheart, it’s right there!” over and over again.
She refused, pacing the room nervously as I tracked her with my eyes hoping somehow I could use mommy psychic powers to move her over the toilet until suddenly, faster than I could say, "Oh sh*t!" she defecated on the floor for the first time and cried in disgust at her own production.
So far, diaper-free potty training had been increasingly stressful for both of us. She hates the toilet, I loathe mopping the floors, and together we’re both a lot grumpier.
I began day four already pretty jaded given that our hit rate was 0 percent thus far. Prodding and physically placing my daughter on the toilet was deterring her from actually using it, so I continued my hands-off (unless otherwise welcomed) approach. Instead of stressing about it, I just tried not to care. I let her mosey around the house bare-bottomed, this time not even mentioning anything about the potty. I watched her curiously wander into the bathroom, opening drawers and nonchalantly playing with floss and tampons. Then I unexpectedly heard that all too familiar trickling sound. Apparently the reflex skills I’ve been practicing kicked in because I snatched her up and moved her a convenient two feet onto her potty seat and, lo and behold, she was peeing on the potty.
I have never been so freaking ecstatic to see someone urinate in a toilet, I almost peed on myself out of excitement. Caught up in the moment, I clapped and cheered and rewarded her with a chocolate M&M even though I told myself I wouldn’t dole out treats, but I didn’t care. My daughter peed on the potty and that’s all that mattered right now. After all the attention I gave her for using her toilet, she seemed to hate it less because she kept coming back to sit on it hoping to earn more M&M’s.
Although we concluded the day with no more hits, I still hoped that our one stroke of luck would be enough to propel this experiment forward.
I was feeling confident my method of treating potty training super casually would help us get more hits. Not only was this approach less stressful on my daughter, it actually helped me to stay calm. Cleaning up urine (and occasionally feces) had become part of our daily routine, so I decided to (literally) go with the flow.
The biggest problem aside from my growing pile of laundry was that J outright refused to sit on the toilet despite knowing when she had to go. I pulled out a few more tricks from my sleeve, like showing her how to potty with her drink and pee doll and letting her watch the Elmo’s Potty Time movie … nothing was convincing her.
Even when I followed her around with her little toilet and bribed her with M&M’s, she would run off and do her business elsewhere. Sadly, day five ended just like the first four days: absolutely zero hits and a laundry basket full of dirty rags.
There was no question that my daughter was going to remain stubborn on day six. I was hoping that halfway through this process I’d get her to cooperate to some capacity; instead, I found myself yearning to put her diaper back on as she soiled every corner of the house. So, why not have a little fun? When it was time for her afternoon bowel movement, we ended up playing a game of cat and mouse, except this time the mouse was dropping turd bombs as she ran around. Some sick, maternal part of me actually enjoyed it because I had nothing to lose at this point.
We’d been cooped up in our progressively dirty house for days, but at least she was engaged. After 15 minutes of chasing a grunting toddler, she finally released a brown clump as I shuffled her over to her potty. Though most of her waste landed on the floor, she managed to release a tiny bit of it in her potty. I gave her an M&M to acknowledge that she did, indeed, land some poop in the toilet. She held onto the little blue piece of candy for 10 minutes, cherishing it and basking in her mini accomplishment.
I spent the rest of the day routinely wiping puddles, but half a hit was at least meeting our best record.
We hadn’t left the house for days, and we were both going stir crazy. I wasn’t brave enough to venture out diaper-free because, let’s face it, cleaning feces and urine is 10 times more stressful and unsanitary in public than in the comfort of your own home. However, we were in desperate need of human contact as well as fresh air and sunshine, so I decided a quick diaper-free trip to the park couldn’t hurt.
I told her as soon as she wet herself we had to go home because I only had one change of clothes. We strolled down the street to the neighborhood park, which was empty when we arrived. She happily dumped sand into her toy truck. Ten minutes passed by and a nanny with two small children strolled up to join us. We exchanged hellos, and right when she was about to unstrap her kids, my daughter squeaked, “Mommy I have to potty!” It was too late: she’d already wet herself and a puddle of pee clumped up in the sand beneath her.
As I proceeded to clean her up, the nanny curiously asked, “Is she yours?” I responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and a smile. The nanny smiled in return before she shyly backed away and strolled her kids across to the other end of the park. This is when I learned that the diaper-free potty training method is definitely not a socially acceptable one. I couldn’t blame her because there’s no way I would knowingly let my kid play in another kid’s pee.
I told my daughter we had to cut our outing short even though it killed me inside. It didn’t seem fair to her that I expected her to alert me before she had to go and use a toilet in a public setting even though she still hadn’t demonstrated that ability at home. We had a very sad stroll home, and the remainder of the day, she completely missed the toilet. I spent the evening quietly mopping every corner of the house. Yet despite having a mostly unsuccessful, not to mention lonely, potty training week, I felt at peace knowing that we gave it our best shot.
Did Diaper-Free Work?
I would steer clear of the “Diaper-Free” potty training method unless you have 8,203,925 rags at your disposal and can undertake the tedious cycle of incessantly cleaning urine and feces off your floors and repeating lectures. If you can also withstand the stress of watching your toddler bruise their butt slipping in puddles of their own pee, tripling your laundry loads, and committing to a full week (or more) at home without any social interactions or long outings in public, then you’ll probably be better at it than I was. I tried this experiment in hopes my daughter would make quick strides toward using the toilet, and although she became more physically aware of her bodily functions, going diaper-free for a week ultimately did not work as an effective potty-training method for us.
The most challenging part about potty training in general is being consistent and sticking to a method, so I am proud to say were able to stick to the messiest method for a whopping seven days (which seemed like an eternity of wading in urine). Between hastily disinfecting floors and comforting her through her million (and counting) accidents, the diaper-free method forced me to exercise patience I didn't know I still had.
The one thing I learn about parenting time and time again is this: I can try using all sorts of Jedi mind tricks to fast forward ways of reaching a milestone, but the truth is, she’s going to hit them when she’s ready. Though she was demonstrating almost every sign of readiness to be potty trained, it was clear through this experiment that she simply wasn’t willing. My job as her parent is to patiently guide her when the time is right. I’m still certain she’ll be potty-trained before high school. In the meantime, at least my floors and mop get a break.
Images: Giphy (1), Courtesy of Loreann Talbo (12)