Why there's no science behind perfect potty training

Aug. 25, 2011 at 12:50 PM ET

If there were a tested and true method of potty training, you’d think Darcie Kiddoo, a University of Alberta pediatric urologist and a mom, would know it.

But in a commentary posted recently by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Kiddoo points out that no method--whether it be Spock’s or Brazelton’s laid-back approach or more structured training that involves placing 2- or 3-week-old babies on the toilet after every meal—has ever been adequately studied.

Welcome to the wild, wonderful world of parenting, where self-described experts earn beaucoup bucks dispensing advice on everything from toilet training to feeding to sleeping. But if you pull back the curtain, you’re unlikely to find much scientific evidence to back up their claims.

Let’s face it, toilet training isn’t exactly the sexiest subject in the world, which at least in part could explain a lack of clinical trials comparing different methods.

Plus, although potty training isn’t nearly as weighty a matter as, say, curing cancer, in some ways it’s actually harder to study, says Kiddoo. While a pill is a pill is a pill, there’s bound to be some variation in how different parents utilize the same potty-training technique--or the same feeding technique or the same bedtime technique, for that matter. In addition, you’d have to follow kids for years to see whether the techniques were linked to any problems down the road.

Not surprisingly, the pediatric urologist’s son, now 3, was potty-trained fairly young for a boy, at about age 2. Kiddoo says she followed the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society: Start at around 18 months and then only if your child appears to be interested. And make it a positive experience.

 “If he peed in the toilet, everybody cheered,” Kiddoo says. “And we weren’t upset if he had an accident.”

Sure, she acknowledges there’s no “level-1” scientific evidence showing that’s the best approach, but it’s unlikely to cause any long-term harm.

Kiddoo’s son was a whiz with the potty, but he still has a hard time sleeping through the night. She and her husband, a gynecologist, have scoured popular parenting books as well as medical textbooks for answers and come up short.

Kiddoo tries to look on the bright side: “If he actually wants to see me in the middle of the night, I should be thankful.”

Moms, from your own potty training experience, do you have a "technique" that worked best?

Rita Rubin, a contributing writer for and, previously covered medicine for USA Today and U.S. News & World Report. She lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with her husband and two daughters.

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