A brief history of potty training
A Brief History of Potty Training
How children were toilet-trained before there were toilets; and is your mother-in-law just bragging when she says she toilet-trained all her babies by 14-months? We take a look at potty training through the ages…
Leaves and Rabbit Skin
In ancient times mothers may have used milkweed leaf wraps, animal skins, and other natural resources. Babies were wrapped in swaddling bands (strips of linen or wool were wrapped tightly around each limb and then crosswise around the body) in many European societies. The Alaskan Inuit placed moss under sealskin while Native American and Inca mothers packed grass under a nappy cover made of rabbit skin. In warmer climates, infants’ bottoms were usually left bare and the baby would simply go wherever they happened to be.
No Washing for Wees
In the late 1800s infants in the western world were wearing cloth nappies: a square or rectangle of linen, cotton flannel or stockinet that was folded into a rectangular shape and held in place with safety pins. Wet nappies were usually not washed but simply hung out to dry and be reused. In those days, parents started training their children as early as possible, with the goal to have the child go in a potty or chamber pot to avoid yet another dirty nappy.
Suppositories and Schedules
In the early 20th century, mothers began boiling used nappies as they became aware of bacteria. Because of the sheer amount of work involved, mothers were still keen to toilet train infants as early as possible. In 1914, parents were advised to start toilet training by the third month "with the utmost gentleness", while a somewhat barbaric method was advocated in the late 1920s that encouraged suppositories to keep baby on a strict schedule of bowel movements. In 1938, parents were advised to start bowel training as early as six months.
A Kinder Approach
By 1951, fears of psychological ramifications of early training surfaced and parents were advised to wait "between one and a half to two years" to commence training. A slightly more child centred approach was taken with mums placing their children on the potty when they thought the child needed to go. This method worked well and children were trained by the time they were physiologically ready – around 18 months (your mother-in-law wasn’t bragging!).
The Rise of the Disposable
The first disposable nappies were invented in the 1940s, but weren’t perfected until much later. By the late 1970s early 1980s, they were much more affordable and replaced cloth as the nappies of choice. This cut down on the amount of washing required, so parents were no longer so motivated to potty train their children at an early age. This also coincided with a more child-centered approach, which was also recommended by pediatricians - the idea of respecting your child's wishes and needs and waiting until your child is ready. In the 1980s, about 50% of children wore wearing disposable nappies, and only about 50% of the children were potty trained by the age of 18 months.
Today, around 85-90% of children wear disposable diapers and only about 10% of children are potty trained by the age of 18 months, most getting rid of nappies for good at around 30 months. However, the new wave of super-functional cloth nappies are gaining popularity as people look towards making more sustainable choices, which means there may be a return to earlier toilet training in the future.
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