Realistic Expectations: Potty Training

Last week we began a series on having realistic expectations during the adoption trip by covering the topic of cleanliness. Today we would like to continue with the “bathroom” subject, as one of the most common questions asked by parents is whether or not their child-to-be is potty trained.

Well…… define potty trained. And if the definition is “Western style toilet trained,” then the answer is probably not.

For those new to this topic, it is important to know that the majority of children (especially in rural areas) wear “split pants” as older babies and toddlers. Essentially, this just means that the entire crotch area of their pants is left open to the air, and no diaper or underwear is worn. It is becoming less common in the cities, but definitely in the countryside it is the norm to see a child’s little bottom showing as he walks down the street.

If a child is out with his parents and needs to go to the bathroom, the parent is very attentive and helps the child quickly squat down on the ground and go. This happens in an instant. This is perfectly acceptable in China, and that is very important for any new parent to realize. If you are adopting an older child of two or three, it is essential to realize that your child might have been raised this way, and there is nothing wrong with it. When a child feels “the urge,” he or she is allowed to go almost immediately.

This drawing in a Chinese preschool showing a child wearing split pants demonstrates how normal this is in every day Chinese life.

So if you receive your child on adoption day and she is wearing regular pants, just remember that she might not have worn pants like that normally. The orphanage staff might have dressed her that way just for this important event. If your child has accidents when you are out and about, or suddenly squats down to go potty, please remember this is NORMAL. Many kids are used to being able to go immediately when they feel the urge, and they are not used to “having to wait” to find a restroom. Suddenly they find themselves adopted, with complete strangers who don’t speak their language, and they are expected to “hold it” until the appropriate toilet is found. Imagine how confusing this is to a child, and how wrong it would be for a new parent to get mad over an accident instead of helping them make this transition gradually. Be prepared with extra clothing, and be very loving and patient when accidents happen. If a child indicates that he or she needs to go, recognize that might mean, “I need to go NOW.”

It is also very common for a newly adopted child to be afraid of the toilet in the hotel room, and they might need lots of reassurance to switch over to the Western style of doing things. Please remember that Western toilets are rare in China, and your child might not have ever seen one before. They most likely used a tiled “squat toilet” located in the floor.

Many kids will find it very odd to actually be expected to sit when going to the bathroom versus squatting. Over the years I have had many calls from worried moms who have found their new child squatting on the rim of the toilet in their homes, even months after getting back. Remember that to your child, this is how they learned and is what “feels right.” I will be very honest and say that when I go into a public bathroom in China and see the little sign that says there is a Western toilet in the last stall, I say a little “hooray” in my head since that is what I use day to day as an American.   So naturally your newly adopted child feels most comfortable with what they have known day to day in China.

In orphanages that do use potty chairs or ceramic pots for toilet training, many staff will say that a child is “potty trained” when what they mean is that all the children are lined up on potties several times a day. They might sit there for an hour at a time starting at a very young age, and during that time they happen to “go.” Scheduled potty time in Chinese orphanages is common, but that doesn’t always equate to a toddler being able to tell a new parent when he or she needs to use the bathroom, and so don’t get frustrated when there are accidents. I have seen several blogs where new adoptive parents will say, “We were lied to – she is NOT potty trained.” The reality is that what they should have written is that their child is not American toilet trained, and that they understand it might take time for their child to learn to “hold it” and use that big white scary thing that looks enormous in a child’s eyes. Is it any wonder that some children sneak off to do their business? One adoptive mom discovered after getting home that her new son was using a bucket in the garage instead of having to face the terror of the Western toilet.

Please see it from their eyes. Everything in their lives has changed. Everything they have known is gone in an instant. And then there are suddenly new rules about even the most basic of human needs, like going to the bathroom. As the parent, it is important to have patience and to understand that it is unrealistic to expect your new child to immediately switch to the Western way of doing things.

We look forward to hearing from our readers about their experiences with potty training their adopted children from China!

~Amy Eldridge, Executive Director and Maureen Brogan, Associate Medical Director and Adoption Advocacy Coordinator

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18 Comments to “Realistic Expectations: Potty Training”

  1. Julie 19 September 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    We adopted our daughter 8 months ago just before her 3rd birthday. She was wearing a diaper at the time and had sores on her hips from the elastic band used to keep the diaper on. She was very afraid of our potty. We talk about the potty but without being pushy and she always tells me “no potty”. She does have an unexplained scar around her ankle and I worry it could be related to potty training. When I showed her the pictures you have posted here of the clay potty she said that is what she used but I have no way of knowing. Any suggestions anyone has would be appreciated! I don’t find it frustrating but would like to help her. – Thanks

  2. Kitz 27 July 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    I took a potty chair with me to China for a toddler. She used it there, she used it on the plane ride home, I just rinsed it and put it back in the plastic bag.
    There is enough stress in their little lives already. Providing something as simple as a familiar potty chair seems so basic.
    HINT: if you go to the back of the plane, to the left side toilet, you can open the door to the commode, put the potty chair in the hall and the open door blocks the view. Dump the contents in the head, rinse, replace in plastic bag. Take your seat. Repeat as needed!

  3. picklestfc 16 June 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    For all of you new China APs with children with tiny bottoms like my little girl (who was 15 lbs at 16 months), try Hanna Andersson for unders. They cost a little more, but they fit! :)

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