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. joanblin 12 April 2012 at 8:35 am #

    Thanks for posting realistic expectations for adopting families!

  2. Amy Murphy 12 April 2012 at 8:54 am #

    We were VERY blessed. We adopted our son at 2 1/2 yrs old. He was not only potty trained, but had no issues with a western toilet. He even learned the word “potty” on the first day we had him. He would tell us when he needed to go, too. We are truly indebted to his wonderful foster Mama!

  3. Ruth H 12 April 2012 at 9:13 am #

    Your “older” child may still be very used to going, the liquid aspect anyway, when the urge hits and that means outside, right then and now. Our almost seven-year-old son was very used to this from life in the village and it took him a few months to be able to hold it as long as kids can here by that age. Nothing wrong, just different. Takes some planning ahead, and understanding, and more stops on car trips!

  4. adrian 12 April 2012 at 10:47 am #

    I am so excited about this series. Please keep it up!

  5. Tracie 12 April 2012 at 11:04 am #

    These informative articles are awesome. I wish I had something like this while waiting.

  6. Marny in Maryland 12 April 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    Good points all! I would add: also be prepared that even if your child WAS potty trained, she/he might regress either at adoption, at coming home, or later down the road.

    My daughter was 37 months at adoption and she was in an orphanage from early infancy. She did indicate when she needed to go (although she can’t “hold it” as long as some kids)and happily use the western toilet (she loves to flush, but she’s Deaf so it’s not scary for her like it might be for some kids)from the beginning. In province, she was flawlessly potty trained. In Guangzhou, she had some accidents. The first few weeks home, she would still ask to use the potty (especially when she was supposed to be lying down for sleep :)) but had tons of accidents — her pull-ups were wet all the time. I decided to postpone trying to do anything about it, and after about a month at home, she got back into the swing of things (spontaneously) and now doesn’t wear pull-ups during the day and has a normal number of accidents for a newly three year old.

    I used to teach kids this age, and even with kids who haven’t experienced all this change, there is nothing to be gained by stressing and struggling over this issue. They all get trained eventually, and pushing it doesn’t make it happen any sooner than waiting until the child is ready. So much more so for our newly adopted kiddos!

  7. Amy 12 April 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Our daughter came to us at age 4 potty trained but she was very afraid of the western toilets in the hotel room. She held it the entire first day and night and I was worried she was going to get a UTI so I stood her in the bath tub and ran some water the next morning which made her have an accident. That was my plan and we assured her it was all right but she was not happy about going in the tub. We ended up heading to the closest department store with our guide and buying her a plastic squatty potty. Our daughter looked so relieved when we put this on the bathroom floor of our hotel and showed it to her. She immediately went to use it and we carried it on the plane to Guangzhou. We got to leave it in China because by the end of our trip, she had figured out how to use the big scary western potty.

  8. galba 12 April 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Ditto that I love this series. It just breaks my heart when I read parents frazzled by what I have learned/read is sooo normal. For us, our little guy was indeed potty trained. However, ironically, he couldn’t even sit up very well due to his SN. (age 28 months) Add on top of that his little bum was so tiny that even with the potty seat I was worried he would drop in. We used diapers (and continued offering the potty) with him using both modes. However, we didn’t have much luck with #2 on the potty. It was many days later that he becmae somewhat agitated for the first time and proceeded to use his diaper for #2 (we had no idea what the issue was) He looked so very worried but we quickly reassured him everything was okay and loved on him and got him cleaned up. After that, he/we got #2 on the potty but he continued with both the potty and diaper for #1 for quite some time (fully potty trained now, however :)

  9. Peg 12 April 2012 at 9:17 pm #

    Our daughter was 25 months old and wearing split pants at adoption. She was terrified of the American bathroom and “held it” until we bought a little red squat potty for her. She was delighted and immediatly used it. She did regress after we returned to America and put her in pull-ups. But, I couldn’t find underpants small enough to fit her–even boiling 100% cotton panties to shrink them didn’t make them small enough–so it was either pull-ups or no underwear.

  10. roomforatleastonemore 13 April 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Yes this is good to read and know. Our son, adopted at newly turned 5, squatted all over China LOL! Thankfully, it wasn’t our first trip (or first adoption), so we were OK with it. We were in a large city (and he had come from the country), so we did follow the local lead … and we found side streets as the locals in Chongqing did. :)

    Also, our son squatted for MONTHS on the toilet here. He was never fearful really, but he felt much more at ease if we allowed him to squat on the seat (for both bathroom tasks ;) rather than sit (or stand). We didn’t mind and in time, he just began sitting for the bigger business and standing for the other.

    I wanted to add that for anyone adopting a child of any age, but particularly if older, it is also most likely they have been taught to dispose of paper in the WASTEBASKET rather than the toilet. While it might be frustrating once home to find used toilet paper (especially for the bigger potty) in your trash can, PLEASE don’t be too hard on an older child (or younger) because this is what they do in China (and most of the world) with used toilet paper. The plumbing there simply can’t handle the toilet paper. I can’t tell you how many waiting PAPs (of older children) have no clue about this.

    Thanks Amy. This series REALLY SHOULD BE required reading for anyone waiting to adopt from China. Maybe you could do a webinar from it and it could be offered through one of the Learning Partners or such and the monies raised could go toward LWB’s Unity (or Heart Surgery) Fund!

    I know most of us APs who are required to take learning courses (a good thing btw) would have loved to have something like this rather than one curtailed to adopting older from US Foster Care (which is what we had to take b/c that was all there was for someone adopting older at the time).

    Just a though! Thanks so much and I’m linking to these on all my yahoo groups and my blog.

  11. […] Love Without Boundaries’ Amy Eldridge has been writing a series on her blog about “Realistic Expectations”. While it is geared toward families adopting from China, many of the issues are common in other countries as well. Today I read her post on toilet training and thought that there were many, many good points for any families adopting internationally! You can find it here: http://www.lwbcommunity.org/realistic-expectations-potty-training […]

  12. Awesome post. It inspired one on our blog! http://heartofthematterseminars.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/lwbs-realistic-expectations-series-potty-training/

  13. […] on cleanliness Expectations on potty training Expectations on clothing And expectations on preparing a […]

  14. Sammy 21 May 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    Our beautiful daughter turned 2 on adoption day. She was potty trained, but I actually untrained her on purpose. I wasn’t up for using the Chinese toilets and risk accidents on the plane ride home. U.S. kids grow 2″ per year and because I put Lyric back on the bottle (really sipper cup) she grew 5″ in 7 months. I (really hubby) even got up through out the night and refilled her cup with milk. I think her fast growth had to do with getting on this milk down her. At the very first I had to put Nestle Quick in it to get her to drink it, but soon she just wanted milk without Nestle.

  15. […] Read the rest of this article here! […]

  16. 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! :)

  17. 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!

  18. 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


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