I recently heard from a dad who was frustrated because his young daughter, after peeing in a potty for weeks during the day, still refused to go to bed without diapers. He felt she was being stubborn. Here's what I told him:
When toddlers hold on to easier and earlier stages of behavior, there is always a good reason. Sometimes, a young child whose parents are quarreling loudly and feeling very angry will refuse to get out of diapers at all. Angry words, loud shouting, constant criticism of parents or child — all of these are signals that trouble a toddler to the point that she may regress and start wetting during the day, even though she now knows full well how to go potty.
Your child's reluctance to be out of diapers is giving you a clear message: "I do not feel ready yet to control my muscles during the night when I am sleeping!" She does not have the sophisticated language to explain her anxious feelings. Her behavior, however, speaks for her worries, loud and clear. She is showing you by her behavior that she realizes that during sleep, she may very well not feel the same body cues that she so easily and clearly pays attention to during the day. When she is awake, she feels the pressure of her full bladder and can run to the potty to pee there. She is worried that during deep sleep, she will not be aware of these signals and may well pee in her bed. Then she is doubly worried, for she may anticipate a scolding from her precious adults, her parents.
Remember that as your child becomes more and more mature and in control of her bodily functions, she will feel much more comfortable at deciding that she can risk trying to go to sleep without a diaper.
Very little children have so few domains over which they feel they have control. Their parents and caregivers decide when and what to feed them, when to put them down for naps, in what clothes to dress them. Control over toileting comes very gradually, and there is a huge difference among children. Some children are ready for toilet learning before they are 2 years old. Some are not ready for daytime toilet learning until they are about 4. Some children are able to be dry at night before they are 3. Some may not be ready until they are in kindergarten.
Please be patient. Give your child the respect that she deserves. Let her gradually come to her own feeling of assurance that she will be ready to stay dry at night without diapers. Her feeling of comfort and control over this body function may be ready later than for another child. Please respect the individuality of your precious little girl. If you push her with your disapproval, she may feel secretive and fearful about toilet functions, and may even be scared of your impatience and anger toward her. Your emotional relationship with your little girl is more precious than more months spent in diapers during sleep time. Be glad that you have a normally developing, special miracle in your life — your toddler!
Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. She is the author of Secure Relationships: Nurturing Infant-Toddler Attachments in Early Care Settings.