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The Brain-Bladder Connection and Potty Training – When Should You Really Worry?

I just read an article in Yahoo Parenting called The Truth About Nighttime Potty Training, where Author Amy Palanjian details how her daughter has been daytime trained for some time, yet at night she was still wetting the bed. To curb this, she started waking her at regular intervals during the night. She found out quickly, that not only does this do nothing to help a child with being able to control their bladder at night, it only made her daughter learn to wake at periodic times during the night and want to play.

The Truth About Potty Training

Like Palanjian, many parents have probably tried the same, or similar techniques to help their child learn to stay dry over night. However, if parents knew a little about how the biology of a child’s brain-bladder connection actually worked, we might spend less time getting all worked about about the fact that our child hasn’t stopped going at night yet, and more time just enjoying our little children as they grow. Understanding that as in all things – it will happen eventually, when the child is ready, not when you are ready.

The Brain-Bladder Connection and Potty Training

“In adults, and anyone who is toilet trained, the brain controls the bladder. When your bladder is full, your brain receives the signal that it’s time to head to the bathroom and then signals your bladder to release pee. It’s pretty straightforward.” (It’s No Accident: Breakthrough Solutions to Your Child’s Wetting, Constipation, Utis, and Other Potty Problems, Hodges 2012)

brain bladder connection

Hodges goes on to say that in babies, the signal from the bladder never reaches the brain. As a baby’s (or young child’s) bladder fills, a signal travels to the spinal cord – a reflex signal that comes right back to the bladder, and the baby pees. They don’t think about it because the signal never reached their brain in the first place, they just go.

Dr. Sears adds in The Portable Pediatrician, that the bladder-emptying reflex is automatic, and it isn’t until around two years of age when a child can become aware of bladder fullness and can begin to consciously hold on to his/her urine (although this is biologically different for each child so don’t fret if your child hasn’t developed this ability yet).

Nighttime control, however, which is the ability to unconsciously inhibit the bladder-emptying reflex, usually doesn’t occur until between three and six years in age – often later in boys, according to Sears. Knowing this, no matter how much you beg and plead, and reward or punish; or no matter how many times you wake your child in the night, none of it is going to matter if your child has not biologically developed the brain-bladder communication needed to control this reflex. The only thing that will help is time, and maturity.

Rewards and Punishment may cause setbacks

You may have the best intentions in doling out rewards every time your child happens to have to pee while you place them on the potty, or you simply get so frustrated that things haven’t been going as you planned that you start punishing your child for not complying with your demands. These types of behaviors on your part may actually set your child back even further when their brain finally does start communicating effectively with the bladder.

Once a child’s brain-bladder connection has matured, the signal travels from the bladder to the brain and back letting them know to open the gates (which can probably be held closed consciously at this point). Prior to this connection being established, a child may have endured a lot of frustration during previous attempts at potty training at a time they had no control. This frustration may now lead them to be unwilling to comply to commands set forth from someone who has previously shown no empathy and has talked to them in a superior-subordinate manner versus a person-person manner. If your boss/significant other/etc. was constantly hounding you to do something that you didn’t know how to do or had no control over, wouldn’t you become increasingly frustrated if you were reprimanded every time you didn’t achieve said task? 

To regain a sense of self, and a sense of self-control, your child may take to doing exactly the opposite of what you want them to do. Instead of trying to control the situation by asking your child to go potty every fifteen minutes, simply know that eventually they will go just as everyone else does. I don’t recall the last time I’ve seen a normal, average teenager who still wet their pants. Have you?

Janet Lansbury sums it up best when she states, “Toddlers have a developmentally appropriate need to resist parents, and if parents have an agenda around toilet training, healthy toddlers are inclined to push back, even if they might have been otherwise ready to begin using the toilet. Why would we add toilet training to our already overloaded job description when doing less works just as well, if not better? Why risk the headaches, power struggles and resistance, frustrations and failures? Why be a taskmaster when we can relax, enjoy, and take pride in supporting our child’s self-directed achievement?”  In summary, trust your children, and trust that they will go when they are ready. 

Is Your Child Ready For Potty Training

Still worried that your child hasn’t potty trained?

Unless there is a medical issue you really have no cause for worry. If you feel that your child is both developmentally ready (has the necessary language and the ability to control his/her body), and emotionally ready (not worried about things like where a part of his/her bodies disappears to) you may want to talk to your pediatrician to rule out a medical condition. Of course it could be simply that your child is displaying a power struggle because it is the one thing he/she has control over in their huge new world, don’t take it personally.



I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.

Image credit: Child on Potty, Amy Langova.


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22 Responses to The Brain-Bladder Connection and Potty Training – When Should You Really Worry?

  1. Pennywise Cook December 5, 2014 at 2:15 pm #

    This is good stuff. It’s such a frustrating thing for parents, but given the right patience and attitude it is accomplished! My daughter is in the last stages of potty training. She is almost there, but has a few accidents every now and then. I certainly don’t make her feel terrible about it. We take a step back and then we go forward! It’s all a part of the process.
    Pennywise Cook recently posted…Great Gift Ideas From Best Buy This ChristmasMy Profile

  2. Holly December 5, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

    Those are some great tips. When we potty trained ours we just let them lead us to when they were ready.
    Holly recently posted…The Love and Joy of FoodMy Profile

  3. Crystal December 5, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

    It can be so frustrating when your daytime potty trained child just can’t seem to maintain that throughout the night. I tried not to stress about it, knowing it would come with time. This has made me feel much better.
    Crystal recently posted…The Merriest Cruises at the Disneyland ResortMy Profile

  4. Valerie Remy-Milora December 5, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    Lots of great information here! I had always heard that it is important to know each kid is different and will stop wetting the bed when their bodies and brains are ready. The information you give here makes it all very clear and easy to understand. Our three girls were pretty east but too many of my friends have struggled so much. I need to share this 🙂
    Valerie Remy-Milora recently posted…Fitness Friday – 7 Moves to Blast Holiday FatMy Profile

  5. Annie December 5, 2014 at 6:06 pm #

    I love that you wrote this. My babies all potty trained “late” – and whenever a mom tries to potty train her 15 month old, I hug them and give them the same advice that is in this article. When the body is ready, it will be SO MUCH easier!

  6. Nina Say December 5, 2014 at 7:17 pm #

    I’m currently going through this with my two year old. Lately we’ve been washing sheets every day. This is good to know. Thank you.
    Nina Say recently posted…Nourish Reading Proficiency with Rosetta Stone Kids ReadingMy Profile

  7. Stephanie Keeping December 5, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

    This is great information! My last child was a pain to potty train. They were the stubborn one and probably had a lot to do with control.

  8. LyndaS December 5, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    I am so thankful to be past that stage with my children. That is not a phase that I miss.
    LyndaS recently posted…Potato Soup & GiveawayMy Profile

  9. Mary W December 5, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    I think it all depends on the child. Some kids seem ready at a certain age while others don’t. I trained my son when we went camping. That was super easy cause he could go anywhere. lol
    Mary W recently posted…Personalized Gifts for Husbands Holiday Gift GuideMy Profile

  10. Jennifer H December 6, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    We’re currently in this stage w/my 3 year old. He’s been potty trained (daytime for a year) but the nighttime we are really kicking into gear now. He’s ready and most days he’s dry, but there’s still a few accidents. This was helpful information – thanks!
    Jennifer H recently posted…TMNT Hero Portal Plug in & Play GameMy Profile

  11. Kimberly Grabinski December 6, 2014 at 9:47 am #

    I know potty training can be frustrating. With both of my kids I went through the realization that they just weren’t ready so we had to give them time. They came around eventually.
    Kimberly Grabinski recently posted…5 Habits of Healthy People That Can Help Reduce Health Insurance CostsMy Profile

  12. Lynsey @MoscatoMom December 6, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    This is a great article. I feel bad when I see Moms getting so stressed about potty training. Its so frustrating for both the Moms AND the little ones. I was VERY blessed that both of my girls potty trained very easily comparatively, but I still remember the frustration that went along with it. Tough stuff.
    Lynsey @MoscatoMom recently posted…Simple Felt Dog Bone Stocking Craft #TreatThePupsMy Profile

  13. Digna D. December 6, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    Very good tips. I am going to send this to our daughter with her first baby. Thank you for sharing.
    Digna D. recently posted…Gift Giving – Master the ArtMy Profile

  14. Emily December 7, 2014 at 10:46 am #

    When I trained my first I had a lady actually scold me that I let him sleep in pullups at night. He trained at 26 months. I just felt like he wasn’t ready for the night time training and I wasn’t willing to disturb his sleep. He night time trained around 3.5 and it was stress free. Glad we did it that way.
    Emily recently posted…GB Zuzu Stroller ReviewMy Profile

  15. HilLesha December 7, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

    Good information! Even though her child is potty trained, this also sounds like her child may be experiencing an overactive bladder, which can occur throughout the childhood years. Either way, it’s a matter of time and patience.
    HilLesha recently posted…Mix in Style with the Sunbeam Heritage Series Stand MixerMy Profile

  16. Liz Mays December 7, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

    This makes some really good points. It wasn’t worth a battle to me at all, so I just waited until they were showing signs of readiness. I’m pretty laid back.
    Liz Mays recently posted…New Big Fish Hidden Object Adventure Games Released for the HolidaysMy Profile

    • Jesica H December 8, 2014 at 8:02 am #

      I know what you mean. With my first (a boy) I was frustrated that he didn’t potty train quickly, although he was trained by the time he was three so looking back it wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought it was at the time. We didn’t push him or scold him, but I always felt like I wasn’t doing something right. I wish I had known more at the time. My daughter trained at 16 months simply because she put herself on the potty like everyone else and went, I didn’t even know she was ready she just started doing it. We have another little that will be one this month and I’ll just let her decide when she is ready and go from there. 🙂
      Jesica H recently posted…The Brain-Bladder Connection and Potty Training – When Should You Really Worry?My Profile

  17. Tonya December 7, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    It’s been a long time since I had to potty train anyone but I pretty much did the same as Liz. I didn’t push potty training. I waited until my kids were ready and didn’t really have any problems. My daughter stayed dry from day one. The boys, not so much. But I never punished them and eventually it was dry beds for everyone.

    Great info!
    Tonya recently posted…Donate to Passports with Purpose and Win a Shores & Islands GetawayMy Profile

  18. Avry December 8, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    It’s been 12 years since I last went through potty training. I know this sounds crazy but I miss those days. Luckily both my kids potty trained around the age of two and were very fast at catching on. I was lucky it went so smoothly for me.
    Avry recently posted…Vintage Christmas Series “Vintage Manger Makeover”My Profile

  19. Stephanie June 12, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    i. Can’t seem to get my child to potty train at all he pees himself even after using the bathroom


  1. Potty Training – When Is The Right Time? | The Mommy Bunch - November 16, 2015

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