Potty Training: a Historical perspective #2 The Victorians and Freud

The Victorians

The concept of childhood itself, with children having distinct needs and identities, was seeded during the enlightenment and developed by the Victorians. However, they were also rather prudish: Priscilla Robertson argues that “The Victorians hated to put on paper what they considered to be dirty words, so that otherwise comprehensive manuals of childcare usually omit the entire subject of toilet training.”[1] The Victorian doctor, Pye Henry Chavasse, seems to show this exact hesitation. His first editions of Advice to a Mother on the Management of Her Children, which appeared in 1839, only alludes to toilet training. (Though it did suggest an almost obsessional preoccupation with constipation – or ‘costiveness’) However, by his eleventh edition, he was sufficiently confident to include a paragraph on the subject:

How soon may an infant dispense with nappies?

A babe of three months and upwards, ought to be held out, at least, a dozen times during the twenty-four hours; if such a plan were adopted, napkins might at the end of three months be dispensed with – a great desideratum – and he would be inducted into clean habits – a blessing to himself and a comfort to all around – and a great saving of dresses and furniture “Teach your children to be clean. A dirty child is the mother’s disgrace.” Truer words were never written – A DIRTY CHILD IS THE MOTHER’S DISGRACE!”[2]

By the end of the nineteenth century, authors (mainly male doctors) were becoming increasingly didactic in both their advice, and in their methods of ‘training’ babies. Dr Emmett Holt published a manual in 1894 (reprinted 1903). His approach is particularly hardline:

How is an infant to be managed that cries from temper, habit, or to be indulged? It should simply be allowed to “cry it out.” This often requires an hour, and in extreme cases, two or three hours.”

He also advises that “babies under six months old should never be played with and the less of it at any time the better.”[3] He is very explicit in his recommendations for bowel control – which is a system based entirely on timing and conditioning:

How may a child be trained to be regular in the action of its bowels?

By endeavouring to have them move at exactly the same time every day.

At what age may an infant be trained in this way?

Usually by the second month if training is begun early.

What is the best method of such training?

A small chamber, about the size of a pint bowl, is placed between the nurse’s knees, and upon this the infant is held, its back being against the nurse’s chest and its body fully supported. This should be done twice a day, after the morning and afternoon feedings, and always at the same hour. At first there may be necessary some local irritation, like that produced by tickling the anus or introducing just inside the rectum a small cone of oiled paper or a piece of soap, as a suggestion of the purpose for which the baby is placed upon the chamber; but in a surprisingly short time the position is all that is required. With most infants, after a few weeks the bowels will move as soon as the infant is placed in the chamber.

What advantage has such training?

It forms the habit of having the bowels move regularly at the same hours, which is a matter of great importance in infancy and makes regularity in childhood much easier. It also saves the nurse much trouble and labour.”

Modern readers will cringe at the idea of the ‘cone of oiled paper or a piece of soap’, but the use of enemas and suppositories was widespread amongst the whole population at this time. Although in the main this account is alienatingly prescriptive, the words ‘in a surprisingly short time’ hint of the delight that mothers today often feel when their babies seem to grasp the concept so quickly.


It was at about this time that Freud published his seminal work “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.”[4] We can see from Holt’s book that early toilet training was associated with aggressive parenting practices. Although Holt does not advocate punishment for accidents, his whole approach to childcare is one of behaviour management and control. Given the Victorian’s emphasis on cleanliness and order, we can guess toilet training was generally a matter of rigidity and recrimination. Freud observed that such conflicts in early childhood had significant consequences in later life.

Freud’s writings (though hotly contested) have permeated our thinking and current society accepts received wisdoms such as ‘early potty training is psychologically damaging’ without properly examining them. Freud’s original work shows that his observations are more complex than such truisms suggest. They are also absolutely particular to the time in which he was writing. Because Freud is so influential, I’m going to make an exception and evaluate his theories, rather than just recount them.

Freud claims that “one of the clearest signs of a subsequent eccentricity or nervousness is to be seen when a baby obstinately refuses to empty his bowels when he is put on the pot – that is when his nurse wants him to – and holds back that function till he himself chooses to exercise it.” Freud suggests that the baby withholds his bowel movement to serve “as a masturbatory stimulus upon the anal zone”, and that this behaviour indicates subsequent neuroses. I think it is quite normal (perhaps universal) for children to experiment with holding their bowel movements and see what sensations are produced. The process of passing a movement can be complicated and confusing, and outside pressure may inhibit the process. Much of the time, they probably don’t need to go. So I think it is wrong to suggest that the child that doesn’t defecate is asserting his disobedience – it is only disobedience if the caregiver turns the issue into a conflict, and even then, the child may be trying, but failing, to please.

Elsewhere Freud notes that:

“The way in which this training is carried out determines whether or not anal fixations result. The training may be too early, too late, too strict, too libidinous. If it is done too early, the typical result is a repression of anal eroticism, characterized by a superficial fear and obedience and a deep tendency toward rebellion; if it is done too late, rebellion and stubbornness are to be expected; strictness causes fixations because of the frustration involved; a libidinous behaviour on the part of the mother causes fixation because of gratification.”[5]

It’s interesting that Freud does not single out early potty training, but rather anyextremes, including being too late. Would he have considered 24 – 30 months late? I’m sure! We can only guess what he means by ‘libidinous behaviour on the part of the mother.’ Numerous studies have tried to establish Freud’s hypothesis. Fisher and Greenberg conclude that “sifting through the disparate findings, one is forced to conclude there is little support for the hypothesis that a child’s toilet training determines whether he will manifest the three traits (orderliness, obstinancy, parsimony) Freud linked with anality.”[6]

Examining Freud’s original texts, and understanding the context, has led me to believe that BLPT today is very different from early potty training at the turn of the Twentieth Century. His descriptions of the potty training process and of the parent-child interaction just don’t ring true for me. His claims linking potty training and neuroses are not supported by subsequent research.

It’s easy to dismiss Freud’s theories as being overly concerned with sexual impulses. However, the more general observations that he made – that early relationships are vital in the process of personality development – have formed the basis of our understanding of child development. And, it is thanks largely to Freud, that we understand that making a big issue – introducing conflict – over such matters, (whether that’s potty training, or sleeping or eating, or any other kind of behaviour) can have lasting affects on our child’s psychology.

Read on… Part 3: The Twentieth Century

There was also a Part 1: Ancient Greece to C17th Swaddling bands

[1] Robertson, Priscilla, ‘The Home as a Nest’ in The History of Childhood ed. by deMause (Norwich: Fletcher and Son ltd, 1976) P.419.

[2] Chavasse, Pye Henry, ‘Advice to a Mother on the Management of Her Children’ (London, 1873).

[3] Holt, Emmett, The Care and feeding of children (London and New York, 1903) p.125.

[4] Freud, Sigmund “ Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (first appeared in 1905, new editions with revisions until 1942) translated by James Stachey (London: Imago 1949)


[5] Freud, Sigmund quoted in Fisher & Greenberg, The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapy (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1977) p.145.

[6] Fisher & Greenberg, The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapy(Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1977) p.146.

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