NEW YORK – For some hopeful parents, summertime is "tinkle time," as in setting toddlers free and diaperless outside while potty training. And like so many aspects of life with kids, potty training means gear, lots of gear.
Something happened on the road to bathroom independence. The choices in potty seats and chairs proliferated and sprouted all manner of bells and whistles.
Many convert like Transformers to serve multiple functions. One has a voice recorder to add a personal message (Go Jacob!). Others belt out happy tunes, have cubbies to stash wipes and books, sport their own toilet paper holders, simulate flushing, look like mini-urinals and are decked out as fancy thrones.
There's one with an iPad holder and another with handlebars that looks like a ride-on toy. Still more can be monogrammed, are round to appear as ladybugs and soccer balls, rock like rocking chairs and, for the design-minded, look like contemporary furniture. And there's no end to TV, movie and book tie-ins, from Sesame Street to Spongebob.
Basic molded-plastic potties remain popular, high backed or low, in an industry worth more than $50 million in 2011, according to the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, a trade group of companies in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
So who's it all for, parents or little doers trying to figure out Nos. 1 and 2? Whether you decide on "elimination communication," where infants go without diapers earlier than the norm, take a cold-turkey boot camp approach or have a late and reluctant bloomer on your hands, chances are a cheery potty seat is in your future.
"People talk about potty training more. Before it was something you just got through, you know. You just did it," said Angie Peterson, marketing director for Levels of Discovery, a company that puts out painted wood potty thrones — pink for girls and majestic blue for boys — for up to $83 a pop. They're bedecked with crowns and include a place to slide in a photo of your little one.
Grandparents are often the buyers of these thrones, she said, and the chairs match the company's bedroom furniture sets with royal themes. They come with matching wood seat covers that turn them into regular chairs when training is complete.
Sick of unsightly plastic, but not looking for ornate? The Potty Bench by Boon Inc. is sleek and curvy in minimalist color schemes of bright green or aqua against white.
"We wanted it to look cool. Take a look at the children's industry in the early 2000s and it was just all pastely and it had not had a facelift, ever. We wanted to bring cool style and design to parents," said Ryan Fernandez, co-founder of the company and father of four girls 12 and under.
Potty seats just keep on coming, said Narmin Parpia, whose RNK Innovations makes the ones akin to ride-on toys.
"Isn't it crazy? The idea is to keep the child amused while they're on there, just to keep them entertained while they sit and wait for things to happen. I think moms today are expecting it to be easy and it isn't always as easy as they think it is," she said.
Sales of her company's Riding Potty Chair increased last year by 5 to 10 percent over the year before, she said.
"But I think some of the seats would drive me crazy as a parent. Mostly the ones that play music when a sensor gets wet and you have to dry it off completely to make it stop," said Parpia, whose kids are now 18 and 21. "I think at some point, when it does too much, it becomes a toy and the child wants to play with it rather than use it."
Heidi Murkoff, who wrote the pregnancy bible "What to Expect When You're Expecting" that now anchors a franchise and website offering parenting advice, isn't a huge believer in busy potty chairs.
"Bells and whistles, and musical potty seats, are never necessary. Clearly babies have mastered potty proficiency for generations without them," she said. "They just make the process more fun. But the bottom line: what kind of seat you put that cute little bottom on matters far less than how ready your toddler is to start potty training."
There's not a one-size-fits-all approach to potty training gear, even within families, but some basic choices in seat type exist.
There's the standalone, which has to be dumped and cleaned, or an insert for the adult potty that makes the hole smaller and potentially less foreboding. Both have pros and cons, Murkoff said.
Make sure a seat for the big potty doesn't slide around too much or have pinch points, especially if it's a fold-up type intended for on-the-go use. Handles and a stepstool come in handy for extra security and push-power. Inserts sometimes have dials to adjust for fit.
If you choose a freestanding potty, make sure it's sturdy enough not to tip over or slosh too much, advises Whattoexpect.com. Consider crevices that will have to be cleaned.
Also consider a splash guard that fits in the front for boys. Prioritize features: Do you need one that doubles as a travel potty? Do you plan on restricting training to a small bathroom?
In any case, take your tot shopping with you for a potty to build excitement, Murkoff said.
Meg Atkinson in Minneapolis is a rare breed of parent. She got the job done with her 2.5-year-old daughter in two days without any type of special potty, beyond a travel version she keeps in her car. There have been a few accidents but nothing out of the ordinary for a new recruit.
"We went cold turkey," said Atkinson, who also has a 9-month-old. "We didn't want to deal with any kind of special seat. It was straight to the big potty and big girl undies. So far, so good."
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