The diaper alarm: An effective tool for toilet training?

© 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The musical diaper alarm

Considering all the claims and hype, there haven’t been many good experimental tests of potty training techniques. But Alexandra Vermandel and her colleagues are trying to change that. They’ve wondered if they could speed up potty training by using a diaper alarm–a device that responds to moisture by playing music.

The idea is to alert caregivers immediately when a diaper is wetted and to make kids more aware of urination. As soon as the alarm goes off, kids can be encouraged to go to the bathroom. This will help children learn to associate the sensations of a full bladder with the toileting routine.

Vermandel and colleagues have tested the alarm in two settings, at home and in daycare.

In the home-based study, researchers randomly assigned kids, aged 20 to 36 months, to receive either

  • diaper alarm-based training, or
  • timed potty training (putting the child on the potty at regularly-timed intervals)

Observers rated the children’s toileting behavior at several points in time–before training began, two weeks after training ended, and one month later.

The children in the diaper alarm group showed significantly better progress (Vermandel et al 2008).

The daycare-based study yielded similar outcomes.

For three weeks, kids in daycare, aged 18 to 30 months, were given either a diaper alarm or a placebo (non-functioning) alarm. As in the home-based study, researchers evaluated toilet training skills before and after training.

Kids were considered to have completed toilet training when they wore underpants, showed awareness of their need to urinate, initiated visits to the bathroom, and had no more than one accident per day.

After three weeks, the kids who’d used diaper alarms were significantly more likely to have completed training. Almost 51.9% of the alarm group met the criteria for being potty trained. By contrast, only 8.3% of the control group did (Vermandel et al 2009).

Does this mean that you should get your toddler a musical diaper? Not necessarily.

I haven’t been able to read the details of the home-based study, but from the abstract I gather that the effects were modest. And remember–the home-based study pitted the alarm against another potty training method.

By contrast, the daycare-based study compared the wetting alarm with a placebo (a device fitted in the diaper that didn’t make an alarm). So it’s not surprising if diaper alarms seemed more effective in the daycare study.

Nevertheless, some parents might really like a “smart” diaper. Many potty training techniques depend on the caregiver’s continual vigilance. An alarm might give caregivers more flexibility.

It’s easy to imagine that diaper alarms would be especially helpful in group care settings, where caregivers must divide their attention amongst several kids. And researchers think that diaper alarms may be useful for the daytime toilet training of children with intellectual or developmental disabilities (Levato et al 2016).

References: Diaper alarm

Levato LE, Aponte CA, Wilkins J, Travis R, Aiello R, Zanibbi K, Loring WA, Butter E, Smith T, Mruzek DW. 2016. Use of urine alarms in toilet training children with intellectual and developmental disabilities: A review. Res Dev Disabil. 53-54:232-41.

Vermandel A, Van Kampen M, De Wachter S, Weyler J, Wyndaele JJ. 2009. The efficacy of a wetting alarm diaper for toilet training of young healthy children in a day-care center: a randomized control trial. Neurourol Urodyn. 28(4):305-8.

Vermandel A, Weyler J, De Wachter S, and Wyndaele JJ. 2008. Toilet training of healthy young toddlers: a randomized trial between a daytime wetting alarm and timed potty training. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 29(3):191-6.

Content last modified 4/2017