By Gail O’Connor
You have the training pants, a potty chair and a pack of motivational stickers. The only thing missing: a child who wants to toilet-train. Sure, we’ve all met a mom who boasts that her child hopped on the potty once, bid diapers farewell and never looked back. For most of us, though, nixing the nappies takes time and patience (and a lot of laundry detergent).
The good news: Whether your child trains early or late has little reflection on him (or you!). “Many parents see toilet training as an important thing for children to do early,” says Mark Wolraich, M.D., editor in chief of the American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Toilet Training (Bantam Books, 2003). “Yet there’s little evidence that training early or late refl ects on the abilities of the child.”
Ideally, toilet training should be as stress-free as humanly possible. “It’s an exciting developmental step for children, and it’s exciting for parents to enable the process and make it an enjoyable one,” adds Wolraich. Of course, it’s hard for many parents in the trenches of toilet training to see it this way. But with a few smart strategies, you can avoid a drawn-out battle of wills and enjoy your soon-to-be-trained toddler’s sense of accomplishment.
1. Look for signs of readiness. Around age 2, kids show signs that they’re becoming more aware of the business happening down below: Your toddler may hide behind the couch during a bowel movement, or present you with a fresh diaper when it’s time to be changed. “This is a good time to introduce a child to the potty, simply by showing it to him or her,” says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., editor of The Wonder Years: Helping Your Baby and Young Child Successfully Negotiate the Major Developmental Milestones (Bantam Books, 2006).
Invite her to practice sitting on her mini-throne fully clothed—some kids can be sensitive to the feel of hard plastic against bare skin. If holding court on her potty is all she wants to do, though, resist the temptation to press her to use it. “Parents are often ready before their toddlers are ready,” notes Altmann. “And starting toilet training before your toddler is ready doesn’t usually lead to success.” Very generally speaking, girls train between 2 and 2-1/2, while boys do so between 3 and 31/2. Many children, though, won’t be ready until even later. (Full disclosure: My own lovely and very reluctant son trained at 4 years, 3 months.)
So consider whether your child is showing signs of readiness. Does she tell you when she has a full diaper? Has she asked to use the toilet, or for “big kid” underwear? The more positive signals she’s sending, the more likely she’s ready to toilet-train. But if you’re not getting those signals, shelve the underpants—you need to wait a few more months before making an effort that’s worth your while. Says Claire Lerner, director of parenting information and resources at Zero to Three in Washington D.C.: “While you can provide the opportunity for support, the bottom line is, it’s got to be the child’s choice.”
2. Let your child take the lead. You’ve made the introduction to the potty, but beyond that, you can’t force the issue. Don’t sweat it. “Children will move forward and want to train for the same reason they grab a spoon and feed themselves,” says Lerner. Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., co-author with T. Berry Brazelton of Toilet Training: the Brazelton Way (De Capo Press, 2004) concurs: “Children are motivated to potty-train because, particularly between age 2 and 3, they are eagerly involved with learning from you and wanting to be just like you. So there’s a lot of pressure that comes from within them already.”
Let your toddler familiarize herself with her new potty seat, and when she makes a move to use it, take it for what it most likely is: a good fi rst step. (Younger children can sometimes just as suddenly object to using it.) Help her along by keeping a few books near the potty for her to read, sing songs and turn on the faucet—a simple trick that can prod her to go.
3. Curb your enthusiasm.
If bathroom walls could talk, parents (myself included) would be pretty embarrassed that others could hear the praise we pour on our kids, all for…urinating in a toilet. “When they do go for the fi rst time, try not to move into cheerleading such as ‘Yay!’ or ‘Good job!’” advises Sparrow. “There’s a difference between ‘I’m proud of you’ and ‘This is an accomplishment you can be proud of.’” The more her motivation comes from within herself, the more likely she is to have success.
4. Think through your reward system.
Experts have differing ideas about how to reward a child who uses the potty. Some, like pediatrician and author Ari Brown, M.D., observe that if you have a sticker chart that’s weeks long, your child probably isn’t ready to train, and you should hold off awhile before making another attempt.
Many, including Altmann, don’t advise using food as a motivator—for anything—but even she concedes that sometimes “just one M&M can work so well.” They all warn against starting anything you’ll be tethered to long-term, such as rewarding your son with a Thomas the Tank Engine train every time he has a bowel movement in the potty.
An alternative idea: Keep a special toy he can play with only after he uses the potty. What may motivate your child more than any sticker or toy, however, is helping her understand the real-life rewards she gets from her accomplishment. “Children learn best from the consequences of their actions,” says Lerner. “The rewards are that they don’t have to feel yucky, they get to pick out underwear and we have more time together to do fun things because we’re not busy changing diapers.” Some seats we like
5. Expect accidents.
There isn’t a reputable child-rearing expert anywhere who will tell you it’s a good idea to reprimand your child for accidents, so this one’s simply a matter of mind-set. Stash a spare change of clothes in your bag if you don’t already, and stock up on underwear, especially underwear you won’t mind throwing away on occasion.
Then clean up and carry on. One exception: If your child is having frequent accidents, she may not be ready for the transition to the toilet just yet. Other kids fall into the “absent-minded professor” category, says Brown: “He’s so busy with whatever he’s doing, he’s just not being clued in to the urge.” In that case, set a watch or timer to go off every hour, indicating it’s time for a trip to the toilet. “The timer can’t nag—it provides a sense of independence,” says Brown, “and eventually he’ll internalize that cue.”
6. Pee before poo.
Most kids are physically able to control their bowel movements well before they can withhold urine, which is why most babies stop pooping at night within their fi rst year. But while some kids are able to successfully master peeing and pooping in the potty at the same time, for others, these are two separate milestones. “Some kids are very fearful of pooping in the potty,” says Brown, co-author of Toddler 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Toddler (Windsor Peak Press, 2007). “They may have been constipated once and it hurt when it came out. Then it becomes a vicious cycle.”
These kids can often be seen crossing their legs, tiptoeing around the room, grunting and turning crimson, and basically doing everything they can to avoid having a bowel movement.
Brown encourages parents of a socalled “withholder” to contact their pediatrician, who can make recommendations, such as oral medications to clear up any backup, or stool softeners (so it won’t hurt), and a high-fi ber diet to keep things moving. From there, you can coax your child to have a bowel movement in her diaper in the bathroom, and then in her diaper while seated on the toilet, before eventually taking diapers away.
7. Preschool pressure?
Take a deep breath. Okay, yes: Many preschools won’t accept kids who aren’t toilet trained. (No wonder parents feel pressured!) But if your local school claims they expect children to be toilet trained by 2 years, 9 months, ask around to find out what the real deal is. “Sometimes when a parent checks into it, the preschools are a little bit lax about what they define as ‘toilet trained,’” says Wolraich. At this young age, he notes, many still expect accidents.
8. Remember it’s a long day’s journey into night. Once your child masters toilet training during the day, it may still be a while before she can manage to stay dry all night. “The nighttime stuff is more related to bladder capacity, and the ability to hold it,” says Brown.
Generally a child can only hold her age plus two ounces at night—for a 4-year-old, that’s six ounces. “Also, a light has to turn on in the brain that says, ‘While I’m asleep I have to listen to my body cues, and get up and use the toilet when I need to go,’” Brown adds. You can help by limiting liquids after dinnertime. When is it safe to make the nighttime switch to underwear?
Here’s a good rule of thumb, according to Brown: Keep her in diapers at night until she’s woken up dry for a month. “Ninety percent of kids are dry at night by age 7, so that’s when it becomes an issue to bring to the attention of your pediatrician,” says Brown. “But if your 4- or 5- or even 6-year-old isn’t dry at night, that’s still within normal limits.”
9. Reward yourself! Who doesn’t deserve a massage after those many hours hunched over a changing table? With the money you’re now saving on diapers, be sure to indulge yourself a little for marking this milestone in your toddler’s life! Gail O’Connor, who is a writer and editor living in New York City, is also the mother of her own set of toddlers: 4-year-old Declan and 21-month-old Katie.
“I got great advice from a friend, who said not to rush it or force it. Luckily, my son’s school allowed diapers, so there was no hurry. One day when he was 3, he said, ‘No more diapers,’ and never wore them again. Our 2 1/2-year-old sits on his potty when I go to the bathroom, and asked for a potty book at the library, so he may be interested. But as with my first son, I’ll wait until he’s ready.“—Leah Jenner
“Peer pressure kick-started my son’s potty training. A few older kids in daycare were learning to go on the potty. He saw it and at 18 months started asking to use the potty. A few months later, we started encouraging it. Each time he went, he got an M&M. He was trained by his second birthday.” —Kelly Hoeckelberg-Young
“We poopie-trained first. Just before his third birthday, my son had regular bowel movements right after breakfast and dinner. We’d sit him on the toilet with a stool for his feet and read a book. Soon he told us when he had to go. Then, we told him he’d wear underwear soon. The first day he wore them, he had seven accidents; the second, he had three; the third, he had one. That was it!“—Jennifer Jung Kim
Follow our expert step-by-step guide.