By Stacy Whitman
On a parent’s list of duties, potty training can rank right up there with doctors’ visits and cleaning up oopsies. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right approach, experts say teaching your little guy or girl to use the toilet need not be an exercise in frustration or a battle of wills. In fact, if you start at an appropriate time and don’t push too hard, it can be a relatively smooth transition and a real confidence booster for your child.
Most kids are developmentally ready to begin using the potty around the age of 24 months, says Mark Wolraich, MD, Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City and author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Guide to Toilet Training. But every child is unique, and while some are successfully toilet trained before turning 2, others don’t master it until their third birthday or after.
“Children mature at different rates, so the best thing you can do is know your child and read his cues,” explains Peter L. Stavinoha, PhD, a licensed psychologist and coauthor of Stress-Free Potty Training: A Commonsense Guide to Finding the Right Approach for Your Child.
Just because your wee one isn’t showing all the signs of readiness doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start laying the groundwork, however. While you never want to force the issue, you can help him get interested and understand the process by talking about it when you’re changing his diaper, letting him watch you go to the bathroom and having him wave bye-bye to the pee and poop as you flush. “Parents should begin explaining the concept to their child very early on,” Stavinoha adds. “As your child gets more mobile and starts walking in when you’re using the bathroom, you can use it as an opportunity to reinforce their curiosity.” In addition, you can start having practice sessions to get your child used to sitting on a potty and establish a routine.
Six Signs Your Child Is Ready to Ditch Diapers
You don’t have to wait until your toddler is showing all of these readiness signs to begin potty training—but it may be easier for both of you if he’s making the necessary connections.
1. He’s showing interest in the process (i.e., he watches you go to the bathroom or imitates you by pulling down his pants or squatting).
2. He has some awareness of when he’s peeing or pooping (i.e., his facial expression or body position changes when he goes, or he acts uncomfortable when his diaper is soiled).
3. He can follow simple instructions.
4. He can walk to and from the bathroom and help undress himself.
5. His bowel movements have become more regular and predictable.
6. He stays dry at least two hours at a time during the day or his diaper is dry after naps.
NEXT: HOW TO TRAIN
How to Train
When you’re ready to introduce your child to the potty, those in the know recommend using a potty chair instead of a toilet insert. Because it’s close to the ground, your little one won’t be scared of falling or need help getting on and off, explains Jill M. Lekovic, MD, a board certified pediatrician and author of Diaper Free Before Three. Having both feet securely on the floor also may make it easier for him to push out a bowel movement, Lekovic points out.
Until your child has developed the necessary communication skills and awareness, you won’t be able to count on her telling you when she has to “go.” So for now, have her sit on the potty when she is most likely to urinate or have a bowel movement, such as when she first wakes up, immediately after meals and snacks, or before bed. Try reading books, playing peek-a-boo or giving her a special toy to keep her entertained and sitting in one place. Offer lots of encouragement, but don’t get mad or force her to sit if she doesn’t want to, Wolraich says. Your child will be much more open to trying again if she isn’t feeling railroaded.
To help your little one connect the dots, Lekovic advises switching from diapers to cotton training pants. Since they’re less absorbent, she’ll be more likely to notice when she pees or poops. And if she feels wet and uncomfortable, she’ll have more incentive to use the potty. If you’re worried about ruining your carpet or furniture, try doubling up the undies or use waterproof ones (such as Gerber All-in-One Waterproof Training Pants), which look a little like 1920s bloomers but can be effective at containing pee.
While your wee one may be able to use the toilet with help starting at 18 to 24 months of age, he may not be able to do it independently, without reminders, until much later. And along the way, there are bound to be lots of slip-ups. Accidents are a normal part of the process and it’s best to deal with them matter-of-factly, Lekovic says. If you prepare for them (for example, by carrying extra clothes with you and putting a waterproof cover on your child’s car seat), you’ll be less likely to lose your cool when they happen.
NEXT: HOW TO INSPIRE YOUR TODDLER TO GET-UP-AND-GO
Inspire Some Get-Up-and-Go
While there are many different toilet-training strategies you can use, all should include as much positive reinforcement as possible, says Stavinoha. In other words, you should praise your toddler when she is successful and offer reassurance when she isn’t. The goal is to make the experience pleasant for your child. Above all, you want to avoid the pushing and cajoling that can create a power struggle you’re almost certain to lose, Stavinoha adds.
To motivate their little ones, some parents use rewards, such as jellybeans or small toys. But “going to the bathroom isn’t really something you should be rewarded for,” Lekovic says. “And the more you turn it into a reward game, the more kids think they can manipulate the situation.” Instead, Stavinoha suggests using your enthusiasm as encouragement. “Some kids like a great big reaction,” he says. “For other kids, a high five or a pat on the back is all they need.”
We’ve all heard about kids making the conscious decision to use the potty and—boom!—they were trained in a day. But that kind of overnight success is rare. So keep your expectations in check. Like learning to feed yourself or ride a bike, potty training is a process that can take weeks or months. Committing to doing it and following through, even when it’s inconvenient, is one way to help speed your child’s progress. “The more consistent you are, the better,” Wolraich says.
When potty training takes longer than expected, some parents start getting anxious—especially when all their friends’ children are already trained or their favorite preschool won’t take kids in diapers. To prevent it from happening to you, Stavinoha says to give yourself at least six months to get the job done. That doesn’t mean it will take six months. But if you leave enough time, you’re less likely to get stressed out and frustrated with your child.
Staying dry at night is usually the last thing kids master. And while some experts believe in tackling nighttime and daytime training simultaneously, Stavinoha, for one, thinks it’s better to hold off. “There aren’t a lot of things that you can do to ensure that your child can control his bladder at night,” Stavinoha says. His advice: “Use disposable training pants and don’t worry about it.” When your child starts waking up dry most mornings, it’s probably time to bag the Pull-ups. Just be sure to limit your child’s fluid intake after dinner and have him use the potty before bed.
Going from diapers to underpants is a big change for your little one, but it can be a major adjustment for you, too—especially if you’re a busy parent who is constantly on the go. No question, it takes effort and can be messy. But you’ll be helping your toddler take an important step toward independence. And just think of all the money you’ll save when you don’t have to buy diapers anymore.
NEXT: POTTY PROMPTERS
Bolster your instruction (including flushing and hand washing) with the “I Can Use the Potty” chart, on which a friendly hippo illustrates each step. $10 at excited2learn.com.
Potty! tells the story of jungle animals who find a potty and take turns sitting on it, but can’t seem to find a creature with the right-size bottom. Help your child discover just whose hiney is a perfect fit. $8 at randomhouse.com.
Make getting pee in the potty fun for boys with Potty Training Targets. Drop one into the toilet when he’s ready to go to help him develop his aiming skill. The dissolvable rice paper targets won’t harm your plumbing. $10 for 50 at momsonedge.com.
NEXT: TOILET-TRAINING TOOLS
his own throne
Give your little one a comfortable toilet of his own and potty training may be easier than you anticipate. The Safety 1st Comfy Cushy 3-in-1 Potty includes a reversible, removable soft seat that can also be used on an adult toilet, and features a deflector shield on one side for boys. With the lid closed, the potty doubles as a stepstool. $18, Buy it here
Bring your own Inflatable Potty from On-the-Go Inflatables and concerns about germs in the public john will be a thing of the past. Plus, your toddler will enjoy the comfort of the smaller-size seat made especially for little bottoms. Just deflate it for pack-along-everywhere convenience. $10 Buy it here
Pampers Easy Ups Trainers make potty training easier for you—no soggy underwear to wash—as well as your toddler—the Feel n’ Learn liner lets him feel when he’s wet. Register to receive a free potty-training kit with coupons, tips and a free sample at pampers.com. In three sizes, 16–37 pounds; $29.50 Buy it here
Perhaps one of the best low-cost investments you can make, the Summer Infant Deluxe PiddlePad will save your stroller seat, your child’s car seat and your vehicle’s upholstery from inevitable accidents of toilet training. The soft velboa fabric is absorbent and machine washable, so cleanups are easy. $13 Buy it here
6 signs your child is ready to ditch diapers, and how to introduce them to the potty.