It’s thrilling to imagine changing your little one’s final diaper, isn’t it? Before you get there, of course, you need to potty-train him. It’s usually not a parent’s favorite phase, but if you go into it with a little knowledge, preparation and enthusiasm, it may be a smoother journey than you imagined.
Our ultimate guide to potty training covers the experience from beginning to end. Here’s what you’ll find:
Signs Your Child May be Ready to Potty-Train
You may be eager to say goodbye to the diaper days, but before embarking on potty training it’s important to gauge whether your little one is ready. Readiness can make the process more efficient and less stressful for everyone involved.
Here’s a list of expert-approved signs of potty-training readiness. The American Academy of Pediatrics says it isn’t necessary for your child to show all of these signs, but the more they show the better their chances of potty training success.
Age — While certain methods have more defined age recommendations, most experts say to start potty training no earlier than age 18 months, and finish no later than 36 months.
Physiological Factors — If your child pees and poops regularly and predictably, keeps a diaper dry for at least 2 hours during the day, and is dry after naps, these are all signs that his digestive system and bladder are mature enough that he can hold his pee or poop long enough to get to a potty chair or toilet.
Cognitive Factors — To master potty training your child needs to be able to recognize the feeling of needing to pee or poop, connect it with the act of using the toilet, and remain focused long enough to complete the task.
Language Factors —To learn the steps involved in using the toilet, your child should be able to understand and communicate potty-related vocabulary through words or gestures, as well as follow simple, sequential directions.
Gross & Fine Motor Factors — Your child needs to be able to walk to the potty, manage his clothes with help, sit down, and stand back up again.
Emotional Factors — Potty training tends to be easier when children show a desire to do things independently. It’s also an emotional milestone for your little one, as he is literally letting go of something he views as belonging to him (yup, we’re talking about his pee and poop). If he exhibits signs of distress around potty training, you may want to hold off.
Lifestyle Factors — Potty training requires time, energy, patience and enthusiasm. For those reasons, it’s a good idea to start when you and your child are both relaxed (no major life changes like a new job or move), your child is healthy (no illness or constipation), and your child is cooperative. That last point may make you laugh; a cooperative toddler, who ever heard of such a thing? It just means that if your little one is going through an especially rebellious phase, it may not be an ideal time to start.
Behavioral Factors — If your child shows he doesn’t like wet or dirty diapers by asking to be changed, it’s a good indication that he may be up for using the potty.
Social Factors — Your child may show curiosity (and imitate) when you, older siblings or others use the bathroom. He may also see older children wearing underwear and show interest in wearing them himself.
Preparing for Potty-Training Success
We’ve all heard a story about an 18 month-old toddler spontaneously potty training herself and wondered, Is she a magical unicorn? The truth is, she might be! Some little ones are easier to potty-train than others, but the process usually involves ups and downs. One way to minimize the downs is to familiarize your child with the process of using the toilet (even long before she actually starts).
These tips can ease the transition to diaper-free life for your little one.
Let your child be your bathroom buddy. She doesn’t have to join you every time (we know using the bathroom may be your only alone time all day), but here’s the upshot: Observing you use the toilet shows her that it’s a part of everyday life. You may see her imitate the act during play, showing that she’s getting comfortable with the idea.
Narrate the process. Explaining what you’re doing in the bathroom, in simple language, is a great way to teach your child the potty vocabulary she’ll need when it’s her turn. It also helps her learn how to sequence the steps involved in using the toilet.
Let her help you. Don’t worry, you don’t need to hand over toilet paper, but if she’s interested in being involved you can let her do simple things like flush the toilet.
Talk about poop. If you’re walking the dog, point out when he poops. You can say something like, “He poops on the grass, but I poop in the toilet and one day you will, too.” Just try not to say it too loud if the neighbors are out. When you change her diaper, talk about her poop in a matter-of-fact way, avoiding words like stinky and gross. Research shows that negative poop talk may make matters worse for potty-training rebels.
Put a potty chair near her toys. This helps her feel familiar with it. She may sit on it to look at a book, or use it during pretend play. You can join her, using dolls, stuffed animals or action figures to act out using the potty.
Add potty books to your collection. Books about potty training are a great way to familiarize her with the process in a fun, on-her-level way. “Potty” and “Everyone Poops” are both popular, well-reviewed titles.
Get her excited about underwear. If you’re shopping, pass by the toddler underwear. Show it to her and tell her it’s something special to look forward to. Let her know that when she’s ready to use the potty, she can pick out her own underwear.
Encourage independence. Potty training is easier if she’s accustomed to mastering independent self-care tasks.
Common Approaches to Potty Training
Where do you turn in the heavily-populated land of potty-training how-to advice? A good place to start is with the two main philosophies.
Child-Oriented Potty Training
In the 1960s, Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton developed a “Child-Oriented” potty training method (CO) because he was concerned that parents were pushing their children to potty-train before they were ready, and using rigid, sometimes harsh, tactics. This wasn’t good for the child, he argued, and proposed another way.
CO follows a series of steps. It’s gentle because it respects the child’s readiness for each new step, and it’s gradual because the child sets the pace (parents do not force new steps if the child pushes back).
CO may work well for you if you stay home with your child, you have a laid-back personality, or your child is headstrong.
Here’s an overview of the CO steps:
The Steps of Child-Oriented Potty Training
- Sometime after your child turns 18 months old, introduce a potty. Tell him it’s a very special chair, and it belongs to him. Explain that it serves the same purpose as the toilet in the bathroom.
- Encourage him to sit on the potty with his clothes on. This is a gentle way to introduce it, because the coldness of the potty against his bare bottom may make him less likely to cooperate. While he’s sitting on it, read to him or offer him a reward (a treat or sticker, for example). Let him get up anytime he wants to. If this goes well…
- Encourage him to sit on the potty with his diaper off. This is still just sitting practice; actually peeing or pooping in the potty comes later. If this goes well…
- Start shaking his dirty diapers over the potty, explaining that this is where pee and poop go. Once he has the gist of that…
- Introduce bare-bottom periods of time each day. Remind him that he knows what to do, and that he can do it all by himself. Leave his potty nearby while he plays. You can remind him about the potty from time to time, or if you see telltale signs of impending pee or poop like pausing during play, squatting, or grunting.
Important Points About Child-Oriented Potty Training
Praise. Like most modern potty training gurus, Dr. Brazelton emphasizes praise and says that shaming and punishing are big no-nos. Where praise is concerned, he puts extra oomph on highlighting your child’s autonomy by saying things like, “Wow, you used the potty all by yourself!”
Step back if your child pushes back. The premise of this method is that it approaches an emotional milestone for children with care and respect. If your little one shows distress (or even disinterest) at any point in the process, Dr. Brazelton advises that you hit pause, try reintroducing the new step at a later time, and only proceed when he’s fully cooperative.
You can tweak the method. You can borrow ideas from other potty training approaches and customize a plan that works for your family. Many parents, for instance, like the gradualness of CO, but add structure by scheduling potty breaks at regular intervals throughout the day.
Pros and Cons of Child-Oriented Potty Training
Plusses of CO are that it takes the pressure off of a process that can be emotional for your child and frustrating for you. CO is gentle and helps you avoid potty-training power struggles. It also works. Research shows that a majority of children have success with this method.
Minuses are that it may take longer—several months or more—than other methods (we’ll get to those next). It can also lack consistency because it’s up to your child whether he wants to use the potty on any given day. This may pose a problem if you’re up against a deadline, like diaper-free pre-school, and your little one views potty use as optional.
For detailed information about CO, you can find Dr. Brazelton’s book here.
Fast-Track Potty Training
Pick a weekend to potty-train and check it off your list by Monday. Sounds amazing, right? In reality, it may take a bit more time (8 weeks or so) for your little one to be accident-free, but it is possible to teach her the gist of using the potty in 1-3 days.
The idea of “Fast-Track” potty training (FT) was first introduced in the 1970s by psychologists Nathan H. Azrin and Richard M. Foxx. Today there are countless potty training methods based on their approach, including 3-Day Potty Training, Oh Crap Potty Training, and The Potty Boot Camp. Each method offers a unique twist, but here’s an overview of Azrin and Foxx’s steps:
- Do your homework. This is where the “fast-track” label is a tad misleading. While the actual training may be short-term, FT is regimented. It requires understanding the method, making a plan, and sticking to it. Reading the FT book of your choice before starting is key.
- If your child is 20 months old and shows signs of readiness, pick a day (or two or three, depending on which method you follow) and dedicate it to potty training. Clear your schedule and plan to stay home. It’s a good idea to have siblings stay with Grandma if possible, so you and your toddler are free of distractions. This approach is all-potty, all-the-time.
- Dress your child in training pants (newer versions of the method call for underwear, or nothing at all).
- Use a potty seat and a doll (preferably one that “drinks” water and then “pees” it out) to act out drinking, using the potty, and washing hands. Praise the doll and offer her a reward (a treat or a sticker, for example). Stage a doll-peeing accident and “overcorrect” by having the doll sit on the potty right afterwards. Have your child participate in this play until she understands the routine (Azrin and Foxx say this takes about an hour).
- Give your child a lot to drink, and remind her to use the potty when she needs to pee or poop. If she does, praise her and offer her a reward. If she has an accident, overcorrect by having her practice using the potty immediately after.
Things to Keep in Mind About Fast-Track Potty Training
Unlike Child-Oriented Potty Training, FT calls for parents to exert more control. It’s still important, though, to back off if your child reacts so negatively that it’s causing power struggles. Child development experts tend to agree that while some children may need a nudge to potty train, pushing them too hard can have behavioral consequences.
FT isn’t suited for every parent and child. It may be a good fit for parents who do well with organization and structure. Children who are easy-going may zip through FT, while those who are headstrong may do better with a custom plan that borrows ideas from different methods but takes a longer-term approach. For instance, some parents like the gradual aspect of a child-oriented approach, but add in structure by scheduling regular potty breaks throughout the day.
Pros and Cons
The main pro is that FT generally works, condensing what could be a long journey to the toilet into a short (albeit pee-filled) timeframe.
Cons are that it requires parents to do a lot of reading and planning, and pause their lives for training days. Just like any area of parenting, not all experts are fans of FT, saying it pushes children too hard.
It’s always a good idea to check in with your child’s pediatrician if you’re having a hard time potty training, but these are some of the most common issues that pop up, along with expert advice for overcoming them.
Resists starting. If you try to introduce potty training and your child resists, make sure he’s ready (see our list of readiness signs above). If he’s missing many items on the list, you may want to wait. If readiness isn’t the issue, he may be intimidated by the idea of peeing and pooping in a potty, which is normal. Try using some of our preparation tips (also above) to help him feel comfortable with the idea.
Constant power struggles. If you’ve ruled out readiness and intimidation and your little one fights you simply because, well, he’s a toddler, stay calm. Experts warn that negative reactions like punishment and coercion around potty training can lead to constipation, urinary tract disorders, and even phobias. If using the potty has turned into an all-out battle, consider a slow and steady, child-oriented approach. It may take a little longer, but it’s a good way to keep the process positive.
A bump in accidents. Sometimes after a long stretch of successful potty use, children suddenly start having accidents. It’s important to stay supportive even though this can feel frustrating. Sometimes life stressors like starting school, a parent starting a new job, a new sibling, or any other change in routine can bring on a phase of potty accidents. Gently reintroduce potty-training activities until he gets back on track.
Refuses to use a regular toilet. It may seem easier to start out with a potty seat that fits on top of a regular toilet. Some children are okay with this, but for many it’s too scary. They’re used to the feeling of pee and poop being close to their bodies, and letting it go into a big toilet and watching it flush away can be frightening. Try starting with a potty that sits on the floor, then transition to the toilet seat after your child is comfortable using the floor potty.
If he’s already using a floor potty successfully and he still pushes back on using the toilet, you may need to bump up the encouragement, praise and/or rewards. Putting a step stool in front of the toilet that he can put his feet on can also help him feel more comfortable and secure.
Pees in the potty, but refuses to poop in it. This is one of the most common potty training roadblocks. Don’t tell him to push or strain. This can cause fissures (tiny tears) or hemorrhoids on his anus, which can lead to him holding his poop, which can lead to constipation, which can lead to more hemorrhoids. Instead, try these tips:
- Offer extra encouragement, praise and/or rewards.
- Use distractions that keep him on the potty and relaxed until the poop falls out. This could be offering special books or toys that only come out for potty time, or even just crouching next to him and talking, singing, or telling a story.
- Allow him to poop in a diaper if that’s the only way he’ll do it. Let him know he can use a diaper but only in the bathroom. Next, he can use a diaper, but only while sitting on the toilet. Then, he can use a diaper while sitting on the toilet but only after you cut a large hole in it so the poop falls into the water. Phew, that’s a lot of work. But it’s very important that he poop regularly or else he may get constipated.
He gets constipated. If he does get constipated, mention it to his pediatrician. Chronic constipation can lead to serious health issues, so it’s important to get your tot pooping again as soon as possible. Oftentimes upping his fluid intake and adding high-fiber foods to his plate does the trick. Exercise can also help keep bowels regular, so be sure he’s getting enough time to move his body. If these don’t do the trick, your pediatrician may prescribe medication.
Now that you know all about potty training, we wish you luck as you start and get to the other, diaper-free side.