Toddler Potty Training Methods & How to Stay Sane

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Parents of toddlers always ask me for tips on three things: how to keep them busy, how to get them to eat healthy food, and how to potty train them. Toddlers have a mind of their own and aren’t afraid to let you know their feelings (very loudly, I might add). So, when it comes time to start toilet training, things can get frustrating quickly.

Here are my best tips for surviving potty training without losing your mind. Admittedly it’s been a few years since I was in the trenches, but I remember it well and have plenty of friends in this stage right now.

Potty Training Toddlers: When to Start?

Potty training is a very individual process both for parents and little ones and there are many approaches you can take. The most important thing is to wait until your toddler is ready for potty training.

Most kids are ready somewhere between 18 months and 3 years of age to start potty training. Some 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds are not quite ready yet. Here are some signs that your child may be ready to begin toilet training.

Signs That Your Child Is Physically Capable of Using the Potty

These signs show that your child is developing some control over their bladder and bowels:

  • Longer dry periods – Your toddler goes a few hours without wetting or makes it through a nap or nighttime with a dry diaper.
  • Don’t have a bowel movement at night – Most toddlers no longer poop in their sleep which is a good sign they are gaining control!
  • Tell you when they need to pee or poop – If your child is telling you when he is about to pee or poop he has a clear understanding of the urge to go.
  • Leaves the room or hides to poop (for privacy) – Everyone likes their privacy while they poop. Leaving the room or hiding shows that they are aware of what they’re doing so they may be getting ready for potty training.

Signs That Your Child May Be Emotionally/Mentally Ready to Use the Potty

Being ready physically is not the same as being ready emotionally or mentally. Signs that your child may be emotionally or mentally ready for potty training include:

  • An interest in using the potty
  • Telling you when he’s just gone in his diaper
  • Willing to sit on the potty
  • Asks to use the potty or put on underwear
  • A desire to do things for himself

Potty training readiness is going to be a combination of the above signs and a little bit of parental intuition. You as a parent are the best person to decide if your child is ready.

Potty Anxiety

Fear or anxiety about using the potty may be a sign that he’s not quite ready. It may also be a sign that he needs to work through those fears. Playing games with your child about potty use can help. Try showing the child with a baby doll that wets or playing pretend games where mom and dad are the toddlers. This gives kids a chance to explore their feeling in a silly way and can help alleviate anxiety.

Potty Training Methods

There are many different ways to potty train your child but they usually fall into the following three categories:

1. Follow the Child

With this method, you wait until your child shows interest in using the potty and then support that interest. There are no rewards or bribes to “get” the child to use the potty. The theory is that toilet training is a natural milestone that doesn’t need to be actively taught (like learning to walk). Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have no part in it. You can prepare by:

  •  reading toilet training books together
  •  buying a potty for every bathroom
  • modeling toilet use

One drawback to this method is that it does take time and children who follow this method are more likely to be toilet independent at a later age (3 or 4 years old). This obviously causes a problem if you’re expecting to send your child to preschool (most preschools require children to wear underwear).

2. Two to Three Day Method

With this approach to potty training, created by psychologists Richard Foxx and Nathan Azrin, you still wait until your child is ready but once you recognize readiness you go full steam ahead. This method has been around for a few decades and has been refined and popularized in the book, Oh Crap! Potty Training by Jamie Glowacki.

This is like potty training boot camp. There are many variations of this method but the basic steps are as follows:

  1. Parents clear schedules for 2 to 3 days in preparation for Potty Boot Camp.
  2. Tell the child that he won’t be using diapers anymore and is going to be using the potty. Some variations advise ceremoniously throwing away diapers and pull-ups. But of course, some kids will need still need them at night, so this is up to you.
  3. During the two or three days you will be watching the child very closely for signs that he needs to use the potty. Even let your toddler be naked (at least from the waist down) so you can easily recognize when he has started going and rush him off to the potty. At first, you’ll be bringing him to the potty after he starts going, but soon he will start connecting the sensation of needing to go and going to sit on the potty. This will help him learn he should go to the potty when he feels the urge to urinate or defecate.
  4. When your child has a good handle on recognizing the urge to go you can begin giving him underwear or training pants to wear. Some people recommend moving to pants only (no underwear) before moving to underwear. This is because underwear can feel like a diaper to some kids. Every child is different so you’ll have to make the call.
  5. When he is successful with wearing pants and underwear bring him outside to play and work on him noticing when he needs to go while he is outside.
  6. After that, practice going on short errands (the next step after Potty Boot Camp).

The benefit of this approach is that potty training is (mostly) done and over in a few days. However, it can be too intense for some kids and may cause anxiety about failure.

3. Start Early Approach

This method was first created by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton in 1962 in response to constipation and other issues that arose from potty training too early. It has been further refined by many child development experts, so there are many variations. Here are the steps:

  1. Buy a potty for your child when they show physical readiness (not to be confused with emotional readiness). This includes being able to go 1-2 hours without a wet diaper, waking up dry from naps, and not pooping during the night. This happens usually around 12-18 months.
  2. Let your child inspect the potty. Then encourage him to sit on the potty fully clothed.
  3. If that goes well, begin bringing your child to the potty when he uses his diaper to help connect the two.

This method is laid-back but there is a consistent and intentional slow introduction to the potty, which appeals to many parents. However, it can take a long time (over a year) from beginning to end which can overwhelm some parents.

4. Elimination Communication

I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on this method, but many parents rave about the benefits. With this method, you learn your baby’s signals early on and are able to recognize and help them use the bathroom instead of a diaper when they need to pee or poop. Genevieve has a great post about it over at Mama Natural if your baby is still very young and you want to give it a try.

Which Method Is Best?

One study of effective toilet training strategies found that both method 2 and 3 were equally successful and didn’t cause issues like constipation from “holding it.” Remarkably, this is the only study I could find on potty training, so I think in this instance, you have to go with what feels right to you because there’s very little science to guide us.

Common Mistakes

Potty training can be tricky and cause frustration. Avoiding these common mistakes can make the process less stressful and more manageable.

  • Getting upset over accidents – Let your child know that accidents happen, are no big deal, and you are there to help. Consider how you would want to be supported if you were learning something new.
  • Shaming – Saying things like “yucky!” when he has an accident in his underwear, or that diapers are only for babies is shaming. Some parents use negative language about diapers and what they contain to try and motivate a child to train sooner. This may work but may not be worthwhile. At its root, shaming is a form of manipulation. It may get the result you’re after, but won’t help your child learn independence. It may also have negative consequences on your relationship, according to an article in Psychology Today.
  • Power struggles – You will never win a power struggle over someone else’s body. Plus, power struggles are just no fun for anyone. If your child becomes upset about potty learning, take a break from it to keep it positive.
  • Rewards – I’m not a big fan of rewards (especially food ones) since things like potty training are just things we all need to learn. Rewards can also become a manipulation tactic (I’ll only go potty if I can have TWO treats). For positive reinforcement focus on what the child will naturally get out of it and play that up. A sense of accomplishment, new cool big kid underwear, getting to go to preschool, or join brothers and sisters to play are some examples. Also, a genuine, “wow, you did it!” is great for their self-esteem.
  • Being discouraged by setbacks – Your toddler or preschooler may be fully trained one week and have a bunch of accidents the next. It’s not usually anything to worry about, especially if a big change has just occurred in your child’s life (a new baby is a huge one!). However, if accidents happen consistently for a long period of time, or just seem unusual to you, it’s best to consult your child’s doctor.

At the end of the day, your child will learn to use the toilet or potty eventually. Try to relax (if you can!) and focus on making it a positive experience for everyone.

Potty Training Tips for Boys

Potty training boys is a little bit different than potty training girls, so here are a few extra tips:

  • Be patient – Boys tend to potty train later than girls. Experts think this is because boys are more interested in gross motor activities (e.g. running, tumbling, jumping) and don’t have the patience to sit on the potty as early as girls do.
  • Teach him to sit before standing – If he sees dad or older brothers standing to pee he may want to do that too but it can get messy! Make sure he has a good grip on toilet learning before exploring the standing to pee idea. That being said, if he’s adamant about standing you may want to let him. It’s up to you to decide if standing is okay.
  • Add a target – When your child begins standing to pee, a target in the pot can help with aim. A raisin or other small target that you can flush works.
  • Buy a potty with a pee guard – This will help avoid a mess in the bathroom. But if the guard gets in the way and causes your little boy to not want to use the potty, finding a potty without a pee guard is an option.
  • Read potty books together – Reading about using the potty can help diffuse anxiety about the process. Choose books that use anatomically correct language (not silly words like “pee-pee”).

Potty Training Tips for Girls

Girls often potty train earlier but that’s not the only difference.

  • Read potty books together – Spending time reading with your little girl about potty learning can relieve anxiety about it. Choose a book that uses anatomically correct language.
  • Teach her how to wipe properly – Because wiping the wrong way can cause urinary tract infections it’s important to show her how to do it right. That means front to back. Many parents will continue to help with wiping for a while for this reason.

What Do You Need for Potty Training?

This answer to this is basically a lot of patience, time, and laundry detergent!

Eco-Friendly Potty Seat

Not much else is needed, but the right potty seat helps. My kids always preferred a toddler potty seat vs. a seat that modified the regular toilet because it was low to the floor and comfortable. Since these are usually plastic, I recommend finding a secondhand potty whenever possible rather than buying a new one or buying a durable and recyclable potty to pass on to a friend when you don’t need it anymore.

Pull Ups or Nighttime Diapers

Many kids are ready for daytime potty training but not for nighttime. Letting your little one use a pull-up or diaper at night is usually okay and won’t undermine your progress. Just make sure you take it off her first thing in the morning before she releases her bladder. I used cloth diapers for this or you could try these chlorine-free pull ups that use more natural materials.

Bottom Line on Potty Training a Toddler

Potty training success can come in many forms. It’s a matter of figuring out what works best for you and your child and working together to reach your goals. Staying focused on the bond between you and your child rather than potty training techniques or an idea of what “should happen” is half the battle.

What method did you use? Did it work? What would you do differently?



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