Potty training basics

When it comes to potty training, timing and technique are as individual as your child. There is no magic age when a child should be ready nor a tried and true method that works for every toddler. As a parent, you must look for physical and emotional signs that your toddler is ready and approach the process with patience and a positive attitude, understanding that setbacks are natural and okay.

Is your toddler ready to begin potty training? 

Looking to the calendar is not necessarily the best way of determining when to start potty training. Many children show signs of readiness between 18 and 24 months of age, but some won’t be ready until 30 months and others well beyond their third birthdays. All of these ages are considered normal for learning to use the toilet. Dr. Baruch Kushnir, a world-renowned expert on bedwetting, bladder control, and child development and creator of The Magic Bowl, Potty Training Made Easy DVD, stresses that children potty train at various ages and each child is different. He notes that “studies have shown that even identical twins have their own individual pace for completion of potty training.”

Due to the disparity in ages of readiness, it’s better to look for physical, emotional, and cognitive signs from your child in determining when to begin potty training. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the physical signs to watch for include your child’s ability to: 

  • Stay dry in diapers for two or more consecutive hours throughout the day as well as during naps. 
  • Have regular and predictable bowel movements. 
  • Get themselves to and from the bathroom.
  • Remove their clothes (with minimal help). 
  • Position themselves onto the toilet seat or potty chair. 
  • Follow basic instructions about the steps involved in using the toilet.

Children also must be interested in learning how to use the toilet and emotionally prepared for the challenges and changes involved. Children will often get curious about watching their parents use the toilet. As much as you may want privacy in the bathroom, it’s important to let your child watch and learn by your example. This is a good way for children to observe good hygiene habits that will need to become part of their bathroom routine. If your child is curious about the toilet and interested in using it, it’s a good sign that attempts to potty train will be well received. 

In addition to interest, all children should also have a basic understanding of the elimination process. This awareness comes in stages. At first, a child will recognize that she’s urinated or had a bowel movement in her diaper. Toddlers might become intolerant to the discomfort created by a wet or soiled diaper and ask to be changed immediately. Next, a child will begin recognizing when she is in the process of wetting or soiling a diaper. Sometimes a child will announce this; other times you’ll be able to recognize more subtle signs such as a temporary pause in play, facial expressions of straining, or the child withdrawing to a private place. When you see these cues, you can respond by encouraging your child to head to the bathroom to sit on the toilet. Eventually, your child will begin to recognize her body’s signals that it’s time to go to toilet and respond before she’s soiled her diaper. 

Although a child may seem ready to begin toilet training, sometimes current circumstances may warrant delaying the process: 

  • If you will be moving soon or have recently moved. 
  • If your family will be travelling with inconsistent access to restrooms. 
  • If a new baby has recently joined the family. 
  • If your child will soon be starting a new day care program.

If any other major life changes are anticipated, it may be worth putting potty training on hold until your child’s routine has been re-established. Approaching potty training either during an extended weekend or a vacation creates a more relaxed, less hurried environment, which can help make the process a calmer one for both parents and children. 

Ready… set… does your toddler have to go? 

For parents, adequately preparing for potty training can make the process a lot less stressful. Arming your bathroom with the right toilet-learning tool is often a good first step. A potty chair is a helpful aid but not a necessary one. Dr. Kushnir actually recommends toilet training on a standard toilet, provided your child is able to easily access it. If getting onto the seat is difficult for your child, try placing a step stool in front of the toilet. The foot support provided by the step stool can make sitting more comfortable as well as provide resistance to push against when your child is having a bowel movement. If a standard toilet seat is intimidating, uncomfortable, or awkward for your toddler, a potty training seat attachment may help her feel more stable. Allowing your child to select the toilet training accessory could result in more interest in using it.

Next, acquainting your child with the toilet can be a good first step in helping to alleviate any fears she might have with the noise, motion, and the task of flushing water. It will also allow you the opportunity to explain to your child that her pee and poop will disappear just as the toilet paper did. Some children consider their waste a part of themselves and have trouble with the idea of parting with it. Start by placing waste from the child’s diaper into the toilet or potty chair to familiarize her with what she’ll see after using the toilet. 

When your child is ready and your home is prepared, start the process by placing your child on the toilet for 2–3 minutes at a time every 1–2 hours, or as you notice physical and behavioral signs of your child needing to pee or poop. Doing so reinforces your desire for her to use the potty instead of her diaper. Establishing regular times to use the potty, such as before or after meals and naps, will make going to the bathroom an expected part of your child’s daily routine. 

Using the time while your child is on the toilet to read books, talk, or sing songs can help her relax and minimize the urge to get off the toilet prematurely. But don’t force the issue if your child doesn’t want to remain on the toilet. Doing so could result in a power struggle and hinder your toddler’s cooperation. Instead, praise her for her efforts and try again later. 

Dressing for success 

Experts disagree about the use of disposable training pants during toilet training. Some argue that disposable training pants send a message to the child that it’s okay to use them as a diaper, and the result could be delayed efforts and motivations to use the toilet. While immediately switching to cloth underwear might be too drastic a step for some toddlers and parents, it can often work to further motivate and excite a toddler who has seen some success at using the toilet. Says Dr. Kushnir, “it is important to create an acceptable atmosphere and conditions for both the child and the parents during the potty training period.” If frequent accidents in cloth underwear are discouraging the toddler and frustrating the parent, switching to disposable training pants, even temporarily, can be a worthwhile option. Keep in mind that bladder control during the day is more easily mastered than at night, so wearing disposable training pants at bedtime is often necessary for many months (and sometimes years) after daytime dryness is achieved.

Dressing for success involves more than just deciding between cloth underwear and disposable training pants. It’s important to clothe toddlers in outfits they can easily remove themselves. It’s a good idea to avoid buttons and belts. Long dresses and heavy tights can be problematic as well as one-piece pajamas. Dressing toddlers in pants with elastic waistbands, those that snap easily, and short dresses will make it easier for them to quickly and easily pull clothing down (or up) and then re-dress themselves. 

Remember! No matter how prepared both you and your child are, accidents are bound to happen. Never use physical or verbal punishment as a reaction to a child’s refusal to go or in response to an accident. Handling the clean up calmly and without criticism helps children remain confident and encourages them to keep trying. 

Potty training praise 

Praise for all efforts is a key component to potty training success. But many parents often confuse praise with rewards. The use of a reward system during potty training is hotly debated. Edible treats can be effective but because they shouldn’t continue long-term, it’s beneficial to avoid them altogether. In his book The Power of Positive Parenting, Dr. Glenn Latham suggests, “When the child is either actually urinating or at least sitting on the potty chair, he should get a lot of enthusiastic, positive parental attention and praise.” In lieu of edible treats, Dr. Latham suggests creating a chart and rewarding the child with one smiley face (or stamp or sticker) for sitting on the potty, and two smiley faces for using the toilet. Once the child collects six smiley faces, he can be rewarded with the privilege of playing with a particular toy, going on a special outing, or receiving any other prize specifically valued by that child.

While incentives may jump-start the potty training process, keep in mind that the age when potty training occurs is also when toddlers are discovering and expressing their opinions and independence. This can have varying effects on potty training—from a child wanting to master the process quickly to his outright refusal to cooperate. Approaching toilet training in a relaxed and positive manner is the best way to avoid a power struggle with your toddler.

Most importantly, be patient. Using the toilet is not something to force onto a child and even if all signs point to the child being ready, it’s possible that first attempts may not be successful. Just as the motivations and preparations differ from child to child, the time it takes to achieve success will be unique too. 

Last updated July 3, 2017

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