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14 Secrets to Potty-Training Success

Stephanie Rausser

When our daughter Katie was nearly 3, my husband and I primed her for potty-training success: We put the potty-related books in regular bedtime rotation, thrilled her with a fashionable array of brand-new big-girl panties and stocked up on a tantalizing incentive—M&M's.

Within two months, Katie was peeing in the potty like a pro. But no matter how much we bribed, begged and flattered her, she refused to give up her Pull-Ups to poop. I tried every tactic I could think of: I upped the ante to a Price Is Right —worthy prize package, took away the Pull-Ups (resulting in a serious bout of constipation and some nasty post-nap cleanups) and even, I'm ashamed to admit, threatened her with a doctor's visit and shots if she didn't do the deed. After poring over every mom board I could find, I discovered a few new ideas—but, mainly, lots of other desperate moms.

Since no strategy can possibly fit all our quirky kids, it seems that success depends on finding the solution to your child's particular sticking point. These are the five most common, and the best tricks for getting unstuck:

Your kid isn't swayed by chocolate kisses, a cool truck or any other reward

What's going on

The terrible twos (or threes) have kicked in, and your child's chosen to just say no—even if it costs him an Oreo and a Lego. Your kid's aware now that you and he are separate people—and that means he doesn't have to do what you say. The power! For an iron-willed kid, that tastes a lot better than any old piece of candy. Resist searching for a better prize: That'll only give him more veto power.

Try a little reverse psychology

After months of attempting other tricks, Nina Vultaggio of Coto de Caza, CA, simply begged her son not to use the potty. But sneakily. "I said that pirates from Disneyland called and wanted him to be a pirate, but he couldn't because they only wanted potty-trained boys," she says. "I told him not to do it because I didn't want him to be a pirate—and he trained that day." Vultaggio splurged on a trip to the local amusement park (which happened to be Disneyland), where a staffer proclaimed her son a pirate. Your plan can be simpler: You can tell your kid you hope this isn't the week he makes the switch, because then he can sleep over at Grandma's and you'll miss him. Reverse psychology works, of course, because of the thrill of doing the opposite of what you say—but it also takes the pressure off.

Offer a different kind of incentive

Many parents (myself included) head right into the stickers and M&M's, and they're fine, if they work. But if they don't, think about what'll make your kid proud. Does she adore a particular uncle? Play up how fun it'll be to call him with the good news that she's potty trained. Does he perk up at the mention of being a big kid? Offer a "big-kid bedtime" as a reward, and let him start staying up 15 minutes later than usual

Reward yourself

This one may sound like a truly desperate move, but it worked at my house when Katie was unimpressed with M&M's. You give yourself (and your husband—remind him you're a team!) a reward for doing the deed, says Teri Crane, author of Potty Train Your Child in Just One Day. "Get two jars: Fill one with change and decorate the other with a picture of an amazing trip or another special prize," she says. Then when one of you goes, move a coin to the prize jar. Act as excited as possible. This may mean clapping for yourself or (worse?) for your husband. Crane says it often takes just a few days before your kid wants in on the fun.

You found dirty undies under the bed

What's going on

Three-year-olds may get a charge out of being difficult, but at heart they want to please you. They're old enough—and this potty-training thing tends to be all-consuming enough—to know perfectly well what it is you want from them. So if your child uses the potty with great success and then has an accident later, she may be too upset to tell you. Hence, the hiding of the smelly panties.

Let your kid know you're on to her

Don't just clean up the mess, thinking that'll save your child from shame. "Then she believes her secret is intact," says Peter Stavinoha, Ph.D., coauthor of Stress-Free Potty Training. Tell her you found her underpants, and add: "It's okay to have an accident! Just let me or Dad know if you do." She'll see she doesn't have to worry about how you'll react.

Take a breather

The tension may just be too much. Yes, it's tough (for you) to take a time-out, but putting your child back in diapers—even for as long as two months—will help her relax and make training easier when you go back to it.

Try not to care so much

Ha, right? Well, think of it this way: Potty training is a process. The end goal is great, but getting there takes time. Remember, this isn't about you. It's even harder for your child, so try to get rid of any nagging feelings that you're failing here. No one is. She'll get there.

Only the potty at home will do

What's going on

Kids take comfort in the familiar—so the weird noises and smells and strangers in the other stalls can very well make your new potty user nervous. Holding it till he gets home is, to him, a small price to pay for security.

Make every potty feel more like home

Get a travel potty seat and have your child customize it with stickers. Practice using it at home first, Crane suggests, and then when you're out, make the bathroom the first stop, if you can. Your child can test out his special seat on the new toilet and make sure it "works" before he needs to go.

Turn bathroom trips into adventures

A kid who's skeptical of a new bathroom might be compelled to test out how the sink works, count the number of stalls or listen to the flusher. That way, it's not just about the pressure to go on the potty, and he might feel comfortable giving it a try.

Pack some Post-its

Those loud, scary self-flushing toilets are often to blame for potty phobia. A quick fix: Stick a Post-it over the toilet's electric eye until your child's finished and heading out of the stall.

She was doing great, and now she's not

What's going on

Most likely, there's been a shake-up in her routine. That could be something big, like a new sibling or a new house, but even a weekend away or a friend's birthday party can trip up a stellar toilet-training toddler. "If things suddenly aren't as predictable for a child, she loses her sense of security—and will revert back to something that's more comfortable," Stavinoha says. Don't consider this a failure on your part, or your child's. Setbacks are normal.

Don't reinvent the wheel

"If she was going perfectly on her potty chair but a setback occurred soon after the switch to the big toilet, go back to using the little potty. If she responded to two-hour potty reminders, begin setting a timer to remind her to visit the bathroom," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Potty Training Solution. A new tactic isn't necessary—and won't give her the familiarity she needs.

Put your kid in charge

When your kid's stressed, it's normal to want to take over and do the worrying for her. But it can help to give her control. Tell her to let you know when she's ready to start again—it might be sooner than you think.

He reserves No. 2 for the diaper

What's going on

There could be any number of reasons your kid will give up the diaper to pee but will simply refuse to poop in the potty. He may not want to take a break from the action to sit still on the potty, for one, or he may be fearful after toilet water unexpectedly splashed up during his last poop. The diaper might make him feel secure, so giving it up entirely is a bigger step than it seems. Often, constipation's to blame. It hurt last time, so why would he do it again?

Take it slow

Break the transition from Pull-Up to potty into baby steps. "If your child will only go in a diaper, have him do so in the bathroom, then progress to having him sit on the potty in his diaper," Pantley says. "Once he's used to this, suggest taking his diaper off and putting it into the potty-chair bowl as a 'pocket' to catch his poop."

Pump up the fiber

If constipation is the culprit, load your child up with high-fiber foods like beans, most fruits and vegetables and whole-grain pastas and breads (skip the cheese and bananas, which can make constipation worse). If that doesn't solve the problem, have a talk with your child's doctor.

Try a little bit of everything

When Katie was balking at pooping, we decided to take a breather for a month. Then we put her on a doctor-recommended high-fiber diet, and gave her a sticker every time she sat on the potty. She soon discovered that pooping on the potty wasn't really so bad. It took a mishmash of techniques—and a giant Costco box of lollipops—but Katie's now out of diapers, and I've learned a few tricks to use on her sister next year.

For more tips check out How to Potty Train in a Week.

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