The He'll-Get-It-When-He's-Ready ApproachThe method: Starting at around age 2, watch for signals that your child is ready, but don't apply any pressure. Put a potty seat in the bathroom, for example, but don't insist that he use it. When he does, lavish hugs and praise, and in time he should approach it more and more frequently.
Pros: Less frustration and fewer messy accidents because, in theory, a child succeeds quickly once he's ready.
Cons: More than likely, your child will be in diapers longer, though he won't be alone: 40 percent of the kids in a recent study weren't trained by age 3. Plus, the actual process may stretch out. "Studies show this method takes an average of four to six months, though some kids do succeed in a week," says Dr. Gorski. Which means you'll need to be able to tolerate the cost of larger diapers, and maybe raised eyebrows from others.
Who it worked for: "When Elizabeth was 2 1/2, I began planting the seeds: I put a potty in the bathroom and we started talking about it in a low-key way," says Chicago mom Cathy Lynch. "After she turned 3, I could see she was excited about the idea of wearing underwear like a big girl. She goes to daycare on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so I put disposable training pants on her and asked the teachers to encourage her to use the potty. When she was home, we switched to real underwear. By the following week, she was only using the toilet."
Is it right for you? This approach works with almost any child because most kids eventually realize that only babies wear diapers. But you will need to muster the patience to wait. And if you don't mind diapers, what the heck. On the other hand, if you've been going by the book on things like taking away the bottle and the pacifier, you may find the transition from dependency to self-sufficiency frustrating.
The Get-With-the-Program ApproachThe method: Set aside some time -- say, the month before preschool or a vacation from work -- and make a focused effort to promote potty use. Stay close to home, gently steer your toddler to the bathroom at predictable points in the day (though you should also ask if she needs to use the toilet to help her recognize the sensations), and sit near the potty while waiting for some action. At the end of the allotted time, your child will be somewhat accomplished.
Pros: Making a concerted effort helps your little one concentrate on the task at hand. And regularly scheduled trips to the bathroom cut back on accidents.
Cons: You'll have to structure your time so that you're home a lot. (In other words, don't plan a trip to the zoo. And when you're at a friend's house, you may want to take a potty -- some kids are reluctant to go on a strange one at first -- and a couple of extra outfits to be safe. Plus, the change of environment may distract both you and your child.) You can also run the risk of creating resistance if the deadline you choose is too tight, or you're too intense. "Toilet training should never be the main focus of your interaction," says Dr. Gorski. "You want to create a natural routine, not a forced experience."
Who it worked for: "My oldest son, Joshua, was just past his second birthday and really into being 'big,'" says Karen Wood, of Livonia, MI. "So we picked out some underwear and I got out an egg timer. At various points during the day -- when he first got up in the morning, about 20 minutes after eating or drinking, or just when I noticed it had been a while -- we went to the bathroom and I set the timer for 10 minutes. If he went to the potty, he got to turn it off himself. If it rang before he went, he could get up. Soon I noticed him heading for the potty on his own, and within a few days, he had the whole thing down pat."
Is it right for you? Yes, if you've got a generally cooperative child who thrives on routine and seems enthusiastic. But it's not right for your family if you or your child have a low tolerance for frustration, a limited attention span, or other kids around to distract from the process. Then, too, there's the issue of defiance: "If a parent wants or needs to accomplish this more than the toddler, there's a chance she'll use that as a weapon," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a national center in Washington, D.C., focusing on infants and toddlers. "If she's prone to power struggles, you may want to pass on this one."