3 Easy Stages: A Guide to Potty Training

by Anne Krueger

3 Easy Stages: A Guide to Potty Training

Your toddler has turned 2 and suddenly visions start filling your head: You see yourself taking a trip without a diaper bag. You look in the closet and imagine two cubic feet of extra space (no diapers!). She suddenly looks several pounds slimmer (no diapers!). Your wallet is fatter (no diapers!).

Yes, all those wonderful things will come to pass  — but potty training won’t happen overnight. It may not even happen within the next year. But it will  — eventually  — happen.

This method has three stages  — telling, showing, and trying  — and each one has its own theme, steps, and skills to master. Be patient and don’t rush your child, as hard as that may sometimes seem. If you introduce each stage gradually instead (and in order), you’ll avoid confusing her and possibly turning her off. The telling and showing stages may overlap, but trying to use the potty should definitely follow the first two. Your child must know what you expect before she can try it herself.

1st Stage: Telling

You want to keep an eye out for teachable moments so you can discuss using the potty in a matter-of-fact way. Your goal is to get your child to understand that going to the bathroom is normal and natural.

Play a game. Toddlers are interested in their bodies and like to point to various parts and label them. You can take this game a step further by discussing what each body part does  — nose for smelling, ears for hearing, penis for going pee-pee, bottom for sitting, hole in bottom for going poop, and so on. Just keep it casual and fun.

If your child asks you “Does Grandpa have a penis?” or “Does the mailman poop?” answer the question. If he asks you while Grandpa or the mailman is standing there, you can smooth over any awkwardness by saying, “Sam has been learning how bodies work.” And then answer for Grandpa (or the mailman or any other bystander) if he seems startled: “Yes, everybody poops and pees. All men have penises and all women have vaginas.”

Talk about wet and dry. During a diaper change, you can say, “That’s a wet diaper. You peed in it. Now I’m putting on a dry diaper. Doesn’t that feel good?”

Explain the process. When you need to go to the bathroom at the mall, for instance, you can say, “I drank so much juice that my bladder is full. It’s telling me that I need to go to the bathroom. Let’s find a toilet so I can pee and empty my bladder. Then I’ll feel better.”

Use your pets. If you have a cat or dog, you can say, “Tiger has to pee and poop just like you do. You go in your diaper; he goes in his litter box. I empty out his litter box just the way I empty your diaper.”

Catch the moment. When your toddler urinates in the tub, you can say, “That’s pee-pee coming out. Someday you’ll pee into the potty like Mommy and Daddy do.”

2nd Stage: Showing

This stage (which may overlap with telling) is a chance to practice for the real thing. There are several props that can help you make sure your toddler understands your expectations.

The potty. When you give your child his own potty, you can treat it as either a big, big deal or a low-key event. You know best what he’d most enjoy and respond to. If you think a special presentation would intimidate him, then put it in the bathroom one day and let him discover it himself. If he asks what it is, you can say, “Oh, that’s your potty. We wanted you to have one all your own. When you’re ready, you can use it.”

Some kids love anything that has to do with a present. If yours does, you can take him shopping to buy a potty or celebrate when you take it out of the box. If you do something to commemorate the event, let the dust settle before you make another to-do over his attempts to use it (unless he insists on trying it immediately). Too much of a party atmosphere can make the whole act of potty training seem unnatural. At this age, your toddler is still walking a fine line between wanting to please you and trying to resist you.

If you have a choice between a potty and a seat adapter, go with the former at first. Why? Even if it has his favorite characters on it, an adapter ring on a big toilet just doesn’t give a child the same sense of ownership. Another disadvantage: Someone else may be using the toilet when he wants to. Save the adapter for afterward  — when your child already feels like a pro.

Some kids want to sit right on the potty with their pants off, while others just want to look at it. Still others will do anything with it but sit: They’ll stack blocks on it, store markers in it, or use it as part of an obstacle course. That’s all fine. The potty is theirs. Convey your expectations in a relaxed way by saying, “This is your potty. You can play with it. When you’re ready, you can try going pee-pee or poop in it.”

Pull-ups. Switching from diapers to pull-on disposable pants can be a major event or an everyday affair, though many parents save the fanfare for underpants.

For now, tell your child that she’s going to be wearing a special kind of diaper that she can help pull on and off herself. Make clear that this is a step toward wearing underpants and using the potty all on her own.

She’ll probably enjoy the responsibility of taking off the pull-ups and throwing them away before you clean her. (You will probably want to change poopy pull-ups yourself by ripping the sides off.) After you wipe her, she can pull on her own fresh pair. Many kids find this pretty darn cool.

Role models. One of the best ways to help your child understand all that’s involved in using the toilet  — pulling down pants, sitting, going, wiping, flushing, washing hands  — is to let him watch you do it. Many moms are comfortable with a little sightseer in the bathroom (we don’t usually have much choice!), but if you’re not, don’t do it: He could pick up on your discomfort and associate it with potty training.

If there’s an older sibling in the house, your toddler may have watched the drill a hundred times already, and sibs can be wonderful role models. But if the sibling’s the opposite gender, it’s still helpful for a boy to see his dad using the bathroom or for a girl to see her mom.

When you’re using the toilet, you might suggest that your child sit on his. He can do it with his pants on or off; it’s his choice. If he wants to sit on it all the time but doesn’t produce anything, don’t sweat it. The showing phase is really more about learning than about trying. You want him to have time to get used to the potty and to the new diapers he can pull up and down himself.

3rd Stage: Trying

Now that the potty has become a permanent fixture in your home, your toddler probably has the basics down, at least in theory. Your next move is to encourage her to use it.

The two of you can work through the following steps in months, weeks, or days  — you’re on your child’s timetable. If she balks at any of these steps, back up to the previous one and take it easy for a while. Don’t be surprised if she even asks to go back to her diapers. If she does, let her. Take this as a sign that your child knows herself, rather than a sign that you or she has failed. Continue to talk casually about using the potty and wait until she indicates that she’s ready to try again.

1. Go once a day. Start by suggesting that he try to pee or poop in the potty once during the day. Some parents try first thing in the morning; others find bathtime a more conducive atmosphere.

2. Create a ritual. By trying to go at the same time and same place each day, she’ll begin to recognize the routine. Little kids love rituals, and the predictability of using the potty should please yours (or at least not alarm her).

3. Increase the visits. Once he has success on the one-a-day plan (even if he’s not consistently successful but asks to sit on the potty at other times), have him try several times a day.

Although you may feel like bursting into the “Hallelujah” chorus each time your toddler deposits a little something in the potty, choose your words carefully. You want to praise the act, not the child. Be wary, also, of referring too much to being a “big kid.” Using the potty is one of your child’s first baby steps toward independence, and he may not be ready to think of himself as a “big” anything.

4. Introduce underpants. If your toddler is staying dry for part of the day and using the potty consistently (meaning she makes several visits daily), this may be the time to make the switch from pull-ups to underpants. Go to the store together to pick them out or present her with a dozen brand-new pairs. (Just continue to use diapers or pull-ups at night.)

While the change may thrill her, it may also baffle her. She may be shocked the first time she accidentally pees in her pants and feels it running down her legs. When that happened to my daughter, I told her, “Diapers are like a sponge  — they soak up the pee-pee. When you make pee-pee in your underpants, you’ll get all wet. That’s why when we wear underpants, we pee and poop into the potty.”

Most children genuinely want to reach the potty in time. But accidents are to be expected, so when they happen, don’t criticize or chastise. Instead, help your child get cleaned up and remind her that everyone has accidents and not to worry  — she’ll be successful next time.

5. Encourage regular visits. After he’s made the transition to underpants, gently remind him to make regular visits to the bathroom. He may still be learning all of his body’s cues, or he may become so engrossed while playing that he forgets to go. Don’t go overboard, though, or he’ll start to resist you.

6. Start reducing your prompts. After a few weeks, let the time be-tween visits and reminders grow, and see how well your toddler does. You want her to know that she’s in charge of her achievement. If you constantly tell her when to go, she’ll feel someone else is in control.

It’s also helpful for a child’s bladder to stretch a little. If she’s constantly emptying it, she’ll never learn to recognize that really full feeling and her bladder will take longer to hold more urine. 7. Give him more freedom. If all is going well, continue to provide more and more opportunities for your child to use the bathroom on his own. The more successes he has with this, the more confident he’ll feel. Continue to treat his accidents as just part of the pro- cess  — reassure him, clean up with his help, and move on.

Think of toilet training as your first real parent-and-child collaboration. If you have faith in yourself and in your toddler, before you know it, your dream of “no more diapers!” will come true.

–>Anne Krueger is the author (with the editors of Parenting) of the Parenting Guide to Toilet Training, from which this article is excerpted. The book will be published this month by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.