Last year, I approached the task of potty training with both some trepidation — I can barely tolerate messes of any kind, let alone those that involve bodily fluids and large amounts of laundry — and a bit of smug confidence. After all, my daughter, Matilda, had handled other major toddler transitions, like giving up the bottle and her pacifier, without a backward glance. And the time seemed right: She was almost 2 1/2, it was summer (fewer clothes), and she’d been entertaining an off-and-on interest in the potty for about six months.
The end result: Mission accomplished in five weeks. Not the one week I’d hoped for, but a pretty quick turnaround. And as with everything else about child rearing, I learned that there’s no single, guaranteed method for toilet training. You’ve got to pick and choose from all the available advice, based on your and your toddler’s individual personalities.
More important, you’ve got to know when your child is truly ready. She should be the right age (between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years for the majority of kids, according to most experts) and managing to stay dry in her diapers for an hour or two. Another sign? She may want go somewhere private and “hide” during her bowel movements.
But there are also subtle behavioral clues that parents might miss, notes Peter Gorski, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “A child’s newfound interest in imitation — dressing up, cooking pretend dinners, going to work — is an important cue,” he says. “So is a desire to put things in order — like organizing toys — because toileting is a way of putting bodily functions in order too. And kids who are ready usually take pleasure in the responsibilities they have, such as helping to dress themselves.”
Here are six popular approaches to taming the toilet. One isn’t necessarily better than any other, nor are they mutually exclusive. To help you decide what’s right for your family, we’ve gathered testimonials straight from the trenches.
Stephanie Wood writes frequently about child rearing.
The He’ll-Get-It-When-He’s-Ready Approach
The 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 Approach
The 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.”
The No-Mess-Disposable-Training-Pants Approach
The method: Once you’ve determined your child is potty-friendly, switch him from regular diapers to disposable training pants. While he gets the hang of pulling them up and down like big-kid pants, you give the usual amount of encouragement — taking him to the bathroom at regular intervals, asking him frequently if he has to go, giving lots of praise when he successfully gets to the potty in time.
Pros: Disposable trainers contain accidents, keeping cleanups to a minimum.
Cons: Training pants are more expensive than diapers, and many kids take longer to catch on because they don’t get that uncomfortable sensation of urine running down their legs. “The very thing that makes them so great for parents can keep a child from even realizing that he’s going to the bathroom,” notes Lerner. “Kids need to have that chance to think, ‘Wow! That’s coming out of me!’ Accidents are an important part of the process.”
Who it worked for: “Our son, Thomas, who was three at the time, wasn’t motivated in the least. So I used the disposable pants for about a month, until he got the hang of using the potty. Then we switched to underwear,” says Michelle Frailey, of Hallstead, PA.
Is it right for you? If you don’t mind waiting a little longer for results and you know you’ll get annoyed if your child fails to perform, disposables will reduce the anxiety for both of you. You never want to resort to negativity or punishment, emphasizes Lerner, so if too much mess will put you over the edge, go the pull-up route.
The Cold-Turkey-Underwear Approach
The method: Let your child pick out several pairs of fun, big-kid underpants. Then, on the appointed day, make a production of putting on the underwear and let the spills fall where they may.
Pros: Most kids enjoy feeling like a grown-up. When they do have accidents, they feel the discomfort much more acutely than they would with training pants.
Cons: You, of course, feel the discomfort much more acutely too, since there will be lots to clean up in the early days of the process.
Who it worked for:“Training pants seemed like a waste. Christopher, who was two and a half, didn’t care at all if they got wet,” says Susan Melgares, of Manhattan, KS. “But having wet underpants helped him learn to make it to the bathroom on time.”
Is it right for you? Not if you, your child, or other caregivers have a low tolerance for mess. You’ll resent your child, and he’ll feel greatly put upon. On the other hand, if you’re very patient and can stick close to home during the process, your child seems to be truly motivated, and you’ve got a washing machine at the ready, underpants are widely believed to be a better way to go than disposables.
The Sticker-Chart Approach:
The method: Reward your child after each of her potty accomplishments with something small, like a sticker. You may want to hold out the promise of a bigger treat after she accumulates a certain number of stickers, or stays dry for an entire week.
Pros: Let’s face it — for some kids, the thought of a trip to the toy store can be highly motivating.
Cons: You run the risk of having your child demand compensation for every “performance.”
Who it worked for: Me. My daughter Matilda, like many other toddlers I know, accomplished the peeing part pretty easily, but resisted having bowel movements on the potty. Since we’d also chosen the cold-turkey-underwear approach, things were beginning to get a little ugly around our house. When I expressed my frustration to our pediatrician, she suggested a sticker chart, and it worked immediately.
Is it right for you? It can be, if you know when to draw the line. I simply quit mentioning getting a sticker and Matilda soon forgot all about them. “It also helps to relate the reward to the process,” says Lerner, like buying underwear that the child gets to pick out for her bigger treat. Then again, she warns, if you’ve got a real manipulator on your hands — and a tendency to give in to maintain the peace — rewards may be a bad route to take.
The Hugs-and-Kisses Approach
The method: Each time your child uses the potty correctly, sing his praises by clapping and giving kisses and hugs. Also take special care to point out his accomplishments to friends and relatives, so they can fuss over him too.
Pros: Internalized rewards build self-esteem, and kids usually relish attention from a parent more than any toy.
Cons: Well, none really. If it does the trick, bravo.
Who it worked for: “Our daughter Taylor has always wanted to please us,” says Michele Devine, of Charles Town, WV. “So when she was about 2, we made a big deal out of using the potty and asked her grandparents to help us reinforce it. Four months later she was completely trained. Now she’s 6 and is doing the same thing for her 2-year-old sister.”
Is it right for you? Words of encouragement are always a smart choice, regardless of the parenting task at hand. “Toilet training should be born out of an innate desire for competence and independence,” notes Lerner, “and praise is the best way to encourage that.” In other words, it’s to every parent’s advantage to start with this approach and save the tangible rewards for any hurdles you and your toddler may encounter along the way.