Potty Training

by the editors of Parenting magazine

Potty Training

Saying goodbye to stinky diapers is one of the milestones that parents look forward to most. And kids generally are excited about wearing “big-kid underwear”—most start to show signs of readiness between 18 and 24 months. Of course, the process is not without its pitfalls. Find out the best way to potty train your child, as easily as possible.


Is your child ready?


You can probably begin potty training if he:


  • Knows words for urine, stool and toilet


  • Is somewhat bothered by feeling wet or soiled


  • Shows interest in using the potty (he’s open to sitting on it or curious about bathrooms)


  • Has an awareness of when he’s about to urinate or have a bowel movement


  • Your child may say “poop” and “pee-pee,” show some desire to be changed, and even be enchanted by the potty (but blithely make puddles everywhere when his diaper’s off). Ultimately, knowing whether your child’s ready comes down to guesswork. If it turns out he isn’t, you can simply try again after a few weeks or months.


Toilet-training infants has become a recent trend, but it really isn’t until toddlerhood that kids can take an active part in training. “Elimination communication” is actually more about helping parents understand when a baby needs to go than helping a child go on his own.


Are you ready?


Potty training takes energy and patience. It requires countless bathroom visits, not to mention the extra laundry and puddle cleaning. All of which you’re expected to do with an encouraging smile. If you and your spouse aren’t up for it for whatever reason—new job, a new baby marital stress—don’t feel bad about postponing. It will be far easier if you wait until the timing is right. Talk to your caregiver to be sure she’s ready, too. And if your child goes to daycare, check to see if it has any toilet-training routines or policies.


Top potty-training strategies


The process may seem simple: Buy potty, introduce potty to child, have child sit on it clothed, then unclothed, buy fun underwear, be patient and upbeat. But potty training is not a one-diaper-fits-all process. Learning to tailor your potty-training strategy to your child’s temperament—and your family’s—will save you a lot of stress in the long run.


The hugs-and-kisses approach


Each time your child uses the potty correctly, give praise by clapping and giving kisses and hugs. Also point out her accomplishments to friends and relatives, so they can fuss over her, too.




Verbal praise builds self-esteem, and kids usually relish attention from a parent more than any toy.




Well, none really. If it does the trick, bravo.


Is it right for your child and you?


It’s to every parent’s advantage to start with this approach and save the tangible rewards (ice cream, toys) for any hurdles you and your toddler may encounter along the way.


The cold-turkey underwear approach


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.




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.




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.


Is it right for your child and you?


If you’re very patient, don’t mind messes, can stick close to home during the process, and have a washing machine at the ready, and your child seems to be truly motivated, underpants are believed by many to be a better way to go than disposables.


The no-mess disposable-training-pants approach


Once you’ve determined your child is potty-friendly, switch her from regular diapers to disposable training pants. While she gets the hang of pulling them up and down like big-kid pants, you give the usual amount of encouragement: taking her to the bathroom at regular intervals, asking her frequently if she has to go, giving lots of praise when she successfully gets to the potty in time.




Disposable trainers contain accidents, keeping cleanups to a minimum.




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.


Is it right for your child and you?


If you don’t mind waiting a little longer for results, or if too much mess will put you over the edge, take this route.


The get-with-the-program approach


Set aside a block of 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 closer to the goal of being completely potty trained.




Creating a pattern day after day helps your little one focus and learn. And regularly scheduled trips to the bathroom cut back on accidents.




You’ll have to structure your time so that you’re home a lot. A change of environment may distract both you and your child.


“My son, Nate, was three and a half when I promised him a party for learning how to use the potty. When he heard there’d be cake, he was trained in a week!”
 Stacey Fellner, Chevy Chase, MD


Is it right for your child and you?


If you’ve got a generally cooperative child who thrives on routine and seems enthusiastic, this could be just the thing. But it’s not right for your family if you or your child has 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. You run the risk of creating resistance if the deadline you choose is too tight or you’re too intense. If your toddler is prone to power struggles, try another tack.


The sticker-chart approach


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, such as buying underwear together, after she accumulates a certain number of stickers or stays dry for an entire week.




Let’s face it—for some kids, the thought of a shopping trip with you can be highly motivating.




You run the risk of having your child demand compensation for every “performance.”


Is it right for your child and you?


It can be, if you know when to draw the line. Your child should soon forget about the rewards. But if you think your child will try to manipulate the situation, especially if you have a tendency to give in to maintain the peace, rewards may be a bad route to take.


The she’ll-get-it-when-she’s-ready approach


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 she use it. When she does, lavish hugs and praise, and in time she should approach it more and more frequently.




Less frustration and fewer messy accidents because, in theory, a child succeeds quickly once she’s ready.




More than likely, your child will be in diapers longer. Plus, the actual process may stretch out. Which means you’ll need to be able to tolerate the cost of larger diapers—and maybe raised eyebrows from others.


Is it right for your child and 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 long transition from dependency to self-sufficiency frustrating.


Even after your child is a potty pro, expect that there will be a few accidents. Until he’s 3 and hasn’t had an accident for six months, he’s not officially potty trained. It may take a few false starts, but eventually, one strategy or another will click with your child, and you’ll both say goodbye to the diapers.


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