Potty Training 101
Potty Training 101
May 8, 2020

Potty Training 101

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Potty Training 101

Ah, potty training. It’s a huge milestone for toddlers, and, sometimes, a source of stress for parents. As much as you might be looking forward to saying goodbye to diapers forever, teaching your little one to use the toilet can seem like a daunting task. If you’re nervous about approaching this milestone and aren’t sure where to start, don’t worry, we’ve got your back.

From advice on when to start and how to choose a potty chair to a step-by-step guide and ideas for rewards, we hope this guide equips you with all the knowledge and tools you need to encourage and support your toddler as they move from diapers to being a big kid (they grow up so fast!).

One of the key things to keep in mind when potty training (and when parenting in general) is that when you’re stressed, they’re stressed. Your little bundle of joy, being the brilliant sponge they are, can absorb all that stress and reflect it back to you, making for one very uncooperative toddler. So what’s the secret to minimal-stress, maximum-cooperation potty training? Wait for your child’s cues, stay consistent and don’t rush through the steps. Oh, and try to have some fun with it.

So When Should You Start Potty Training?

Most children are ready to begin potty training any time between 18 months old and three years old or later. (Children with special needs are typically fully potty trained around five years old, but it greatly depends on their individual needs.) But as tempting as it is to plan when to start (and end) based on your little one’s age, it’s only a small part of the equation. The Mayo Clinic emphasizes that “potty training success hinges on physical and emotional readiness, not a specific age.”

Here are some signs your child is ready to start potty training:

Physical Readiness:

  • Stays dry for periods of two hours or more
  • Is able to pull their pants up and down
  • Can easily sit down on a potty chair and get up again
  • Can climb up a step stool to the big potty

Emotional Readiness:

  • Is able to follow basic directions
  • Is showing interest and curiosity in underwear or toilets
  • Is complaining about dirty diapers and finding them unpleasant
  • Lets you know when they need to go

Can you start potty training earlier?

Some cultures start potty training basically from birth by either limiting or totally eliminating diapers, so it’s certainly possible to potty train before 18 months or before your child shows any of the above signs—it’ll likely just take longer. By the way, it’s generally thought that the later you start, the faster your child learns, most likely due to their increased physical and cognitive ability.

How to Choose a Potty Chair or Potty Seat

Once you’ve determined your child is showing most or all of the signs of readiness, it’s time to invest in a potty training vessel. (We’ll go over why you should get the potty before officially starting training in a later section.) When choosing a potty, there are two options: a free-standing potty chair or a kid-size seat that fits on top of your standard toilet.

Potty chairs are adorably toddler-sized and essentially work as mini toilets, though they don’t have plumbing and can’t flush on their own (but some make flushing sounds!). They sit directly on the ground and are light and portable in case you need to move it to another room.

Potty seats, on the other hand, act as a booster on top of your regular, adult toilet. They’re often padded to make it more comfortable for tiny tushies (don’t you wish your toilet seat was soft and comfy?). Keep in mind: If you decide to go with a potty seat, it’ll need to be paired with a step stool so your little one has a firm surface to plant their feet and support themselves, which helps with proper bowel movements.

Check out more of Babylist’s recommended potties in our Best Potty Chairs and Seats guide.

Note: If you have a boy, we recommend teaching him to use the potty sitting down first, then standing once he’s big enough to reach (and aim properly).

Potty Training, Step by Step

There are several different potty training methods, and one may work better for your individual situation than the others. But one thing all methods have in common: be consistent. Once you’ve found a technique that works for both you and your little trainee, stick with it. Changing up your approach or being wishy-washy with the rules (example: once you take away diapers, don’t give them back later) can easily confuse your toddler and slow down the process.

So you need to pick a method. You can certainly do in-depth research using children’s healthcare websites and resources, if that’s your thing. But if it’s not your thing, we still strongly encourage you to look into at least the most popular potty training methods. Luckily, that’s often as easy as leafing through a few books.

Pre-Potty Training Pro Tips

  • Leave the potty chair lying around conspicuously (the bathroom is the most common location, for obvious reasons). Don’t tell your child to do anything yet, but simply let the two of them get to know each other.
  • Start practicing some crucial pre-potty training skills like pulling pants up and down and flushing the toilet.
  • When your child goes to sit on the potty (or even to just inspect it), ramble up with their favorite game or book so that they can think of potty-sitting as something enjoyable.

Once you’re ready to really get the potty training show on the road, here’s some guidance (adapted from the AAP’s recommendations for toilet training) on the process:

  1. Role model like a champ. Let your child watch how you use the potty, and feel free to narrate what’s happening.
  2. Have your child try sitting on the potty fully clothed.
  3. Next, try sitting on the potty with pants and diaper off. (If your toddler is resistant to this step, try it first with no pants but diaper still on, then work their way to bare bottom.)
  4. Empty a soiled diaper or two into the potty to demonstrate what it’s for.
  5. Start the habit of regular toilet trips by taking your child to the potty as soon as they wake up in the morning, after meals, before and after naptime, before car rides and before they go to sleep at night. (For reference, most toddlers need to pee about every two to four hours and poop between once to twice a day and every other day.)
  6. Once things are going well, try going diaperless for short periods of time (either in cotton underwear or totally bare-bottomed) and encouraging your kid to use the potty independently.
  7. Praise them for tries and reward them for successes (but not so extravagantly that they become afraid of not succeeding). The Mayo Clinic says to “be positive even if a trip to the toilet isn’t successful.”
  8. If things aren’t going well, don’t take it personally. Simply take some time off and try again.

Research shows it’s important to give your child a feeling of active participation, control and independence in potty training. If you’re too assertive, you risk dissension in the ranks. Remember to take things one step at a time, and as tempting as it may be, try not to rush through it. Your child will move at whatever pace is best for them—you just need to support them. (Note: Some parents choose to use the one-, two- or three-day methods with success, but for the sake of this article, we’re detailing a more child-oriented but parent-guided approach.)

If you try to just sit your little one down on a potty chair out of the blue one day, they’ll likely resist. Like anything new and confusing—which, let’s be real, is most of your kiddo’s world right now—a potty seat and the general concept of “elimination” (i.e. peeing and pooping) need to be introduced to your toddler. There’s a lot to be learned about the fine art of using the potty, and thankfully lots of videos and books exist for toddlers to absorb it all. We recommend creating a YouTube playlist of all your kiddo’s favorite characters talking (and singing) about potty time, plus having a small library of two to four books on potty training. Hot tip: keep the books on a little shelf in the bathroom or stacked on the floor next to the potty chair so your toddler can associate the subjects of the books with the real thing (and have something to read while sitting).

Potty Training Praise and Rewards

Some children thrive on verbal praise and enthusiastic clapping, others require the guarantee of a physical prize to stay motivated. Whichever side your little one falls on, one thing is always certain: all potty training tries and successes deserve some (minor) celebration.

If your child tries but doesn’t succeed—this could mean sitting on the potty but not producing anything, sitting on the potty but missing the bowl (more common with boys) or trying to get to the potty but not making it in time—they should still be praised for at least trying. You don’t have to hand out a reward at this point if you don’t want to; just a kind, genuine “good try!” and a little clapping is fine.

When your child does successfully use their potty, even if it’s just a little bit, it’s up to you if you want to offer them a tangible reward, if you think it’ll help your child feel successful. Here are a few options your toddler might respond to (you can even mix and match!):

Some parents choose to combine small, individual-success rewards with one large “fully potty trained” reward like a new toy or a trip somewhere special (Disneyland, anyone?). Create a chart or calendar with however many boxes you think you need to plan for (either number of successful attempts on the potty or days until fully trained), and with each successful trip to the potty, place a sticker in one of the boxes. Once all the boxes have a sticker, it’s time for the big reward!

That’s not to say you have to provide rewards like that. Some parents choose not to use a reward or incentive system, and that’s totally fine. Do whatever works for you and your toddler.

Don’t forget about hand washing!

Washing your hands after using the bathroom comes second nature to adults (at least we hope it does), but toddlers need to be taught. They may already get the general concept of hand washing from having to do it before and after meals and after playing outside, so now it’s just about associating hand washing with potty time as well.

Many parents have a “hand washing song” to make sure their kids wash their hands for long enough; the goal is at least 20 seconds. Here are five hand washing songs your child will love. Getting soap your kids like—sparkly, scented, colorful, foaming or fun shapes—can also be very motivational.

Training Pants and Underwear

Once your little one has gotten the hang of using their potty independently and has mastered the art of pulling their pants up and down, it’s time to consider trading daytime diapers for either training pants or big-kid underwear. (Don’t worry about throwing away nighttime diapers yet; nighttime potty training usually happens closer to age four, and most children will continue to wet the bed through age six.)

Some parents transition directly from diapers to underwear, and that tends to be the cheapest option.

However, with regular underwear, accidents can be very messy. Training pants/underwear basically acts as a happy medium between diapers and underpants. You have three choices: disposable training pants, waterproof cloth trainers, and absorbent, non-waterproof cloth trainers. Our favorite choices in each category:

And once you’re ready for nighttime training, you can opt for overnight training pants or pajamas with built-in super-absorbent layers like these:

Things to Avoid During Potty Training

Potty training itself is a big life event for little kids, so in order to have the most success with it, it should be the only big thing happening in your child’s life at the time. Avoid starting potty training during transitional or stressful times like a move, a new baby or a divorce. One adventure at a time, please.

How long will potty training take?

An average time frame for success in the method of toilet training we’ve outlined above is three to six months, although it’s common for children to continue having problems with bed-wetting until they are five or six. Depending on the child, potty training might take up to 10 months. However, some parents are able to potty train their child in a single weekend.

What if your child resists potty training?

If your toddler isn’t totally on board with potty training at first (read: kicking and screaming their way to the toilet), remember one of the key secrets we mentioned above: don’t rush. It’s totally okay to wait a couple weeks or months if you can avoid the dreaded power struggle between you and your child. Empathy helps; remember that children love the familiar. What is normal for you might be intimidating for them.

In some cases, kids will master number one easily and then draw the line at number two. This behavior is referred to clinically as “stool toileting refusal” or “stool withholding.” It can even escalate to painful levels as they hold back the poop and get really constipated. See if you can communicate and address your child’s concerns, and talk about poop positively. Let your child know that poop is totally natural and nothing to be embarrassed about—and it’s nothing to hold onto, either.

And if you’re still nervous about your child being fully potty trained in time to start preschool or kindergarten, try not to worry. If your child is approaching kindergarten age and still hasn’t successfully potty trained, have a chat with your child’s pediatrician about any potential underlying issues.

This information is provided for educational and entertainment purposes only. We do not accept any responsibility for any liability, loss or risk, personal or otherwise, incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, from any information or advice contained here. Babylist may earn compensation from affiliate links in this content. Learn more about how we write Babylist content and the Babylist Health Advisory Board.