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Potty Training 101
Updated on
June 3, 2024

Potty Training 101

By Amylia Ryan | Medically Reviewed by Krupa Playforth M.D.
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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. And try to have some fun with it.

When to 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.”

Even if your toddler’s third birthday comes and goes and they’re not showing any signs of potty training readiness, or even if all their daycare friends have started the process, don’t stress and don’t compare them to other kids. “As with many other developmental milestones, your child hasn’t ‘read the book,’” Dr. Playforth says. “There is a wide range of ‘normal’ when it comes to potty training readiness, and starting before your child is ready can lead to a prolonged and frustrating potty-training journey.”

Signs your child is ready for 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, and keep in mind that there could be drawbacks.

If your child isn’t ready yet, trying to potty train early often comes down to a battle of wills. And if your child is adamant about not using the potty, don’t force it. “Of all the things in your child’s world, how and when and where they use the bathroom is one of the only items that is within their control,” says Dr. Krupa Playforth, pediatrician and Babylist Health Advisory Board member. “And as toddlers get older, they value autonomy. You cannot force your child to use the potty,” she says.

If experimenting with early potty training isn’t going as planned, it’s better to stop and try again later once your child shows signs of readiness. “As pediatricians, some of the consequences of potty training battles that we commonly see are severe constipation (which only makes potty training harder because pottying becomes associated with pain), anxiety, and frustration on the part of both the parents and the children,” Dr. Playforth says.

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.

Potty training methods

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.

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.

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.

Once you’ve decided on either a chair or seat, there are still a lot of options out there, and they all seem to have special features. So which features really matter? “Ideally, you want to use a potty training device that is comfortable for your child,” Dr. Playforth says. “We all poop better when we’re relaxed. The seat should not be too big (they should be able to sit comfortably without worrying about falling in), and they should be able to place their feet flat on a surface.”

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 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.

How to potty train a toddler

Before you start training:
  • 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 eventually goes to inspect the new potty or even sits on the potty, tell them about the potty in an encouraging voice.
  • Create a YouTube playlist of all your kiddo’s favorite characters talking (and singing) about potty time, and create a small library of two to four books on potty training to keep near the potty chair so your toddler can associate the subjects of the books with the real thing (and have something to read while sitting).
Once you’re ready to really start potty training:
  1. Be their role model. 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.

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.

Potty Training Rewards and Praise

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.

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 basically act as a happy medium between diapers and underpants. You have three choices: disposable training pants, waterproof cloth trainers, and absorbent, non-waterproof cloth trainers:

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.

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.

And keep in mind that, at some point, they will be potty trained. “Remember that your child won’t go to college in diapers!” Dr. Playforth says. “All kids eventually get there! If you feel like you’ve tried all the strategies, or your child has developed anxiety related to the potty, or you are concerned about an underlying issue such as constipation, talk to your pediatrician.”

Amylia Ryan

Associate Editor

Amylia Ryan is the Associate Editor at Babylist, specializing in the topics of health, wellness and lifestyle products. Combining a decade of experience in writing and editing with a deep passion for helping people, her number one goal in her work is to ensure new parents feel supported and understood. She herself is a parent to two young children, who are more than willing to help product test endless toys, books, clothes, toiletries and more.

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 review products, as well as the Babylist Health Advisory Board.