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The television ads of children proudly throwing their diapers in the trash make potty training look so easy. Parents with perfect hair and makeup and clean clothes stand by, smiling, as their cheerful toddler happily uses the toilet.
When it’s time to start potty training in real life, however, it might feel a bit messier (who are we kidding — a lot messier!) and less than picture perfect.
As you’re reading and researching, your head is probably already spinning with decisions like which potty training method to try — Three-day potty training? Schedule-based potty training? You might know that the average age of potty training is 27 months, but is your child ready?
While we can’t answer all these questions for you, we can give you some tips and advice, so that you’ll be better prepared to have a positive potty training experience with your child.
Before throwing out all the diapers, there are a few things you can do to prepare for a smoother potty training process.
Ensure that your child is showing readiness signs. There is no “best” age for potty training.Instead, it’s important to look for signs that your child is developmentally ready. Indicators that your child might be ready to potty train include:
- expressing an interest in the toilet
- recognizing when their diaper is soiled
- keeping their diaper dry for longer periods
- physically being able to pull their own pants up and down
Talk it up! Make potty training sound exciting and talk about it frequently with your child. Provide examples of other kids you know who have potty trained or watch television shows that discuss the topic.
Show by example. Allow your child to follow you or a friend through the process of using the bathroom several times. Sometimes it is more effective for them to see a child close to their own age who is successfully using the potty.
Read potty books. Visit your local library or bookstore to pick up some fun children’s potty books. Let your child help choose.
Play pretend. Help your child to reenact the potty process with dolls or other toys. Talk about how happy the dolls are about going on the potty.
If you’re going to use rewards decide on the specific rewards. Ideas might include stickers on a chart, little toys, or fruit snacks.
You might also consider a special outing or more screen time, but parenting experts note rewards work best at this age if they’re immediate and used every time your child completes the desired behavior, say, sitting on the potty. Get your child excited about working towards these rewards and explain the exact system for earning them.
Stock up on potty training supplies. This can include a step stool, fun hand soap, and big kid underwear. Additional supplies that may come in handy include wet wipes, small toys and stickers for rewards, a portable potty for on-the-go, and Post-it notes for using on automatic flush toilets when you’re out.
Choose a potty type for your child. There are many options when it comes to child-friendly potties. Consider shopping for a standalone child-sized toilet or an insert ring for a standard toilet. Some parents offer both to their child. Keep in mind that portability is important once you’re out of the house, so consider at least introducing ways to use a standard-size toilet.
Introduce the potty in a unintimidating way. Allow the child to touch and sit on the potty without any expectations of actually using it. You may even want to start with a potty chair placed somewhere other than the bathroom.
Prepare for accidents. Make sure that you have sufficient wipes, paper towels, and cleaning sprays, and that you cover any furniture you don’t want to deal with cleaning later.
Make a schedule that’s potty friendly. Build in time for potty breaks during the day and ensure there is always a bathroom accessible nearby when out and about.
Once you’ve handled all the prep work, it’s actually time to start the potty training process. Here are a few tips that can help.
Consider nakedness. Don’t be afraid to let your child shed a few clothing items inside your house. (If nothing else, it’ll give you fewer pieces of clothing to have to wash if there’s an accident!)
Think about undies vs. pull-ups. This is a personal decision that depends on your child.
Wearing underwear will be very motivating for some children and can allow a child to be more aware when they are having an accident. However, it can be messy to go straight to underwear. Some children may also need a long time before they are dry at night.
Pull-up style training pants are great for avoiding accidents all over the furniture or bed; however, they can be less motivating and some children may be less aware of their body functions while using pull-ups.
Give plenty of opportunities. Make sure to offer the toilet to your child before and after meals, upon waking, and before heading out of the house. Paying attention to when they usually have to go can help you know when to encourage them to try.
Remember timing is everything. If potty training on a schedule or time-based system, use technology like timers and watches to make it fun and educational.
Use praise liberally. It works. Clapping, singing songs, and enthusiastically celebrating each win is the kind of encouragement that works for toddlers.
Have fun with reading time. Read books specifically set aside for potty time while your child is on the toilet. This will be a motivator to both want to use the potty and to stay on the potty as long as necessary.
Give age-appropriate choices to your child. Would you like to potty before or after tooth brushing? Which underwear would you like to wear?
Being able to control some aspects of the process helps encourage them to be more invested in potty training.
Change it up! If you’re feeling frustrated, let another adult try to help for a bit. There’s no shame in asking your partner, a grandparent, or a day care provider for support.
Understand regressions can happen. Just keep trying… Just keep trying… Just keep trying…
Know it’s also okay to stop trying. If you or your child is getting really frustrated, it’s okay to just take a breather and try again later. You want this to be a positive experience for all involved.
To be fully potty trained, your child will need to master a lot of self-care skills.
It can be useful to focus on individual skills during the potty training process and praise for each skill your child is able to accomplish.
If you are using a potty training chart, you may want to offer an incentive for specific skills like remembering to wash hands or recognizing the need to go to the bathroom.
We’ve gathered together a list of a few necessary self-care skills that your child will need to master during the potty training process:
- recognizing body signals that it’s time to go — and responding promptly
- pulling pants up and down
- sitting on the toilet
- learning to aim — Cheerios in the toilet bowl make great targets for little boys!
- wiping — an advanced skill!
- hand washing
As far as that last key skill goes, remind your child to use warm water and soap, scrub hands together for at least 20 seconds or the length of “Happy Birthday to You,” and dry them thoroughly with a clean towel.
Once you start potty training, it’s important not to have expectations of perfection right away. Potty training is a journey, and throughout the process, it’s important for you to focus on the good and avoid shaming. (Not only will this help your child but staying positive helps you, too.)
When accidents do happen, it’s important to think through what may have been the cause and how it can be addressed. For example accidents happening in bed are normal, as potty training through the night may take much longer.
Allowing your child to wear a pull-up style disposable (or reusable!) training pant when they sleep may help them to get a better night’s sleep without worrying until they’re developmentally ready. You might also consider limiting liquids in the evening hours and ensuring they try to go to the bathroom right before bed.
If your child is having trouble pooping on the potty, it may be beneficial to find out if there are any fears involved. Many children benefit from talking through the process and alleviating their concerns.
Pay attention to when accidents occur and address underlying emotional issues or make changes to the routine based on this information. In this case, accidents might just lead to success with potty training!
Even after it appears your child is fully potty trained, accidents can still happen seemingly out of the blue. It’s important to acknowledge that accidents can happen to anyone and to try to avoid shame or guilt. Remember to praise and/or reward your child and yourself for all the progress they have made.
No matter the number of small setbacks, your child will eventually learn how to use the toilet. Every child has their own timeline. As you work towards consistent, 100 percent mastery, you may face new challenges.
Potty training outside the house is different than feeling comfortable at home:
- Keep your Post-its at the ready to cover up the automatic flush features of the many public toilets you’ll visit.
- Consider bringing along a portable potty seat for larger public toilets.
- Keep up an open dialogue with your child to address their concerns and challenges with going to the potty outside the home.
The process of being potty trained is in many ways just as important as the final result. Potty training can be an opportunity to bond with your child and to witness their self-confidence grow.
Although potty training may not always look as simple as it does on television ads, it can be a positive experience for you and your child.
Just remember that every challenge is one step closer to success, test out some of the advice above, and before you know it, diapers will no longer be on the shopping list!