An In-Depth Guide To Potty Training
Like most parenting hurdles, potty training can be a very divisive topic. There are countless books written on the topic, a plethora of techniques, and an army of opinionated parents who think it’s their job to tell you what to do and how to do it. My advice is offered here not because I know best but because I have walked through the fire (twice) and have learned things that are worth sharing. What you will read is a guide based on the process we followed, which may hopefully have some useful tips and tricks that you can adapt to your child’s needs. Having hard and fast “rules” makes it too easy to fail and even easier to give up in a fit of frustration when your child isn’t “getting it”. Lots of the available information promises results using techniques that just aren’t realistic; from the crazy 3-day potty training method, to the insane “Potty Train in Less Than a Day” reference book, to the almost laughable guide titled “Stress-Free Potty Training”. Potty training isn’t going to happen overnight, without some effort and thought, and quite possibly without sweat and tears along the way too. This blog post holds no promises that potty training will be easy but hopefully, my advice will assist you with setting your child up for success, provide you with a guideline that you can adapt to your child’s needs, and encourage ongoing achievement as children work their way to potty-going independence. Take what works for your child and throw away what doesn’t.
For reference, we potty trained both our children at almost exactly 2 years old. The timing for your child may be earlier or later - you will know best.
Before You Begin:
Introduce them to the idea of potty training - It is important to start talking to your child about potty training at least 2 weeks prior to the big day. Talk about how you go to the potty or how an older sibling or friend does. Talk about what happens when you go to the bathroom, what goes into the toilet, and answer all of their questions. There are tons of kid-friendly potty training books that you can start reading to them. The Daniel Tiger potty episode is an excellent way to get your children interested (although, I warn you that the song gets stuck in your head). The less unknown the process, the more comfortable they will be when it comes to actually starting.
Introduce them to the equipment of potty training - 2 weeks or more before starting your training adventure, I suggest putting the potties and the potty seats in the place you want them to be. Initially, have potties everywhere to make it quick and easy for your child to go. I strongly recommend buying an integrated potty seat that allows your child to easily go in a regular toilet. This product makes the seat smaller for tiny bums, allows children to feel more secure, and makes clean up a breeze. Let your children sit on the potties anytime they want without forcing it while still offering it to them as an option. The day before training begins, make buying new underwear a big deal. Let your child choose their favourite prints and talk to them about what the underwear means and what expectations come with having “big kid” underwear.
Let them see what potty trained means - Let your child watch you, your partner, their siblings, or whomever you feel comfortable letting them watch see the process of going to the washroom. Talk to them about exactly what is happening in short concise statements. “Mommy pulls down her pants. Mommy sits on the potty. Mommy goes pee. Mommy wipes. Mommy pulls up her pants. Mommy flushes. Hear that sound? That’s the toilet. Bye-bye pee. Mommy washes her hands.” The more exposure they have to the process, the less foreign and scary the process will be. Big siblings are fantastic examples because they are usually enthusiastic in their willingness to be the teachers. Let them pee in all of the toilets and show their siblings the ropes.
Create a Reward Board - Some people aren’t into incentives when it comes to potty training but I found it to be a positive tool for both of my kids. We simply used a poster board and created 4 columns with as many rows that would fit. I bought lots of different enticing toys from the dollar store that I knew my children would be interested in. Each successful use of the potty got a sticker on the chart and every 4th sticker results in a shopping trip to the toy box.
Begin by putting your child in their new underwear, showing them the rewards board, and letting them look at the prizes they are working towards. Some parents let their children potty train without underwear, however, I think having underwear on is important for the child to recognize that they have to pull down their pants before they use the potty, as well as ensuring that they actually feel wet when they have an accident.
Put your child on the potty. Hopefully, all of the preparation you have done makes this process a smooth one. If your child doesn’t want to stay on the potty, now is the time to pull out all of the most exciting things you have to keep them there (iPad, colouring books, favourite toys, etc). If your child outright refuses don’t push it. If they have an accident they will start to realize the importance of getting to the potty before they go.
Determine how long you expect your child to sit there if they are willing. We went with 5 minutes. It was long enough for my kids to find focus but not so long that they were just going without awareness of the bodily process occurring.
Determine how long between each attempt on the potty you will put them back on. We started at 20 minutes because this timing worked for my kids. You will have to evaluate what your child is capable of for yourself. If you try 20 minutes and they pee at the 17-minute mark then revise your original plan and go with the 15-minute intervals.
Give them fluids. Don’t overdo it to the extreme but, allow them to have some extra liquids that they may not get every day. Some fruit-infused water, chocolate milk, or juice may entice your child into drinking a little bit more.
*Stick with this plan for the rest of the day. Be consistent and don’t dwell on accidents. Remind them where they are supposed to go. Asking “do you have to go to the potty?” at this stage is too abstract of a concept. Instead, say “where does pee/poop go?” or say “Pee goes in the ____” and let them fill in the blank. This will allow them to start making the connection between what they do and where they should do it. Celebrate every success with positive words, cheering, and a sticker/reward to add to the board. If older siblings are in the mix, get them excited about their younger brother or sister’s success - we found our daughter to be Linden’s biggest supporter.
If Step 1 saw plenty of success, then it is time to lengthen the time between each potty attempt. Increase the intervals based on what feels comfortable for your child.
Follow the same process you used on day one, step one.
Continue lengthening the increments between potty attempts. Between days 3-5 your child should be able to get to the 1-hour mark before having an accident. If your child is struggling and you are thinking that they may not be ready it is okay to stop, wait a bit, and try again. By attempting for at least 3-5 days you give your child enough time to find success. Not every kid gets it from the start so it is important to allow a few days of absolute mayhem before saying they aren’t ready.
When you get to an hour or more its time to start outings. I suggest simple trips that allow you to bring your portable potty or places where you have quick access to a bathroom such as playdates, parks, or a library. Continue using the same interval technique.
Once your child is having lots of success on the potty and you recognize that they are able to go on command, then it’s time to start training out the intervals. Think about what their maximum interval time has been, on average. When that time approaches, ask your child “do you need to go to the potty?”. If they say no, give them 10 minutes more (or whatever seems reasonable for your child) before putting them on the potty.
You are now lengthening the time between when you ask them and when you make them go on the potty. So, initially you may ask them at the 90-minute mark and if they say no you put them on 10 minutes later. On the second day of Step 4, you ask them at the 90-minute mark, and if they say no you make them go 30 minutes later. Day 3 maybe you ask them at the 90-minute mark then make them go 45 minutes after you’ve initially asked. I want to reiterate that the intervals don’t matter as much as the progression does. If they are finding success with smaller interval changes that’s okay as long they are succeeding and the intervals are lengthening.
Eventually, you want the interval to be long enough that your child tells you when they need to go to the bathroom instead of you having to ask. At this point, you want to make sure you ask them to tell you when they need to go to the bathroom and remind them often, especially if they are playing.
Within a few days, the hope is that your child is telling you when they have to pee more often than when you are making them go to the potty.
Once you get to this point, you want to simply ask if they have to go and follow their lead. You can decide how long it is necessary to continue asking them.
For most kids, they find it more difficult to stop and go when they are playing, are in a new and exciting place, or are in a group setting. In these instances, you want to be extra vigilant to avoid unnecessary accidents.
Dealing with Poop:
Poop can be more challenging for children for a variety of reasons. It is important to make sure your child isn’t constipated and having hard poops that can be painful to pass. If they are, take action and if the problem persists visit a doctor. Some children fear pooping into the potty because of the sensation of having something “drop” from their body. It can be hard for children to discern the difference between peeing and pooping so sometimes children pee and think they are done. For the most part, it often just takes more time, patience, and practice. Here are the tips that helped me:
Use a little potty: Having access to one of the toddler sized potties may be exactly what they need to attempt pooping. Having a smaller potty that is less daunting and feels less like something is falling from them may help to squash any fears they may have.
Don’t put on a diaper or pull up: Putting on a diaper or pull up will signal to your child that it is a good time to poop. I know cleaning up poop accidents is the last thing any parent wants to do but it will help your child to realize that there is no other option.
If they poop in a diaper at nap/bed time or in their underwear: Take your child into the bathroom and try to put the poop into the potty and flush it down. Show them that poop goes in the potty. Be calm and direct when accidents occur. Hopefully showing them what happens to the poop when it leaves their body will help them understand the expectations better.
Watch for signs: If your child shows specific signs when they have to poop be prepared to quickly grab them and take them to the potty. If you can catch them at just the right time and get them on the potty they can learn that the process isn’t scary and learn the expectations too.
Figure out their schedule: Often times, children poop around the same time every day. If you are lucky enough to know when a poop is coming then be prepared. Let them sit on the potty at this time. Talk them through the bowel movement using short clear sentences.
Use rewards: Use a reward system specifically for poop. Do what feels right and what you think will work. Maybe your child gets to choose a prize every time they poop. Maybe they get a lollipop if they poop. Maybe you can ask them to try to poop until a timer goes off (5mins) and if they do that they get a treat. Whatever it is, make it enticing and fun!
Everybody poops: Let your child watch the little youtube clip of the book Everybody Poops by Taro Gomi. It is a fun animated read aloud of the book that helps to normalize going poop. Everybody has to do it!
If pooping on the potty is a battle it isn’t going to happen. We have to remain calm and keep potty training as stress free for the child as possible (even if our own stress is off the charts). Creating a power struggle and forcing your child onto the potty as they kick and scream isn’t going to work. If your child hasn’t pooped in a long time and you are worried about their health see a doctor immediately. Constipation for long periods can lead to bigger issues that are important to address as soon as possible.
Tips and tricks:
You Don’t Need a Sign: You don’t have to wait for signs from your child to start potty training. There may never be one. Nothing is stopping you from attempting potty training and seeing if the timing is right. We get so caught up in thinking that we are somehow screwing up our kids if we don’t go all-in but they will know no difference. If training doesn’t work, stop, and circle back to it when you feel both you and your child are ready. Some signs that may be beneficial to look for, but aren’t required, are: telling you when they need to go, telling you after they have gone, being uncomfortable in a dirty diaper, seeking privacy to go, successful attempts on the potty, or a strong interest in potty training.
No daytime diapers/pull-ups: Once you start with underwear don’t go back to pull-ups or diapers during the day. Even if you are going out, stay consistent and bring a portable potty, wipes, and lots of spare clothes. Switching between underwear and a diaper is too confusing.
Make Sure the Timing Works for the Family: It is important to choose when you start potty training wisely. Try to line up the start date during a period of relative calm. Avoid times where new transitions are on the horizon like moving houses or the addition of a new family member. If you have the luxury of a partner to help you, wait for a long weekend or time where they can be present to share in the highs and lows of the training process. If you do start the process and something like teething or an illness derails progress, step away and choose a new start date.
Buy Underwear with Characters: While not entirely necessary, this trick was a great tool for me to be able to tell my kids to keep the characters on their underwear dry and clean. Because they felt an attachment to the characters on the underwear, they were disappointed when they had an accident and I had to put them into the wash.
Make Independence Possible: Although it won’t happen overnight, the goal is independence so think about the functionality of your bathroom. Make a step stool available for easy toilet and sink access. Make sure toilet paper is within reaching distance. An automatic soap dispenser is a great way to make hand-washing an easier task. Whenever possible, make your child pull their own pants down and put them back up, while avoiding tough fasteners.
Go Before Outings: Set your kids up for success. It’s so much easier to make them go before you leave the house than to try to get them to go when they are excited and engaged out-and-about. I always make my kids go before we leave and it has become a habit that they don’t think twice about. Now, when it’s necessary, like on long road trips there is no fuss because it’s just what we do.
BE CONSISTENT: Like most things in life, success really hinges on consistency. Being accountable in your role for their success means that you are as prepared for them as possible. Yes, it will take time and effort and it will definitely slow you down and interrupt your daily routines but keeping in mind the end goal will help. Don’t jump from one strategy to the next, don’t change time intervals because “they are getting it” before the days up, and don’t let routines change in different environments. Get everyone on board (teachers, daycare providers, nannies, partners, siblings, etc.) so the process goes as smooth as possible.
We did not night train at the same time. We waited until they slept consistently through the night dry to night train them.