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Ready to Potty Train Your Kid? Here’s a Start-to-Finish Guide

toddler sitting next to a practice potty, holding a roll of toilet paper
Julia Valentin/Shutterstock.com

So you’re ready to ditch those diapers. What an exciting time for your toddler! It may be overwhelming figuring out where to start, but trust us that you’ll find your way with enough thought, consistency, and patience. We’re here to discuss some tips for success, as well as when to postpone potty training and some much-needed supplies to get you started.

There are some cultures where kids are potty trained as young as 12-18 months old. For many, early potty training is a necessity, due to the cost of diapers or not having the resources to wash cloth diapers. In the U.S., the average age for potty training is around 27 months, although there are plenty of kids who aren’t successfully potty trained until 3-4 years old. Potty training later is often due to the affordability and availability of disposable diapers, as well as the emphasis on waiting until a child is “ready.”

How you approach teaching your child this new skill is up to you. Every child is different—what works for one kid may not work for yours. Above all else, remember to stay positive and make the potty training process as fun as possible.

Signs That Your Child is Definitely Ready

Here are some key signs that show your child is not only capable of learning this new skill but are eager and excited to do so. Go ahead and follow your child’s lead on this one, even if they are younger than expected.

  • Follows simple instructions: If your child can follow your directions, such as “put your plate in the sink” or “set your shoes by the door” then she may be ready to master the art of going pee and poop in the potty.
  • Talks about pee and poop: If your child is aware and mindful of their bodily functions, then it may be time. Examples can include your child saying, “I pooped!” or “Diaper change.” Basically, if they’re aware of it, they’re capable of putting it in the right place.
  • Ability to sit on the potty without assistance: Set out a potty chair, show your child how to sit on it, and then watch to see if he can manage it alone. However, if he turns the potty upside down, wears it on his head, or throws it across the room, you may decide to postpone potty training (or at least spend some more time teaching him that the potty is for sitting on, not to be used as a toy).
  • Pulls down pants: You may be shocked if your child pulls down her pants and rips off her diaper, but ultimately this is a sign that she has the dexterity to manipulate her clothing, meaning she’s most likely up for the challenge of learning to use the potty.
  • Shows an interest in the potty: This is often the case if there’s an older sibling around using the potty. However, if your child shows no interest in the potty, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should postpone potty training. It just means your toddler doesn’t know what it’s for, yet. Remember, it’s your job to teach them, just like tying their shoes, using a spoon, or how to brush their teeth.

When to Postpone Potty Training

If you’re on the fence about whether now is the right time or not, take stock of what lays ahead in the coming months. Even though some potty training books and programs claim that it only takes a few days, most children take a couple of months to really nail it.

So if you’re planning to move to another country next month, maybe wait until you’re settled to ditch the diapers.

Here are some common reasons to postpone potty training:

  • Travel: By car, train, plane, boat, it’s all the same. You don’t want to be teaching your child the basics of the toilet while you’re crammed in a tiny airplane bathroom.
  • Arrival of a new sibling: Avoid potty training right before or right after the appearance of a new sibling. Also, be prepared that a newly potty trained toddler may have a temporary regression after the birth of a new sibling.
  • Major transitions: This includes changing from a crib to a toddler bed, starting preschool, a new babysitter, changing daycares, the list goes on. Make sure life will remain reasonably stable for the next few months before starting the potty training boot camp.
  • Moving: Even though you may think your child is too little to be affected by a move, trust us, they are. So wait until you’re all settled in the new place.
  • Sickness: If you’ve started potty training and suddenly your child gets sick, it might be worth pausing the process. Dealing with illness and learning a new skill is a tough request for a little person.

Potty training is a big step, and when it doubt, postpone it instead of trying to balance it with other significant life changes like a baby sibling or a move to a new home.

Ways to Prep Your Child

mother helping her young daughter wash her hands
Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock.com

Go ahead and start prepping them in the months leading up to potty training. You can even do this when they are a baby. The more your child is exposed to the language associated with the potty, the more they’ll accept it when you (or they) decide it’s time.

Take your child with you to the bathroom every time you go. Talk about what you’re doing, such as, “Mama is peeing in the potty” or “Daddy’s pooping right now.” Have them help you flush the toilet, wash your hands together, and talk about how great it is to use the potty. The more positive talk you can introduce, the more excited they’ll be to learn this new skill. Say things like, “Wearing undies is fun!”

Positive modeling makes potty training something your child wants to work towards to feel more independent and grown up—similar to transitioning to a big kid bed or riding a bike.

Try to keep everything super positive. Avoid telling them that diapers are for babies, or that poo is yucky, dirty, or gross. Shame, guilt, and disapproval won’t work here.

Start dressing your child for success a month before starting potty training. This means ditching onesies, overalls, jeggings, and complicated outfits. Opt for skirts, loose shorts, and easy to pull up and down pants. You can even start teaching your child to push down and pull up his pants when getting dressed. The more you involve them in the process, the better.

Start reading potty training books early on. This will help them wrap their head around the concept, and it’ll be less of a surprise when they start the process. Some great options include lift-the-flap books, board books, and sound books.

Early Training versus Waiting Until Your Child is “Ready”

There tend to be two leading schools of thought when it comes to potty training. One puts the power in your hands, educating your child early about potty use. The other places the power in your child’s hands, waiting until they show all the signs they are “ready.” We’ll go over each below. Neither is right or wrong. In fact, some parents use a hybrid approach, taking key elements from each.

Early Training

Many experts recommend keeping your child naked for three days straight, canceling all plans, and watching them like a hawk. Once they start to pee (yes, on your floor), you scoop them up and rush them to the potty. Over time, they begin to recognize the urge themselves and learn to communicate it to you in advance (or they walk over to the potty independently).

A popular book that goes more in-depth with the early potty training method is Oh Crap! Potty Training. Keep in mind that this method is hard to follow if your child is in preschool or full-time daycare since most teachers don’t have the time to watch your child closely for early potty signs, nor do they want your child peeing on their floor. However, if you have an entire week to stay at home, this boot camp approach to potty training does have a lot of success.

Waiting Until Your Child is “Ready”

This approach avoids any strong education or early intervention. Over time, your child naturally learns that this is what society expects from him, and he’ll start to feel gross from peeing and pooping in his diaper (without any shaming on your behalf). He may ask to go to the potty or start complaining about his dirty diaper. Sometimes this can happen early, but usually, it happens around 3-4 years old.

Many people love this method as they believe it puts the whole process in the child’s hands, empowering them to recognize their body’s needs, thus avoiding any power struggles or rebellion. But some parents claim that the longer they wait, the more comfortable their child gets with wearing diapers, thus making it harder to transition to the potty.

Rewards and Incentives

Many experts advise against using any rewards or incentives associated with the potty training process. This is because the child will learn to rely heavily on the rewards, having many accidents once they are taken away.

But some experts say it’s okay to use small incentives in the beginning, especially if your child is super involved in her playtime and doesn’t want to stop to use the potty. If you decide to go this route, make sure you phase the rewards out as soon as possible, letting your child get in touch with her body’s needs instead of the promise of a sticker or a treat.

Keep the rewards minimal: YouTube time on the potty is a tough habit to break.

If you do use rewards and incentives, try to mix it up so that your child doesn’t get depend on any one thing. For example, if you always let him watch YouTube videos on your phone while he sits on the potty, this is a tough habit to break. But if sometimes you look at a favorite book together, other times you pull out a special toy, and occasionally you offer a sticker, it’ll keep it exciting and fun.

Make sure to offer plenty of praise and positive feedback, even for trying. For example, if your child sits on the potty independently, but nothing happens, still offer applause, a hug, a high-5, whatever you think will make your child feel proud for her efforts.

What to Do About Accidents

Accidents are normal, even as kids get older. Make sure you keep your voice calm, loving, and patient when you notice an accident. But at the same time, you don’t want to reassure your child that “it’s okay” as this will confuse them. They’ll be left wondering, “Wait, am I supposed to pee in the potty or my pants?”

You can gently remind them that pee goes in the potty, not on the floor. Offer them a rag to help you clean it up, telling them that accidents happen to everyone, that they are still learning, and that you’re so proud of their hard work. You can even say, “I had a hard time learning this skill, too,” because chances are, you probably did.

Supplies for Success

We recommend a stand-alone potty chair, one your child can walk over to and sit down by themselves. You can also get a potty insert, one that sits on top of your standard toilet.

Getting a travel potty insert for on-the-go is crucial. Big toilets in the real world can be scary! This little owl seat is a favorite for my kids, and has been used in restaurants, stores, even on airplanes!

As far as training pants, pull-ups, or padded undies go, it’s best to limit these as much as possible. A pull-up is basically still a diaper—snug, warm, and familiar (meaning that they’ll keep peeing and pooping in them just as a diaper). If you’re going to ditch the diaper, then there’s no turning back. Keep some pull-ups handy if you need them for naps and bedtime, or if you’re going on a long flight, otherwise let your child go naked (at home), commando, or straight to undies.

These disposable pee pads are great for protecting furniture, strollers, car seats, and highchairs from the occasional accident, especially in the beginning. They’re easy to toss into your diaper bag and use wherever.

Even though potty training is a big step in your child’s life, it’s important to keep it positive, fun, and interesting. Remember that you’re teaching your child a new skill, which can present challenges along the way, but ultimately gives your child more power to be in charge of his body.

And even if there are plenty of hiccups along the way, trust that your child won’t be attending college in diapers. We all get there, eventually.

Jill A. Chafin Jill A. Chafin
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »
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