Out with the Diapers! (Tips for potty training)

Potty training. Not often fun, but always necessary at some point. I’ve received a few requests to write about potty training in the past few weeks. It’s not that I’m avoiding it (or am I?); it’s just that it’s not my favorite developmental milestone. Don’t get me wrong; throwing away diapers is a very good thing. It’s the road to the diaperless child that leaves a bit to be desired, if you ask me. There are those parents out there who swear up and down that it was super easy and their child only had one accident during the process. I’m sure that these situations exist for some people, but for most it’s a bit more complicated. Take us, for example. Riley was 23 months old when she announced that she was ready for the potty (she might have used fewer words). She was determined. Liam was only 2 months old at the time, making me a little (read: a lot) less determined. But I knew that I didn’t want to miss my window and someday end up with a five year old in diapers, so we went with it. There are many potty training strategies out there, and truly the best advice I can give you is to find the one that works for you (and your child, but you’re the one handling all accidents). After about two weeks of “practicing” on the potty before her nightly bath, we opted for the weekend potty training boot camp. Out went the diapers and in came the princess undies. We put her on the potty every 20-30 minutes for three days straight. She had four accidents the first day, two the second, and just one on the third. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Due to severe constipation (which we later found out was the result of a medical condition we were previously unaware of), she did not poop on the potty for quite some time. That meant giving her a diaper every day before her nap to allow her to poop, then changing her back. Not the end of the world, but not quite the slam-dunk you hear about on the playground. Whether you opt for the weekend warrior method (I like it because it gets them into a routine fast, but it’s not for everyone) or a slower approach, potty training is a process. I’m already dreading it the second time around. Fortunately Liam is in no hurry. Below are some tips to help you along the way:

1. Assess readiness: Apparently there are a growing number of people attempting to potty train infants. I can’t even imagine this. A 2003 study in Pediatrics found that initiating potty training before 27 months yielded earlier completion of training, but that the process took longer. Signs of readiness include: Knowing the difference between pee and poop (please excuse the bathroom talk for the rest of this article), asking for a diaper change, telling you when they have to go, being able to pull up and take off pants independently, asking to use the potty, stopping normal activities to pee/poop, holding urine for more than two hours at a time, staying dry during naps, and no longer pooping during the night. Your child might not show each of these signs of readiness all at once so try to look for cues.
2. Get your bathroom(s) ready: Many people opt for the cute little potty seat (in some cases these can double as a stool) that you can set up in the bathroom or bring out to another room. This has a few advantages: They can use it easily without needing a stool or much help, it can be brought into the most high traffic room of the house until they get the hang of it, and it’s low to the ground for smaller toddlers. I opted for the seat that covers the toilet to make it toddler sized. To me, using the small potty would require yet another transition when it was time to move up to the toilet, and extra cleaning on my part (selfish, I know). Do what feels right to you. Make sure you have a stool for hand washing (and getting onto the big potty), and soap that is easy to reach and dispense. Hang hand towels at toddler level.
3. Demonstrate or explain: I have to admit this up front; there was NO demonstrating in this house! That said, many experts agree that bringing your child into the bathroom with you and showing him/her the process will help them understand. I just wasn’t comfortable with this, so we potty trained Bitty Baby to provide an explanation. When constipation became an issue, Bitty Baby was there to practice along with us. Do what feels comfortable to you.
4. Provide praise (and maybe a reward): There are many experts and pediatricians out there who would say that rewarding a child for using the potty sends the wrong message. You wouldn’t reward them for washing their hands and face, so why reward them for using the potty? I understand, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But I do believe in making things fun and, more importantly, easy (especially when you have more than one kid on your hands). Stickers, small prizes, and small candies all seem to be popular. Riley had a thing for yogurt raisins. I figured a few yogurt raisins a day couldn’t do much harm, and we took them away after a couple of weeks. We also had a cheer that included dancing and clapping and went a little something like this: “Tinkle on the potty, we’re so proud of you!” I believe she liked the cheer better, but took the yogurt raisins where she could get them.
5. Ignore the chatter: Many people, especially grandparents, like to share their thoughts about when you should potty train your child. They all seem to recall completing potty training for each kid by 2 ½. I have to believe that this can’t possibly be true. Regardless, you know your child and you will assess when he/she is ready. Don’t let external pressure force you to jump into something that your child might not be ready to try. That kind of pressure can really affect your child’s willingness and readiness. It should be as low-stress of an experience as possible. And those supermoms at the park with the kids who never have accidents? Change the subject or walk away. You need supportive mommy friends on your side, not competitors.
6. Prepare for public bathrooms: You can’t stay home forever. There are portable potties that you can keep in the back of your car that you line with a Ziploc bag, toilet seat covers that fold up to fit in your purse (I have a few of these), or disposable covers that actually stick to the toilet seat and won’t slip (just make sure your child is able to sit comfortably on an adult seat). Again, choose what feels right for your child. Note: Some toddlers are very sensitive to sound, and the flushers in public restrooms are often very loud. Allow your child to stand back from the toilet while you flush until he/she feels comfortable. To avoid the automatic flush fear, put something over the sensor to stop it from flushing until you’re ready (I usually use a sweatshirt, but a great tip I’ve heard is to carry post it notes in your purse at all times).
7. Other mom tips: I asked around for other tips to see what other moms are doing. Here are a few: Put boys on backwards to help them aim when seated (they can hold the back of the toilet for stability), put Cheerios in the toilet to improve aim (they actually sell potty training tools specific to this, but Cheerios seems cheap and easy to me), put a basket of special toys and books in the bathroom that they can only use while in the bathroom, sticker charts, “surprise” bags for treats, playing calming music, reading to your child, and setting timers for specific times to “try” throughout the day. Note: Boys generally don’t stand up to tinkle until somewhere between ages 3-4.
8. Night training: Night training can come months, and even years, after daytime potty training. Don’t stress about it. If your child is waking up with a very full diaper each morning, it’s too soon. Wait for at least four to five consecutive nights of a dry diaper, and then make the switch. Decrease liquids at night. Consider waking your child to use the potty before you go to bed. Chances are he/she will remain groggy throughout the event and ease right back into sleep.
9. Expect accidents: Accidents happen. Even when they’ve been trained for quite some time. Changes in routine, a new baby, a new home, or family stress can often lead to accidents. Handle them as gracefully as possible. Getting upset or shaming your child won’t solve the problem. Reassure your child that it happens and it’s ok, then clean it up and move on. Note: Some moms swear by using pull-ups during the potty training process, while others avoid them completely. I tried using them for car rides with Riley during that first week, but she didn’t like the feel of them and was really excited about her undies. She also seemed confused (again, she was on the younger end) about being put in something like a diaper when she was supposed to use a potty. So I did not take that route. You’ll know what makes the most sense for your child (and you) when you get started.

Potty training is a process, but you will get there eventually. Try to keep a sense of humor about it. Trust me, you’ll need it. Good luck and let the potty training begin!

Moms who’ve been there: What tips can you share for other readers?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


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