How and when to start potty training
Potty training is a parenting milestone that can be eagerly anticipated – and sometimes dreaded. Actually, it’s pretty common to feel both ways at the same time.
On one hand, it’s exciting to imagine the freedom of no longer needing to change all those diapers. (Not to mention the monthly cost savings.) But then the reality hits: Now it’s time to decide how to go about toilet training.
Should you get a potty chair or a toddler toilet seat? What is the three-day method? At times, the thought of potty training your little one can feel intimidating. Everyone seems to have advice – and stories about the struggles.
We’re here to set your mind at ease with the information and tools you need to help you and your child tackle toilet training. We’ll cover when to begin potty training, how to know if your child is ready, tips for success, and normal challenges kids and parents face.
When should you start potty training?
Every child is different, and they’ll find their way when it’s the right time for them. That’s why experts say that it’s more helpful for parents to focus on signs that their child is interested and ready, rather than going by their age.
On average, most children are ready to begin toilet training between 22 and 30 months of age, but there’s a broad range. It’s also normal to begin earlier or later than that. Just know that there is no rush.
We’ll cover the signs of potty-training readiness, but first, here are some things to consider before you and your toddler begin.
Make sure they’re developmentally ready
When you’re figuring out when to start, the key is to make sure that your child is both physically and cognitively ready. Starting potty training too early can add difficulty and pressure. Children might begin to associate the toilet with stress, which can be challenging for everyone and extend the length of the process.
There can be a variety of reasons your child isn’t ready. Maybe they’re not interested, or they aren’t talking much yet. If they can’t communicate to you when they need to go, or fully understand what you’re explaining to them, it may be too early to start.
But it’s important to remember that as a parent, you know your kid the best. With added guidance from your child’s pediatrician or clinician, you’ll be able to get a good idea for when it’s the right time.
Don’t begin potty training during another time of change
Potty training is a huge change physically and mentally, as well as a big adjustment to the routine. Change is hard for all of us, but it can be especially difficult on kids, who have less experience managing it.
It’s best for kids to have stability and focus when they’re toilet training. For that reason, it’s a good idea to hold off on potty training during big changes to the usual routine, like:
- The birth of a sibling
- Moving to a new home
- Moving from a crib to a bed, or changing bedrooms
- During significant home construction
- When traveling
- When they’re sick (especially with stomach symptoms like diarrhea)
Signs kids are ready for potty training
Kids will show certain signs when they’re ready for potty training. You’ll know it’s time when they can:
- Communicate with you about potty words (speaking to you and understanding what you say)
- Follow basic instructions
- Take an interest in the toilet (pointing to it, watching a parent or sibling, mimicking using the toilet, and asking questions)
- Make the connection between their need to pee or poop and going to use the toilet
- Keep a diaper dry for two hours or more at a time
- Lift up or take down their own underwear or potty-training pants
Tips on how to potty train
There’s no exact guide on how to potty train because every child is unique and every household’s parenting style is a little different. Plus, the plan you decide on will most likely change and evolve as you go, based on what works best for your individual child. Maybe they aren’t motivated by high fives and celebrations, but a sticker chart for rewards works wonders.
Here are some of the tried-and-true basics for beginning potty training, plus tips that can help make it easier on both parents and kids.
Make a plan ahead of time
Whether you try the three-day method or something else, make a plan and be sure that all parents or all caregivers are ready to follow it. You can always make changes along the way but preparing ahead of time can help keep you calm, confident and consistent.
Gather what you’ll need
Get your child some books about potty training, buy them new big-kid underwear (and potty-training underpants if you want to go that route), a potty chair or kids’ toilet seat for the adult toilet, and a stool for getting on the toilet or reaching the sink.
You’ll also want to buy a waterproof mattress cover to put beneath their main bed sheet to protect from accidents. (Pro tip: Buy two if you can. That way, if one is in the laundry, you’ll have a backup to put on their bed.) There’s also a small pad you can buy that’s designed to fit on the bottom of your child’s car seat and serves as a layer of protection if they have an accident while you’re on the road. If it gets wet, you can throw it right in the washing machine. This gives parents some peace of mind – especially if you know how hard it is to get those car seat covers off.
Model the proper way to do it
Kids learn by watching us. One of the best teaching tools we have is to simply show them how you use the toilet.
Choose the words you’ll use
Decide which terms you’ll use when teaching your child about going potty. Explain what things are called, how our body works and why we go potty. Choose the words you’ll use and then stay consistent. Children’s health experts recommend parents use the real anatomical words for body parts so that kids are informed at an early age. This also helps to avoid confusion later – so they don’t need to go from childish nicknames for body parts to the real anatomical terms.
You have a lot of options when it comes to picking a potty or potty seat. You can use a kid-sized, standalone potty that you empty after each use. Or you can buy a child toilet seat that can be temporarily placed on top of your regular toilet seat each time they need to go. This keeps them comfortable and prevents them from falling in.
Another option is to replace your current toilet seat with one that has both an adult seat and a child seat that can fold down when you need it. Having their own potty or potty seat can actually make a child feel greater motivation and responsibility when toilet training.
Make a potty schedule
At this age, kids don’t have the same acute perception of time the way adults do, so having a consistent schedule and routine is very important. Toddlers are still working on self-awareness and understanding when they need to go. With practice, they’ll begin to recognize the urge to pee or poop, and they’ll know when to go to the bathroom.
Keep a steady potty-training routine at home, and when you visit other places. Talk with close family members you see often, like grandparents, so everyone is on the same page about your child’s routine. If your child is in daycare, try to align your potty schedule at home with their schedule at daycare. Daycares need to plan their own potty schedules (but imagine doing that for 5-15 children), so theirs will often be less flexible than your schedule at home.
To make a schedule, try setting a timer for 45-minute intervals, then slowly increase the time period as your child learns how to notice their own physical cues, stay dry and go to the bathroom. You can also try to be aware of the amount of fluids they’re drinking throughout the day or night. It can be helpful to keep their fluid steady to avoid sudden strong urges and accidents. Before bath time or before changing clothes are also good times to suggest a trip to the potty.
Prepare at home
Make sure your bathroom is ready and toddler-friendly before starting potty training. Be sure that you have the kids’ potty chair or potty seat and a little stool for them. At the sink, place soap where it will be easily within reach and teach them the importance of washing and drying their hands after each time in the bathroom.
To make it more fun, you can learn songs to sing together about going potty and washing your hands. Another way to prepare at home – and seasoned parents emphasize this – is to put towels or blankets on the floor or furniture in case accidents happen. This is especially useful if you’re using the three-day potty-training method.
Focus on positive reinforcement
But what about when they have an accident? Yes – even when they have an accident, it’s important to stay positive and supportive. Whether you’re cheering them on verbally or giving them a reward like a sticker, positive reinforcement is very important during the potty-training process.
Pediatric experts have found that it’s actually one of the most effective tactics of potty training. Rather than being motivated by the shame of having an accident or going potty because “it’s the rules,” kids need to be self-motivated to take control of their own needs. The best way to support them in this is through positive reinforcement and (optionally) the addition of a reward system.
First, celebrate all victories, big and small. Cheer and give high fives, do a special handshake or dance each time. And most importantly, tell them how great they’re doing and that you’re proud of them. Ask them if they feel proud of themselves, too – that kind of inner satisfaction helps drive independence. Communicate clearly to help their progress sink in. Maybe the next time they need to go potty they’ll remember how great they felt celebrating. You can say things like, “What a big kid! You are a potty-training rock star!” and “I was so proud of you when you stopped playing and told me you needed to go potty.”
You can also support them and use positive reinforcement even when they’ve had an accident. You might say, “Oops, you had an accident. That’s ok, sometimes accidents happen. I really liked that you came to tell me what happened.”
Rewards go hand in hand with positive reinforcement. Children this age are highly motivated by rewards, and they’ll want to keep up the good work in order to get one. Pediatricians advise against using candy or snacks as rewards, and instead recommend things like stickers or sticker charts, bubbles or stamps.
Experts emphasize the importance of guiding rather than pressuring children to use the potty. Why? Similar to pushing kids to eat veggies they don’t like, it can quickly become a power battle, and that never ends well for either of you. By the end of it, the kid still won’t budge and you’re both frustrated. It’s more productive to go at your child’s pace, and explain, encourage and praise your way to success.
The three-day potty-training method
Maybe you’ve heard about the “magical” three-day potty-training method from friends or family. Three days where your child is running around the house with only a shirt on – or with no clothes on – as they learn how to use the potty each time they need to go. But does it really work? (Imagining it may lead to another question: Should I buy a carpet shampooer?)
Parents and kids’ health experts have said that the three-day potty-training method can work well for some kids who have shown interest or other signs of readiness. This method can also shorten the length of time needed for toilet training. But it’s still important to remember that those three days mainly serve as a solid start. The training and guidance must continue for months afterward to keep up the routine and build their independence.
How to potty train using the three-day method
Choose three days where you and your child can basically stay home and work on potty training. Weekends work well for many families. The key is to make sure you’re able to give your child the constant attention and supervision they’ll need over that time. It can be helpful to have older children go out for a playdate or do an activity with their grandparents so you can give your full attention to your toddler.
When you’re ready, tell your child the plan a little ahead of time so they know what to expect. “You’re such a big kid now. That’s why this weekend we’re going to learn how to use the potty!”
The day you begin, you may want to cover furniture or carpeted floors with towels and blankets in case accidents happen. The first morning of potty training, take off your child’s diaper like usual, but don’t put another one on. It can be fun to say “Goodbye, diapers!” together. That may sound silly, but it gives the process a lighthearted start, and it builds the understanding that you’re both in this together.
Allow them to go about their day with a bare bottom, or even with no clothes on at all. The reasoning behind this seemingly drastic measure is that without clothes on, children are automatically more aware of their own body. And when they feel the urge to pee or poop, they realize that there’s no diaper there and they’ll make a mess on themselves if they don’t go to the potty.
Set a timer
Next, set a timer for 45-minute intervals to take them to the potty. While your child likely won’t interrupt play time to go to the bathroom at the beginning of potty training, you can still encourage them to “try”.
You may be surprised at how quickly your child begins to alert you of their need to go, even in the span of one day. Then again, you may also be surprised when they don’t say a word and are standing in a puddle. Both are normal parts of the process.
Reacting to accidents
Accidents will happen, and that’s how kids learn what they need to do. It’s a prime example of learning by trial and error. If they have an accident, try not to react much. Gently tell them that accidents happen and it’s okay. You can then remind them of what they can do next time and praise them when they go potty successfully.
Repeat this process for the next two days, and on day four, kids will often be ready to put on big-kid underwear and try keeping up with their new routine while they’re wearing their usual clothes. This can be a tricky transition because they lose a bit of that bodily self-awareness once they’re clothed again. But if parents and kids stay consistent with timing potty breaks and practicing the new skills, a child’s progress within a week can be impressive.
How long does potty training take?
There’s a broad timeline for what’s considered “normal,” but potty training often takes about 3-6 months. Every child is different, and sometimes it takes longer or it happens sooner. And even after your child has learned to use the potty, they may have months ahead of them when they still need help wiping their bottom and washing their hands.
Tips for keeping your cool as a potty-training parent
When accidents happen, the laundry pile is higher than ever and your nerves feel fried, it can be hard to embrace the potty-training phase. But in those tough moments (although easier said than done), try to take a deep breath and remember that it’s just that – a phase.
It’ll probably be a relatively short one in the grand scheme of things. But for right now, when every little thing seems big, focus on taking things day by day.
If you feel like you’ve tried every potty-training tip and trick, but your child isn’t making as much progress as you’d like, it’s okay. Nobody is failing. It may just be a sign to take a break from potty training to give your child some time and space before trying again.
Give yourself and your child grace as you figure it out together. To make things easier along the way, you can learn tips for managing stress, take some time for self-care, and ask family or friends for help when you need it. You’ve got this.
Talk to your child’s doctor about potty training
Pediatricians and other kids’ health specialists are happy to answer any questions you have about your child’s health and milestones – and potty training is a big one. You may be wondering if your toddler is ready to begin, how to get over obstacles or why your older child is wetting the bed. Every kiddo is different, and your child’s doctor will know how to help.