Written by Stacey Kelleher and Brandi Brucks.
What parent can’t wait to say “goodbye” to diapers, but where do you start when it comes to potty training your toddler?
With so many potty training questions out there, we reached out to childcare expert and author, Brandi Brucks, for her insight.
Who Is Brandi Brucks?
Brandi Brucks is a potty training expert and co-owner of Your Village Consulting in Austin, Texas. From lactation to sleep training, nutrition and child development, this wonder team handles all kinds of parenting needs. Discover some of the most common potty training questions below!
When Should You Start Potty Training Your Kids?
Every child develops differently so there isn’t one particular age to start. I’ve trained children as young as 21 months, but that doesn’t mean every child is ready to start at that age. I like to start with children who are at least 2 ½ years old, but my preferred age to train is 2 ¾ years old.
How Do I Get My Toddler to Tell Me When They Need to Go to the Potty?
Until they are able to plan several minutes into the future, children aren’t quite capable of telling you they need to go to the bathroom. You can expect this to happen around age three.
How Do I Handle Messes Outside the Potty?
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Signs Your Child Is Ready to Be Potty Trained
You’re probably looking forward to changing your very last diaper, but is your child ready? Here are some signs your toddler is ready for potty training:
- They are able to put clothing on and take it off.
- They can walk and are ready to sit down.
- They can imitate your behavior.
- They show signs of independence by saying, “no.”
- They show an interest in potty training (by following you into the bathroom, for example).
- They indicate when they are going or need to go to the bathroom.
My Toddler's Resisting Potty Training and Had an Accident
This is part of the learning process. Take time to ask yourself why they didn’t want to go: Did I not give them enough time to finish playing before going? Are they not enticed by the reward? Are they tired? Did I use the right words?
This can help you change the process so you won't encounter the same resistance next time.
1. Give Your Child a Choice
Take note of how long your child went between potty times, so you can encourage them before an accident happens. This 10-minute warning is great, especially when it's paired with a choice: “It’s time to go potty soon. Would you like to bring the car or the train with you when it’s time?” If they answer me, it’s a “toddler agreement” that they’ll go to the bathroom soon.
If potty time is again met with resistance, remind them that the car gets to come and watch them go potty from the counter or floor. If they keep throwing a fit, then the car doesn’t come at all – and it’s still time to go potty.
If they’re still resisting, I use the “when/then” technique to get them excited about something else: “When you go potty, then we can have a snack outside in the yard! Do you want to bring a ball outside, too? What kind of snack do you want?” I try to be descriptive about how much fun they are going to have. Throwing in a couple of choices for their upcoming "fun time" helps to distract from not wanting to go to the bathroom.
2. Return to the Scene of the Crime
If there’s an accident, I show them what happened after it's been cleaned up. Speak simply and without guilt: “Look, pee pee got on the floor. That’s yucky. Where should the pee pee go?”
Once they tell me that it belongs in the potty, I have them stay in the room with me while I clean up the mess. I’m never mean – but I won’t let the child play until everything is cleaned up.
Stating something like this is often helpful, “This is really yucky! I wish we could be playing right now instead of cleaning. Next time, I know you’ll get all of your pee pee in the potty so we can keep playing!”
I Just Asked Them If They Needed To Go – Now They Had an Accident!
I never punish a toddler for making potty mistakes because they are learning something brand new. Potty training shouldn’t become stressful.
Children should, however, receive warnings of what will happen if they don’t use the potty, but this should happen long before something is taken away.
For example, if your child has peed in their playroom a few times, you could say, “I need you to put all of your pee pee in the potty, and right now it’s on your toys. If pee keeps going on your toys then I have to take the toys away for the day so they can get clean.”
What Are the Best Potty Training Tools?
Besides a potty seat, you don’t need much: just underwear and a reward (like stickers).
My favorite potty seat for training is the Baby Bjorn Toilet Trainer. I’m not affiliated with the company in any way: This just happens to be far superior to any other potty seat for toilets I have used.
I don’t recommend portable potty seats that sit separately from the toilet because they give children false expectations of what going to the bathroom may feel or sound like. Remember: You're going to transition your toddler to "the big toilet" at some point. You might as well start there at the beginning.
Should I Use Rewards or Stickers for Effective Potty Training?
Every time a child successfully uses the potty, reward them with an appropriate amount of treats. Consider what the child is motivated by. This can be candy, chips, raisins, berries, fruit snacks, goldfish, you name it. But it should be something small that you can give multiple times a day. I recommend one for every successful pee, two for every successful poop, and one sticker of their choice.
Different Children Want Different Rewards
Switch the reward if stickers aren't working. A lot of times, kids are intrinsically motivated by their favorite activities. Consider the following:
- “Oh you would like to play outside? When you pee on the potty, then we can go outside!”
- “You want to take out play dough? That sounds like fun. When you pee on the potty, then we can open the play dough.”
How Long Should a Toddler Sit on the Potty?
I want to avoid frustration or opportunities to try to push boundaries by wasting unnecessary time. I'd rather take a toddler to the bathroom several times in a row than have them sit on the toilet for 20 minutes at a time.
A good guideline: Have your child sit for about as long as it takes to sing the ABCs twice. If they haven’t gone in that amount of time, I’d remain positive and say something like, “Thank you for sitting so nicely on the potty and trying. We will come back in a minute when your body is ready.”
Should I Use a Potty Timer?
I don’t use – or recommend – the potty training timer method. Doing so only trains a child to pee in short intervals.
No toddler wants to stop playing whenever the timer goes off – and this can cause frustration. Transitioning from one activity to another can often be challenging for young children. And adding a timer to potty training only increases the number of transitions they’ll experience in their day.
It’s best to follow their lead and take them when they show signs they need to go. For example, if your child can hold it for at least an hour, then you should only take them to the bathroom once an hour.
How Can I Be a More Effective Potty Training Parent?
Potty training is a learning process for both kids and adults, especially when it comes to paying attention to your child’s body cues.
If your child is squirming and crossing their legs, it’s probably time to give them some bathroom reminders. You want to encourage them to make the choice first (before telling them “not going isn’t a choice”).
Adults also need to learn how long the child can “hold it.” If your child can hold it for 2 hours, relax a bit on the frequency of bathroom reminders. I always wait until a child really has to go to the bathroom before having them go, unless it's a daily transition where there isn’t a choice (like when you’re leaving the house, sitting down for lunch, or taking a nap).
Should My Child Be on Their Own During Potty Training?
Do you ever really want a toddler to do something completely unsupervised? Always assist your child until they’ve shown you that they can completely be trusted in the bathroom alone.
If your child is seeking independence, ask them ahead of time: “Do you want to get on the potty by yourself or do you want Mommy to help? Do you want Daddy to be in the bathroom with you, or do you want me to stand outside the door?”
Always let them try independently if they want to, and let them know you’re there to help if they want it.
Should I Potty Train in Underwear or Are Pull-ups/Diapers Okay?
I tend to potty train children in underwear, but I use pull-ups at night during this process (though I always put underwear over the pull-ups).
Using pull-ups and diapers takes longer and gives children mixed signals to keep wearing them during the day. Well, they’ve always been able to pee in them – it’s second nature! In my opinion, go straight to underwear!
How Can I Keep My Child Dry Overnight?
Staying dry overnight happens at different times for different children. There are, however, a few ways to encourage it.
Try limiting fluid intake two hours before bedtime. Have your child use the potty 30 minutes before bedtime and again right before they get into bed. If your child is thirsty, a few sips of water is fine, but a tall glass of water will likely result in a wet bed during the night.
How Can I Get My Child to Poop in the Toilet?
Any parent will tell you that getting a child to poop on the potty is much harder than getting them to pee. Pooping requires a certain level of comfort. After all, many adults have their favorite bathroom for that!
When a child poops in their diaper, we wrap it up and dispose of it like trash. Enter potty training: We’re now expecting children to go on the potty when they’ve never seen a bowel movement go in the toilet before.
I tell parents to start disposing of their child’s bowel movement in the toilet a few weeks before starting potty training. This way, kids can see where it goes and grow comfortable with this new information.
My Child Is Sick – Should We Start Potty Training Anyway?
No one is their best version of themselves when they are sick. Kids are no different. Wait until your toddler is feeling 100% before starting potty training.
Do You Have Tips for Potty Training Multiple Children?
If you're potty training triplets or twins: Don’t treat them like they’re the same person! This process is all about learning more about their OWN body and how it works. Multiples often do everything together, so I make it a point to celebrate their individual potty training successes separately.
If your children show signs they’re ready to start potty training at the same time, I suggest working with one child per day. This allows them to cheer each other on without creating competition or pressure to “keep up” with their sibling(s).
When Should I Be Concerned That My Child Isn't Potty Trained?
I’d start to be concerned if my child was 3.5 years old and not trained. At that point, it becomes more of a behavioral issue. Not all kids are going to show interest in potty training, and sometimes you have to just tell your kiddo that it’s time. It might be helpful to reach out to a child behavioral specialist, too.
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