Written by Stacey Kelleher and Brandi Brucks.
Toddler potty training is an exciting milestone: What parent can’t wait to say “goodbye” to diapers? Now that most of us are following stay-at-home orders, we’ve got more time to invest in the process, but where do you start?
It seems like everyone has their own tips and tricks for potty training success. We reached out to our own resident childcare expert and author, Brandi Brucks, for her insight.
Potty training expert Brandi Brucks has a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from Simmons College in Boston. She’s a potty-training expert and co-owner of Your Village Consulting in Austin, Texas, a one-stop-shop for all parenting needs (from lactation and sleep-training to nutrition and child development).
In her best-selling book, Potty Training in 3 Days: The Step-by-Step Plan for a Clean Break from Dirty Diaper, Brucks shares her five-step plan for potty training success.
Because every child develops differently, 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 two and a half years old, and my favorite age to train is 2 ¾ years old.
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. That generally happens around age three.
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. Because you’re going to transition your toddler to the big toilet at some point, you might as well start there at the beginning.Besides a potty seat, you don’t need much: just underwear, stickers, and a reward.
Every time a child successfully uses the potty, I reward them with an appropriate amount of treat. 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.
Not all kids are interested in stickers – and that’s okay! Switch the reward if it’s not working. A lot of times, kids are intrinsically motivated by their favorite activities. Consider the following:
I don’t ask children to sit on the toilet for very long because I don’t want to cause frustration or give them an opportunity to try to push boundaries by sitting and wasting unnecessary time. I would 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 is to 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.”
Unfortunately, this is sometimes part of the learning process. I always reflect afterward and ask myself why they didn’t want to go: Did I not give them enough time to finish playing before pottying? Are they not enticed by the reward? Are they tired? Did I use the right words?
This line of questioning allows me to change my process so the same resistance isn’t met again next time.
I also take note of how long this child went between potty times, so the next time I can encourage them before an accident happens. This 10-minute warning is great, especially when 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 met with resistance again, I 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 and get pretty descriptive about how much fun they are about to have, and throwing in a couple of choices for their upcoming fun time helps to distract from not wanting to go to the bathroom.
If there’s an accident, I show them what happened after they’ve been cleaned up. Speaking simply – and without guilt – I state, “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 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 – long before you take something away.
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.”
I don’t use – or recommend – potty training timers. Doing so only trains a child to pee in short intervals.
No toddler wants to stop playing as frequently as the timer goes off, and this may cause them frustration. For young children, transitioning from one activity to another can often be challenging. 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.
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 daily transition where there isn’t a choice (like when we’re leaving the house, sitting down for lunch, or taking a nap).
Do we 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.
I tend to potty train children in underwear, but I use pull-ups at night during this process (though I always put underwear over top of the pull-ups).
I’ve found that using pull-ups and diapers takes longer. It gives children mixed signals to keep them in diapers or pull-ups during the day: They’ve always been able to pee in them – it’s second nature! In my expert opinion, go straight to underwear!
Staying dry overnight happens at different times for different children. There are, however, a few ways to encourage it.
You can limit fluid intake two hours before bedtime and 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.
Any parent who has gone through the potty training process 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 our 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.
Let’s face it: No one is their best version of themselves when they are sick. Kids are no different: I would definitely wait until your toddler is feeling 100% before starting potty training.
My biggest piece of advice for potty training multiples (e.g. twins, triplets) is this: Don’t treat them like they’re the same person! Potty training is about learning more about their OWN body and how it works. That process happens differently for every child.
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).
You’re probably looking forward to changing your very last diaper, but is your child ready? Here are some signs your toddler may be ready to potty train, from the American Academy of Pediatrics
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For more helpful tips on keeping babies happy and healthy, check out these earlier posts:
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