The Ultimate Guide to Potty Training

Everything you need to know, including the myths that can derail your best efforts.

You don’t need to be bullied by the clickbait: “Potty Train Your Child in 3 Days.” Or feel two inches tall when Daycare Dad regales you with his twelve-month-old’s miraculous week of self-taught potty training. This may be the first of a lifetime of milestones in which your child flips the script, teaching you that bodies and brains often respond in structured patterns — and often not.

Potty training from a developmental perspective is a benchmark: Can your child perform a task that’s ostensibly “adult”? Can they listen to instructions and assume responsibility for their body? With success comes a profound sense of childlike autonomy, independence, and even self-esteem, so how to achieve it?

Step 1: Are They Ready?

Common wisdom veers in two directions: Potty-train when family circumstances or tradition deems it appropriate for a child to use the toilet or potty-train when your child makes it evident that diapers are no longer their favored option. As it turns out, a study in Pediatrics & Child Health asserts that no toilet training method currently exists as the epitome of methods. Instead, the American Academy of Family Physicians established a list of signs that will signal readiness:

  • Your child communicates a dirty diaper or discomfort.
  • Shows interest in using the toilet or wearing underwear.
  • Stays dry for at least 2 hours during the day.
  • Pulls pants down and then up again.
  • Understands and follows basic instructions.
  • Goes to a specific (often private) spot to go to the bathroom.

Myth: Potty-training must begin after a child’s first birthday.

Fact: Theoretically, no child is too young to potty train. In fact, Dr. Sydney Spiesel, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale University’s School of Medicine. makes the claim that tiny tots as young as 4 to 5 months living closer to the equator might potty train at younger ages than those farther from the equator (for obvious reasons). Similarly, three-year-olds often continue to work on potty training, and many continue to have accidents at night and during the day until they are 5 or 6. Choosing to begin potty training is, in many ways, up to you and the developmental readiness of your kid.

Step 2: Prepare

Drop the pretense of modesty for a few weeks and invite your kid to join you in an act of transparency, if they don’t already view the bathroom as an open invite. Make your child feel comfortable. Talk about “poop” and “pee,” simple words that they’ll have to use to communicate their own needs. Read books about going to the bathroom and be prepared to read those same books while your child makes their attempts. It’s a simple way to keep them on the toilet longer while also continuing to model and instruct.

Then buy a kid-sized seat cover or separate potty chair, often more than one if there are multiple bathrooms throughout the house. The goal is to get your child comfortable with the chair, fully clothed and unclothed. Forced time isn’t necessary, but you may even go as far as to place the contents of a dirty diaper into the potty chair or toilet.

Myth: If a child expresses a need to use the toilet, they should sit until they finish.

Fact: Adults won’t sit indefinitely if the need passes, and children’s bodies are no different. A few minutes is enough to gauge the interest level and ability for your child to go. Stopping and communicating that you’ll try again later is expected and healthy, although children will often have accidents when coming off the toilet in the early days of training. Sometimes this is from anxiety surrounding the pressure of sitting on the toilet, and other times it’s simply an accident. You’ll learn to tell the difference.

Step 3: Establish a Routine

Ideally, you’ll begin potty training during a time of stability without overlapping major life changes (i.e. big moves, new babies, divorces) and sometimes life is unavoidable. Either way, scheduling time on the potty roughly every two hours makes it more likely for your child to experience both the sensation and success of going on the potty.

Most children have a bowel movement once a day, usually within an hour after eating. And most children urinate within an hour of a large drink. Use these times to watch for signals of needing to make a pit stop but actively placing your child on the potty at regular intervals, as often as every 1 ½ to 2 hours, will increase the chances of catching them at an opportune time.

Praise your child for successes but refrain from expressing disappointment if they don’t succeed. Patience is truly rewarded in this parenting rite of passage.

Myth: Rewarding children for using the potty is frowned upon because it makes it a negotiable activity and decreases a child’s sense of responsibility.

Fact: The effectiveness of rewards is often dependent on the individual child. If your child is already interested and excited — motivated— to work toward a goal like potty training, rewards are likely unnecessary from a motivational perspective. However, rewards are likely to increase motivation if a child is not vested in the activity. Smaller rewards along the way send the valuable message that effort and progress matter. You may also rely on “intangible” rewards such as praise or non-verbals like hugs, high fives, and thumbs-up.

No matter your approach, potty training is almost always messy. In reality, it takes time to make the connection between physiological signals and placing the body on an accessible toilet. Training underpants might make accidents less stressful, but the accidents themselves are not a problem. Even kids who have seemingly mastered potty training often regress for short spurts of time and require gentle re-teaching. But if the parental anxiety is too much, simply check in with your family’s pediatrician to ask the questions and receive the advice that will leave you feeling assured.


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