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Is your child ready for potty training? Look out for these signs!

By Cecilia Matson, MA, Child Development Expert and Stacey Jackson Flammia, MLA, Adult Learning and Development Specialist. 
Galoop – Child Development Classes for Babies and Toddlers and Expert Advice for Caregivers
Coolidge Corner, Brookline, MA



smart-potty-steadyThe million-dollar question: how do I know when my child is ready to use the potty? Do I go by her age? By her language skills? Should I wait until the weather gets warmer?

Let’s start with some of the signs to look for that will help you figure out if your child is ready to start potty training:

  •  Nesting behavior: Does your child like to place things where they belong? It is interesting to see how toddlers go through a stage in which they become a little more “tidy”: they like to put things back in their places, and they also imitate you doing so. This sign is not always there, but if you do notice it, this can be a sign that they’re ready and willing to put urine and bowel movements where they belong, too.
  • Ability to follow directions: Can your child understand and follow simple directions? And even a couple of directions given together in a sequence? (For example, “Can you put the book back in the bookshelf?” Or, “Can you get your shoes and bring them over to Mommy?”) The ability to follow directions is key to starting potty training. If your child is not able to follow two simple directions in a sequence, it might be wise to wait on potty training until she is able to do so.
  • Understanding basic concepts: Can your child understand concepts such as “seat,” “clean/dirty,” “wet/dry,” “go?” These are important concepts you should feel confident your child understands before starting potty training.
  • Verbal skills: Is your child able to verbally communicate her needs with you? At a minimum, she should be able to communicate with basic language skills and gestures. Full, perfectly-formed sentences are not required, but wonderful if present.
  • Diaper predictability: Does your child have a “regular” schedule to go in his diaper? If you can tell for the most part when your child is wetting or filling his diaper, then his diaper schedule is mostly predictable. And, if you can predict when his bowel movements occur, even better. Another important point related with this is the frequency. Ideally, a wet diaper every couple of hours or longer is a good schedule to start toilet training. However, if your child goes too often (every hour or less) it might be better to hold off for a bit longer.
  • Movement: Is your child over the excitement of walking and being on the move? If your child is a recent walker, it is natural for her to be excited about walking around and moving. It might be wise to wait a little bit until she is able (and willing) to sit down for some periods of time.
  • Agreeable stage: Is your child using and acting on words such as “mine” and “no” a lot (a stage called “negativism” that comes and goes during the toddler years), or is she in a more agreeable stage? As you can probably tell, it is better to wait for the more agreeable stage before starting potty training.

If most of these signs are present, your child is ready to start potty training. In our culture, even when we help our child with toilet training, we hope it is his/her achievement. So, try to resist any pressure to potty train your child that may come from other sources (preschool, day care, grandparents, or friends). And to answer the question about warm weather, it is easier to make it to the potty on time when you don’t have to take off too many layers of clothing!

We will address the actual process for potty training in our next blog, but for now, if you think your child is ready, you can start preparing for potty training by doing these things:

  • Buy a potty for your child. You could do this a couple of ways, depending on her personality. If she needs time to warm up to new ideas, buy the potty by yourself and place it on the floor in your bathroom. You can explain that the potty is for her, and that she will start using it soon (the same way that the big toilet seat is for Mommy and Daddy, and they use it when they go potty). You can let her sit on it if she wants to, even with her clothes on. Have it out for a week or so before actually suggesting she uses it to go to the bathroom.
  • If your child tends to be very agreeable in personality, you can build excitement around potty training by taking him to the store and having him either pick out a potty or witnessing the purchase of the potty. Then you can put it in the bathroom together.
  • Come to an agreement with all caregivers about what the bathroom routine will be, and what vocabulary to use for body parts and each step of the routine. In our culture, we tend to shy away from using the actual names of body parts.  However, using the correct terms without discomfort can be extremely helpful to your child’s ability to understand and explain what is happening in his body both during potty training and throughout his life.
  • If this is comfortable for your family, have the child accompany adults or other potty-trained children in the bathroom to see what happens there. It’s hard to learn a new behavior if you’ve never seen it done before!
  • Identify family members or friends who would be willing to congratulate your child over the phone, Skype, or FaceTime during the first couple of days that she uses the potty.
  • Consider switching to cloth diapers sometime before potty training, since it can help children understand what happens when they eliminate.

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