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Potty Training Part 2: How To Potty-Train Your Child

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


potty-trained-mainIn our last blog on this topic, we talked about the signs of readiness for potty training. These signs are important, so if you haven’t read it: go back and look!

If it looks like your child is showing many signs of readiness, the next question is: how do you help her learn how to use the potty?

There are as many different ways to approach potty training as there are different cultures. In the US, we typically have a very relaxed approach, and we hope that toilet training is an accomplishment of the child, not the grownup. As grownups, we are facilitating the process and giving the right opportunities, but it is the child’s task and decision to willingly start using the potty.

One important note: this post discusses daytime potty training, which is a learned behavior.  The ability to stay dry while asleep is ruled by physiology, and for most children will occur much later, sometimes even years after they have learned to use the potty during the day.  For now, continue to diaper your child for nap time and overnight.  We’ll talk more in a later post about when to ditch the diaper completely.

Here are some best practices:

  • Pick a time when the child and one or both parents are ready and can be at home for a few days (even as short of a period as a weekend).
  • Pick a time in which the environment and routine are stable and predictable.  Avoid starting potty training before a life event such as moving to a new home, the birth of a sibling, beginning or changing day care or preschool, or a nap transition.
  • Start to read books to your child about kids who learn how to use the potty.  Feel free to change the words in the books to use the vocabulary and routines that your family has agreed on, or to explain in more detail than the book provides about what happens in the bathroom.  Some books we particularly like are “P is for Potty” (featuring Elmo!), and the “Teddy Bear Potty Book.”
  • It’s easier to learn a behavior if you have actually seen it done before.  If this comfortable for your family, have the child accompany adults or other potty-trained children in the bathroom to see what happens there. Start to explain the steps to your child. You might say something like: “Mommy is sitting on the big potty, relaxing all the muscles that hold in the pee pee, and then the pee comes out.  Then she wipes from front to back, pulls the underwear back up, and flushes the toilet.  Now Mommy washes her hands.  One day you will be going pee pee in the potty like Mommy.” Notice that we say “one day” as opposed to being specific about when it’s going to happen.
  • If your child is interested in the potty, have him sit on the potty for a few minutes without a diaper on every two hours or so.  Praise him for sitting on the potty even if he does not go, and also say “one day you will make pee pee and poopy in this potty.”
  • If you are comfortable with this idea, after a couple of days of just “sitting on the potty,” you can try leaving your child bare-bottomed in the house (at least for a couple of hours in the morning). Many children learn extremely quickly when they are allowed to go bare-bottomed: no underwear, pull ups, training pants, pants, or socks.  Crank up the heat and close the blinds! You can have your child in the kitchen or somewhere else in your home where accidents will not be so hard to clean up.
  • Accidents are going to happen! Be sure not to shame your child when this happens.  Instead say something like: “Pee pee is happening! Let’s get you cleaned up.” Also, it is helpful to prepare your house (and yourself) for accidents: set up activities in the kitchen, close off any rooms that are difficult to clean, and cover furniture with towels. If your child gets worried about an accident, just say: “That is ok! Next time we will try to make pee in the potty.” Act very matter-of-fact. Clean up and just move on with your day.
  • If you’re uncomfortable with your child being bare-bottomed, or your child doesn’t like the idea, your child should use underwear.  Pull-ups are so absorbent these days that they act like a diaper, and if your child does not feel wet, there is not much incentive to go in the potty.
  • During the learning process, it can be helpful to have salty snacks and lots of water available for your child to eat and drink. This way she will have to go potty more often and she can practice more.
  • If your child has been consistently using the potty at home for a week or two, then make the switch during the day to underwear or cotton training pants, including days when you’re planning on leaving the house. Putting a child in diapers and then expecting her to use the potty can send a mixed message about what behavior she should be doing.
  • Learning to use the potty after two or more years of using diapers is a huge achievement!  Call or video-conference with family members or friends that your child is comfortable with to share the good news, and for your child to receive congratulations.

What if you thought your child was ready to learn, but things do not go as planned?  This is a very common anxiety for parents.  If it turns out that your child is not ready to learn, just stop potty training for a few weeks and then reevaluate. You can still, when appropriate, say to your child that “one day, when you are ready, you will go pee pee and poopy in the potty like Mommy and Daddy.”

It’s also very common for a child to excel at potty training at the beginning, and then experience setbacks.  We’ll address setbacks in a future post.

The most important thing to remember is that this is a huge behavioral change for your child, and one that she is in charge of.  This process can take time and an enormous amount of patience from the parents!  Being as relaxed as possible will help your child feel less anxious about this change.

In our next post on this topic, we’ll talk about best practices for leaving the house during potty training.  Our final post will cover nighttime and nap time dryness as well as how to handle common potty training setbacks.


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