The Secret to Potty Training…..

Whenever I start to feel guilty about the fact that I spent the majority of my Christmas vacation wearing my pajamas, I remind myself that I did in fact accomplish something very monumental, right there in my worn-out flannel bottoms and time-softened jersey shirt.  Well, rather, I should say my son accomplished something very monumental.  We cleared the first hurdle of potty-training.

Since mentioning this venture, I’ve had a few friends ask for my “secret” to potty training.

Now, let me say that I’ve now been to this dance with three boys, using the same method.  But just as you would expect with three different boys, I’ve had three different reactions.  I take comfort knowing that two of the three are fully and completely potty trained nonetheless, and I feel pretty confident that the third will arrive there as well.

My method is simple and common: Get a few pairs of undies that are particularly appealing to your child (for one son, this meant we had about 20 pairs in his drawer before finding the one pair that really got him on board).  Let your child choose between the diapers and undies.  For best results, block out as much time as you can to just be at home, with a potty chair in sight and little pressure on your time.  Be calm about mistakes, and enthusiastic about success. And then just roll with it.

That’s essentially my method.  But there are hundreds of different methods out there and millions of success stories to back them up.  To me, the method is less important.  The real secret is in the basic principles that need to be in place, around which a variety of methods can be successful.  Here are those principles, the real secret to potty training.

Principle 1.  It’s about your child’s control, not yours. 

A child is usually ready for potty training right at the peak of a developmentally driven desire for independence, control, and mastery.  This can be maddening at times, but it’s what pushes a child to develop self-help skills (like potty-training) as young children, and (hopefully) sets them on a path that keeps them from slurping up a bowl of Fruit Loops at 11 in the morning from the comfort of their parents’ basements at 35.

So the first principle is to recognize this drive for control and independence and use it properly.  You want your child to learn to address those basic toileting skills independently right?  Then stop trying to exert too much of your own control, and provide as much room as possible for your child’s own self-control.

This means letting your child choose.  It means letting your child choose whether or not to wear the undies and which undies to wear.  It might mean letting your child choose when to use the potty or which potty to use.  It means letting your child be the one to do the flushing.  It means asking if he/she needs to use the potty, rather than carrying them there and forcing them to sit. 

Avoid using methods of force where your child must sit on the potty until until using it, or where you put your child on the pot at pre-set intervals of time.  These methods are all about your control and do little to build your child’s own control.  Now of course, these methods may have “worked” for some, but they’re simply not the most effective or developmentally appropriate approaches.

As much as it most certainly involves you and absolutely requires your attention (and your towels, and your laundry detergent, and….) ultimately, it really is not about you.  You’re already potty trained.

Principle 2.  Failure is necessary.

The second principle of the secret is to remember that failure is necessary.  Your child will need to have a few “accidents” to be able to make all the right cause-effect connections and to recognize his/her own body’s signals and needs.  

Trying to constantly ”save” your child (and yourself) from the inconvenience of these accidents is tempting, but doesn’t help the learning process.  Failure is necessary.  So be ready for that.  Try to hang out in easily cleaned areas (on a spread out blanket, on tile, outside).  Have cleaning supplies at the ready at home and on the go. 

Being prepared and having appropriate expectations takes the edge off of the hassle.  And this is important, because as much as you want to enthusiastically reinforce your child’s accomplishments, it’s important to stay low-key about their accidents.  “Sometimes that happens when you’re learning.”  has a much better effect than, “Are you kidding me!?@?!?”

Avoid any method that endorses punishing accidents.  Your child will not magically develop better control over those sphincter muscles sitting in time-out or by watching your overly-emotional reaction.

Of course, that’s not to say that natural consequences can’t be a good teacher.  Some children learn from the discomfort of sitting in soggy britches.  Others learn that it’s more inconvenient to change clothes than it would have been to have left the toys for a minute to use the bathroom.  After an accident, that favorite pair of undies now needs to go in the wash.  Bummer.  (In some situations, that means we move on to the second-favorite pair.  Other times, it just means we go back to the diaper for a while.)  When appropriate, children can even grab a towel and get involved in the cleaning process, just one more natural consequence.

So those are my two main principles.  My big secret to potty training.  Hopefully they fit in with the method you use with the children you love and teach.

What are the “secrets” you’ve learned about potty training?

  • {For more information, check out this fantastic and comprehensive post on potty training by Lisa Sunbury at Regarding Baby: Toilet Learning Made Easy.  Also, check out this “Real Mums” conversation about a variety experiences with potty training over at Childhood 101.}

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20 Comments

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20 Responses to The Secret to Potty Training…..

  1. Shanon

    With all 3 of my girls I have spent one or two days running WITH them too the potty if they have an accident in their panties and simply telling them it needs to go in the potty, not on the floor. They sit there for just as long as they want then go back to playing. After these few days, if they don’t take over, we just go back to diapers until they show interest in doing it themselves with little help. Usually this only takes a couple weeks after I have showed them what needs to be done and then turn it over to them. When THEY are ready, I am their just to help when it is needed. My 3rd daughter did most of it herself and even told me when she was done wearing diapers at night and hasn’t had any nighttime accidents since, she is not even 2 1/2. I will admit, with my first one, I tried to force it on her and it took closer to 6 months to complete, but by the time I worked with my 3rd child, it took only a few weeks and she took care of most of it on her own. I was A LOT more patient with the 3rd and gave her all the control. Your “secrets” seem to be the ones I have used and have worked well in our home.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Shannon. Like you, I have also noticed that when the child isn’t yet ready enough to initiate the process or to be interested in it, the process is much more drawn out and frustrating — for all involved. That doesn’t mean we can’t do things that encourage their interest, but ultimately, they have to be very willing and active partners. Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Love this post! I have a 5yr old girl, and 2yr boy. My Daughter was in underpants by now, all on her own. We did the naked thing for a while, we had accidents. One day she made a decision and we literally had no more accidents in the day, and only a handful at night for a couple weeks. That was it! My son is a very different temperament, and we have loads of naked time and he can tell you “where” it goes, but still very little interest. He seems to me, that he’s upset with himself if he tries and nothing comes out. We just tell him it was really great he tried, and we’ll try again, and hi-five. It is SO remarkable to see how my two children process things differently, and how we have to adjust our approach, and response to that while maintaining the same projection of love and acceptance. Never learned so much in my life, as when I became a parent!

  3. Kim

    Great, laid back, empowering approach! I worked in a childcare for a decade and have watched hundreds of children master the potty on their own easily. Most girls catch on between 2.5 and 3, boys 3 to 3.5. Even if the parents started at home from18 months, these are the dates they learned successfully. We were banned at my center from the terms “potty training” and “accidents”. They were “toilet learning” and simply ” wet pants”.

    • Such an interesting observation that children tend to master the skill at generally the same age, regardless of when they began. Of course there are always outliers, but I think it shows that there is a developmental component that has to be respected. Thanks for sharing your terminology as well. Very mindful!

  4. Cali

    Thanks for your post. I agree a laid back approach is best. However, I’ve been potty training my son and with this laid back approach he’s decided pooping in his diaper at nap or bedtime (in a diaper) is easier then using the potty. After months of this I reluctantly decided to throw out the diapers. It has not been easy and I’ve been doing lots of laundry! He finally went #2 on the potty but is still holding because he’s afraid. I can’t figure out why or how to help him relax. He went in his pants a couple of times and we had to throw his favorite underwear in the trash. I’m really hoping the loss will motivate him! I’ve tried rewards and charts without success. He’s almost 3.5 years old.

    • Cali-
      I think Rachel gave you some great advice! One of my sons got the hang of using the toilet in just a few days…but BMs seemed to take weeks. Similar to Rachel’s advice, we put him in a diaper or pull up when he needed to poop. He knew to ask for it, and so he was obviously controlling it and being aware, but for some reason, he just wasn’t ready for the potty for that and would just hold it. It sounds like if your son waited until he had a diaper on, he too was aware and exerting control. So that’s a good thing! If you feel it’s time to go cold turkey, remember to be respectful about it and to take those baby steps.
      I also know that if you’re using a big potty and your child’s legs are dangling, it is harder to effectively have a BM. Use a small potty or bring in a step stool so that your son has something to put his feet against. This will help with the physiology of it all, but may also make him feel more secure and comfortable. I hope he gets the hang of it soon!

  5. @Cali- I’ve found that boys seem to have this thing about letting BM’s go in the toilet. 3 out of 4 of my boys were like this. What I’ve done is this:

    1) Go back to pull-ups temporarily. The stress of cleaning up dirty underwear is just not worth it; even if your son is disturbed by being dirty (all of my boys were) it’s not usually enough to motivate them long-term to use the toilet. You need to be calm to potty-train, and I don’t know too many people who can stay calm cleaning that up on a daily (at least) basis.

    2) Encourage him to make his BM in the bathroom. If he’s not too scared to go in the bathroom, then encourage him to stand in the bathroom every time he needs to make. The idea is that even if he’s not going on the potty, he can get used to making in the same room at least. If he’s too scared, let him go as close as he’ll go, and gradually encourage him to move closer to the bathroom, a few steps at a time, until he’s in the throne room.

    3) Use play to work out his fears. Help your son express his fears through pretend play with his dolls or action figures. The key to making this work is to pretend that you don’t care if your son is watching or not. Pretend you’re playing just for the fun of it.

    You can, for example, pretend the doll doesn’t want to go on the toilet, and ham it up. Have the doll refuse to go on the toilet, and say something silly or funny. Don’t ask your son to do play with you with you – he’ll notice what you’re doing, even if he’s just listening from across the room.

    You don’t have to have all the answers when you pretend play; the idea is to get the issue out on the table. Eventually he will join you, whereupon your goal is to just follow along with what he does. Don’t ask a bunch of why questions – just pretend you’re another kid and engage him.

    4) Praise him, but not overly so, about his progress. But DON’T mention anything about “soon you’ll be a big boy and go on the toilet every time.” That might be too scary and overwhelming for him. Just praise him matter of factly for what he’s done at the moment “That was great Devin. You made your BM in the bathroom. Do that again tomorrow too.”

    5) Stay relaxed. Even the vast majority of special needs children get trained eventually. There won’t be a box on his college application asking when he got potty-trained. Just believe that it WILL happen – because it will, eventually, and make peace with that.

    Good luck!

  6. Oh Amanda, I love this post and so appreciate you recommending my post on toilet learning. I appreciate the straight forward “telling it like it is” tone, and the acknowledgement that even though it’s really the child’s accomplishment, it somehow feels like a big deal for the adults too, which is maybe why I got SO many questions and comments on my post. It’s just so hard for us adults to step back and TRUST toddlers, sometimes. I wanted to tell you that today, J. , who will be three years old in just a few weeks, and has had no pressure to use the potty, (Aside from placing his potty chair in the bathroom, and occasionally asking him if he’d like to use it, his parents and I haven’t focused on potty learning much. We have read “Once Upon a Potty” together, and he does have a six year old sister who he follows into the bathroom all the time.) called to me from the bathroom to help him put his diaper back on because he had just pooped in the potty. His sister was in the living room sitting on the couch reading, and I was in the kitchen putting dishes away. J. knew what he needed to do, and did it. He was very matter of fact about the whole thing. I have to admit, it was quite a celebration when his parents came home from work and he told them about his success. It just underscores the fact that when children are ready, they’re ready, and it’s a much easier process for everyone if adults can manage to wait patiently for the right time.

  7. The most important thing I read was to not keep asking “do you need to go potty? Do you need to go potty now?”….because a toddler’s favorite word is “No”. Instead, as a reminder to them, ask “are you dry?” After his yes answer then praise him. It’s more about staying clean and dry than putting waste in the potty. It worked for us!

    • Great tip, Julie! I remember my mother-in-law giving this same advice. Rather than nagging them to go, I would sometimes just declare that I needed to go and ask if anyone needed to go with me. That seemed to work much better with one of my sons than asking him or telling him to go. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Alysia

    I’ve been telling everyone I did absolutely nothing over my holiday time-off and after reading this I realize I did do something! I too got my son (almost all the way) potty trained! Horray for us and horray for you! Thanks for the reminder. :)

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  14. Cheryl

    I am a home childcare provider and have been helping children toilet train for over 20 years. I believe most are not developmentally ready to be successful until about 30 months. Most, girls and boys, I start sitting backwards on the toilet so they are not so afraid of falling in, I never use a potty chair. Use lots of praise but not candy rewards.
    The biggest tip of all is RELAX!! Someone wise once told me “Relax, they don’t start school in diapers!” and this is true, they will develop at their own rate but will be pottying successfully by school age. (some will still have accidents)

    • notjustcute

      Good tips! Toileting is one of the first things young children get to control all by themselves. When we try to interfere with that control, it rarely goes well! It can be hard to be relaxed in the middle of it all, but it really is some of the best advice! I really think so much of it is about having the right perspective. It helps you to let go a bit, and really let them own it!

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