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How to Potty Train – Tips for Boys and Girls
“How early should I introduce my kids to the potty?” “My son/daughter is so stubborn! What are some effective ways to get him/her to use the potty?” If you’re the parent of a toddler, you may have asked yourself this.
This complete guide on potty training is not about doing things fast—it’s about the smart way to potty train. It will help you develop your own system for potty training your kid, twins, little girl, or baby boy. Begin here, but adapt the rules to the child’s personality.
With flexibility, you’ll be starting to see good results more quickly than you would have ever imagined!
Is there really a magic number?
The short answer is no. There is no ‘one-size fits-all’ solution to potty training.
Several reputable sources, including the Mayo Clinic, explain that potty-training done right always takes into account each child’s developmental particularities. It’s important to make sure that the kid is both physically and emotionally ready for this big step.
Many children are physically ready to undertake potty training, before they’re emotionally prepared. This is a situation that you, as a parent, should avoid, since forcing a child to act “like a big boy/girl” before they’re ready to do it could end up prolonging the process and making it needlessly stressful for everyone involved.
That being said, the Mayo Clinic says that most kids show interest in potty training around the age of 2. However, some might prove prepared by 18 or 20 months. Others, still, don’t become interested in it until 2 ½ years old—possibly even later. WebMD cites 22 to 30 months as the time around which most kids become trainable.
A good time to ask questions about your child’s development (including potty training) is during one of your regular checkups with the pediatrician. If you’re at all concerned, the 2-year visit with your family doctor is a time to address your worries. If, by age 4, your child still isn’t using the toilet, you’re best advised to talk to a professional.
Is it time to ditch the diaper?
When considering potty training, never forget that each child is unique. You can (and should) look for physical signs that they want to start training, but don’t discount for the importance of emotional readiness either. Here are some common ‘hints’ that your kid might able to start going potty:
Bowel and bladder control:
- They have bowel movements around the same time each day;
- They don’t have bowel movements at night;
- They wake up from a nap with a dry diaper;
- They are aware of bowel movements and express this through grunting, squatting, or facial expressions;
- They don’t soil or wet their nappy for at least 2 hours at a time.
It is rare for a child to develop bowel and bladder control before the age of 18 months.
Basic verbal and motor skills:
- They can talk. Verbalization is particularly important: your kid should be able to express where they want to go, understand and follow basic instructions, show some form of interest in the toilet, and also be curious about wearing underwear instead of diapers;
- They climb and hold items on their own. Going potty like a big kid involves being able to climb a toilet, sit on it upright, grab toilet paper, flush, and rise from the toilet;
- They are able to get undressed by themselves – how would you expect them to go potty if they can’t pull their pants up and down on their own?
Some kids will even start talking about wearing underpants like a big boy or girl before you do. Others will simply cooperate with your ‘big kid’ instructions. Some will tell you when their diaper is dirty and needs to be changed. Many will go through a stage where they enjoy being neat and tidy and are also quick and eager to please. These are all good signs they’re emotionally ready to start potty training.
Resist giving into pressure from your family or friends that your child has to be potty trained by a certain age. There’s no deadline to meet for potty training, nor is it healthful to enforce such standards to get the kid into daycare. Toilet training should absolutely not be forced, nor should it be negative. Avoid power struggles, which are only going to make the experience unpleasant, for both you and the child.
If, for instance, you’re pregnant, have a 2 year-old, and want to avoid having two kids in diapers at the same time, you’re going to have to think about this long and hard. Similarly, just because you have twins, don’t assume they’re both ready for training, if one twin shows signs to this effect. Some children, such as sufferers of autism, are never potty trained (while other autistic kids master this skill just as easily as a ‘normal’ peer would).
By and large, if your kid says ‘no’ to most of the things you ask them to do, the time is probably not right for them just yet. Other signs they’re definitely not ready:
- They actually tell you “no potty”;
- They start crying and screaming when you take them to the potty;
- They go near the potty, but still use the floor to ‘go’;
- They look comfortable in a soiled diaper.
Your kid has to want to use the toilet or potty. Also, some kids will show initial excitement, only to rescind later on. Don’t get discouraged and try again in a couple of months’ time.
Be especially careful with kids who have recently experienced stress and/or major life changes, such as moving house, a divorce, the arrival of a sibling, or anything of the sort. Just because a kid doesn’t seem to care much about using the toilet today, this doesn’t mean they will still be opposed to the idea in a couple of months, or even weeks.
Sometimes, stress will even affect kids who had already started potty training and seemed to be doing well. Don’t panic if a kid suddenly starts struggling with it—simply resume the training at a time when the kid is once again stress-free, in a stable environment. Potty training regression can be an absolutely normal part of the process.
Take all the signs above into consideration before you decide if the time has come for your kid to get potty trained. You can also take this potty readiness quiz by Parents Magazine.
How long does potty training last?
Toilet training usually lasts around three months. Although this is not a rule set in stone, girls will usually be trained earlier than boys, as is also the case with other cognitive development milestones. A kid is considered fully trained when they know it’s time to use the toilet by themselves—and actually do it. Usually, by the age of 3, most kids will be potty trained.
That said, your kid will probably still require some help with wiping themselves until around the age of 4 or 5. They will also need help and maybe even comforting in unknown restrooms (at restaurants, on trips, or during visits) until ages 5-6.
Most kids will continue to experience daytime ‘accidents’ until around the age of 5. As for wetting the bed at night, the average 3 yr. old does this once a month and such incidents can continue for around 12 months after being fully potty trained. Some children even experience sporadic slip-ups into their school years.
Preparing for potty survival
If you think the time has come for your kid to start potty training, there are plenty of tools and resources to arm yourself with. Here’s a handy checklist for you:
As explained above, this process takes time and is definitely not something that you and the little tyke are going to achieve overnight—no matter how determined either one of you is.
Make sure you teach the kid all the bathroom-related words they need for using the toilet. Use simple language and instructions that they understand. Allow them to use words such as “poo”, “poop” or “pee”, if they’re more comfortable with them, but also teach them the proper words. Talk to them about the bodily processes involved and explain them so that the child can understand.
Always speak about the child using the toilet with great enthusiasm and in positive terms. In time, they will develop a genuine interest in using it, “just like the big kids do”.
Remember that accidents can and will happen, as will near-misses. To help keep your home clean and the laundry load at a bare minimum, you can try one or several of the following tips:
- Gently remind your child to go. Teach your child the importance of regular visits to the bathroom of potty breaks. Good times for such trips include: after eating and/or drinking, before bedtime, before getting into the car, first thing in the morning, before going out of the house, etc.
- Calmness is of the essence. From time to time, your kid will get so caught up in an activity they enjoy that they simply forget to go. Other times, they can’t go, for objective reasons. These accidents don’t happen because they’re ill-intentioned and want to annoy you. As such, please avoid punishing, shaming, or scolding them. Take a proactive attitude and tell them they’ll remember to go next time.
- Know your child. Some children will be more prone to such accidents than others. If this is the case with yours, you might want to consider absorbent underwear, or at least bringing along a change of underwear.
That being said, it’s important to understand that sometimes frequent accidents can be a sign that something bigger is wrong. They can also expose your kid to being teased, or even bullied.
If your kid, especially after the age of 4, seems to be losing ground on their potty training, make sure to talk to a specialist. They could be experiencing psychological trauma, or have a serious physiological issue, such as a UTI or over-active bladder.
A positive attitude
Chances are, you, too, are going to experience setbacks, obstacles, and delays. Most of the time, these will be absolutely normal—for instance, when a kid experiences an illness. Take heart and try not to worry too much, since this is unlikely to help anyone.
Some kids will experience delays in the process of being potty trained, like want to “hold it” for too long, or return to wearing diapers. This doesn’t mean that your efforts have entirely failed and should be abandoned, but rather that you should probably lay off the heavy duty training for a while.
Other kids might take an interest in their own stool, what with all the focus on their potty training. Do not freak out if you catch your child doing this, as it’s absolutely normal behavior. Reinforce the idea that stool is not a toy and teach them to flush it down the toilet—they’ll probably find this fun.
Kids have a natural impulse to explore various types of textures and you can satisfy this need by encouraging them to play with clay, finger paints, or Play-Doh.
It’s equally normal for children who are exposed to potty training to get curious as to where urine and stool come from, and start exploring their genital areas. Do not shame children for doing this, but explain this is something to be done in private.
All of the above are helpful tips for all of your child’s caregivers, including grandparents, sitters, nannies, teachers, and relatives. Single moms of boys might also consider enlisting the support of a male role model figure, such as a trusted uncle or grandparent, so that their little guy can see just what he needs to do in the bathroom.
It’s not a good idea to start potty training during times of numerous, intense changes, or stress. If you’re going away on vacation soon, are experiencing relationship problems, are remodeling, or having house guests, you should probably postpone it to a more stable, calmer time.
Equipment for potty training
These days, there’s a gadget, app, and resource for anything—and potty training makes no exception. Here are some items you might want to consider investing in:
A potty chair
Take your kid along on a shopping trip and help them select a potty that they will like. Make sure it is sturdy, comfortable, and the kid likes it. Let the kid move the potty around, to get used to it. Explain that this is there special chair, for pooping and peeing, and that they’ll soon use the toilet, like the grownups.
Potty seats should be placed in the bathroom, or in the room your kid spends most of her time. Some kids will want to go potty in the same room as the grown-ups: these are usually the kids who have already expressed some interest in the toilet.
It’s an equally good idea to place the potty in the kid’s room, to allow him/her to get used to its presence. No matter where you place the potty, you will want to make sure your kid can safely reach the floor with her feet, or place a sturdy stool under her feet.
It’s also a good idea to encourage the kid to personalize their own potty. You might want to avoid having them draw on it, as this might let them know they can draw on any household item. Stickers are usually a good option, but so is allowing them to write their own name on it.
Toilet seat reducer
Some kids will be comfortable with using the toilet right from the get-go, and this convenient little item is great for them. Others will start out by using the potty chair and move up to seat reducer level, while others will use them alternatively. To reduce the toilet seat to a kid-friendly size, you can try a seat-reducer.
Most come in fun, colorful designs, as well as with padding, to make your child feel more comfortable. While some are leave-on (a problem for homes with a single toilet), most can be easily removed and stored away.
It’s a great idea to have a small, sturdy stool made of plastic or wood in the bathroom. Boys who are just learning to pee standing up can use them for better aim. Your kid can push into the stool during a bowel movement. Finally, they’ll help the child reach the sink to wash their hands.
If you’re looking to avoid cluttering up the bathroom, you can use special potties, like the ones from Safety 1st, which can also be used as stools.
Toilet paper and/or flushable wipes
We probably don’t need to explain why it’s good to have toilet paper handy by the toilet. Just as important for kids in potty training is a pack of flushable wipes. They’ll teach kids to wipe properly after a bowel movement, without any chafing or residue.
To boot, flushable wipes already look familiar to them, thanks to their resemblance to baby/diaper wipes. They might be a tad more expensive, but they’re a good item to have around—and they don’t clog your drain either.
This item will teach your kids how to wash their hands properly, immediately after going number 1 or number 2. Consider a child-friendly soap and even think of taking the little one along when buying it, in order to create a positive, fun association between your little one and handwashing.
Child-friendly soaps are colorful, smell nice for kids, and create plenty of bubbles—which the little ones love. If splurging on them is not an option, then you can always go online and look for a DIY recipe to make your own ‘brand’, right at home.
‘Big kid’ underwear
Your goal is to create positive associations in your child, regarding all aspects of potty training. This also includes the underwear selection. Some kids will be especially motivated by the idea of transitioning to an activity that big kids also do. Along the same lines, wearing the right kind of undies will make them feel very proud of themselves and motivated to ‘get the job done’.
If you have the time (and the patience), take the potty trainee with you to the store and let them pick out their first pack of underwear. Make it colorful, with characters and designs they like, and encourage them to replace the diapers with these new, exciting items.
For a while there, as you potty train the little one, you’re going to want to steer clear of any clothing that needs to be untied (drawstring pants), unzipped, or otherwise taken off with some degree of difficulty (rompers, overalls, leotards, etc.). Swift and easy does the job, for now.
Your kid is still learning how to recognize the signs of wanting to go potty—so aim for clothing that is easy to take off, either by yourself or the child.
After several weeks of potty training, your kid is going to be ready to stop wearing diapers and finally move on to regular underwear with training pants. For kids still learning nighttime bladder control, it might be a good idea to use disposable training pants in the process. This is a more complex skill to master and the process can take as long as a few years.
The thing with training pants is that they work similarly to diapers. That is, they absorb the moisture, but still allow the child to feel the wetness, so they can become aware that they’ve wet themselves. Since nighttime training pants need to be worn for longer (8 to 10 hours at a time), they are more absorbent than their daytime counterparts.
Both daytime and nighttime training pants come in disposable and re-usable (washable) models. Some families will need them while potty training their little ones, while others will find that they’re stalling the transition from diapers to big kid underpants. If you suspect the latter might be your case, avoid using this ‘crutch’.
As she goes through the process of being potty trained, it’s useful for your child to see, record, and understand the progress she’s making. You can either buy one online, off a platform like Etsy, or download a free template and let your child decorate it. Whatever you choose, the goal is simply to have a clear view of the progress being made.
Once your kid is wearing regular underwear or training pants, you might be tempted to think that their potty training is officially over. However, for most kids, learning bladder control during the night can go on to take several more years. In the meantime, the last thing you want is to waste countless hours trying to take care of an irreparably soiled mattress.
To avoid irreparably soiling your mattress, you can try using mattress covers. The best kind has a waterproof vinyl layer and a soft cotton top and can fit snugly over the corners of the bed. Pro tip: buy at least two.
Other handy items
Once you’ve gotten the basic products down pat, you might also consider investing in some extra items:
- Several sets of sheets. Take it from experienced parents: the best way to deal with a soiled sheet in the middle of the night is to simply remove it and tuck the kid back in with the second sheet, that’s already been laid out. The middle of the night is not a good time to have to make the bed all over again.
- Cleaning supplies. A cloth rag or two, paper towels, disinfectant—they’ll all come in handy when you deal with near-misses and accidents.
- A potty timer. You can use a regular old kitchen egg timer, or the alarm function on your phone—but, if you’re so inclined, you can also invest in a dedicated item, for timing your tot’s potty breaks.
- Extra instructions and trainer support. The UK’s Supernanny has a great article on regression here. Dr. Phil sells a book on potty training in one day (hint: it can’t really be completed in a single day) here. Dr. Suzanne Riffel has written about and implemented the Potty Training Boot Camp, which you can learn more about here. Here’s a handy list of the best potty training videos, video DVD materials, books, and more. Two reputed child psychologists offer a free, printable pdf file with instructions for parents here.
- Rewards. While the best rewards for potty training are immaterial (positive words, exciting activities), you can also opt for kid-friendly candy (i.e. the low sugar kind) or delicious fruit snacks. Bigger goals, like successfully going potty many times in a row, several accident-free days can warrant bigger rewards.
Methods for mastering the potty
As is the case with the age issue, there is also no single ‘best method’ to potty train a child. There are, however, some which have shown better results, are better rated, or have gotten better reviews than others. Check out the strategies, techniques, and tips below, try them out, and see which one works best for your child.
Show and tell
It’s important to make sure that the child understands what the toilet is for. For parents who plan on using a potty chair, you can also dump the contents of a dirty diaper in the potty. If you’re comfortable with them seeing an adult partly naked, let them watch a family member when they use the toilet. Some kids will naturally be curious about this and they’ll want to know what goes on in the bathroom.
It’s usually a good idea to start out boys’ toilet training by sitting down. Once they’ve completely mastered bowel training, they can move on to peeing while standing up. Also, teach girls to wipe correctly, from the front to the back, to avoid bringing germs from the rectal area to the vulva or bladder.
Watch out for non-verbal cues: if you notice your child squirming (if they ‘dance’ in their own seat), if you see them squatting, or holding on to their genital area, teach them to drop everything they’re doing and go potty. Teach them to watch out for such signs on their own and learn to recognize them. Tell them they are the ones who get to decide if they want to use the toilet.
Have your kid sit on the toilet or the potty for a few minutes every day, with or without their diaper on, and only if they show interest in this. It’s important to have the kid develop a positive association with the toilet, so don’t force them, if they’re not yet ready. Similarly, only let a child sit on the potty for 5 minutes at a time, unless they desperately need to go.
Sit with the kid, read a potty training book, watch a fun video together (like the Potty Poodle, he needs to learn to use the toilet, too!), or let them play with a favorite toy while on the potty. Even if they only sit there, make sure to praise them. Try to be as consistent as possible, and consider taking a potty seat or port-a-potty with you even on vacation, when you travel for the weekend, and on visits.
Other useful tips and tricks for successfully making a child feel more comfortable around toilets include:
- Let the child take the lead. In time, your kid will naturally take an interest in using the toilet. When they do, follow their lead and let them be the ones to take initiative.
- Use clothing that is easily put on and removed. Velcro fasteners and elastic waistbands are your friends. Your enemies are overalls and one-piece outfits while you’re potty training your child.
- Make sure the child feels safe. Some kids will worry that they might fall into the toilet. Get them a safe, kid-friendly toilet seat, and allow them to sit facing the tank (if they prefer this alternative).
- Teach little boys how to pee. At first, as they pee sitting down, some little boys might have to push down on their penis, to have the urine come out into the toilet bowl, not over the seat. Then, as they grow taller, they will learn how to pee standing up—and might need a step stool, for better aim. ‘Target practice’ using cheerios, or other flushable targets might also do the trick.
- Teach kids to wipe properly. This will take longer than potty training kids: most will still require help with this until around ages 4-5. To make sure they’re wiping the right way, you might want to keep a pack of baby wipes by the toilet. These get the job done thoroughly and also help avoid chafing.
- Teach kids how to flush. While most kids will find this fun, some can get scared of the noise and/or the suction sound. You can help them out by flushing it yourself, after the kid has left the bathroom. In time, they will get over the fear and learn how to flush.
- Teach kids to always wash their hands after using the toilet or potty.
Rewarding a job well done
It’s important to constantly praise your kid and reinforce their progress during the potty training process. Here are some ideas and advice for perks and other forms of positive reinforcement:
Progress charts. Some kids really like the idea of getting a star, or any other kind of funky, colorful sticker, to stick to a progress chart.
Positive words. The idea here is to convey a sense of positive excitement to the child and encourage them for learning to use the toilet, just like a bigger kid would. Maintain this sense of positivity even during trips to the toilet that prove less successful.
Exciting events. Reward your child with an activity you know they enjoy. This could be a trip to the park, an extra story at bedtime, or 10 more minutes spent watching cartoons. Be particularly celebratory when your kid is finally ready to stop wearing diapers. Allow them to choose their own underwear that day (or their training pants).
Special activities. Run an online search and you’ll find a virtually limitless array of books, DVDs, and toys (puppets, dollies, and more) that cheerfully sing silly songs about going number 2. Your child might find all, any, or some of these entertaining.
Screen time. Handle this one with care: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 get no screen time at all, while older kids get no more than 2 hours per day. That said, if you do hand over your tablet or smartphone for your little one to use while they go potty, make sure the device is safe in a waterproof case and protective screen cover. If you’re feeling particularly splurge-prone, you can actually buy an iPotty, which comes with a special iPad holder.
Potty targets. Little boys who are learning to pee standing up might need a bit of an incentive to aim at the bottom of the bowl or potty and not at the walls. You can buy a special target, which goes to the bottom of the potty, or use a cheaper alternative—basically anything that can be soaked, as described above.
Avoiding the morning surprise
Here’s the honest truth: there’s no 100% foolproof way to completely avoid nighttime accidents. For kids under the age of 5 they are completely normal and they happen to the majority. Nighttime and daytime potty training are two completely different animals and will happen in completely different rhythms.
Do you know why we, as adults, know to wake up in the middle of the night to go pee—instead of, say, wetting the bed? It all boils down to two skills that toddlers simply don’t have, but which they do develop in time:
- Sphincter muscle control. Babies pee around the clock, until around the age of 18 months. At this age, they start developing the ability to ‘hold it’; however, this is an entirely involuntary physiological development that they can’t be rushed into.
- Cognitive abilities. When adults wake up at night, it’s because their bladder sends a signal to their brain that it’s time to use the toilet. In time, toddlers learn to make the same association and develop this signaling mechanism.
Meanwhile, any accident that occurs at night is just that—an accident. As a parent, you will need to maintain your patience, continue to encourage the child’s potty training progress, and avoid shaming, scolding, or punishing them.
Such occurrences are entirely natural: only 66% of kids under the age of 3 have nighttime bladder control. The percentage goes up to 75% for those below the age of 4, 80% for under 5 year-olds, and 85% for under 6 year-olds. The bottom line is that kids who wet their bed, at least until the age of 5, don’t do so because they’re rebelling and want to make you angry.
If bedwetting occurs more than 2-3 times per month, you might want to consider reverting to disposable pull-ups and use a waterproof mattress cover. Don’t move back to using diapers, unless the child specifically asks for this—most will be too proud to give up on their hard-earned ‘big kid’ chops.
As you move through the often delicate process of nighttime toilet training, it might be useful to keep the following questions in mind:
What was your history with bed wetting as a toddler/infant? What about the child’s other parent?
What’s your kid’s pattern for waking up wet/dry?
o If they wet frequently (2-3 times each week), choose disposable training pants for nighttime. Beware, though, that the kid might find this confusing, as disposables are very similar to diapers.
o If they rarely wet themselves (2-3 times per month), washable pull-ups might be the better alternative. Emphasize how these are not diapers, but special undies for bigger kids.
o If they barely wet themselves at all (1-2 times every 3 months), then regular underwear is the way to go.
In all the above situations, make sure to use a protective mattress cover, as well as to only have the kid put on the pull-ups before bedtime and remove them first thing in the morning. Most people will want to pee right after they wake up, so this is a good time to encourage using the potty or toilet.
Here are some other tips and strategies for avoiding nighttime accidents:
- No drinks after dinner
While keeping your child properly hydrated throughout the day is essential, try to avoid giving them big drinks 2-3 hours before bedtime. As a rule of thumb, no drinking after dinner is a good idea.
- Nighttime trips to the loo
To help your kid understand that it’s ok to wake up to pee during the night, you can try waking them up one hour after they fall asleep and putting them on the potty. This won’t disrupt their sleep pattern, but it won’t help you progress through nights with accidents at a faster pace either. What it might do is help you avoid accidents.
While you’re at it, make absolutely sure that your kid understands she can rely on your help if she needs to go potty at night.
- Wake your kid one hour earlier
Do you know when most bedwetting accidents happen? It’s when your kid is actually awake, but still lazying about in bed. Get them out of bed one hour earlier than their normal rising time and take them to the potty. You’ll be thanking yourself for the smaller load of laundry.