Diapers Be Gone: How to Potty Train in 3 Days
Of all the early childhood milestones, potty training is one of the most momentous—and frequently one of the most stressful. It can be hard to tell who is prouder of successful potty training—the parent or the child. There are countless methods out there, including many that promise three-day potty training. Sounds pretty amazing, right? But can you really get your kid out of diapers in a long weekend? Here, experts weigh in on how to potty train in three days.
There’s no denying the allure of getting your little one out of diapers in just three days. When it works, the benefits are numerous: If you use disposable diapers, you’ll save a lot of money and cut down on landfill-bound waste; if you cloth diapers, you’ll get to do way less laundry. Plus, no more wrestling a kiddo who’s outgrowing the changing table just to get a clean diaper on them, and no more drawn out potty power struggles.
The three-day potty training method gained popularity largely through word of mouth as parent compatriots passed around Lora Jensen’s 2001 PDF ebook, 3 Day Potty Training (though it was nothing so new—looking further back, two psychologists wrote Toilet Training in Less Than a Day in 1974). There have been many variations since then, either inspired by Jensen or developed organically, that promise accelerated potty training success.
While there are plenty of advocates of three-day potty training methods, others are wary of the unrealistic expectations they say they can create. Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right is another popular book and potty training method that has a similar foundation to many of the three-day methods, but whose practitioners want to distance themselves from the fast-track trend. Jenny Phelps is an Oh Crap! potty training certified expert who cautions against this mindset. “While it’s possible to lay a foundation for potty training in three days, there is still a lot of solidifying of skills to do after that,” she says. “If you go into this with a ‘three day and done’ mindset, it’s very likely you’ll inadvertently put pressure on your child, which is the biggest way to derail potty training.”
One thing that most experts can agree on is that potty training should be a positive experience, free from scolding and punishment. There will be accidents, and while you can redirect your child, carry them to the potty and remind them that pee/poop goes in the potty, yelling or shaming them about making a mess will only create problems.
There’s a range of opinions on the optimum age to potty train a child. Jensen says in her book that 22 months old is ideal. Julie Fellom, a San Francisco-based preschool teacher and originator of the venerated Diaper Free Toddlers program, says that between 16 and 26 months, most toddlers will start to show signs of readiness, and that 22 to 26 months is ideal for potty training.
According to Fellom, signs of readiness can include:
- resisting diaper changes
- hiding to poop
- having bowel movements at the same time everyday
- being able to run with a steady gate
- letting an adult know with words or gestures that they need a diaper change
Sally Neuberger, a licensed clinical social worker and potty coach, takes a slightly different approach. She argues there are actually two stages of potty readiness: the first happens around 2 years old, when the child first expresses interest in the potty and may even start using it, and then around 3 years old, when she says they’re developmentally ready and can be potty trained painlessly in three days.
According to Neuberger, signs of readiness in that second stage are:
- the child can stay dry for two to four hours at a time
- can pull their pants up and down
- let you know when they’ve peed or pooped
- they know the potty routine
There are a lot of ideas out there about whether girls are easier to potty train than boys, but it really has more to do with the individual child than their sex. As far as sitting or standing, Neuberger recommends starting out sitting down for both boys and girls. Once a boy has pooped sitting down about 10 times, then you can introduce the concept of peeing standing up; if you start with them standing, Neuberger points out that they might be prone to poop standing up as well.
One of the keys to successful three-day potty training is preparation. Here’s what you’ll need:
• Potty chair(s). While not strictly necessary, having at least one potty chair, if not more, is useful. In her book, Jensen suggests having just one potty chair and keeping it in the bathroom to reinforce that association, while Fellom recommends getting multiple potty chairs to place all around your home to increase the chances of your child hitting the target. There are also different types of potty chairs, but Neuberger is a strong proponent of learning on a floor-level potty chair so your child’s feet can firmly touch the floor, which will help them activate their lower pelvic area and teach them the correct positioning.
• Plenty of food and drinks. Part of the three-day potty training method is staying home and close to a toilet the entire time, so it’s important to stock up on groceries before you begin. Specifically, Fellom suggests getting things like salty foods, popsicles and watermelon—anything that’s a diuretic, since you want to create plenty of occasions for your child to practice during those three days.
• Rewards—maybe. This is actually the source of some contention, as in her book Jensen recommends using stickers, small toys and treats as rewards, while many others advise against this avenue. “I do not recommend bribes, treats or rewards of any kind. It should be an intrinsic motivation right out of their own imitative urge at that age,” Fellom says. “Entering into a market economy with your toddler is really foolhardy.”
• Underwear. Even within the different three-day potty training methods, opinions on when to introduce underwear varies, so it’s up to you whether to have it on hand (Jensen recommends stocking up on 20 to 30 pairs). Many suggest transitioning to underwear towards the end of the three days, while Fellom recommends waiting a full three months and having them go commando until then. Most experts agree to avoid diapers, pull-ups or even padded underwear marketed as “training pants” once you start three-day potty training.
• Rest. And plenty of it. “I really recommend to parents that they get a full night’s sleep on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before going into this, because lack of sleep and lack of coherence really doesn’t help,” Fellom says.
If a partner is involved, make sure you’re on the same page before beginning three-day potty training and that you have a clear plan for who is doing what and when. Consistency is crucial.
Depending on the boundaries in your home and what you’re comfortable with, it can be helpful to model successful toileting for your child in the weeks leading up to potty training so they know what it looks like and the steps involved, and to help jumpstart your child’s intrinsic motivation to mimic the beloved adults in their life.
• Prepare yourself. The first day of three-day potty training is by far the most intense, since you’re supposed to keep your eyes on your child the entire day. No leaving the house, no running to the store, no walking the dog. So make sure you’ve had your coffee, showered, checked your email and anything else you need to do before beginning. Then put the phone away and get focused.
• Say goodbye to diapers. In her book, Jensen suggests having the child ceremonially throw away their remaining diapers, partially so they understand what’s happening and partially to prevent the parent from falling back on diapers as a crutch.
• Take off their layers. While Jensen’s book suggests starting the child off in undies and a shirt, most other three-day potty training practitioners recommend having your kiddo go totally bottomless for at least the first day. Fellom says if it’s cold, they can be wearing a sweater and socks, just no underwear or pants.
• Watch them like a hawk. Keep a close eye on your kid, waiting to learn their signs and “catch” them as they start to pee or poop (you can play and go about normal home activities, just with a heightened sense of awareness). As soon as you notice it happening, Fellom suggests picking them up, bringing them to the bathroom and saying “pee/poop goes in the potty.” She says the trick to her method is to wait until the child has actually started to pee. “This lets the child connect the feeling of a full bladder with the pee running down their leg to the floor or their socks.”
• Celebrate. Every time they get even a drop of pee in the potty, make a big deal out of it. Fellom suggests an enthusiastic potty dance any time anyone in the household uses the bathroom during this period. Jensen’s guide suggests giving a sticker. Whatever you choose, the point is to make it exciting.
• Decide whether to offer reminders. In her book, Jensen suggests reminding—but not asking—your child frequently about the potty, with phrases like “let mommy know when you have to go pee.” She says to check the child’s undies often and praise them every time they’re dry. Fellom, meanwhile, suggests leaving it entirely up to them. “Kids make it their own and that’s what you want. You want your child to have a sense of agency about it,” she says.
• Evaluate if it’s working. Fellom says by the time your child has successfully gotten at least some pee in the potty 10 to 12 times with adult help, they’ll usually start initiating it themselves. According to Neuberger, “generally parents will know on the morning of day one whether it’s going to be successful.” If your kiddo continues not only to have accidents but also seems oblivious to them, Neuberger says it’s likely their bodies just aren’t ready yet. “We don’t want parents wasting their time and getting frustrated in the process,” she says. If this is the case, she suggests not making a big deal of it but cutting your losses and trying again in a month or two. (Jensen, meanwhile, says many kids don’t get it until the end of day three, so you may have to go with your gut on this one.)
• Think about nights and naps. Once again, there’s a range of opinions on whether to nap and night train in conjunction with three-day potty training. Jensen’s book urges parents to get it all done at the same time to avoid confusing the child. Neuberger, however, says kids typically aren’t ready for night training for three to six months after daytime training. Many experts say night readiness is an entirely different thing and that it’s less psychological and more biological. If you do opt to try going diaper-free for sleep times, limit liquids beforehand and make sure they go potty before their snooze.
Days 2 & 3
Ideally, by the end of day one your child has started to get the hang of things and is now communicating—either verbally or with gestures—when they need to hit the john. “Essentially at that point, the rest of the time is just practice,” Fellom says. “Let them do it and reinforce it. You’re still watching, and then you extinguish watching and you’re done.”
After 3-day potty training
Some people suggest switching to undies by the end of the three days, while Fellom and Neuberger recommend keeping them pants-free at home for at least a few weeks while they continue to practice. Fellom says to hold off on undies for three months, until they’re accident-free.
If your child is in daycare, then be in touch with their childcare provider to formulate a plan. Fellom says they don’t need to do it exactly your way—kids are good at cultural code switching, she notes—but it’s important that they’re tuned in and consistent with whatever system they have in place.
If your attempt at three-day potty training doesn’t work, there’s probably a good reason behind it. Here are a few possibilities:
• They’re not ready. Neuberger says that very often, potty training doesn’t stick because it’s mistakenly done during the first window of readiness. “Most parents get trapped into thinking that window one actually means their kids are ready,” she says. If potty training isn’t working, your child may not be developmentally ready yet and you may need to revisit it at another time. Fellom says, “if your child is among the approximately 7 percent who can’t manage it yet, just wait six to eight weeks and try it again for a weekend. Your child will have matured and will still remember the first weekend. In the meantime, if it doesn’t work, have your child wear diapers. Nearly all children who are neurotypically developing will be able to do it in the second go around.”
• Developmental delays. If your child has gross or fine motor delays, sensory issues or difficulty with emotional regulation, Neuberger says the process will likely be delayed. Sometimes potty training can illuminate some underlying issues that are worth exploring.
• Lack of consistency. If parents don’t stick with whatever program you’ve chosen or go back and forth between diapers and undies, for example, it could confuse your child and cause setbacks.
• Parents are anxious. Kids can sense their parents’ emotions. Even if you’re refraining from asking them if they have to go to the bathroom 90 times a minute, they can still sense your stress. Fellom says that very often, “if I can get the parent to relax and laugh, the kid will go to the bathroom.”
Whatever the outcome, don’t be too hard on yourself. Chances are, even if your child successfully potty trains within three days, they’ll still have accidents here and there or may regress before it finally clicks. Take comfort in knowing that your kiddo won’t go off to college in diapers. “There are a million ways to potty train, and most kids are going to get it with whatever way their parents decide,” Neuberger reassures.
Published May 2019
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