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Liz Kreiger
Contributing Writer

Potty Training: How To Get Started—and Making It Work

Ready to see the last of those dirty diapers? These potty training tips and tricks will make the transition a success for you and your toddler.

It may feel like yesterday you were changing baby’s first diaper, but in the blink of an eye you’ve reached the mother of all milestones: potty training! Potty training is not a one-size-fits-all process, but the end goal is always the same: ditching those diapers, and ushering in the era of underpants. It can be a daunting task knowing how and where to begin, but don’t stress. Whether you’re potty training girls or boys, we’ve got everything you need to know—from common potty training problems to the best potty training tips, and everything in between. Ready? Set up that baby potty and start here.

When to start potty training
Potty training best practices
Potty training: boys vs. girls
How to potty train: picking the right method
Potty training problems and solutions

When to start potty training

The first thing to figure out is when’s the best time to start potty training. Like with every other baby milestone, some children potty train earlier than others. Many toddlers will be ready and willing between 18 and 24 months, but others might not be prepared to learn until closer to 36 to 42 months. “There are a few key signs to look for that signal general readiness,” says pediatrician Mark L. Wolraich, MD. “If these things aren’t happening yet, wait a little while until they do, because that can make the process much smoother.”

Look for these signs to see if your toddler is up for the task of potty training:

  • Your child has started to let you know when he has to go—either by telling you or sometimes just with his unique facial expressions that come along with the sensation of needing to pee or poop.
  • Your child has begun to make a big deal about dirty diapers. This means she may let you know as soon as the diaper is wet or dirty and ask to be changed.
  • If that colorful little potty chair that’s been sitting in the corner is finally of interest to your child (and/or she shows interest in the grown-up toilet or your own bathroom habits) that’s a great sign.
  • Ideally, your child can pull his pants up and down by himself.
  • Your child’s diaper is staying dry for two hours or longer during the day.

Once you see one or more of these signs, you can slowly begin suggesting that your child uses the potty.

For most parents, the potty training process is just that—a process. So don’t expect it to happen all in one day, or you’ll be setting yourself up for some major disappointment. “Potty training is something that takes some time and comes with accidents here and there,” Wolraich says. That’s why many parents don’t go straight from diapers to underpants, but instead make the transition in steps. You can start by switching from diapers to pull-ups—they’re similar to diapers but much easier to get on and off when your child is practicing sitting on the potty with a bare bottom. Plus, when accidents happen, you can just rip them off and toss them away like you would with a regular diaper. Some moms prefer using potty training pants as an in-between step. Potty training pants are generally a bit thicker than underwear, so they can contain accidents better, but they aren’t so absorbent that your child doesn’t get the immediate feedback of feeling wet or soiled.

Potty training best practices

Make it your goal to make the process a conflict-free, upbeat one using as much cheer and positive reinforcement as possible. To avoid potential potty problems and start out on the right note, here are a few universally helpful potty training tips to keep in mind as you go.

Time it right
Think about what’s going on in your family. Are changes on the way? If you’re about to move, have a new baby, or your child is starting a new school, for example, consider waiting a bit. These are all big changes for a child (heck, for anyone!) to deal with and adding potty training to the mix is a bit too much to take on at the same time.

Dress for success
Speed is key in avoiding accidents, so when the time comes to hustle to the potty, you don’t want any extra struggling involved. Avoid pants with buttons or clasps that are tricky for small fingers, or tights and skirts, since that combo can be tougher to manage than just stretchy leggings. Keep it simple for everyone while you’re in the middle of potty training and stick with easy-on, easy-off elastic-waist pants.

Get the gear
You don’t have to buy every product on the market, but reading some fun potty training books together can be an easy start, and you can even involve your child with picking out a mini potty or seat topper for the adult toilet.

Praise is essential
Whether your child has successfully made it to the potty in time or she’s just starting to give you a heads up when she feels the need to go, it’s a reason for a mini celebration. Hugs and kisses and silly songs are all great ways to encourage and make your child feel proud of her accomplishment. For some children, it also helps to remind them of all the ways that potty training is awesome. That may mean talking more about what it means to be a “big girl” or “big boy,” or using a fun sticker chart to track progress.

Steer clear of outright bribery
“While it can be tempting to want to use food (read: candy or cookies) as rewards for going in the potty, you have to think long term, not short term,” Wolraich says. You want your child to learn to use the potty on his own terms because he has the desire to use it, not just because he thinks there will be a treat waiting for him every time. Bribing your child throughout the potty training process sets a bad precedence, and he’ll continue to expect a reward long after you want to keep giving it.

Avoid negative language
When potty training resistance rears its head (and it likely will) or accidents happen, don’t punish or use harsh words. Sure, you may be disappointed—or even steaming mad, depending on where the accident happened— but losing your cool can discourage your child, make her feel ashamed or angry, and only bring about more resistance. Toddlers at this age are often looking for ways to test their limits, and for some, this means holding back bowel movements. “Try to stay calm about toilet training. Remember that no one can control when and where a child urinates or has a bowel movement except the child,” Wolraich says.

Grin and “bare” it
To help your child become more aware of her body’s signals, it can help to let her walk around at home naked from the waist down. (Besides, it’s hard to ignore a trickle of urine running down your leg.) Of course, keep an eye on your child for those telltale signs she has to pee or poop, and a potty within easy reach so you can rush her over when it’s go time.

Be patient
Above all, keep your expectations realistic and don’t count on perfection. Kids don’t often suddenly wake up one day 100 percent potty trained. Even a child who seems totally ready may take a while to master the potty (with steps forward and backward)—and even when you think you’re at the finish line, accidents can happen. Know that potty training could take anywhere from 3 to 12 months from the start until your child is completely independent using the toilet. Longer isn’t considered a failure, so stay calm and keep at it.

Potty training: boys vs. girls

While there are some people who claim there’s no difference between potty training boys and potty training girls, parents who have been in the trenches may beg to differ. Moms and dads who have “been there, done that” say girls take to the potty faster and much easier than boys.

In fact, it’s true that boys might take slightly longer to potty train, often due to the fact that toddler boys are so physically active that getting them to sit still is a feat in and of itself. Otherwise, “there are truly no big differences in how you teach potty training,” Wolraich says. Also, while they’ll end up standing up to pee later, most boys begin potty training by sitting down—especially because they may end up doing more than just urinating during each sitting. “They can work on standing up a bit later on,” Wolraich says.

As for girls, they need to be carefully taught to always wipe front to back, to avoid bringing any bacteria into the vagina. In the beginning, you’ll want to help and do it for her, until she has the dexterity to do it well by herself.

How to potty train: picking the right method

There are all different ways to do it: using training pants, going straight to underwear, going naked from the waist down, or doing it in three days, three weeks or three months. One particular way isn’t going to work for every child, and you may even need to mix and match methods to get the results you want. But whatever you choose, odds are you’ll hear of someone else who used a different potty training method and swears it was the best way to do it. Just remember: Like with so many other parenting choices you have to make, there’s no one perfect way to do things. And you need to decide what works best for you and your toddler. Here are two potty training methods parents try:

The one-day method
The one-day potty training method is not all that dissimilar from any other method, but it does require a bit of advance shopping, because you need one extra key ally: a doll that can “wet” itself. Armed with this doll, you’ll choose a day for a big “Potty Party” to kick off the process—making it clear that starting on this day, your child will be graduating to underwear and the potty will be the place to go from here on out. On the big day (when ideally you have no plans other than to stay at home and practice with the potty), you’ll actually work with your child to first show the doll how to use the potty—celebrating and praising the doll when she goes in the potty correctly. Meanwhile, you’ll be guiding your child in the same way with equally excited celebrations and praise for his triumphs, and positive directions for any accidents. Most parents choose to have their child go bare-bottomed the whole day which makes the process easier, just a bit messier. (Keep your cleaning supplies handy!) Encourage your child to drink more than usual that day and then lead him to the potty multiple times throughout the day to remind him that he might have to go.

The three-day method
It’s pretty similar to the one-day method—all the praise and positive reinforcement is the same—but you’ll be dedicating a bit more time (three days to be exact) to staying home, near the potty. (Translation: Clear your schedule!) There’s no rule that says you can’t use the self-wetting doll for modeling, either; for whatever reason, more people who choose the one-day potty training method employ the doll technique.

“While you’re training with any method, consider alternatives to rewarding your child with candy or other sweets,” Wolraich says, since using food as a reward sets up that tricky dynamic we mentioned earlier. Small items like stickers, crayons, coloring books and little figurines make great rewards for toddlers.

Potty training problems and solutions

Of course, just because you’re desperate to have your child potty trained and he or she is showing most of the signs of readiness, doesn’t mean it will all be smooth sailing. Potty training problems are bound to pop up here and there. Here’s how to cope with some of the most common tricky spots.

Problem: resistance
Solution: Potty training resistance is pretty common. After all, toddlers are known for their stubborn wills, and “many choose this as a way to assert their independence,” Wolraich notes. Your best bet is to keep it casual. No one wants to be nagged and it can just make some children dig in their heels even more. If your child doesn’t want to use the potty, consider taking a break from potty training for a few weeks. While you’re waiting for a better time, don’t mention it every time you change a diaper or compare your child to kids the same age who may be farther along in the process.

Problem: regression
Solution: Sometimes when you think your child has got this whole potty thing down pat, there’s a period where he keeps having accidents, over and over. This is called a potty training regression, and “it can be particular baffling to parents,” Wolraich says. Once you’ve ruled out the problem isn’t physical (some infections can cause potty problems), consider if there’s been any recent changes in your child’s life. A move, a new baby, a new teacher? These can be sources of stress that can have ripple effects all the way to the bathroom. If you can identify the problem, talking through the issues can help diffuse the stress.

Problem: nighttime bed-wetting
Solution: Staying dry at night generally takes much longer to master than daytime dryness. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 20 percent of 5-year-olds, 10 percent of 7-year-olds and 5 percent of 10-year-olds may still wet the bed. If your child has been completely toilet trained for six months or longer and suddenly begins wetting the bed, talk to your pediatrician because it could be a sign of a medical issue. To help your child stay dry at night, have him use the toilet and avoid drinking large amounts of fluid just before bedtime. You can also wake your child up to use the toilet one to two hours after going to sleep to help him stay dry through the night. Most of all, be positive and offer support, not punishment, if your child has an accident at night.

Problem: fear of the potty
Solution: For many children, the thought of sitting on the giant, grown-up, porcelain potty is quite terrifying, Wolraich says. Not to mention the idea that a part of their body could be flushed away—never to be seen again! Having their own colorful potty chair can go a long way to making your child more comfortable adjusting, and also takes the whole loud flushing aspect out of sight and earshot. Here are some of our favorite baby potties to help make the transition easier.

Problem: playing with poop
Solution: Sorry to say, but some children like to get a bit too...hands on with their own output. If this is the case for you, try to remember that your child is simply curious. He may also just be testing boundaries as toddlers love to do, so it’s important to reinstate your rules and stand firmly behind them. “You will have to make it very clear that this is unacceptable potty behavior,” Wolraich says, and that means keeping both eyes on him while he’s doing his business (at least until he’s kept his hands clean for a decent period of time).

Expert: Mark L. Wolraich, MD, professor of pediatrics at University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and director of the Child Study Center, and editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Guide to Toilet Training.

PHOTO: Getty Images