Potty Training Dos and Don’ts

Forget what you thought you knew about getting your toddler ready to use the potty. Some of the most popular tactics just don’t work.
BySona Charaipotra and Elena Donovan Mauer
March 9, 2020
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Potty training: Those two words make many parents cringe. It’s a lot of work, and easy to mess up (and can get messy!). This is what to do and what not to.

Do: Time it right

Timing is everything, according to a study performed by Joseph Barone, MD, of The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He says: “We tested all kinds of variables, but the only thing that really mattered was that you begin between 27 and 32 months of age.” Earlier, a child’s brain isn’t developed enough to fully grasp the concept. Later, you’re likely to face resistance.

Don’t: Ignore the signs

“Your child will tell you, in not so many words, that they’re ready,” says Peter Stavinoha, PhD, neuropsychologist and author of Stress-Free Potty Training: A Commonsense Guide to Finding the Right Approach for Your Child. “It might be that he’s barging in on mom or dad in the bathroom, or wants to wear Spider-Man underpants.” Your child should be able to dress and undress himself, and sit still long enough to listen to one or two short books before you train, Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Potty Training Solution says. If you start before seeing the signs, it simply won’t happen.

Do: Prep ahead

Start out by reading  books about using the potty — we like A Potty for Me! by Karen Katz; Potty, by Leslie Patricelli; and Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi because they’re light (and funny!). Let your toddler sit on the potty when he wants to. Then, pick a date, get all the supplies and start. Barone says if you let your child dictate when it’s time to begin, you could enter “older and, therefore, more difficult to potty train” territory.

Don’t: Limit yourself to one method

There are 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, three months. There’s not one way that works for everyone. “Parents should consider all the methods and strategies available to them,” says Stavinoha. “There may be more than one strategy that can work for you and your child. You will have to mix and match to get the results you want.”

Don’t: Put stock in training pants

“If you don’t have time for major cleanups, training pants are fine,” says Stavinoha. “But the big knock against them is that there is no consequence for an accident, so there isn’t motivation. With underwear, there’s a clear, immediate consequence.”

Do: Make it pressure-free

Know that this could take a while. “It takes 3 to 12 months from the start of training to daytime toilet independence,” Pantley says. Longer isn’t considered a failure — so keep at it, without stressing.

“When the parent goes in thinking, ‘I know this could take months,’ some of those kids train overnight, because there’s no pressure,” Stavinoha notes. “If your child has tantrums or sheds tears over training, or if you’re getting angry, then stop,” says Pantley. “Review your plan and try again, using a different approach, in a month or two.”

Don’t: Half-*ss it

“You can’t do it halfway,” says Stavinoha. “It’s being home, near the bathroom, with easy access. Otherwise it won’t work.” If you’re in the checkout line when your child says she has to pee, get to the restroom pronto!

Do: Use (small) rewards

Many parents use a reward system to get training on track — toys, small chocolates and fruit snacks are popular choices. Rewards can definitely work, but the experts warn not to go too crazy with them.

“Don’t give rewards too often, because then they don’t carry much value to the child,” Barone says. So instead of a reward for every little victory, set up a chart that tracks successes — never failures — with smiley faces or stickers.

“I used marshmallows for the first three days,” says Bumpie tnd81. “After that, I gave them only when my daughter remembered and asked.”

Even better motivators are the less tangible kind: praise, hugs and kisses. “With tangible rewards, you set up an expectation that the next reward has to be bigger and better,” Stavinoha says.

Don’t: Get negative

Expect challenges (yes, accidents). And avoid negative language. “Punishment inhibits the process,” notes Stavinoha. “It’s not just about teaching your child to use the potty. It’s about how you relate to, teach and motivate your kid.”

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