Potty training tips: How to win the potty wars

Jan. 20, 2020

When Kate Motz decided to put her son, Kyle, on the potty at 2 1/2, she felt pressured to have him potty trained for preschool. 

"I'm a planner mom — I read all the books, watched all the videos and figured I knew all the tricks," says Motz, a mom to three from Manhattan Beach, California. 

But after four weeks of pushing him to stay dry, putting him on the potty for what felt like hours each day and using pull-ups with no success, she finally gave up.

"I just wasn't cut out for battling with him day-in, day-out," she says.

Sound familiar? 

"The struggle to start potty training is a familiar one, but it actually doesn't have to be a struggle at all," says Dr. Alanna Levine, M.D., a pediatrician, a mom to two and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 

Here are some tips to put an end to the potty-training resistance that might be happening in your house.

Is your kid ready to potty train?

Does it seem like every other kid on the block is potty trained except for yours?  Don't freak out. While most children are ready to start toilet training between 22 and 30 months, every child is different.  In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, of the children who started training between 22 and 30 months of age, boys were fully trained at an average age of 38 months while girls were trained slightly earlier, around 36 months. Still, there are those few children that will resist the potty. 

For this reason, Levine suggests that you let your child decide when they are ready. "The whole point of teaching your child to use the toilet is to transfer the responsibility of realizing it's time to go from you to him," says Levine. "If you start too early and become the 'potty police' asking your child every 20 minutes if he has to go, what's the point?"

Wait until your child is developmentally ready and self-motivated, and the process will go much more easily. And whatever you do, remain calm: If your child senses stress, a power struggle might ensue, warns Levine and that can lead to your child chronically withholding stool which can be very painful.

But what if your child has to be potty trained for preschool? Find a different school, recommends Levine. "If you try to speed up the process, you'll probably end up slowing it down," she says. "When your child potty trains is not a measure of his or her intelligence," says Levine. 

According to the AAP, if your child is 4 years old and refuses to use the toilet during the day, you should consult your pediatrician. It's possible that your child might have a physical issue — such as weak bladder muscles or a urinary tract infection — or a developmental delay that is prohibiting her from progressing in potty training. 

Before you begin enforcing a potty-training boot camp, keep in mind that few children continue to wet their pants during the daytime once they go to kindergarten, points out Levine. "The humiliation of having an accident in front of the whole class is usually enough to get the most stubborn children to accept the potty," she says. "Peer pressure, in this case, can be very beneficial."

Signs your child is ready

Here are the main cues that your kid is ready to try the potty:

  • Your child tells you when she needs a diaper change.
  • Your child tells you before she is going.
  • Your child stays dry for two hours straight in a diaper.
  • Your child asks to wear underwear.

Helpful potty-training tips

Build excitement with books and videos. Once your child starts to demonstrate these cues, then read books and watch videos about toilet training.

Set an example. So long, privacy! Welcome to a world of bathroom cohabitation.  Allow your child to accompany you to the bathroom to see what you are doing.  You can place a kid-sized seat in the bathroom, but Levine suggests you wait until your child asks to use it before you offer it. "I think the process should be completely driven by the child for the greatest chance of success," says Levine.  And get ready for the public announcement of your own potty success ("Mommy made a poo poo!").

Buy fun underwear. Choo Choo undies! Where do I sign up? Build some buzz over graphic underwear and once your child makes the switch, "Go for it and don't look back," says Levine. Don't use diapers for your own convenience after that, she advises. You should be completely committed to the process or you will be sending mixed messages.

Reconsider the pull-ups. Levine discourages the use of pull-ups. "Kids should either be in diapers that they're allowed to pee in or wear underwear that will get wet if they have an accident, which is a natural negative reinforce," she says.

Go portable. You've probably seen them at the parks and thought, "I'll never tote a toilet!" but maybe now you see how convenient a foldable commode is (easier than begging a bodega owner for a bathroom key and crossing your fingers it was cleaned recently). A portable potty can reinforce toilet training while you're out and about. And don't forget to carry around a spare set of clothes in case of accidents.

Reward potty-training success. "If your child has a successful day, praise him for the accomplishment," says Levine. Reward charts and even small bribes, such as a cookie or a small toy, are great positive reinforcements. Just don't punish accidents. "Positive reinforcement is more powerful," says Levine.  What if you're seeing a lot of accidents? Most likely your child isn't ready. "Put away the underwear and try again when your child shows interest," she says.

That's exactly what Motz did. She put her son back in diapers and stopped talking about potty training.  She stopped watching potty-training videos and stopped putting him on the potty. Then about a week later, Kyle announced, "Mommy, I don't want to wear diapers anymore." 

"He went upstairs, took off his diaper, put on his underwear and never had an accident again!" says Motz.  "I discovered for my other two children to just wait until they're ready to start potty training.  It's not a perfect science, but what in parenting is?"

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