5 potty-training strategies that work

Jan. 22, 2020

What parenting milestone really instills fear and intimidation? Potty training. Moms and dads worry about big (public) messes, stressful tantrums and a long, drawn out battle for the bowl — and sometimes that's just what it takes. 

"We started to train Lee when he turned 2 but quickly gave up. He was thoroughly convinced that only girls wore underpants and boys had to wear diapers," says Kristen Jones of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, mother of Lee age 4 1/2. Jones and her husband chose not to push the issue and a month after Lee turned 3, he came to his parents and asked to use the toilet. "He knew exactly what to do and that he wanted Star Wars underpants," she says.

Jones made the right call. "If training is not going well and you and your child are getting frustrated, take a break for a week and come back to it," says Isabel Schein, LCSW, a parent educator in New York City.

Remember, there's no one right time for every kid to start potty training. While 22 to 24 months is a common age to start, try not to focus on the stats and work with your child's personality and readiness. Learn to look for cues that your child is ready to potty train

And just as there's no one perfect time for every child to start potty training, there's also no one perfect method to train every child quickly. Some kids train in a day while others need months of prep work, says Peter Stavinoha, Ph.D., head of the neuropsychology department at the Children's Medical Center of Dallas and author of "Stress Free Potty Training: A Commonsense Guide to Finding the Right Approach for Your Child."

Here, we ask experts to weigh in on the top five toilet-training methods. See which ones will work for your child.

1. The clockwork approach

At this stage, your child probably can't tell you when he has the urge to pee or poop, so you need to schedule in some toilet time. Try placing them on the potty when they wake up in the morning, before and after a nap and before a bath so it becomes a routine part of the day.

"If you ask a child if he has to go, he'll usually say, 'No', so don't make it a choice," says Schein. Instead, she explains, set a kitchen timer and tell your child, "We're going to make potty when we hear the bell." 

After a few days, a pattern will start to emerge, says Stavinoha, which should make practice sessions more successful. Remember to still offer lots of praise even if there's nothing to flush down the bowl.

Pros: There are no accidents since your kid is in a diaper between trips to the potty. Plus the feeling of having to "make" will become associated with sitting on the toilet and soon that will transfer into the ability to hold it in until your child makes it there.

Cons: Be ready for some resistance. Your child won't always want to stop playing for potty practice. And since diapers are still in play, a child won't be developing "the feeling."

2. The great underpants experiment

It's a milestone in every parent's life — buying your child their first pair of underwear. To start, hold off on the cute character pairs and save the fun drawers for a big reward when training is complete. Start with plain white training underwear that are slightly padded to absorb some liquid. Have your child wear them for short amounts of time around the house. Hype up those undies until you sound ridiculous and your kid will be rushing to slip them on.

Pros: When a pee or poop happens in underwear, the child finally understands what it feels like and will think: "Hey, this doesn't feel so great!" They will be more inclined to use the bowl than to feel wet again.

Cons: There will be pee on the rug. Maybe even poop. Get over it. Don't scold the child. Just explain what happened and ask them to try and tell you if they have to pee again so you can take them to the potty. Then get the roll of paper towels and cheerfully ask them to help you clean up.

3. The naked weekend

If summer is coming, let your kid out into the backyard totally nude and encourage her to drink some extra water. Like experimenting with underwear, once that pee rolls down a kid's leg, it's an "Aha!" moment, says Stavinoha. You don't need them to spend all day in the buff but a half hour here and there will get the process underway.

Pros: No pee on your rug. No tan lines. (We're kidding. SPF is a must!)

Cons: This is not for parents who are totally uncomfortable with having their kids naked anywhere but the bathtub. It's also not for kids who might love the idea of spraying the grass with their pee.

4. The pee pee prize patrol

Give your child one sticker (star, princess, truck, kitten ... whatever works) for each pee, poo, attempted pee and poo and even that fully-clothed accident right next to the potty. You can create a chart that hangs in the bathroom and let your child place the sticker himself. Even just a sheet of paper with your child's name on it will become a sticker collage. Try putting it on back of the bathroom door so your daughter can see it each time she takes a seat and review her past accomplishments. M&Ms, lollipops, an extra book at bedtime — any small token will work (as long as it's a real try, and not a passing squat). The key is to lay on the praise and lay it on thick.

Pros: Kids want things and they want to feel good about themselves. The promise of another gold star — and mommy's adoration — is a great motivator to get them on the bowl.

Cons: Some wise kids may try to push you to up the prizes to an unreasonable level. Don't fall for it.

5. A little of everything

Supplies: A timer, padded underwear, a toilet and prizes of choice.

Put your kid in undies, set the timer and get the stickers ready, it's a full toilet training weekend. Oh, and you might not want to go out in public or be too far from home for this 48-hour stretch.

Pros: This combines all strategies — something has to work, right?

Cons: You might have a very successful weekend, but come Monday, moving from the combo strategy to wearing undies at preschool (no clock, no stickers), could be overwhelming. Try to prep for the non-clock scenario toward the end of Sunday afternoon. If your child has repeated accidents, they might not be ready. Just take a week off and try a new approach next weekend.

Top toilet tricks to keep training on track

  • Take the fun out of diaper changes. Schein says to stop using the comfy changing table and relegate all diapering to the bathroom — that's where you want them to associate anything having to do with going pee and poop.  Plus, they can help empty soiled diapers into the toilet and flush.
  • Watch your language. Avoid the phrase "Big boys (or girls) use the potty" because some children might shy away from doing things a "big kid" is supposed to do. Instead, say, "You are 3 years old and 3-year-olds use the potty."
  • Make the toilet interesting. Dropping some Cheerios in the bowl for target practice or adding food coloring to the water won't help them learn to pee there, says Stavinoha, but it makes the process more exciting.
  • Keep it clean. Along with making potty, your child should learn to wipe themselves — front and back  — and wash their hands after using the toilet. Most preschool teachers will not help your child wipe or touch his or her body in any way. Even if you really want to get in there and scrub your daughter's tush after a big bowel movement, resist the urge. "Unless it's horribly messy, your redo sends the message your child is not doing a good job," says Schein. "Besides, she's going to hop in the bath before bed anyway."
  • Have a seat. Parents of boys, listen up! Your sons should learn to pee sitting down and be taught to hold and aim their penis into the bowl (again, preschool teachers will not do this for them).  If you start standing, chances are they will need to be retrained to sit and poop. Relax: It's an easy transition from a sitting pee to a standing pee.
  • Be in agreement. Everyone who is going to help a child make potty needs to be on the same page. That means parents, the nanny, any caregiver like a grandparent and teachers must use the same methods and praise. Not only is it confusing for a child to hear different rules, but someone can unknowingly undo all of the good potty work that has taken place.
  • Dress for the occasion. Keep kids in pants that they can easily pull up and down themselves. Dresses are great for girls but no tights, please (it's too hard to both lift the dress and pull down the tights when she has to go real bad!).
  • Stop being afraid. This might be the toughest part for parents to overcome: You need to get rid of any phobias about using public restrooms. They're mostly gross, we give you that, but you don't want to negatively influence your child to avoid them when they really have to go. Hand sanitize like mad afterward, but don't comment on the cleanliness of the bathroom. Just be happy your child told you they had to go and didn't create a puddle on the restaurant floor.

The pull-up debate

Saying Nay. In this corner of the bathroom is Isabel Schein. "Pull-ups are just portable toilets that send a mixed message to your child: I want you to make pee pee potty, but I am afraid you will go on my rug so here is a new type of diaper." She reasons that children can't feel if they get wet and cold from pee and won't learn about the urge to go. Plus, some nursery schools will not allow them.

Saying Yay. In the other corner of the bathroom is Peter Stavinoha. While he agrees that pull-ups can become an extension of a diaper, other kids use them successfully as underpants. A child who is extremely sensitive and might feel super badly about having accidents could benefit from the product.

Parents, it's your call. 

Mastering the potty is a huge boost to a child's self-esteem. No matter what method(s) you try, your No. 1 job is to be a patient and enthusiastic cheerleader for your child, no matter how long it takes and no matter how many accidents may happen along the way.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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