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Royal Flush: Potty Training Strategies That Work

Alonna Friedman
May 31, 2017



Forget caring for a newborn's bellybutton. It was easy. Taking away the paci? Challenging, but you made it through. What really instills fear and intimidation in a parent? Potty training. Moms and dads imagine big (public) messes, stressful tantrums and a long, drawn out battle for the bowl.

"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.

RELATED: ["How to Potty Train a Reluctant Child"]

She 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. There's no one right time for every kid to start potty training. While 22 to 24 months is a common age to start, and data does support that girls tend to train earlier than boys, you need to forget the stats and work with your child's personality and readiness (learn how to know if your child is ready to potty train). "Toilet training is not meant to be competitive," she says. "If your child is not among the first of his friends to get toilet trained, that doesn't mean he is not going to Harvard."

5 Training Methods

Unfortunately, there is no one way to train to get it done quickly. 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," says some kids train in a day while others need months of prep work. No matter how long it takes, and no matter how many accidents happen, mastering the potty is a huge boost to a child's self-esteem -- they feel great about it! The one key that works for all kids: Parents need to be enthusiastic, bathroom cheerleaders, not pushers. Basically, you can't force a kid to take a leak. We asked our experts to weigh in on the top 5 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 him on the potty when he wakes up in the morning, before and after a nap and before a bath so it becomes a routine part of the day. Set a kitchen timer and tell your child, "We're going to make potty when we hear the bell!" "If you ask a child if he has to go, he'll usually say, 'No', so don't make it a choice," says Schein.  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. 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 son won't always want to stop playing (or worse, watching TV!) 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 shopping milestone in a mother's life: buying her child his or her first pair of underwear. It's been a long way since NB-sized diapers, ladies. But 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 small amounts of time around the house. Hype up those undies until you think you sound ridiculous and your kid will be rushing to slip them on!

Pros: When a pee or poop happens, the child finally understands what it feels like and will think: "Hey, this doesn't feel so great!" He'll 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 him to try and tell you if he has to pee again so you can take him to the potty. Then get the roll of paper towels and cheerfully ask him 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 her 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 one sticker (star, princess, truck, kitten...whatever works) for each pee, poo, attempted pee and poo or even just a fully-clothed potty meet-and-greet. 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: A greedy kid could push you to up the prizes to an unreasonable level. Don't give in.

5. A Little of Everything

Ingredients: 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 towards the end of Sunday afternoon. If your child has repeated accidents, she 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 himself -- front and back  -- and wash his hands after using the toilet. Most pre-school teachers will not help your child wipe or touch his or her body in any way. We know you really want to get in there and scrub your daughter's tush after a big bowel movement, but resist the urge. "Unless it's horribly messy, your re-do 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. Mothers 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, pre-school teachers will not do this for them).  If you start standing, chances are they will need to be re-trained 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 mom, dad, 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 (imagine your tot juggling lifting her dress up and moving her tights down - 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 your phobia 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 he or she really has to go. Purell like mad afterwards but don't comment on the cleanliness of the bathroom. Just be happy your son told you he had to go and didn't create a puddle on the restaurant floor.

The Pull-Ups 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 Dr. 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. Tell us your thoughts and experiences below.

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