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Toilet Teaching Tactics

Learning to use the potty is a milestone in your child's life. You probably can't wait to put the changing table in storage and toss away the diapers. But toilet-teaching can be an extremely frustrating phase, so be patient. Most children are able to master the potty between the ages of 2 and 3. As any parent who has gone through the process will tell you, it can take weeks -- or months. The most important strategy, experts say, is to let your child decide when she's ready. Studies have shown that many kids who start before 18 months won't be fully taught until age 4, while children who start around age 2 tend to be successful by age 3. Daytime control usually comes first; it may take longer for your child to stay dry through the night.

Bathtime Routine
When my son was 17 months old, I started putting him on the potty each evening while I ran his bath. The sound of the running water seemed to encourage him, and within a few nights we had success. I kept up the routine at that same time every evening. Slowly, we started adding more trips to the potty throughout the day. I used this method successfully with all three of my kids.
Shannon
Stevensville, MD

Timing is Everything
The secret to success is waiting until your child is ready. If a child can't follow several instructions in a row or keep a diaper dry for four hours, she probably isn't up to the task. We waited until my daughter was 2 1/2 years old. We didn't pressure her, and we encouraged her every step of the way. Once she started, she was using the potty regularly in less than a week.
Angela
McKinney, TX

Keep a Schedule
Be consistent -- plan on having at least three solid days to focus on toilet-teaching without interruptions. I taught my daughter by putting her on her potty-chair every hour. I kept a close eye on the clock to keep track of when she usually went; this helped avoid accidents later. To keep her still when she was on the potty, I read her stories.
Leanne
Modesto, CA

Give Your Child a Hug
When my youngest daughter was 2, she was afraid to use the potty. To help her get over this, we started the Magic Hug -- I would put my arms around her while she was on the potty. The security helped her relax and focus on going to the bathroom. This strategy really made the transition to using the toilet easier.
Denise
Clinton, CT

Get Dolly in on the Act
My 2-year-old daughter didn't want to stop playing to use the potty. To encourage her, I told her she needed to teach all of her dolls how to use the toilet too. We took these "friends" into the bathroom one by one so my daughter could give a step-by-step demonstration. In no time, she was telling me whenever she had to use the toilet because she was so excited to teach her dolls.
Gina
Fullerton, CA

Give Easy Access
To take some of the pressure off our daughter, we put the potty right next to her bed so that she could have her own space. Also, she could get to it faster, especially first thing in the morning and at night. This technique worked for our second daughter as well.
Anne and Ben
Cheshire, CT

Let Him Do It His Way
Don't stress your child. My son had the unusual habit of taking off all his clothes before having a bowel movement. I never tried to persuade him to change his routine, and he stopped stripping after six months.
Angela
Greenbrier, AR

Prize Bag
I was desperate for anything that might motivate my then 3-year-old daughter to use her potty. Finally, I bought a gift bag and filled it with small toys and trinkets. Each time she used the toilet, she got to pick an item from the bag. A week and a half later, the bag was empty -- and she was out of diapers.
Dawn
Quincy, MA

Make a Potty Poster
My daughter was almost 3 before she was completely taught. She loved stickers, so to motivate her we made a Potty Poster, which we hung in the bathroom. Every time she used the toilet, she got to pick a sticker for her board. She was so excited to get new ones that using the potty became a snap.
Shari
Huntington Woods, MI

Superheroes to the Rescue
Three months after my 3-year-old son was urinating in the potty, he still wouldn't use it for bowel movements. He loved action figures, so we took him to the store and let him pick out two. When we got home, we hung them on the bathroom towel bar, where he could see them. We told him that he could have both of them after he successfully went in the potty twice. It worked -- two days later, he had two new toys, and we never had an accident again.
Kathy
Portland, CT

Nighttime Strategies
The first time my son wet his bed at night after getting out of diapers, I realized that I never again wanted to fumble around for clean sheets at 2:00 in the morning. So I bought a waterproof mattress pad, covered it with a fitted sheet, then put it on top of the waterproof pad and sheet already on his bed. That way, if he wet the bed, I could just pull off the top layer to get to the clean pad and sheet underneath.
Shelley
Fairfield, CT

Staying Dry on the Go
To help my 2-year-old daughter when we're in the car, I take along a small plastic potty seat lined with a plastic grocery bag, with a sanitary pad in the middle to absorb moisture. After she uses the potty, I just tie up the bag and toss it out. Not only is cleanup easy, but having the potty in the car also helps reassure my daughter -- and makes for fewer accidents.
Christine
Villanova, PA

A New Way to Color
To get my son excited about standing up to urinate, we put a few drops of food coloring into the toilet bowl so he could see the water change color as he used it. We did the same thing with our daughter, but we sat her on the toilet backwards so she could see the colors.
Vicki
Chapel Hill, NC

The Santa Solution
Sometimes it's the littlest things that encourage a child. Our daughter was 2 1/2, and although she had no problem peeing in the potty, she wouldn't try to have a bowel movement. After much begging and pleading from me, all it took was my husband walking into the bathroom and saying, "You can do it, Whitney. Even Santa goes in the potty!" Maybe because Christmas was right around the corner, she heard it loud and clear -- and potty-teaching was smooth sailing from then on.
Amy
Charlestown, NH

The Traveling Potty
When our daughter was first learning to use the potty, she would urinate before her nap but wait until we put her down in her crib to poop in her diaper. One day, I left her bottom bare and put her in the crib with the potty seat. (It was a sturdy type that couldn't tip over.) Sure enough, she used her potty. After following this schedule for several days, we moved the potty to the bathroom, and she had no problem adjusting.
Anita
Charlottesville, VA

Try Target Practice
When I was trying to teach my oldest son, my stepmother suggested that I put Cheerios in the toilet and challenge him to sink them. He thought it was so much fun that he was eager to go to the bathroom every time. Although I found myself constantly explaining to guests why we had a box of cereal in the bathroom, it really did work -- which is all that matters.
Angel
Deerfield, OH

Grandmother Knows Best
More than 30 years ago, when I was teaching my four children to use the potty, I had a trick that made the whole process very easy. I let my kids run around in underpants inside the house and, if it was summertime, outside in the yard as well. Not having regular pants on makes kids more aware when they're wet; fewer clothes also means it's easier for a child to get to the potty on time -- and there's less laundry for the parents when accidents happen. I've helped my children train several of their own kids using this same method, and it still works like a charm!
Peggy
Hamden, CT

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the June 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.