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Your Complete Potty Training Guide

5 Ways to Know Your Child Is Ready

Are diaper-free days just around the corner? Most kids show an interest in the potty sometime between the ages of 2 and 3. It's time to give toilet training a try if your child displays two or more of the following signs, says Diane Stafford, coauthor of Potty Training for Dummies.

  • She's interested in watching you use the toilet and helping you flush.
  • He's uncomfortable in dirty diapers and wants them changed.
  • She regularly has dry diapers in the morning or stays dry during naps.
  • He lets you know when he needs to use the potty.
  • She begins to develop a predictable peeing and pooping schedule.

4 Potty-Training Pitfalls and How to Deal

Pediatrician Mark Wolraich, M.D., editor of American Academy of Pediatrics Guide to Toilet Training, gives advice on overcoming some common stumbling blocks.

  • Pitfall: My child will use the potty but refuses to flush.
  • Solution: Most kids go through a developmental stage when they don't like to see a "part of themselves" disappear, so they resist having their bowel movements flushed down the toilet, Dr. Wolraich explains. "That's probably what's
    happening—but don't make a big deal of it." The fix here is simply to remain patient. This too shall pass, and your toddler will be flushing in no time.
  • Pitfall: We've had accidents in the car, but we don't know whether we should put her in diapers for outings.
  • Solution: Switching back and forth between diapers, disposables, and underwear is confusing for a child. Keep it
    consistent at home, at day care, and on outings. When you head out with a toddler who is still learning to use the toilet, keep a portable potty in the back of your car; that way, you can always make an emergency stop if necessary. And don't forget to take her to the bathroom as soon as you reach your destination and once more just before you head home.
  • Pitfall: My son has been using the potty for about a month, but now he's saying that he wants to go back to diapers.
  • Solution: Take a good look at what's happening in your household. Because potty training is one of the last developmental skills that 2- to 3-year-olds master, it's often one of the first that regresses when something such as a new sibling disrupts the child's routine, Dr. Wolraich says. If your tot is having accidents on a consistent basis, use diapers for a while until he's ready to try again. Many kids take a few steps backward, but that doesn't stop them from reaching their goals.
  • Pitfall: My daughter will pee in the toilet but won't poop there.
  • Solution: "You need to watch the situation closely," advises Dr. Wolraich. Your child could be constipated, or maybe she was constipated within the last few weeks. If it hurt her to go to the bathroom that time, she'll probably be scared or reluctant to go again. If the problem persists, talk to her pediatrician.

2 Things to Say (And 2 Not to Say) After an Accident

Say This: "It's okay. Accidents happen!" Encourage your tot by letting him know that "mistakes" are perfectly normal and acceptable, and that everyone has them.

Don't Say This: "I told you that we don't go potty in our pants anymore!" Since he just pooped or peed in his pants, this statement isn't helpful.

Say This: "Let's clean up. Someday you'll go in the toilet!" Here, you're reinforcing the idea that she will succeed at using the potty eventually—and that's something she really needs to hear, especially after an accident.

Don't Say This: "You're too big to wet your pants!" You can see (and probably smell) the unmistakable evidence that she's not too big to miss the potty boat. These words will shame and embarrass your child rather than empower or encourage her.

3 Embarrassing Potty Moments

Need some comic relief? Here, true bathroom humor from the potty front lines.

My 3-year-old son, Thad, is currently potty training and wears Superhero disposable underpants. One morning, I put an Incredible Hulk pair on him. Later, as I was walking out of the day-care center, I heard Thad proudly announce, "Hey guys, I have a monster in my pants!"
Heather K. Bottoms
Amelia, Va.

I was sitting in our living room one day, chatting with a girlfriend, when my daughter Parker walked in from her bedroom proudly holding a big poop in her hand. She helpfully explained, "Mommy, poo-poo! Poo-poo!" Needless to say, I screamed, and my girlfriend (who has no kids herself) has gotten a ton of mileage out of this story!
Denise Gordon
Los Angeles, Calif.

After pooping in Grandma and Poppa's bathroom, my newly potty-trained son, Nate, looked into the toilet and yelled, "Look! Play-Doh!"
Lisa Jensen
Concord, N.C.

4 Classics for Your Bathroom

These fun toddler titles are easy to find at your local bookstore or on www.amazon.com.

  1. Once Upon a Potty, by Alona Frankel
    This timeless story, which comes in "boy" and "girl" versions, uses humor to help kids grasp the concept of using the toilet.
  2. Potty Power DVD
    This fun, upbeat video features motivational footage of real kids sitting on the potty—and who could resist an animated roll of toilet paper singing "No More Diapers for Me"?
  3. Time to Pee! by Mo Willems
    This silly toilet tome, winner of a National Parenting Publication Award Gold Medal, centers around a group of friendly sign-toting mice that encourage kids to use the potty. Each book comes with a success chart and stickers.
  4. Bear in the Big Blue House: Potty Time With Bear DVD
    The Playhouse Disney star sings upbeat songs and gets a little help from his lovable puppet friends to teach
    kids about bathroom basics.

5 Facts From the Pros

Here's some expert advice to keep in mind.

  • Girls typically show an interest in using the potty at 23 months, and boys do so at 25 months.
  • Being in day care or having a working mom has no negative impact on potty training.
  • Children learning to use the toilet may move quickly from stage to stage (for example, peeing in the potty, then pooping there, then staying dry all night), or they may linger at any given stage for months and still be well within the norm.
  • Spanking or disciplining your child after accidents can lead to power struggles and is not an effective way to potty train.
  • Girls are normally fully trained by 33 months old and boys by 37 months.

Source: The Medical College of Wisconsin, Mil

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3 Keys to Diaper-Free Nights

Most kids don't stay dry through the night until around six months after they've mastered daytime potty use, says Jan Faull, author of Mommy I Have to Go Potty!: A Parent's Guide to Toilet Training. These tips will help your tot get there.

  1. Limit liquids after 6 p.m., but don't feel you have to ban them altogether, says Faull. "If your child is thirsty, definitely go ahead and give her a small drink," she advises.
  2. Put your child in disposable underpants at night, and encourage her to pee right before bedtime. Make a deal: If she's dry for five nights, she'll get a treat (a sticker or toy). "But never take rewards away after an accident," warns Faull. After five dry nights in a row, try cotton undies.
  3. When he switches to "big-kid' underpants, be prepared for accidents. Buy extra waterproof mattress pads for quick cleanups. "Make it easy on yourself," says Faull. "If you're doing laundry at 3 a.m., you'll get frustrated"—and that's counterproductive.

7 Times Not to Teach

Stress and potty practice don't mix. Don't try to train during these tumultuous transitions.

  • He's a week away from his first day at a no-diapers preschool.
  • She's weaning from the breast or bottle.
  • He's giving up a pacifier habit.
  • Your family is in the midst of a move.
  • Your marriage is splitting up.
  • She's starting or returning to day care.
  • A brand-new sibling is expected or has just arrived.

9 Top Tricks From Moms Who've Been There

Do the potty dance! We play Madonna's "Holiday" and boogie around the living room after my daughter poops. Just the prospect of a dance makes her want to use the potty.
Marnie Aulabaugh
Los Angeles, Calif.

Have your daughter wear dresses for potty training. It's easier for her to make quick decisions about the perfect potty moment.
Traci Cole
Oklahoma City, Okla.

Squirt blue food coloring into the toilet. When your kid pees—surprise!—the water turns green.
Robyn Brown Samra
Leonia, N.J.

Put her in cotton underpants, even if they get wet or dirty sometimes. That mild discomfort will make her eager to use the potty.
Remi Adams
Oakland, Calif.

Try the "naked bum" technique. Remove diapers (and any other clothes from the waist down) while you're home. Have the potty ready for action. This helped my kids learn fast.
Crystal Dube
Sudbury, Ont., Canada

Tackle potty training in the summer. He'll have fewer items of clothing to take off when it's toilet time.
Julie Van Byssum
Tinley Park, Ill.

Reward her with lots of praise, and try not to get upset when she has an accident. Staying positive is absolutely key!
Judith Loeb Whitaker
Glendale, Calif.

Don't force the issue—just wait until your child is ready. I held off until my son was 3, and he potty trained almost instantly.
Cindy Goldstein
Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Throw a few Cheerios into the toilet bowl for target practice to help boys learn to pee standing. My son played "sink the ship" with the cereal, and it made the whole experience more fun.
Sue MacDonald
Cincinnati, Ohio

6 Reasons Potty Success Is a Victory for the Whole Family

  • You'll save roughly $800 a year by not buying any more disposable diapers.
  • You'll regain time you used to spend changing diapers—an extra 3 1/2 hours each week.
  • You get to shop for cute underwear.
  • You can trade in your bulky diaper bag for an adorable clutch.
  • You'll aid the environment by no longer sending dirty disposables to landfills.
  • Your house will smell like potpourri, not poop-pourri!

Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the June 2005 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.