Step-by-Step Guide to Potty Training

Your child's now a toddler, and it's time to wean him off diapers -- but how do you begin? These seven steps will lead you through potty training from start to finish.
Boy sitting on potty chair

Potty training might seem like a daunting task, but it doesn't need to be. Parents often spend so much time worrying about potty training and deliberating over the best way to do it, but if the child is truly ready, there's not much to worry about. "Don't spend an inordinate amount of time on potty training -- life goes on and one day your child will just do it," says Lisa Asta, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "[H]aving seen thousands of children over many years, I really feel that when kids want to go on the potty, they will go on the potty. Sometimes that happens at 18 months, sometimes it doesn't happen until close to age 4, but no healthy child will go into kindergarten in diapers. As with other things, like eating, walking, talking, and making friends, kids do things on their timetable, not ours!" So no matter what, your child will eventually be potty trained (though some earlier or later than others). Here, we break down the potty training process into these seven basic, easy steps as recommended by experts. Follow these step-by-step techniques and your child's diapers will soon be a thing of the past.

1. Introduce the Potty

There's a wide range for when children start potty training, though it's typically between 18 and 24 months. So right around your child's first birthday, start talking about potty training occasionally to pique interest. Keep a few children's books about potty training lying around your house to read along with your child. And bring up the subject of the potty in conversation; say things like, "I wonder if Elmo [or your child's favorite stuffed animal] needs to go potty" or "I have to go pee-pee. I'm headed to the potty." The idea is to raise awareness about going potty and make your child comfortable with the overall concept.

 

2. Look for Signs of Readiness

Here are clues that your child may be ready: He shows an increased interest in using the potty; feels uncomfortable in dirty diapers; talks about the potty; can get dressed by himself; goes to the bathroom on some sort of schedule; can follow simple instructions; and stays dry for longer periods of time. These are some signs that your little one might be ready for the next step but he doesn't need to demonstrate all of these behaviors; just look to see if he shows an overall interest in and capability for using the potty.

 

3. Pick and Buy the Right Potty

Buy the necessary equipment, either a full potty that sits on the floor or a potty seat that goes on top of the adult toilet. Some parents prefer to set up several potties throughout the house (for instance, keeping one in the kitchen or the living room as well as the bathroom), but experts advise sticking with one potty in the bathroom for repeated use, so you don't have to retrain your child down the road to transition from several potties to one. If you choose to use a potty seat, get a step stool, too. "People can't empty their bowels and bladders completely unless their feet are pressing down on the floor," explains Scott J. Goldstein, M.D. a pediatrician at The Northwestern Children's Practice in Chicago and clinical instructor of pediatrics at Northwestern University School of Medicine.

 

4. Choose the Right Time Carefully

Even if your child seems ready, experts say to avoid potty training during transitional or stressful times. For instance, if you're moving, taking a vacation, adding a new baby to the family, or going through a divorce, or if your child is starting a new school, postpone the potty training until about a month after the transitional time (or earlier, if your child seems eager to start.) Children trying to learn this new skill will do best if they are relaxed and on their regular routine. Some parents prefer to get potty training over with as soon as possible -- they go cold turkey and attempt to train in one weekend, for example (but, again, not during transitions). That's fine, experts say, but not if it becomes too frustrating. "I often see parents who boast that they trained their 2?-year-old in a weekend, and then say that the child has accidents four times a day," Dr. Goldstein says. "This is not the same as being potty trained. When kids are truly ready, they often will just start going on the potty on their own."

When you do decide it's time to start potty training, keep in mind that if you want your child to go to the bathroom independently, day or night, make sure she has transitioned out of the crib and into a big-kid bed. "Kids need access to a potty 24/7 if they're potty training so they can reach it on their own when they need it," says Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a Parents advisor and pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital. Of course, if you think you're child isn't ready for a bed (or, let's face it, if you're not ready), there's no harm in keeping her in diapers at night for a while longer. Talk to your child's doctor about the best time to potty train your child; the perfect time will range greatly by child, though most kids should be out of diapers during the day by age 3.

 

5. Demonstrate the Potty Training Methods

When you're ready to start training, choose certain times in the day to take your child to the potty (whether or not he has to go). You might want to have him sit on the potty every two hours, including first thing in the morning, before you leave the house, and before naps and bedtime. "The key is having times throughout the day where you ritualize using the potty so it becomes more of a habit," Dr. Swanson says. Tell him to remove his shorts or pants first, his underwear (or, if you're using them, training pants) next, and to sit on the toilet for a few minutes (allot more time, if you think he has to poop). Read him a book or play a game, like 20 Questions, to make the time pass in a fun way. Then, whether or not he actually goes potty, instruct him to flush and wash his hands. Of course, always praise him for trying.

 

6. Teach Proper Hygiene

When you're potty training, it's important to include a lesson on keeping clean. Instruct both girls and boys how to wipe front to back, to flush, and to wash their hands with soap and water afterward. You can buy sparkly or colorful kid-friendly soap as an incentive to get kids excited about washing. Make sure your child is washing long enough by asking him to sing the Alphabet Song while he cleans up.

 

7. Offer Praise and Rewards

When you're potty training, accidents are part of the process; some kids still have accidents through age 5 or 6, and many don't stay dry at night until that age (or even later). Never punish your child for wetting or soiling his pants; he's just learning and can't help it. In fact, doing so might only make your little one scared of using the potty, and that, in turn, will delay the whole process even further. Instead, when your child uses the potty successfully, offer gentle praise and a small reward. You might want to use a sticker chart -- your child receives a sticker every time he goes potty; after he's earned, say, three stickers, he gets a small prize. "However, don't go nuts!" Dr. Goldstein says. "A lot of toddlers will react to excessive praise as they react to punishment -- by getting scared and avoiding doing the thing that they were excessively praised or punished for." In other words, stick with stickers, a trip to the local park, or even a surprise cup of hot cocoa -- no need to go on a shopping spree to Toys 'R' Us. And, of course, heap on the praise: Phrases such as "You're such a big girl now!" and "Mommy is so proud of you!" go a long way.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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