Potty training is one of the biggest markers of the end of babyhood. Like any skill you teach your child, potty training is a process with multiple steps and levels of learning, but it's not one-size-fits-all. When should you start? What should you expect? What should you do when things don't go according to plan? Each family must create a customized plan that fits its parenting philosophy and the child's temperament. We consulted three experts on how to start on a low-stress road to successful potty training. Click through our A-to-Z guide for clear, reliable advice on the process.
A Is for Age
The perfect age to start potty training is different for every child. "The best starting age could be anywhere between 18 and 32 months. Potty training preparation -- teaching key words, bringing attention to what's happening in the diaper -- can begin when a child is as young as 10 months," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Potty Training Solution. The process typically takes between six to eight months for all the skills to click into place, adds Karen Deerwester, author of The Potty Training Answer Book and the owner of Family Time Coaching and Consulting. But, she says, "this should not be six months of desperation. Rather, it is six months of moving toward self-reliance, while sometimes taking a few steps back."
B Is for Bedwetting
Bedwetting is very common, and is even believed to be hereditary. Nighttime potty training is a distinct process from daytime training (see N Is for Nighttime Training), and it can be challenging, especially if repeated bedwetting occurs. To help your child stay dry at night, Pantley recommends against night diapers or nighttime training pants after about age 4, or once your child is consistently dry at night. Instead, invest in a mattress cover that will protect the mattress from accidents and help your child recognize wetness when it happens. Keep a well-lit path to the bathroom so your child feels safe and comfortable walking there during the night. Most important, "avoid placing any blame on your child, and don't make him feel guilty or ashamed. Let him know that wetting during sleep is normal and will take time to change," Pantley says.
C Is for Control
Toddlers have little control over their daily routines, so they love to experiment with expanding personal power. This might mean resisting potty training and choosing to put energy into challenging your authority instead. "Young children have ultimate control when it comes to using the toilet or not. If parents get too stressed out or too intense, or expect too much perfection, a child may respond with resistance," Pantley points out. She advises slowing down the process, calmly and consistently sticking to the potty routine that you've selected, and refusing to be drawn into a battle of wills. Too much pressure, she says, "can create resistance, tantrums, constipation, excessive accidents, and setbacks."
D Is for Diapers
Disposable diapers are more absorbent and moisture-wicking than they were in the past. This can be a good thing for minimizing diaper rash and maximizing baby's comfort, but it also means your toddler might not immediately get why she needs to stop wearing diapers and go on the potty. Consider a multistep process before saying goodbye to diapers. Explain the potty process clearly, but let your child guide the timing for when to stop wearing diapers. For example, if your child has mastered peeing on the potty but asks for a diaper to poop, allow for "the emotional security of her diaper while boosting her confidence. Give her a verbal affirmation -- 'I know it feels better to poop in the diaper for now and I know you will tell me when you don't need it anymore,'" Deerwester suggests.
E Is for Equipment
When you're ready to start potty training, be prepared with some essential tools. Decide whether you want a stand-alone potty chair or a potty seat that rests securely on top of a regular toilet. Some stand-alone potties are cute and colorful and have play "flush" mechanisms to mimic the real deal. But if you prefer a more direct road to the real toilet, a child seat might be a better investment, though you'll also want to purchase a step stool so your child can climb up. Other necessary equipment: training pants, underpants, wet wipes, and motivational items like potty-related books and toys.
F Is for Fun
Put a little pizzazz into the experience if you want to persuade your child to visit the potty. Pantley recommends calling bathroom trips "the potty train" and announcing its arrival with a loud "Choo, choo!" and a hearty "All aboard!" as you all head toward the Potty Stop. "If the train comes every few hours, and if it's a happy train, your child should willingly follow along," she says. Once you're in the bathroom, think about what your child enjoys most -- dolls, books, figurines, or music -- and make that part of the routine. A doll can learn to use the potty along with your child, and a story or song can help him relax while sitting on the potty. "If you're going to be there, you may as well relax and enjoy it!" Pantley says. It's in everyone's interest to keep potty time light and upbeat.
G Is for Go Shopping
Make potty training prep an enjoyable experience -- and help your child feel part of the process -- by taking her shopping to pick out her first underpants, a potty chair or seat, and a special book or toy to make the process more pleasant. She'll feel more grown-up because you consulted her and valued her opinion, and she'll be more eager to wear the special underpants that she picked out.
H Is for Hand Washing
To set children up with good hygiene habits that will last a lifetime, washing hands should be a routine from Day 1, along with flushing and wiping, regardless of whether your child actually went in the potty. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wetting hands with cool or warm running water, lathering up with soap, and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. Make hand washing fun by buying colorful soaps, and make it last long enough by singing a favorite song, like "Happy Birthday to You" or the "ABC Song," so the bubbles work their germ-fighting magic.
I Is for "I Did It!"
"Potty training can be treated just like any other new skill or milestone your child is learning," Pantley says. "Think about how you encourage your child to use a cup, throw a ball, or draw a picture. Positive words, pleasant encouragement, and lots of support will help him feel good about what he's accomplishing." Fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment in your child will make him feel like potty success is something he's achieving on his own, without being pushed into it.