The ABCs of Potty Training

Learn everything there is to know about potty training with our comprehensive list of toilet training terms.
potty training

Jim Franco

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.

When to Start Potty Training
When to Start Potty Training


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.

J Is for Judgment

The best thing you can do during potty training is to dial down the judgment of yourself, your child, your friends and fellow parents, and your friends' kids. Negative comments are sure to affect how you present potty training, and they won't help make the transition faster or more graceful. "You child will learn to use the toilet," Pantley says. "He'll learn best in his own way, and on his own time schedule. There is no prize for the most quickly trained child. And research proves over and over that early or late toileting mastery has nothing whatsoever to do with how smart or capable a child is, or how gifted a parent is at teaching. So relax, and enjoy the process."

K Is for Keep It Simple

There's a lot to potty training, but using simple, clear terms will set your child up for success. "Like anything a child learns, we don't expect them to get it all at once," says Peter Stavinoha, a clinical neuropsychologist at Children's Medical Center of Dallas, and the co-author of Stress-Free Potty Training. "There is really nothing fancy or magical about potty training -- it's simply a skill we want our kids to learn. So by understanding them and using smart strategies, along with some patience and persistence, the children will get there." For example, don't talk about saying goodbye to diapers at night if you've just begun daytime training. Setting up a streamlined system of rewards (Stavinoha recommends praises or hugs -- things that make the child smile -- as positive reinforcement. See more reward options in P Is for Progress), a clear hygiene routine, and an easy access route to supplies will all help simplify and de-stress the process.

L Is for Listen

Experts agree that behavioral signs of readiness, rather than age or parental aspirations, are the best indicators of when a child is ready to potty train. Make listening to your child a priority so you'll be confident when it's the right time to start. "Being ready means the child knows what to do, is physically able to do it, is interested and motivated to do it, and is able to handle doing something new and unfamiliar," Stavinoha says. One sure sign of curiosity about the potty is a toddler following her parents into the bathroom. Even if she's not ready to use the potty, parents can still encourage the growing interest. But watch out for cues that your child is pushing back against early efforts. "Often, kids who are rushed or pressured will resist potty training, and the harder we push, the longer potty training takes," Stavinoha says.

M Is for Methods

Bookstore shelves and playgroup conversations abound with various methods of potty training, from weekend warrior to slow-and-steady. Pantley advises taking advantage of the broad range of options, but to find the best one for your family, she recommends asking yourself these four questions:

  • What is your child's learning style? How has she learned other new skills? Does she observe before she tackles something, or does she dive right in? Is she a thoughtful listener or a hands-on doer?
  • What do you do to encourage her to try something new? Which actions bring the best results? Is your enthusiasm enough to get your child to attempt something new? Or do you need to persuade her first?
  • What is your teaching style? Do you give verbal explanations first? Do you give step-by-step instructions? Do you let your child figure out things on his own?
  • How much time do you have? Are you home all day with your child or only part of the day? Will you have an uninterrupted chunk of time, followed by snippets? Or will you be finding time in your already-busy schedule?

Even if you have done your homework, you might find that you need to change course. Don't be in a rush to throw in the towel on a method, but don't be afraid to select a different approach if weeks have gone by without any progress. If that's the case, you might also consider taking a break and then starting fresh.

How to Potty Train in 3 Days
How to Potty Train in 3 Days


N Is for Nighttime Training

Experts generally agree that nighttime potty training is a separate project from daytime training, and it should be undertaken when daytime habits are becoming well established. Over time, you'll start to notice dry, or nearly dry, diapers in the morning as a sign that your child is ready to "hold it" throughout the night. Before starting to train at night, assess your child's evening drinking habits and try to minimize the amount of liquid she drinks for two hours before bedtime. Take a couple of trips to the bathroom before the final tuck-in; Pantley recommends one trip at the beginning of the routine and one just before lights-out. She also recommends avoiding the use of nighttime diapers after your child has been dry for at least a week. Instead, opt for the mattress cover recommended in the B is for Bedwetting section.

Potty Training for Day and Night
Potty Training for Day and Night


O Is for Opportunities

Be a reliable "potty partner" by offering ample opportunities for your child to sit on the potty before leaving the house, before bed, and at regular intervals throughout the day. Make these opportunities fun and interesting by consistently using potty stories or songs, or try marching in a "potty parade" to get your child walking happily to the bathroom. "Give yourself lots of extra time for new potty routines without rushing," Deerwester says. This way, you and your child will both feel less pressured and frustrated about his body's timetable.

P Is for Progress

The ways of tracking potty progress -- and rewarding success -- are as numerous as the philosophies of potty training. Some parents note progress by using detailed charts that invite kids to place colorful stickers or check marks next to each day's potty activities. Any chart system should be in or close to the bathroom so accomplishments can be noted immediately. Deerwester encourages parents to be creative in thinking of rewards, including things like phone calls to loved ones to report great potty news, or throwing a family party with underpants-wearing balloons when it's time to throw out the last diaper. Toys or candy, she cautions, should be kept to a minimum, lest your child become more focused on negotiating for better prizes than on earning the pride and respect of accomplishing potty skills. Whether you reward successes with verbal praise and excited applause or accept your child's natural learning curve without fanfare, let your child's personality drive your approach. "Some children thrive on their parent's energy and will do anything for a round of applause; other children are easily overwhelmed and prefer more subtle praise," Pantley says. "What's most important is [to let] your child know that you support him, and that you are proud of his efforts along the way, as much as his successes."

Q Is for Questions

Encourage open communication around potty training and field any questions that may come up throughout the process. Children are naturally curious -- and they don't have a filter -- so expect the unexpected in what they might ask, especially when it comes to their observations about the body. Pantley suggests that parents limit what their kids observe when grown-ups use the potty, especially if the parents are easily embarrassed or flustered by questions. Just seeing an adult sitting on the toilet is enough to teach the child what they need to know. If your child asks about something that makes you uncomfortable, such as pubic hair, Pantley advises keeping your answers simple, brief, and calm. "Typically, this will be enough to satisfy your curious child, who's likely simply making an observation about what she sees."

R Is for Regression

Regression, in which a child who has mastered potty skills suddenly stops using them, is seen in up to 80 percent of children. It is different from the occasional accident, which is almost inevitable; instead, it's a consistent pattern of a child resisting and refusing the potty over a period of time. Like accidents, regression should be treated calmly, patiently, and without judgment. If your child experiences it, consider whether there have been any changes in her life, like the addition of a new sibling, a move to a new house, or basic changes to nap or meal routines. Changes can unsettle children and lead them to seek control, attention, or comfort by regressing to their earlier, diapered practices. But such setbacks are temporary, so parents should keep their anxiety in check, along with their urge to push kids to make a quick recovery. "Parents should respond in a relaxed manner, and simply revisit many of the strategies they used to potty train the child in the first place," Stavinoha says.

Solve Potty-Training Problems
Solve Potty-Training Problems


S Is for Signals

Parents will usually recognize their kids' "I have to go" signals pretty quickly during the potty training process, whether it's a distinctive pee dance or a funny face that hints at an impending poop. If you haven't cracked your child's bathroom code yet, a little close observation will likely reveal all. When you notice your child's signals, Deerwester recommends creating a simple non-verbal communication system to bring your child's attention toward the potty. For example, you can draw a "P" and a question mark on your child's back with your finger to send a message without risking embarrassment or an argument.

T Is for Transition

Potty training is a major transition for your child. It's one step closer to big girl/big boy life, but it can also provoke anxiety for children who are sensitive to change. If training is going slowly or is frustrating your child, worries can be even more intense. Deerwester advises parents to "focus forward," be specific, and talk positively about the changes and growth your child will see. Tell your child, "One day, or pretty soon, you'll be using the potty all the time. Right now, you use it sometimes. It won't be long until you hold your pee and poop so we can get to the bathroom/stop playing to go to the potty/tell your teacher when you have to go potty."

U Is for Underpants

The switch to underpants is also a major milestone, but if you attempt it before your child is capable of staying dry with ease, it could lead to disappointment and self-doubt -- not to mention massive amounts of extra laundry for you. Deerwester says underpants are a "definite goodbye to diapers," and while some kids might be eager to put on "big-kid underwear," it's better to delay the change until your child is completely ready to ditch diapers and training pants for colorful cloth garments. "If the skills are not there, underwear won't make a difference," Deerwester says.

V Is for Vocabulary

The vocabulary you use to refer to the various aspects of potty training is important, so consider it carefully. "Choose words that are universally understood and won't be embarrassing after a certain age," Deerwester says. She recommends teaching the anatomically correct terms penis and vagina, even if you use cuter names at home, because children need to communicate to teachers or doctors if something hurts in those areas. Also, pick words to refer to bathroom waste that you'll feel comfortable and natural saying multiple times a day. "Your words shape your level of comfort in talking about the potty experience to your child," Deerwester says.

W Is for Wiping

According to Stavinoha, wiping after pooping is the last potty training skill attained by both boys and girls, and it's usually reached by the child's fourth birthday. To teach your child how to wipe herself, first do it for her while narrating the steps and advising how much toilet paper to use and how to wipe from front to back. To make sure she's really clean, check her bottom after she wipes herself until you're certain she's mastered the process. You can choose to use wet wipes to remove poop and use toilet tissue to clean up pee.

X Is for eXamine

Turn diaper changes, which are a time when kids naturally start exploring, into opportunities for talking about the anatomy; introduce correct terms and invite your child to ask questions in a safe and nonjudgmental space. "Part of potty readiness involves kids knowing their plumbing and what happens when we use the potty," Stavinoha says. You might consider talking to your child about how Daddy has a penis just like Johnny does, or Mommy has a vagina just like Susie does -- and that both Mommy and Daddy make pee and poop in the potty. If your child wants to know more, look for an age-appropriate book that addresses the anatomy of the potty.

Y Is for Yellow

Children are likely to be curious about, well, the fruits of their potty labors. Although you should discourage touching pee and poop because of health and sanitary concerns, help your child notice that pee is yellow in color and how lighter shades indicate she's had a lot of water to drink. You can also explain how some poops are bigger than others, plus other details that will satisfy your young scientist and take the mystery out of the potty process.

Z Is for Zipper

Make sure your potty routine has a clear and positive beginning and ending, whether or not your child actually made a "deposit" in the potty. You may want to take the opportunity to reinforce getting-dressed skills by starting the potty routine with "Zipper down!" and ending it with "Zipper up!" Your child might giggle if you joke, "Hmm, did you forget your pants?" as you get ready to wash hands and leave the bathroom, and he may take special pride in showing off clothing skills he has already mastered -- especially if he is struggling with mastering potty training skills.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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