Potty Training Readiness: What You Should Know

Think potty training is all about your child? Think again. You need to be ready and on board as much as they do. We asked pediatricians and potty experts what you need to remember before potty training.

using a child-sized toilet
Denis Horan

Spot the Big and Small Signs

Potty training requires that your child develop physical skills as well as cognitive and emotional abilities for true success. Physical signs of potty training readiness include staying dry for two or more hours at a time, sticking to a regular pattern of bowel movements, having the ability to get to the potty, and being able to pull pants on and off and sit down on the potty without help. Emotional signs of readiness are important, too. These involve a child showing an interest in staying dry and clean, and in using the potty, and not being afraid of the potty. Finally, cognitive readiness helps a child understand and communicate this new process. The signs may include a child understanding when she needs to go (or has already gone), communicating when she needs to go, and following simple directions for using the bathroom or washing hands.

Even if you don't notice any of these readiness signs, there are quieter cues that indicate your child might be ready. "Parents often look for obvious signs of readiness, when they should be looking for subtle signs. Interest in goings-on in the bathroom by Mom and Dad, hiding to poop, or even interest in pets pooping and peeing, qualifies as 'signs of readiness,'" says Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D, a Parents advisor and author of the upcoming Let's Get This Potty Started! The BabyShrink's Guide to Potty Training.

Take It One Phase at a Time

It's important to remember that potty training happens in phases. Although many parents focus on daytime bladder and bowel control as the central task of potty training, the process actually begins with nighttime bowel control -- a step that your child has likely already mastered.

The Typical Readiness Sequence

1. Nighttime bowel control

2. Daytime bowel control

3. Daytime bladder control

4. Nighttime bladder control

The first phase, nighttime bowel control, is a skill that many kids master by 12 to 18 months. By contrast, many kids don't master the last stage, nighttime bladder control or nighttime dryness, for months or even years. "Pediatricians consider some nighttime wetting normal until age 6," says David Hill, M.D., a pediatrician in Wilmington, NC, and author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro. "In many cases, you'll simply notice that your child often wakes up with a dry diaper or Pull-Up, and you can suggest sleeping in underwear."

Try Out One or More Methods

Once you're ready to start potty training, you'll need to decide on a method. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't have a list of approved methods, but these are common ones we've named that most experts recommend.

The Slow and Steady: This method gradually teaches bladder and bowel control over a period of weeks or months. A child will usually wear disposable and reusable/washable training pants that allow the child to pull them off and on easily and that provide plenty of absorbency for accidents.

The Weekend Warrior: Two- and three-day methods offer a concentrated period of teaching potty skills that usually consists of ditching diapers for undies, or time in the buff and offering lots of beverages to provide ample potty opportunities. Constant supervision is necessary to watch for signals and accidents and to offer praise for successes.

The Blitz: A very quick and intensive one-day potty training style that can be effective with kids who are physically ready for potty training and who "get" the concept quickly.

The truth is that they all work, but the question is: Which method will work for your kid? "Some children truly can and do learn potty training in a single day. Others truly do take a couple of years," Wittenberg says. "Both extremes are actually considered versions of normal. The trick is that there is no way to predict which child will be what way when it comes to training." If you feel as though one method is a good fit for your child, family, and lifestyle, give it a go. But if it doesn't work out well, don't be too hard on your child -- or yourself. Take time to reassess your child's readiness and try again in a few weeks or months. If she does seem ready and capable, give another method a try.

Always Set a Positive Tone

When you're cleaning pee off the floor for the fifth time in a day or washing out yet another pair of undies, it can be easy to get frustrated -- and to take that frustration out on your child. This is not wise. "Going negative with punishments or admonishments pretty much never works, may delay the process, and can even contribute to constipation. As frustrating as the process can be, you'll be rewarded for keeping a relentlessly positive attitude," Dr. Hill says. Look for ways to offer praise beyond the obvious pee-in-the-potty successes. Comments like "Wow, you pulled down your pants all by yourself!" or "Great job hurrying to the potty! We almost made it in time!" keep your child encouraged and motivated even if the result isn't being achieved quite yet. According to Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a child and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, and author of The Self-Aware Parent, "A parent should invest in and commit to the right attitude for potty training. It costs nothing and makes all the difference in the world to your child,"

Follow Your Child's Lead

Follow instead of leading your child when it comes to potty training, Wittenberg suggests. Although some experts recommend that parents never try to potty train a child until she explicitly shows that she's ready, others believe there is no harm in trying to introduce the concept and seeing how your child reacts. Courtney Graham, a mom of three, revealed that one of her sons showed zero interest when she started potty training, but he ended up being the fastest learner and the easiest to teach. So while it's important to look for signs of potty training readiness, don't presume that this will guarantee interest from your child or success at the task. Still, "subtle readiness signs indicate progress. Notice them, comment on them, offer a next step, and then see what happens." We promise you'll both be happier.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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