When to Start Potty Training Your Toddler

How do you know if your child's ready to stop wearing diapers? Find out the best age for potty training with expert-approved tips for transitioning to the toilet. 

Child Potty Training Readiness
Photo: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

Potty training might seem daunting, but when your child is truly ready, there's no need to worry. "Life goes on, and one day your child will just do it," says Lisa Asta, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Nevertheless, most parents still have plenty of questions about ditching diapers. One of the biggest: When should you start potty training your toddler? The answer varies for every child. Read on for some expert-approved advice.

What's the Best Potty Training Age?

The best potty training age isn't one size fits all. "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," says Dr. Asta. Most children typically start potty training between 18 and 30 months.

The following signs may indicate that your child is ready to start potty training:

  • Your child stays dry for at least two hours at a time during the day and is dry after naps.
  • They can follow multi-step instructions, like a request to walk to the bathroom, sit down, and remove their clothes.
  • They're interested in wearing "big kid" underwear.
  • Your child knows when their diaper is wet, and they cry, fuss, or show another obvious discomfort when it is soiled.
  • They indicate through facial expression, posture, or language that it's time to use the toilet.

Even if your child seems ready, experts say to avoid potty training during transitional or stressful times. For example, if you're moving, taking a vacation, adding a new baby to the family, starting a new child care situation, or going through a divorce, postpone the potty training until about a month after the transition. Children trying to learn this new skill will do best if they're relaxed and on a regular routine. When in doubt, ask a health care provider about the best time to potty train your child.

How to Start Potty Training

Once you figure out when to start potty training, it's important to introduce it properly. These tips can help ease the transition from diapers to toilets.

Gradually introduce the toilet

Start talking about potty training occasionally around your child's first birthday to pique interest. One way to do that is to read a few children's books about potty training with your child.

You can also bring up the subject of the potty in conversation. For example, 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." Incorporating conversations about using the bathroom raises awareness about going potty and makes your child comfortable with the overall concept before they're developmentally ready to potty train.

Follow a schedule for potty training

"The key is having times throughout the day where you ritualize using the potty, so it becomes more of a habit," says Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital. Consider having your child sit on the potty every couple of hours, whether they have to go or not. First thing in the morning, before you leave the house, and before naps and bedtime are good times to sit your child on the toilet.

Tell them to remove shorts or pants first, their underwear or diaper next, and to sit on the toilet for a few minutes (more time if you think they have to poop). Then, read a book or play a game, like 20 Questions, to make the time pass in a fun way.

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 their pants; they're just learning and can't help it. Instead, when your child uses the potty successfully, offer encouragement, gentle praise, and maybe even a small reward.

You might want to use a sticker chart—your child receives a sticker every time they go potty; after they've earned, say, three stickers, they get a small prize. "However, don't go nuts!" says Scott J. Goldstein, M.D., a clinical instructor of pediatrics at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern. "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."

Teach proper hygiene

To set children up with good hygiene habits that will last a lifetime, washing hands should be a routine from day one. After any time on the potty, have your child wipe, flush, and wash their hands, regardless of whether they went in the potty.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 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 kid-friendly soaps, and make it last long enough by singing a favorite song, like "Happy Birthday to You" or the "ABC Song," twice, so the bubbles work their germ-fighting magic.

Understand that potty training takes time and effort

You might prefer to get potty training over with as soon as possible, and maybe you're curious about the 3-day potty training trend. 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."

Also, it's not uncommon for a child who has been successfully using the potty for a few days to say they want to return to diapers. You might agree to a brief break to avoid a power struggle or a situation where your child starts a pattern of withholding bowel movements, which can lead to constipation. But try to build in a plan to resume by asking your child, "Would you like to wear underwear right when you get up or wait until after lunch?"

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