Q&A: Solutions to Your Child’s Biggest Potty Training Problems

You asked, we answered! These experts cover all things potty training, making your problems a thing of the past.
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What can I do if my child has difficulty making it to the bathroom in time? We're potty training our son, and he hardly ever makes it to the potty on time. Any suggestions?

Put the potty wherever he is, even if that means leaving it in his bedroom while he plays, in the family room when he watches TV, or out in the backyard. Over time, you can gradually increase the distance he has to travel. —Donna Christiano

How can I keep my child dry through the night?

Even if your child uses the potty during the day, it could take up to a year before she's dry at night. By kindergarten, most kids can wear undies around the clock. The two determining factors are how long your child can hold her pee and how deeply she sleeps. Here's the best strategy for giving it a try: Cut way back on drinks after 6 pm. Lay a few towels or a mattress protector over your child's fitted sheet before bedtime. Tell your child what's going on by saying, "You know what? We're going to see if your body is ready to wear underwear at night." After a couple of nights, if it doesn't seem to be working say, "No problem. Your body isn't quite ready yet." Try again in another month or two. —Nancy Rones

Why won’t my child pee in the potty? I am having trouble potty training my daughter who will be 3 in April. She does great at school but once she gets home it’s almost impossible for me to get her to go potty. However, she does GREAT pooping in the potty, but peeing is another story. I've done everything that I know to do. My goal is to have her potty trained by her 3rd birthday. What should, or can I do?

By three or three and a half most children should be able to be toilet trained. If she is successful at school I would talk to them about how they get her to go. Do all the children go at certain set times? Is there some sort of a reward for success or staying dry? Then try to replicate that at home. Setting a schedule can be helpful for some children (i.e. we get up in the am and sit on the potty, then we sit on the potty before snacks, meals, and bedtime) Try to keep the experience positive, don’t ask if she “needs to go” just state that “it is time to go potty”. If she is successful, reward her with praise and/or small treats. Buy a few small toys the hang them one at a time from the shower curtain and tell her that when she is dry for the whole day she can have it at bedtime. Once she is successful a few days, make it two days for the toy and then three. If you can be consistent and not make it a negative experience she will likely succeed by your April goal. —Dr. Carrie M. Brown

My 2-year-old daughter knows what a potty is and what to do, but I can't get her to stay on the potty long enough for her to go.  What should I do?

Your 2-year-old is not ready to potty train. The definition of potty training is understanding the urge to go and the desire to be clean...and then successfully going on the potty. She should not have to stay there for very long to have success; most toddlers do not need time to read the sports page to poop. When they need to go, they go. Wait until she has mastered the developmental skills necessary to go to the potty and try again. Most parents have a few false starts before success. —Dr. Ari Brown

My two year old girl (who will soon will be three) does not like potty training. She has done pee pee a few times but after that just won't anymore. She cries when we try and put her on the potty and I've also taken her to the bathroom with me so that she can watch me do it. We've also tried bribes and its just not working. We don't know what else to do!

At this point, I'd suggest you back off a bit (as best you can!). You don't want your daughter's potty training to turn into a power struggle; as she resists you up the ante of the conflict. I'd stop offering reminders about the potty. You want to follow your daughter's cues and lead. You want her to think that potty training was all her idea. But support her and set her up for success. Have a potty she can get to all on her own (that she doesn't need help or a stool to reach). Have a stack of underwear as well as a stack of diapers/training pants avail and let HER chose which she would like to wear. Keep up the conversations and great modeling (talk about going pee and let her observe). But don't force or push her into the bathroom or place her on the toilet if it is isn't her idea. Eventually (really—sometime before college, I promise) she will explore potty training all on her own. When it's her idea and her time, and the right day for her, she will start down the road. As hard as it is, the most important thing you can do is let her lead the way. Good luck! —Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson

How do I get my almost 2 year old daughter to stop taking off her diaper all the time? I take her to her potty to try to get her to go but she sits there and does nothing but she will take her diaper off and (gross I know) try to play in it, wet or dirty. She usually doesn't get far before I catch her but she goes in her room to do this. Please help!

Your toddler clearly is not ready to potty train, so don't make it easy for her to take her diapers off. One solution: duct tape. Not kidding. If you affix the diapers with duct tape, she won't be able to strip. Or, you can have her wear overalls, or some other equally challenging clothing item to remove. Bottom line: until she is ready to toilet train, keep her from being able to take her bottoms off. —Dr. Ari Brown

Why won't my son go to the potty at home? At school he pees for his teacher but at home, he just sits there.

Usually, potty training also progresses more slowly in one setting than another.  Encourage your son's potty training by letting him know you're interested in his progress at school. But let him decide his own pace, which is the best way to ensure that potty training goes more smoothly.  It's the fate of all parents that our children show their true selves to us. This means they work harder outside the home and "perform" best for their teachers and babysitters, but they "let it all hang out" with their parents. —Dr. Heather Wittenberg

How can I get my 2 yr old to tell me she has to go potty before she does it?

At the age of 2 she may or may not be aware before she goes that she needs to go to the bathroom. The first step in helping her to know when she needs to go or has gone is to get rid of the Pull Ups and let her wear underwear. Pull Ups eliminate the wet feeling that can be helpful in becoming aware that you should have gone to the bathroom. Scheduled potty times can also be helpful in establishing the habit of using the toilet. Start as soon as she wakes up in the am or from a nap and sit on the toilet for a few minutes every 2 hours. Celebrate the successes and be prepared to wash a lot of wet underwear until she figures it out. —Dr. Carrie M. Brown

My daughter is a very heavy sleeper and usually does not wake up to use the bathroom during the night. Do you have any suggestions on how to get her to use the bathroom during the night?

The ability for the brain to "wake up" when the bladder is full is a developmental milestone that happens at different ages. Some kids will figure it out around the same time they potty train during the day, but it is normal not to be dry at night up until age 7. Unfortunately, you can't "teach" her to wake up by putting her in underwear and hoping she will wake up because she'll feel wet. You will only end up with a frustrated child and a wet bed every morning. If your daughter is school aged, start by limiting fluid intake or stopping fluids entirely after dinner so there is less urine produced overnight. For kids around 7, there are some behavioral training techniques and bedwetting alarms that can be effective, but they don't really work on younger children. —Dr. Ari Brown

My 34-month old daughter has been pooping off and on on the potty when she feels like it since about 20-months old. She has never peed on the potty and now refuses to try at all and will tell me she has to go but goes in her diaper instead. I have tried all rewards but nothing works. Does anyone know how to get passed this stubbornness?

A child of 34 months is likely to be very sensitive to feeling pushed around, so cajoling, arguing, and focusing on a particular behavior has a low yield of success. You are right, I am sure, that the problem is not that she does not understand the idea of the grown-up toilet but that she is "stubborn." Trying to be stubborn in the opposite direction isn't likely to help you—a toddler will win a power struggle every time. You can count on it!

Your best strategy is to step away from the power struggle. You did not struggle to get your daughter to walk or to use words to speak or to eat with a spoon. These things came naturally, because her capacity to understand was growing and her observations of how the grown-ups do things led—naturally—to her wanting to do things the same way. Small children can see that babies use a diaper and that grown-ups use the toilet. Most small children will want to use the toilet and to use it successfully, especially if the parent helps them a bit with friendly suggestions about how it can be accomplished.

When this process becomes a power struggle, the child's natural need to resist feeling pushed around becomes much more powerful than the child's need to imitate what the grown-ups do. Then the child is dead set on resisting the grown-up, even if it means continuing the babyish behavior. This struggle then can become a pattern which is hard to change.

The best way to get beyond the battle of wills is to set the battle aside for a while. Show your daughter that you are happy with her just the way she is, and let the potty training issue ride for several weeks. Then, after the battle has subsided and she has forgotten about it, you can begin to offer her some friendly suggestions about using the toilet. I would approach her respectfully and helpfully, as you would ask an older person whether you could help them with some heavy packages or offer your seat in the subway.

Small children want to do things the same way as they are done by the adults that they love and admire. This is the most powerful motive in their growth. The reward is feeling proud to be like the grown-ups. Going with this motivation is the parent's best friend! —Dr. Elizabeth Berger

My child is 2 and 1/2 years old and started potty training when she turned 2. She does fine at home with her potty chair. Sometimes she wets herself if she goes somewhere outside of the home. She is in daycare and she still wears pull-ups because she won't tell the daycare teacher that she has to go. The daycare teacher will take her to the potty and she will go every time but she will just wet in her pull up when the teacher don't take her. She doesn't talk all that well yet but she can say potty. What should i do?

What you describe is super-common for potty training toddlers.  They usually start out associating potty rules with their comfy and familiar home environment. It takes a little longer for those rules to generalize to other settings like school or the park. Savvy preschool teachers understand this and will provide extra support and reminders at school. Usually this is all that's needed to eventually learn about how to stay clean and dry at school. As her speech skills develop, she'll get better at communicating her needs, too. Hang in there! —Dr. Heather Wittenberg

My 3-year-old daughter has been potty trained for almost a year. Lately, she has started to hold the urge to pee for as long as possible (so as not to get distracted from whatever she's doing), to the point that she'll wet her underwear to postpone going. Eventually she gets the urge to go again, but she has already wet her underwear. I've tried telling her to go the minute she feels the urge, but she keeps doing this. Obviously, there's been some accidents as well.

It is not unusual for a child to start having accidents after being successfully potty trained because they are “too busy” to go. The other reason may be that the positive reinforcement for toileting success has also disappeared. You may need to go back to stopping all activity and taking her to the restroom every two hours until she gets back into the habit of going when she needs to without a reminder. Another method would be to go back to celebrating “dry days” with a sticker chart for each successful day and a reward for 7 dry days for a few weeks. Then spread the reward to every 14 days for a few cycles then monthly and by then she will likely be back in the habit. If the accidents seem to be happening more frequently a trip to the doctor’s office to be sure there is not a urinary tract infection may also be warranted. —Dr. Carrie M. Brown

I have a 3 month old and an 18 month old. I believe my 18 month old daughter is ready to start potty training. She's always taking her diaper off when its dirty, she knows what "potty" means and where the bathroom is—in fact she has gone pee a handful of times in the tiolet already. What I'm not sure of, is how often I should be taking her potty and how I fit it in, or remember for that matter, with the demanding needs of a new born. Any help or tips would be great!

I think the word “parent” comes from the Latin word parentus meaning “I’m supposed to do how many things all at once?!!”

When it is time to potty train a child, a parent definitely has to make sure that a child is ready and able.  But we forget that the parent herself also has to be ready and able.  Sometimes, there is too much going on in a parent’s life for her to put forth the effort and consistency needed to potty-train a child, and if a child is young (I would say less than three years of age), a parent may choose to wait until life circumstances change to the point where the parent has more time, energy, and opportunity to do the job well.

With that said, if a child is ready but the mom can’t put forth a complete effort, she can still help the child move in the right direction.  For example, a parent may want to give a child the opportunity to go potty when the child wants to and praise the effort when she does, but not put pressure on the child (or herself) for the child to do it.   Or, the mom may want to just pick one convenient time of the day to work on potty training (for example, a time that the child tends to consistently need to poop or pee), and only focus on that time of day.  When the child masters going potty at that time, the parent can then choose another time to do the same. —Dr. Wayne Fleisig

At 3 years old my daughter was almost completely potty trained. She had a setback due to a stomach virus. I allowed her to step back thinking she'd resume when she was ready. Now she is 4 and she is refusing to use it because "only big girls use the potty and I don't want to be big so I don't have to go to school." I understand I have two problems. I want to fight the potty battle first before I have to face school issues. Please help! She's in the last size pull ups!

As a parent, I can completely understand the frustration that this must cause. As a psychologist, I try to look at the situation putting the frustration aside and seek to answer some questions. Without knowing more information about the situation, it’s hard to evaluate her comments about how “only big girls use potty.” She may have picked up on your language about big girls and is saying these things back to you. And I am sure it gets a reaction because it seems concerning, and you are obviously considering the possible effects as she grows older. However, it’s possible your daughter wasn’t fully ready to be potty trained. Children who are really potty trained want to use the potty. If she is having frequent accidents and doesn’t seem concerned, she might not actually have been ready when she was 3, and then the virus and the “step back” have snowballed into a really tough situation. In the absence of a medical condition (that a pediatrician could assess), it may be that she needs a little more time and a little less reaction from you. My sister had a very similar situation with her son and they spent hours in the bathroom, were always washing undies, and all felt pretty lousy. Success came when my sister took a step back and re-evaluated her level of distress about the situation. We talked about how “he won’t walk down the aisle in diapers” and noticed that the less time we spent on the toileting, the more he wanted to go and the more he actually did go. As for school, I tend to talk to all kids about their “job,” which is to be part of a family, have fun, and go to school. Modeling what’s expected (going places, meeting people, and eventually separating from mom) will be your key to helping her find success. —Rachel Busman, Psy.D.

What should I do about my daughter's potty training regression? I have a 2-year-old who was showing every sign of potty training readiness (taking the diaper off when she had to go, staying dry all day, and going potty, etc.), but a week has passed since she's been in undies and she's regressing. She had two accidents on the first few days, but now she spreads her legs and watches herself go on the floor while saying, "Uh oh."  I'm so frustrated, but I don't want to backtrack! She has the potential. What should I do?!

Wearing underwear is a right, not a privilege. In other words, you don't get to wear underwear until you prove you are ready to wear underwear. And the only way you prove it is to care if you have an accident. If your daughter knowingly feels the urge to go and then does it on your kitchen floor—instead of heading to the bathroom-she is telling you that she is not developmentally ready for this task. Go back to diapers for a little while and try potty training again on a weekend down the road. If she is clearly ready, then great! But if she has accidents again, put her back in diapers. Many parents have several false starts before their child is really ready. No worries. —Dr. Ari Brown

What can I do to help my 2 year old son who is ready to use the potty, but is afraid of it? I've gotten him his own potty chair but he still is afraid to sit on it without a diaper on underwear on. How do I get my 2 year old son to not be afraid of the potty chair?

This is a common fear—and one that can only be lessened by time, support, and space. Let your son explore the potty—both the big one and the little one—on his own terms, and in his own time. Eventually, he will want to "copy" the way others use the potty, and his natural desire to use the potty will kick in. —Dr. Heather Wittenberg

I am having a lot of trouble with my 3-and-a-half-year-old and the potty. He started using the potty regularly a little before he turned 3-years-old and, although he wasn’t wearing underwear, he had a good handle on when he had to go. After four months of this, he started having accidents all the time. Now he goes a week or two without accidents but then he has accidents every day for three weeks. I don’t understand why this is happening. Why is my son confused about potty training?

There are several reasons for toilet training failures. There are kids who get so busy with what they are doing that they don't pay attention to the urge to go—until it is too late. There are kids who do well at home but hate public potties, so they hold it at preschool or when they are out and about. Some kids have real fears about the potty or have had a bad experience where it hurt to poop, so they avoid going when they really need to. Without having full details of what your child has gone through, it is hard to say why he is unsuccessful. But, I believe that underwear is a privilege and not a right—meaning, if he has accidents this often, he is not officially toilet trained, so he needs to remain in diapers until he is truly ready. —Dr. Ari Brown

What's the fastest way to potty train my child? I just learned that my child's preschool won't take kids in diapers, and I haven't begun to teach her!

Start now, but don't expect miracles. Talk to the preschool staff about whether you can send your child in disposable underpants. Many schools are amenable to the idea as long as they know you're working on toilet-teaching. And your daughter may be more eager to use the potty once she sees her classmates using it. —Donna Christiano

My 2-year-old twins fight over the toilet, and don't want to use the potty chair. How can I potty train my twins at the same time?

Potty training twins can be tough. While both of your kids seem eager to use the toilet, it's just as likely that each is simply vying with her twin for the honored position of getting your attention. To fix this, you'll have to hone your patience and teach them to take turns—not an easy task at this age.First, keep track of whose turn it is to sit on the toilet (having a chart will make this easier). Let's say Sister A claims she needs to go potty. Take her in the bathroom, check the chart. Put Sister A on the toilet if it's her turn to sit there. If Sister B insists she needs to go too, say, "It's Sister A's turn on the toilet. You can use the potty chair if you have to go now, and you can have a turn on the toilet when she's finished."If Sister B flies into a temper tantrum, acknowledge it, but don't cave in. You can say something like, "I know you're really mad and you want to sit on the toilet right now, but it's your sister's turn. You can go in two minutes." Place a timer in the bathroom so that the girls know when their time on the toilet is up. Two minutes is more than enough time to... you know, or get off the pot.Because your children's emotions will run high as they attempt to be first on the toilet, you'll need to be firm and kind as you control the situation. One will be happy as she gets her turn, the other may be frustrated as she waits. If your twins are really anti the potty chair, get creative and make it more appealing—try dressing it up like a throne, say. And be sure to offer equal praise (and rewards, if you use them) no matter which toilet or potty either twin uses.Remember, potty training is only one of many "turn taking" challenges you'll face with your twins. Whether it's taking turns on the computer, practicing the piano, or later driving the car, you can't have two of everything. So along with the benefits of your girls learning to use the toilet will come the added advantage of them knowing how to share. —Parents team

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