The Best Potty Training Tips from Experts and Parents
Need some help ditching the diapers? We got doctors and parents to spill their secrets on potty training toddlers.
Getting Ready for Potty Training
Are you counting down the days to the toilet transition? Or maybe you've already dabbled in a few less-than-successful attempts? Either way, your kid has to be good and ready for toilet training to stick. And don't worry, they will be someday.
"No child is going to graduate high school in diapers," says Carol Stevenson, a mom of three from Stevenson Ranch, California, who trained each one at a different age. "But it's so easy to get hung up and worried that your child's a certain age and not there yet, which adds so much pressure and turns it into a battle."
Once you're convinced your kid's ready to ditch the diapers (watch for signs like showing an interest in the bathroom, telling you when they have to go, or wanting to be changed promptly after pooping), try any of these tricks from experts and parents to make it easier.
Timing for Potty Training
Don’t get frustrated if things are taking a long time. Potty training can take roughly a year, according to a study from the Medical College of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. "The two big surprises are that toilet-teaching isn't fast and it isn't smooth," says Dr. Maureen O'Brien, Ph.D., director of parenting and child development at The First Years, in Avon, Massachusetts, and author of Watch Me Grow: I'm One-Two-Three. "Several areas of development need to line up first. The child has to communicate well, be aware of his bodily feelings, and understand how much time he needs to get there."
"When I thought my daughter was ready (around 26 months), we went to the toilet every 10 minutes—even if we were out. We slowly worked up to 15 minutes, 20 minutes, etc., and after a day or two, she could pee on her own. Poop was a different story—I had to goad her with M&M's!" —Elissa Murnick; Fairfield, Connecticut
"My son mastered peeing on the potty pretty quickly, but nailing number two took some extra effort. At first we had to watch for his 'cues' to tell he was trying to go poop and then bring him to the bathroom. Because it took a while (sometimes more than a half-hour) we started reading to him to make the wait more fun. But above all else, patience, patience, patience is the key!" —Karen J. Wright; Mankato, Minnesota
Sticking to a Routine
"The key is consistency," says Jen Singer, mother of two, author of the Stop Second-Guessing Yourself parenting series, and a member of the Huggies Pull-Ups Potty Training Partners. "Whatever you do at home with your potty training plan, you also need to do elsewhere. For instance, if your child prefers to read a book while on the potty, talk to your daycare provider about sending in a favorite book. Keep in mind that daycare centers may be too busy to customize potty training to each child. In that case, ask them how they think they can help foster the success you have had at home and compromise. Then bring home something that works at daycare. If your child loves the soap they use at school, get some for home."
"I wish I could take credit for his training, but the amazing teachers at his daycare did the hard stuff: Putting him on the toilet every 20 minutes, without fail. We just followed their lead at home. And I think the fact that he saw his classmates going on the potty made him want to also." —Roberta Perry; Phoenixville, Pennsylvania
"We found that our son simply was not interested in remembering to go on his own, so we found the Potty Watch, which he loved. You program this wrist watch to play songs and light up at 30-, 60-, or 90-minute intervals; then it resets itself and starts the countdown all over again." —Heather Ledeboer; Athol, Idaho
"When my son was 17 months old, I started putting him on the potty each evening while I ran his bath. The sound of the running water seemed to encourage him, and within a few nights we had success. I kept up the routine at that same time every evening. Slowly, we started adding more trips to the potty throughout the day. I used this method successfully with all three of my kids." — Shannon; Stevensville, MD
"Two words: Mini M&M's! Promise that each time your kid goes potty, she gets two or three, but if she wipes herself (a huge challenge for us) then she gets four or five. This makes a big difference since I think one of the reasons kids don't like to go is because the business of learning to wipe is kind of yucky." — Donna Johnson; Charlotte, North Carolina
"I wholeheartedly recommend bribery as potty training motivation. We kept a small plastic piggy bank in the bathroom and rewarded every success (one penny for pee, two for poop). Our daughter was entranced—she would shake the piggy with a gleam in her eye and remark how heavy it was getting. When she was all done, we took her potty windfall and turned it into quarters to spend on rides at the mall." —Lisa Spicer; Los Angeles, California
"Every time each of our toddlers used the potty, I decorated their outfits with stickers. At the end of the day they showed off their rows of stickers (which looked like an army general's stars) to their father. So they got double the praise for their potty training successes, and I got an inexpensive and easy way to reward them." —Jen Singer; Kinnelon, New Jersey
"We tried Cheerios, M&M's, potty charts, cheerleader rants and screams, but nothing worked. My son has always been obsessed with cars and trucks and luckily, the movie Cars had just come out. My husband scoured the local stores to collect all the figurines featured in the movie. We saw the movie, then we told my son that every time he went potty he'd get a car. It was magical. After 15 cars, he was totally potty trained. I'm sure Disney would be so proud." —Darlene Fiske; Austin, Texas
Praising Your Child
"I've heard all the potty training tips—stickers, bribing with toys, special underpants. But you have to pick something that's consistent with your parenting style. I didn't use rewards elsewhere, so I didn't want to start here. What did work: Lots of undivided attention, positive reinforcement, love, affection and pride when my kids were successful. Making a big deal about small steps of progress is key." — Diane Hund; Elmhurst, Illinois
"I didn't use any special stuff—no kiddie toilets, potty rings, or even pull-ups—because the local YMCA where my daughters attended didn't believe in them. We even had to sign a contract stating that we'd follow their potty training policy at home. I was instructed to just put the kids (they were around 2 1/2) on our regular toilet throughout the day when I thought they had to go. After a week and lots of 'Yeah! You did number two!' and 'Good for you! You made a wee-wee!' they were done, with barely any accidents. All told, I think they were just developmentally ready." —Sandra Gordon; Weston, Connecticut
Choosing a Location
"We found that the kiddie lids that go on top of the toilet were too intimidating to use right away. (Plus, since they usually need a step stool, it can take too long for children to reach the toilet in time.) So I started my 2-year-old daughter with a mini-Elmo potty seat, which we kept in the living room, since she spent the most time there. We gradually moved it closer and closer to the bathroom, and eventually worked our way up to a Dora seat that went right on top of the toilet." —Tracy Burton; Grand Ledge, Michigan
"To take some of the pressure off our daughter, we put the potty right next to her bed so that she could have her own space. Also, she could get to it faster, especially first thing in the morning and at night. This technique worked for our second daughter as well."—Anne and Ben, Cheshire, CT
Potty Training for Boys
When potty training boys, many experts recommend to start sitting down. "It's not just because of the mess factor," says Dr. O'Brien. "When a child is learning, you want to keep the number of variables that he needs to think about to a minimum. Deciding whether to sit or stand can cause him to hesitate a few seconds—and those seconds can be crucial."
Take this potty training tip from a real mom: "When my son was potty training, he refused to use the baby potty or even one of those seats that fits onto the toilet. Instead, at the suggestion of my daycare provider, we let him sit on the regular toilet, only backwards. It sounds strange, but with him facing the rear of the toilet, he felt secure (not like he'd fall in!) and he didn't have to aim, since it naturally aimed for him. That way, he could focus on just going to the bathroom. It worked!" —Sarah Caron; Sandy Hook, Connecticut
"Getting my son to learn the standing-up thing was hard, so we turned it into a game. I put five Cheerios in the potty and told him to aim at them when he peed. Every time he did it right, he got to pick out a prize from a bag of goodies I picked up at the dollar store." —Erika Cosentino; Lawrenceville, New Jersey
"To get my son excited about standing up to urinate, we put a few drops of food coloring into the toilet bowl so he could see the water change color as he used it. We did the same thing with our daughter, but we sat her on the toilet backwards so she could see the colors." —Vicki, Chapel Hill, NC
"After a couple of failed attempts, I tried a new technique while Mom was away on a well-deserved weekend with her friends. We covered the couch and chairs with plastic and bought 'manly-man' underwear—just like Dad's. We spent the weekend in underwear and T-shirts, making a game every hour or so to see who could go to the restroom. There were very few accidents and just blocking out a weekend made for very little stress. It's still one of my favorite memories." — Scott Smith; Mount Washington, Kentucky
Making Potty Training Fun
Your toddler can feel intimidated by the big task of learning how to use the bathroom. Make them excited to use the big-kid toilet with fun games, stories, and more.
"We set a timer, starting at every 30 minutes and increasing as we have success. When the timer goes off, my daughter says, 'Potty time.' She feels she has control and we make a game of choosing which potty to sit on (toilet or potty chair). Each time, she gets excited to show me which potty she chooses. This has worked well. I get what I want (her sitting on the potty) and she has control over her choice of potty. We've also been using big-girl panties. So far we've had very few accidents." —Jessica R. Guerra
"Once my kids were interested in the potty concept—around 2 to 2 1/2—we let them run around naked before bathtime and encouraged them to use the potty. Then I let them go sans pants at home for extended periods of time (they did really well remembering to go as long as they didn't have any clothes on). After they mastered naked-potty use, we worked our way up to clothes (first just underwear, then eventually pants). This method was extremely painless—very few accidents or setbacks." —Jennifer Walker; Cleveland, Ohio
"My middle son was stubborn when it came to number two on the potty—absolutely refused, no matter the reward. So I finally told him that when we flush, the poop goes out to the sea to feed the fish—so if he didn't go, then the poor little fish wouldn't have anything to eat. My son, being the compassionate, sensitive little do-gooder he is, felt it was his mission to poop to 'save' the fish. (After all, Nemo and Dory were counting on him!)" —Liane Worthington; Simpson, Pennsylvania
Figuring Out the Fear
"Our first son began peeing on the potty at 18 months, but he was scared to do 'the other.' After offering many rewards and becoming very frustrated, we turned to the doctor, who explained that some children view bowel movements as a literal part of themselves and are afraid to watch them flush away. (This made so much sense because he was a very analytical child.) After showing him a children's anatomy book and explaining how the digestive system worked, he started going number two the very next day!" —Ginny Graham; Collegeville, Pennsylvania
"My daughter just turned 3 years old. She had been waking up dry for months but had no interest in going on the potty. We did what a pediatrician recommended and told her to do the opposite of what we wanted. 'We love diapers! You don't want to use the potty like a big girl!' She always responded that she did want to use the potty. Finally, she sat on the potty a few times without going. In discussing the potty one day she said, 'My pee won't come out.' I finally realized that she thought sitting on the potty didn't work. So the week before her birthday, we sat her on the potty as soon as she got up and before she went in her diaper. She went in the potty and has had no accidents since then. We went straight to panties and skipped Pull-Ups. I'd recommend telling a toddler the opposite of what you want, since they naturally tend to do the opposite anyway, and talk with your toddler about what scares her. —Gina Cinotto Burrell
Potty Training On the Road
"My daughter was terrified of the automatic flushers in public restrooms, so I started doing this trick. Put a Post-It note over the sensor and it will prevent the toilet from auto-flushing. After she's all done, wiped, and left the stall, you can remove the paper to let the toilet flush." —Tracy Marines; Lancaster, Pennsylvania
"We travel with a small toilet with a removable seat to help my daughter feel more comfortable on the 'scary' big potties in public restrooms." —Christine Louise Hohlbaum; Paunzhausen, Germany
"The Pull-Ups situation was my biggest problem. My son's pediatrician said my son had accidents when wearing Pull-Ups because he felt they were no different from a diaper; the only difference with Pull-Ups was that he didn't have to lie down to get them on. This turned out to be true—when I quit using Pull- Ups and put big-boy underwear on him, he started using the potty almost instantly." —Amy Wilson
Other Potty Training Tips from Parents
"My 2-year-old seemed ready for potty training but none of the 'tricks' were working. We picked a Saturday, put him in big-boy underwear and braced ourselves. He went in his pants four or five times within the first hour; we kept changing him and telling him that he needed to use the potty instead. After a really long day, he got the hang of it and was all potty trained by Monday. He still had the occasional accident, but making the switch once and for all really seemed to work." —Pamela Scott; York, Pennsylvania
"Her poops were the size of bananas, and one day I showed her! I spelled it out: 'Your poop is too big for a diaper. It needs to go in the toilet.' It was a start." —Daphne Brogdon of coolmom.com
"Teach by example. My 3-year-old refused to poop in the potty. Then one day while on a playdate, her friend went to the bathroom in the potty in front of her. My daughter pooped in the potty from that day on and never looked back." —Christina Marie Puglisi; Buffalo, New York