Potty Problems

If your child is still wearing diapers, don't despair. We've got strategies designed especially for preschoolers.


When Risa Hoag picked up her 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Samantha, from her day-care center last spring, she was greeted with grim news: No one else in the preschool class was still indiapers, and the caregivers wanted Samantha out of them right away.

"They said she was getting too big to pick up and change," recalls Hoag, of Nanuet, New York. "I was afraid they'd kick her out of school. Samantha's older sister was fully toilet-taught before she was 3, and I hadn't done anything any differently -- Samantha just had no interest in it."

You've probably heard that 2 1/2 is the best age to introduce the potty, but if your preschooler still hasn't gotten the hang of it, don't worry. Though most kids are out of diapers by 36 months, half of boys and about a third of girls don't use the potty regularly until after their third birthday, according to a recent study by Timothy R. Schum, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. No matter how old your child is, the process usually takes eight to ten months: "Some kids do it in two weeks, but that's not typical," Dr. Schum says.

A preschooler's growing desire to become more independent usually motivates him to want to go to the bathroom on his own -- but this desire can also cause him to dig in his heels and refuse to change his routine. "Parents suddenly say, 'Now it's time to use the toilet,' but their child may think, Diapers are working pretty well for me," explains Jan Faull, the teacher of a class aimed at 3 1/2- to 5-year-olds called Potty Challenges, in Bellevue, Washington.

Even though your child is mastering all sorts of new skills, learning to use the potty can actually be more difficult now that she's 3 or 4. What works for 2-year-olds -- buying fun underwear or reading books about the potty -- is usually not as successful with preschoolers, especially if you've been at it for a while. "I felt like a failure when my child wasn't potty-taught as fast as his friends were," says Christine Perkins, of Power, Montana, whose son Sam was 3 1/2 when he finally kicked the diaper habit last spring.

    When the Going Gets Tough

    What does work at this age? Experts suggest the following approaches:

    • Ditch the diapers. Stubbornness, not readiness, is often the issue after age 3. And kids are simply in the habit of going in their diapers whenever they want to. Because he needs to be able to feel when he's wet his pants, put your child in underpants instead of disposable training pants. Just resign yourself to the fact that it's going to be messy for a while. Even if your child doesn't seem to mind sitting in wet or dirty pants, switch him to clean ones as quickly as possible so he learns to prefer dryness.
    • Stick to a routine. Schedule potty breaks for certain times of the day: as soon as your child wakes up, after lunch, before a nap -- even every hour, if necessary. Always encourage her to go before leaving the house.
    • Be committed. Make toilet-teaching the priority during a vacation or a long weekend. Let your child run around without diapers or pants (make sure that your home is warm enough for your child to be half-dressed). Avoid outings, or be incredibly diligent about taking frequent trips to the potty.
    • Give your child more control. "Tell her, 'Your job is to learn to use the toilet, and my job is to help you learn to do that,' " says Faull, who's also the author of Mommy I Have to Go Potty! (Raefield and Roberts, 1996). Remind your child of the positive steps that she has taken so far ("I saw you pull down your underpants and sit on the potty -- good for you!"), and encourage her to take the next ones ("One day, you'll actually be able to pee and poop in the potty too").
    • Choose the right words. If you ask, "Do you need to go to the bathroom?" your child will probably answer no. Instead say, "Let's try to use the potty now." If he protests, say, "It's okay if you don't have to go, but I'd like you to practice going in the toilet."
    • Offer small rewards. You might put a penny in the piggy bank or let your child choose a sticker to put on the calendar every time she uses the potty. In addition to being an incentive on its own, this type of routine shows your child that you realize toilet-teaching takes time.
    • Be patient. "When your child has an accident in his underwear, getting mad doesn't help," Faull says. Clean him up, and then put him on the toilet. You might say, "Next time, listen to your body. Maybe you'll get to the potty in time." If you avoid power struggles, your child will learn that he's not using the potty for you -- he's doing it for himself. Even if you and your child have been working on toilet-teaching for nearly a year, hang in there -- success may be just around the corner. That's what happened with Samantha Hoag, who graduated from diapers thanks to an intensive three-day effort by her mom. Even the most strong-willed child will learn eventually, but she'll do it when she wants to, not when you do.