Q&A: Know Your Child's Level of Readiness for Potty Training

Are you unsure about how ready your kid is to use the potty? You're not alone! These experts clear up the confusion, answering all your common questions and more.

How should I start potty training my child?

With lots of patience and a schedule. Most kids need to poop or pee an hour or so after a meal. Have your child sit on the potty soon after she's finished breakfast and again after dinner. Make "going potty" fun—read a story together, play a game, or sing to her. If she's successful, make a big deal out of it: Say something like, "I'm so proud of you." If nothing happens after 10 minutes or she gets fidgety and wants to get up, put her diaper back on, praise her for trying, and leave the bathroom together. The idea is to get her used to a potty regimen. Before long—if you stick to the schedule every day—she'll get the hang of it. —Nancy Mattia

What is the earliest you can start to potty train your kids? My son is 14 months old. Is he too young to start trying?

Really 14 months is too young, at that age it is the parent who is being "trained" to know the child's schedule and read the signs of the child needing to use the bathroom rather than the child actually being "trained". Many children who are "trained" under the age of two will stop being successful and need to be "re-trained" at some point in the future. Between 18 and 24 months of age most children will begin to have an interest in what goes on in the bathroom. This is a great time to invest in a potty chair and start talking about what happens in the bathroom with the terms that are comfortable for your family. Reward willingness to sit on the potty even if they are unsuccessful attempts. If you can stay positive and reward heavily for success with time your son will be fully toilet trained. —Dr. Carrie M. Brown

Should my child use a potty chair before transitioning to a real toilet?

Unless your child is begging to use the big potty (which often happens with younger siblings), it's actually best to start with a potty chair. For many children, the toilet can be scary: There's loud flushing and whirling water escaping to "the unknown," and your child may feel unsteady sitting up high. With a little potty, her feet are on the floor, making her feel physically grounded and relaxed. Also, being able to get to the potty without your help will let her feel more in control—and cut down on accidents. Down the road, switching to the big toilet (with or without an insert) shouldn't really be a big deal, since she'll probably already use one outside the house. —Nancy Rones

My son will be four in March and refuses to potty.... Shouldn't he be interested by now?

Most children should be interested in using the potty by age 3. If you have made it to 3 ½ or 4 and he is refusing (which is different from a lack of interest) there is a problem. The first step is to try to figure out if there is any sort of negative association with the bathroom or toilet (ie is he afraid of the flushing sound) and to reassure him that he is safe when he uses the bathroom facilities. Some children understand that when they can use the bathroom independently they will go to preschool and may fear the separation from mom or dad and therefore don't want to use the toilet. The next step is to explain to him that it is time for him to use the bathroom. Find a few days when you can remain mostly at home, purchase multiple pairs of underwear, and be prepared for accidents. Start by sitting on the toilet the first thing in the morning after taking off the overnight diaper, make it fun—sing songs, read a book, drink some juice, and see what happens. If you have success celebrate with lots of praise and something to keep him motivated (a sticker, an M and M, bubbles). If you don't have success, praise him for sitting and trying, put on the underwear and talk about using the bathroom when he needs to go. Plan bathroom trips for every 90-120 minutes during the day. If accidents happen don't get upset, change to clean underwear, and talk about heading to the bathroom sooner the next time. If you can remain calm and consistent and don't give up and put the diaper back on most kids will figure it out within a few days. Stooling in the toilet can sometimes take longer to figure out so just focus on urine at first. Being in a group setting at a parent's day out or preschool can also be helpful for the child who refuses to go at home as most centers have scheduled bathroom times and peer pressure can work wonders. —Dr. Carrie M. Brown

My 3-year-old is adamant about not using the potty. How can I motivate her?

Put toilet-teaching on the back burner for a few weeks, or even months. If you push, your child will resist, and if you push harder, your child will resist harder. Watch for your child's natural inclination toward toilet-teaching—showing interest in the potty, telling you when she's gone in her diapers, and using bathroom words like "pee-pee" or "poopy." —Donna Christiano

What's the best way to reward my child for using the potty?

It depends on what you're comfortable with and what your child responds to. Start with plenty of praise—many kids are motivated by the sheer pleasure they give their parents. But if you feel that your child needs an actual reward in order to feel successful, that's fine. Many parents do well with stickers, candy, or small toys or figurines from your kid's favorite movies and cartoons. Just be aware that as you up the ante with gifts, your praise becomes less potent. —Donna Christiano

Should I transition my toddler to a bed before beginning potty training?

Every child is different and there is no need to move to a toddler bed before initiating potty training. The move to a toddler bed is a change that should be made when the child is large enough that they may be able to climb out of the crib as a fall to the floor can be dangerous. For some children, this size happens before age 18 months which for most children is too young to initiate potty training. When you child shows an interest in the toilet, is starting to be dry during nap time or bedtime, and you have the time to commit to toilet training they are ready to begin learning to use the toilet. Push them to the bathroom too early and you may have initial success and frustration a few weeks to months later when the desire to use the toilet disappears. Children can also develop constipation from being pushed to toilet train to soon. The average male child potty trains between ages 3 to 3 and 1/2 and the average female between 2 and 1/2 and 3. Make both transitions as positive as possible, reward with praise or small treats for success in getting the job done in the bathroom or remaining in the toddler bed all night and avoid punishing for accidents or nighttime visits to your room. Stay calm change the clothes or return the child to their bed immediately and try again as persistence will pay off in the end. Remember that 5% of completely normal children still wet the bed at age 5 years and this will resolve with time. This is not something that the child cannot control, and they should not be punished for the behavior. —Dr. Carrie M. Brown

I have a 22 month old daughter who now takes off her diaper and urinates on the floor. Is this a sign she is ready for the potty?

"Absolutely! Any behavior changes where your child acknowledges more about their control over her peeing/pooping is a step towards readiness. By peeing in your kitchen, she shows she has the motor control to hold her urine in, take off the diaper, and then start the urine stream. Great control; take this messiness as a good sign! Get a potty your daughter can get to all on her own. Remind her about the potty when you find her peeing elsewhere. Celebrate when she does pee on her own and encourage her to chose the potty." —Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson

My husband is pressuring our 2-1/2-year-old son to use the potty, but I don't think he's ready. What should I do?

A. One thing we can tell you—and that your husband needs to understand—is that toilet training is a process. With some kids it's an overnight process. With other kids? It's a serious process. The best thing you can do as a parent is to avoid turning it into a battle of wills—and if there's one thing toddlers have in spades, it's a strong will. Remember, you're not lagging behind if your 2-1/2-year-old hasn't yet fully embraced his big-kid underwear. But on the other hand, that age isn't too young to train, at least not physically; you may have noticed, for example, that your son stays dry during naps and does know when he's gone. That shows you that he has some measure of control over his bladder and bowels. Your husband probably knows this, and that's why he's being impatient. But in addition to physical readiness, you need emotional readiness—your kid has to want to do it. Tell your husband that easing up on your son's potty training isn't the same as giving up and isn't tantamount to coddling. Instead, it's a new and much more effective strategy. That said, neither of you should let it go completely. Just lay off the insistence and the demands for a little while, and see if his interest perks up on its own. —Denise Schipani

How do I help my child move from the potty to the big toilet?

Moving your child from potty to toilet can be almost as tricky as getting him on the potty in the first place, but it's an important accomplishment. When children start preschool, or begin spending time at other kids' houses—where kiddie potties aren't always present—they need to get used to going in regular toilets. Start by placing his potty in the bathroom next to the toilet, so your child gets used to the idea of "going to the bathroom." Then buy a kid-friendly toilet ring (look for ones with his favorite cartoon characters, colors, etc.) and a stepstool to help him climb up there. Start encouraging your kid to try going on the big toilet. You can make this more appealing by offering an extra prize for going there, for example, or making a game out of it (watching toilet paper swirl out of the toilet can be fascinating to some kids). If your child's really resistant, let him watch as you move the contents from his little potty into the main toilet—it'll show him that going potty has the same end result no matter what. Once he's comfortable on the big toilet, put the mini potty away. —Karin A. Bilich

Is there anything I can do to prepare my child for potty training?

Before the "official" toilet training begins, it's a smart move to warm your kid up to the idea. Explain the bathroom routine in positive, child-friendly terms. During a diaper change, you can say, "When we eat or drink, our body takes what it needs and then the rest gets turned into pee or poop. It's like our body's garbage." Start letting your child watch you use the potty. Although it might seem strange, Dad may want to sit down while peeing at the beginning in order to simplify the process for your toddler. You can also pretend that a doll or stuffed animal is using the potty. Seeing a "friend" go through the motions in a relaxed, playful setting can relieve any stress your kid may feel about graduating to the potty. And have your kid practice sitting on it. Suggest visits to the potty first thing in the morning, before her bath, and before bedtime. Don't expect success yet, but getting her on a schedule early may save you from constantly asking her to go when the real training kicks in. —Nancy Rones

At what age are most kids ready for potty training?

It varies widely. While 18 to 24 months is typical, some kids may not be ready until closer to 3 or even later. More important than age alone is when he shows signs—emotionally and developmentally—that he's ready. Some clues: His diaper stays dry for several hours; he knows "bathroom" words such as pee, poop, and wet (or whatever terms your family uses); he's interested in watching other family members use the toilet. If you've seen some of these behaviors, give it a go. If not, hold off for a few more weeks. Pressuring your child will only result in frustration—for both of you. When he's ready to learn, he will. —Nancy Mattia

How often should I remind my child to go to the bathroom while she's being potty trained?

Once she's had some success in using the potty, ask your child several times a day, especially before you leave the house. Reminders help children get into a habit of thinking about the potty and preventing accidents and setbacks. —Nancy Mattia

How long should it take to potty train my child?

It depends on your child, but fully potty training a kid—to wearing underwear, rare accidents—can take longer than you might think, even up to a year in some cases. Most of the time, toilet-training isn't fast, and it isn't smooth. That's because several areas of development need to line up first. Your child has to communicate well, be aware of his bodily feelings, and understand how much time he needs to get there. It can take even longer for kids to learn to stay dry through the night, and some bed-wetting is common until age 5 or so. —Donna Christiano

How should I teach my child to use public bathrooms?

After your child masters the art of going potty at home, he needs to learn how to handle it in the real world—public bathrooms, going when you're not around, etc. Teach your child to recognize restroom signs and encourage him to use public bathrooms whenever necessary. (Any child under the age of 5 should be accompanied by an adult when using a public restroom.) Your child should also know how to dress and undress. Boys should learn how to use their pants fly front. To simplify these lessons, dress your child in clothes that can easily be undone without help, like elastic-waist pants or shorts. You should also teach proper wiping—front-to-back—especially for girls. Going the other way can cause urinary-tract or bowel infections. Your child will also need to learn how to plan his bathroom breaks, like going before a long trip, even if he doesn't feel a strong need at the time. —Karin A. Bilich

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