The Ultimate Potty Training Guide

Feb 13, 2023

“Hi, I’m Erin. Child Psychologist. Mom to 3. Failure at potty training my children in 3 days, like the internet said I should.”

[Chorus of other toilet training parents] “Hi Erin……”

At least, that is how I envision the beginning of a PTPFA (Potty Training Parent Failures Anonymous) meeting going if such a thing existed.

Here is the thing, even though there are tons of books and articles pushing the idea that you can “toilet train your child over the weekend,” that is often not possible. And that’s totally okay! If it takes your kid longer than 3 days, you (and they) are NOT a potty-training failure! In fact, in a recent poll we sent out on social media, we asked parents how quickly they mostly potty trained their kids. “Mostly” means that their kids could stay in underwear most of the day, with few accidents. But, may still need pull-ups or diapers overnight. Here are the results:

  • 35% of kids were mostly potty trained in in 1 to 3 days
  • 33% of kids were mostly potty trained in a few weeks
  • 32% of kids were mostly potty trained in a few months or longer

We also asked parents how long it took them to fully potty train their kids. Fully means that they trust their kids to wear underwear 24/7, with virtually no accidents. Here are the results:

  • 0% of kids were fully potty trained in 1 day
  • 4% of kids were fully potty trained in 2 to 3 days
  • 36% of kids were fully potty trained in a few weeks
  • 61% of kids were fully potty trained in a few months or longer

This also lines up with national data on potty training, with the average time it takes to potty train lasting around 6 months. There are a few general trends on the data on this:

  • Girls tend to potty train slightly faster than boys.
  • Kids who used cloth diapers tend to potty train slightly earlier and faster than kids who were diapered in disposable diapers (which, is also why the average age of potty training has increased over the decades). This is because kids who wear cloth diapers instantly feel the “wet,” and make that connection quicker.
  • Kids with developmental delays or neurodevelopmental disorders tend to potty train a little later than kids without.

There is a large range in which children are ready to begin potty training, with some children showing readiness signs at age 18 months, with others not showing signs until age 3.5 years or later. According to American Family Physician, only 40 to 60 percent of children are completely potty trained by 3 years of age. (Sidenote: How frustrating is it that so many early childcare centers and preschools require children to be potty trained before enrolling in a “3’s classroom”!?)

So, if your toddler is nearing 3, and still not toilet trained, DO NOT PANIC. It’s totally normal! All five of the Mind & Child children were potty trained between the ages of 3 and 3.5 (well…my [Erin’s] youngest is nearing 3 as I write this. We are currently in the thick of toilet training and she seems to be on track to be toilet trained by 3.5). And all 5 of our kids are very bright, well-balanced, and developmentally on-target to ahead-of-target kids. So, if you feel the societal pressure of potty training your kids young and quick, it is totally okay if they are not quite ready!

Let’s dig in and tackle some of the major questions we hear about toilet training. Just remember that this is going to look a little different for every child. Your child may not show every toilet training readiness cue. You also do not need to try every tip or go buy every tool I talk about in this blog.


What are the signs that my child is ready to begin potty training?

 

Your child may be ready to start toilet training when they consistently…

  • Tell you when they are wet or dirty, or, pull at or attempt to remove their dirty diaper
  • Find a hiding spot when they use the restroom
  • Show interest in talking about or watching others use the restroom
  • Can follow simple directions
  • Can sit still for a few minutes at a time
  • Can physically pull their pants off and on
  • Can keep their diaper dry for longer than usual
  • Are awakening from naps or nighttime sleep dry
  • Tell you when they are about to, or need to go, to the restroom

How do I get my mindset in the right place before we get started?

 

Before you begin potty training (or if you are currently in the midst of it and that’s how you found this blog!), I want you to remember these mantras:

“It will not be easier once my kid is potty trained, but, it won’t be like this forever.”

There is a common misconception that once your kid is out of diapers your life will become easier. Unfortunately, that is not quite true (for a while). Even when your child is fully potty trained, you will find yourself on “high alert.” Suddenly, you will become extra vigilant about accidents. Instead of changing diapers, you will find yourself constantly reminding your child to go to the bathroom and always ensuring there is a nearby toilet. However, it WILL get easier eventually, I promise!

“It will be frustrating. I will probably clean poop off the rug at some point. It won’t be like this forever.”

Accidents are going to happen. It’s just a part of it. You may find yourself searching for poop camouflaged perfectly in your patterned rug. You may accidentally step in it. It is gross. None of us like that part. But it’s not like that forever!

“I will celebrate little ‘wins,’ no matter how small.”

This is key. Sometimes we conceptualize the only “win” in potty training as “consistently using the toilet without accidents.” However, it’s a journey to get to that point. Celebrating small wins helps you and your child have the motivation to keep going. Here are small wins to celebrate:

  • Sitting on the potty (even if they don’t go)
  • Preferring underwear or pull-ups to diapers
  • Telling you they need to go
  • Recognizing and telling you that they went potty (even if they did not make it to the toilet)
  • Putting urine or poop in the potty (even if they don’t consistently do so)

“I understand it is a process based on my child’s physical development. I will not shame or discipline my child about accidents or slow progress.”

So very much of the toilet training journey comes down to your child’s physical development. It takes time to understand and recognize the feeling behind the to go to the bathroom, have the physical control to hold it until you can make it to the bathroom, and then actually urinate or poop in a completely different way and position than you have been for the previous 2 to 4 years! When children are harshly told “no!” or disciplined after having a toileting accident, they tend to hide future accidents, which slows progress overall.


My child is not quite ready to start potty training but is close. Should I be introducing the concept to them?

 

Yes! Here are some of our top tips for getting them ready to start toilet training:

  • Let them observe you or older siblings use the restroom. Kids learn best through observing others and then modeling their behavior.
  • Purchase a training potty. Let them practice sitting on it, without the pressure of needing to go. I like to keep one near the bathtub they primarily use for bathing. You can encourage them to sit on it while you are running the bathwater. If they end up urinating or pooping in it, praise them! If they start using the restroom in the bathtub, say something like, “You are going tee-tee! Let’s put the rest in the potty!” and move them to the training potty. I like training potties that look similar to the real deal, like this: Training Toilet
  • Start reading story books and cartoons about using the restroom. I like the following: Daniel Tiger  Dino Potty  Everyone Poops
  • Start monitoring and noting when your child uses the restroom. Does your child always poop at the same time of day? Do they always urinate within 10 minutes of eating? Those are good patterns to start noting and will help you know when to put them on the toilet once you actually start potty training.

Okay, my child is showing most or all of the readiness signs, how do we start!?

 

  • Start on a weekend or break from school or work. It is nice to start the process when you have a few days when you can primarily stay at home to work on it. Remember that it is highly likely that it will take you longer than 2 to 3 days to fully potty train your child. However, it's helpful to have a dedicated few days to start the process.
  • Let your child pick out some of the supplies. Take your child to the store to pick out their “big kid” underwear, toilet seat, and/or pull-ups. Letting them choose their favorite characters and colors adds excitement to the event and helps them feel “buy-in” towards the process.
  • Make sure they can comfortably use the toilet. Their bottoms and legs are tinier than a standard toilet allows! A training potty, like the one linked above, is a great tool as it is already at the correct height.

If using the full-sized toilet, they will need a stepstool to help them climb up, and rest their feet. They will also need something that makes the toilet hole smaller and has handles. You can use a removable toddler seat like this (Removable Seat) that slips on and off the toilet. You can also replace the toilet seat with a two-in-one seat that has a full size, and a toddler size, seat, like this (two-in-one seat). Of note, a seat like this can work great for older or larger toddlers, but, may still be slightly too large for younger or smaller toddlers. It also does not have handles, so, kids who are very newly toilet training may still want to hold your hand, or the side of the seat, while sitting.

You may also consider an all-in-one step stool and toilet seat option like this (Seat with Stepstool). My boys did not need this, as they mostly stood to pee, and only had to climb the stepstool to sit when they needed to poop. However, this has been more convenient and secure for my daughter who has to climb the step stool and sit down every time she uses the restroom.

This leads me to an important side note: some boys who are potty training like to stand to urinate while others like to sit. Either is okay! If you have a “stander,” you will only need a stepstool when they pee (lift the seat!). However, when they poop, they may need one of the other tools listed above.

  • Pick an incentive. Potty training is a wonderful situation in which using rewards or incentives is completely appropriate (and helpful!). There are two main ways to do this:
  1. Give them a small treat every time they use the potty. Make sure it is something they really enjoy, rarely get, and consume (or use) quickly. My daughter has a dairy allergy, and there is only one brand of chocolate chips she can have. Her reward was a couple of mini-chocolate chips (that she ate out of a fancy little plate, which made it extra special). She was able to eat the chocolate chips within a few minutes of eating them, and always wanted more. That made it easy to say, “Yes! You CAN have more chocolate, next time you go potty in the big girl potty!” We once ran out of chocolate chips and used a sucker instead. This was not as motivating as she was still licking it the next time she needed to use the restroom!
  2. Use a sticker chart towards a larger prize. You can also use a simple sticker chart. Every time they use the potty, they can earn a sticker on their chart. Once they fill up their chart, they can earn a bigger toy or prize. My oldest son had a potty sticker chart to earn a hermit crab (his choice, not mine)! We have a blog post on how to effectively use sticker charts here (Sticker Charts Blog):

Although my above examples required the behavior of “putting urine or poop in the potty” to earn an incentive, this does not have to be your starting goal. Your child can also earn a prize for sitting on the potty or telling you when they need to go.

  • Let them drink all the drinks. This is the time to let them drink all of the water, juices, and fun drinks that their little heart desires. A full bladder means lots of positive learning opportunities!
  • Cover your prized furniture: This is the tip you may not hear anywhere else. There will be accidents. I repeat. There will be accidents. If there is a piece of furniture that would not handle easy cleanup from urine or poop, cover it with extra blankets.
  • Get older siblings on board: Let your older kids know that you are going to start toilet training. Explain to them that they may see their toddler sibling naked a little more. Ask them to tell you, or take their sibling to the restroom, if they ask to go potty or have an accident. Talk to them about encouraging or praising their younger sibling for toileting success. Also, let them know that overreacting to accidents will slow the process down.
  • Have them sit on the potty at predictable times, when you know they may need to go. This includes: when they wake up, after eating, before nap, after nap, before bath, and before bed. If you’ve been noticing other patterns to when they go, have them sit on the potty at those times too.
  • Also set a timer to encourage them to go at regular intervals. Start by setting a timer 15- to 20-minutes after they last went. You can adjust this timing based on their success. Every time you encourage them to go, have them sit on the potty for a few minutes. If they don’t go, reset the timer for a 5-to-10-minute interval to try again. If they have an accident, shorten the time next time. If they successfully go, let them earn their reward, and reset the timer. If your child loves the timer system, you may encourage letting them use their own potty watch (Potty Watch).
  • Being naked, in underwear, or in pull-ups is up to you! Some kids find great success in “potty training in the raw,” This is especially useful if it is warm weather, and you can spend time outside. I have always found that the allure of underwear featuring a favorite character is motivating to my kids. I prefer underwear (or nudity!) to pull-ups for the bulk of potty training work. These methods help your kids to instantly feel the wet feeling if they have an accident, which is critical in their ability to recognize that sensation sooner. Pull-ups wick away the moisture, similar to diapers, so, this connection is not as easily made. We tend to do a mix of all three though. Pull-ups can be a useful tool for naps or when you run errands.

For girls, avoid potty training in dresses. Having to hold the dress up to keep it clean is an extra chore. Oh, and avoid rompers/ jumpsuits during this phase. (I have a very clear memory of having to use a public restroom while wearing a romper, as a four-year-old and realizing with horror that I had to completely take it off in public).

  • Elevate their knees for bowel movements. Many kids learn to urinate in the potty faster than they learn to poop in the potty. That’s because the seated position we use for pooping in the toilet is actually not the most efficient way to use those muscles. If they are struggling pooping in the potty, try giving them a rest for their feet that places their knees at the same level, or higher than, their bottom.
  • Explain the process to your toilet-training toddler. Let them know that you are going to be working on toileting in the “big girl/big boy” potty. Let them know they will get to drink fun drinks and wear their big kid underwear. Tell them why you are covering the furniture. Let them know that they are going to try to go to the restroom every time they hear the timer go off. Also, let them know that they can tell you that they need to go potty if they need to go before the timer. Reinforce that their underwear is not for pee or poop, but, that the toilet is for those things. This is what that conversation sounded like in our house before we started potty training our youngest:

“I’m so excited you get to wear big girl panties today! Do you want to wear Bluey or Peppa? Wow, big girl! We are going to practice going tee-tee and poo-poo in your big girl potty. Every time you put tee-tee or poo-poo in the potty, you get chocolate! We will practice going every time you hear the timer. If you don’t need to go, that’s okay, you can still try. If you need to go any other time, say, “Mommy! I need to go potty!” I have blankets on the couch to help keep it clean!”

  • Remember: accidents are a part of the learning experience: Every time they have an accident, their brain strengthens the connection between: “had this physical urge” and “Oh, urine came out!” That is beneficial. Remember to not scold or be harsh with them in those moments. Simply remind them that urine/poop goes in the potty. You can have them help you clean up, if appropriate. This is what that process may sound like:

“You went poop in your undies. Remember, poop goes in the potty. Let’s put this poop in the potty (knock it out of the underwear and flush it, with your kid in the room). Now let’s get you cleaned up. Which underwear do you want to wear now? Okay, let’s put your dirty underwear in the washing machine now. I’m going to reset the timer, when it goes off, we will try using the big boy potty again!”


Okay, I’ve done all that, but it is not working. What do I do!?

 

You may need to pause and try again later. If you have been trying all or most of the above, and your child just does not seem to be “getting it,” it is okay to pause and try again in a few weeks or months. If you have been working on potty training for more than a few days or weeks, and your child is still doing any of the following:

  • Not realizing that they are wet or dirty after accidents
  • Not getting any urine or poop out when they sit on the potty
  • Not giving you any indication that they need to go

Then, your child may truly not be developmentally ready yet. That is okay! They will get there. Remember small “wins” that your child may have won, like, starting to prefer pull-ups over diapers, or, urinating in the potty after they first wake up. You can continue those “wins,” by letting them continue to wear pull-ups and continuing to put them on the potty after waking. However, you can pause pushing potty training further until they are more ready.

You can do this!

Dr. Erin


 

**Potty Training Update**

 

I (Erin) originally wrote this blog when my youngest, Gwen was two months shy of turning 3. It was the winter break, and we had a a few weeks to try before school resumed for the spring semester. We went through all of the above steps, and, Gwen made so much progress! She loved sitting on the potty, and, urinated just about every time I put her on it. However, after 9 days of trying, it was clear that she just was not ready. Although she used the potty at the regular, timed intervals, she often did not even realized she had gone. Similarly, even after 9 days, she was still having as many accidents as day 1, and, did not seem to even notice when she had an accident. So, we hit the pause button. We kept her in pull-ups instead of diapers, and, still continued to encourage her to sit on the potty before bath time, and after naps, but, we mostly took a break from potty training.

We had a long road trip in May/June, and, I knew that I wanted to wait until after that road trip to really try again. Beginning in May, she started showing more "readiness signs." She would often, of her own accord, say, "Me have to go potty!" This was often *as* she was urinating in her pull-up, but, she was making that connection. I started prepping her by saying, "When we get back from our road trip, we will start using the big girl potty again!

The day after we got back, when she was 3 years and 3 months, we tried again. I started the first morning by setting timers; however, this very much annoyed her (insert hand over face emoji). I instead let her take the lead this time. All of our prep over the last 6 or so months has taught her what to do, she just needed to start making the connection between *I have the urge to go potty* and *I'm going to walk to the toilet and go there.*

I kept a training potty in the living room so she had easy access. I let her choose her big-girl panties. We used mini-chocolate chips as a reward for going. And let me tell you - that girl basically potty trained herself this time. The first day she had about equal successes to accidents. However, I was noticing that for every accident, she continually caught it sooner and sooner, and learned *how* to stop that flow, and eventually, how to *hold it* long enough to make it to the restroom. On day 2, she shocked me by pooping in the potty, which, we had never even came close to before. On day 3, we were out running errands, while she was wearing a pull-up. However, she told me when she needed to go, and, she went in a public restroom! On day 4, she made it the whole day without any accidents. By day 5, we could go on fairly lengthy errands without needing a pull-up, keeping her underwear dry (I now travel with this portable potty seat cover, which she prefers to full-size public toilets). One week later, that girl is fully potty trained!

So, once again, I want to reiterate the message at the top of this blog: if it takes you longer than 3 days to potty train your child, you are not a failure! The biggest factor in potty training is your child's developmental readiness. If they are not ready yet, it will take more work, and, may not be possible. If they are ready, and you've done many of the tips discussed in this blog to help prepare them, it may be easier than you think!


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