Potty-Training Methods to Live By, According to Moms, Pediatricians and a ‘Toileting Consultant’

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For a good while, it just wasn’t gross to walk around with a giant crap in your pants...until someone decided it was. It doesn’t matter much whether that someone was you (who decided your poop stank) or your mom and dad (who decided they were done cleaning up unnecessary messes). Whatever the scenario, the dreaded toilet-training phase began…

Why are we talking about your own history with diapers, lo these many years ago? Empathy, people. After all, potty training a toddler, like so many aspects of parenting, takes a lot of patience, so definitely start tapping into your compassion reserves. But it also takes diligence, humor and a game plan. Read on for a roundup of the best methods and potty-training tips–condensed, so you can scroll through ’em in the time it takes you to… uh, whatever.

This Bull’s-Eye Light Is the Potty-Training Accessory Every Parent Needs

potty training tips toddler wearing a diaper
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Is My Child Ready To Start Potty Training?

The first part of the potty-training job has to do with assessing your child’s readiness. You know all about developmental milestones by now...and ditching diapers is one of them. Like many other milestones, this one won’t be reached at the same time by every child (and the range is broad), but most kids begin the process somewhere between 18 months and 3 years of age.

But how to determine if it’s time for your kid to give it a go? Well, in 1999, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a reference guide for clinicians that advocated for a child-oriented approach (more on that later) and advised looking for the below signs of physiological, cognitive and emotional readiness before beginning:

  • pulling at or removing a wet or dirty diaper
  • announcing (verbalizing) the need to pee or poop prior to doing the deed
  • waking up dry from a nap, or staying dry for two or more hours of wakefulness
  • expressing discomfort about having a dirty diaper and requesting to be changed
  • hiding/seeking a private place to go pee or poo

But a host of other factors can contribute to a child’s individual readiness, and sometimes signs aren’t so specific and clearly defined, says T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., engineer of the child-oriented approach and author of Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way. Per the AAP: “This model of toilet training comprises three variant forces in child development: physiologic maturation (e.g., ability to sit, walk, dress and undress); external feedback (i.e., understands and responds to instruction); and internal feedback (e.g., self-esteem and motivation, desire to imitate and identify with mentors, self-determination and independence).”

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t. If you see some of those specific signs, you get the green light. If you have any doubts about your child’s developmental readiness, talk to your pediatrician first for reassurance. (And remember, if you start too soon, you can just stop and try again later. No big deal, as long as you don’t make it one.)

The Two Methods for Potty Training

There are many potty-training methods, but if you read up on them too much (guilty!) they can all start to sound pretty similar with only slight modifications. For the sake of simplicity, however, it boils down to your intended timeline. In this sense, the two main methods are the child-led approach (endorsed by the AAP) and the three-day potty-training method (endorsed by moms the world over who don’t want to spend two years potty training). Both methods work. Read on for the scoop on each strategy.

potty training tips toddler sitting on potty
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Child-led Approach

This method was first developed by Dr. Brazelton in the 1960s and has remained one of the dominant schools of thought in the potty-training world. A celebrated pediatrician, Dr. Brazelton observed his patients and concluded that parents were pushing their children to potty train too soon, and the pressure put on the children was counterproductive to the process. In his best-selling book, Touchpoints, Dr. Brazelton advocates that parents hold off until their child shows signs of readiness (somewhere around the age of 18 months) that include developments in “language, imitation, tidiness, the waning of negativism…” Once these signs are evident, the toilet-training process can begin—very slowly and gradually. What is the parents’ role, you ask? It’s a very passive one. Dr. Brazelton recommends that parents show their child each step of the process...and that’s about it. The key to this method is that you have to at least pretend you have no stake in the process when your child imitates the steps you have shown him, and you have to accept that it might take a long time before he shows any interest in doing his business in the appropriate place.

Steps Of Child-led Toilet Training:

  1. Week 1: Buy your child a potty, tell him that it’s just for him and put it in a prominent place—preferably somewhere he spends a lot of time, so not the bathroom—and let him take it wherever he wants.

  2. Week 2: After a week or so, take him to sit on it with his clothes on. (Dr. Brazelton says that at this stage, removing clothes would be “too invasive and may frighten him.”)

  3. Week 3: Ask your child if you can take his diaper off once a day to sit on the potty. This is just to establish a routine, so don’t expect him to stay long or do anything while he’s there.

  4. Week 4: When your child has a dirty diaper, take him to his potty and have him watch you empty his poop into his little potty. Dr. Brazelton says you should not flush the poop while he watches, because any child feels his poop is a part of himself and might be freaked out by seeing it disappear.

  5. Week 5: Now your child takes over completely. If he has been interested in the other steps, you can let him run around naked and use the potty of his own accord. Put the potty in the room with your child so he can get to it when he wants. Dr. Brazelton says it’s OK to gently remind him every hour to try to go, but don’t insist.

  6. Week 6: If your child has done well up to this point, you can leave his pants off for longer stretches of time.

So according to these steps, the child-led approach seems like a reasonably paced six-week commitment. Not exactly. Dr. Brazelton says “go right back to diapers” if your child has an accident on the floor, and if your child “gets worried or resistant, pull back quickly and forget it.” Both accidents and resistance are pretty inevitable, so you will probably find yourself back at square one many times. Thus, the child-led approach can take a very long time and is often associated with late training. On the plus side, if you have the patience for child-led training, the process is quite gentle and avoids all the common potty-training pitfalls, like when parental pressure creates negative associations and child-parent power struggles.

potty training tips sitting on potty
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3-day Potty Training

This rapid-fire potty-training method is basically the opposite of Dr. Brazelton’s child-led approach and first became popular in the ’70s with Nathan Azrin and Richard Foxx’s book, Toilet Training in Less Than a Day. It has since been modified by many other authors and experts to better fit the current parenting ethos. In our opinion, the best book on the three-day potty-training method is Oh Crap! Potty Training, written by Jamie Glowacki, a potty-training guru and self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of Poop.” The gist of this method is that you ceremoniously ditch the diapers, block out your schedule for a long weekend and devote all your attention to watching the every move of your bare-bottomed toddler to learn his cues (and help him learn his own).

When do you start? “Unequivocally, potty training is easiest when done between the ages of 20 and 30 months,” Glowacki writes, but you don’t need to worry too much about readiness as long as your child is older than 18 months, because this process basically starts with your child discovering her own readiness. Glowacki describes the timeline as such: “We are taking your child’s awareness from Clueless to I Peed to I’m Peeing to I Have to Go Pee” in a matter of days.

Steps Of 3-day Potty-training Method

  1. Ditch the diapers and let your child know you are doing so. Make it fun and positive, but start the process “with as little fanfare as possible” so your child feels like potty training is normal and not a big deal. Glowacki says you can keep diapers for nighttime and for practical reasons (like long car rides), but she warns that this will make the process longer since your child will still think they are an option.

  2. For the first three days, you will not leave the house, you will not put pants or underwear on your child and you will not take your eyes off her. As soon as you notice some of your child’s individual cues, dash her to the potty (or slide the potty under her) to literally catch her pee or poo. If you are making a dash, be fast but not frantic. Yes, bodily fluids will get on the floor. But the idea is that this will happen less and less as she starts to identify the sensations that lead up to your rushing her to the potty. Ultimately, once she feels it coming, she will prefer to get herself to the potty.

  3. In between dashes to the potty, prompt your child periodically and remind her to listen to her body. Don’t prompt excessively, because that is nagging, and nagging is annoying. Praise your child for whatever ends up in the potty, but don’t overdo it, because going in the potty is normal. If pee goes on the floor instead, don’t get upset or scold, just say something like, “Oops, next time we will put that in the potty instead.”

  4. After a few days of getting used to the potty, you can put your child in a single layer on the bottom—pants or underwear. Glowacki says it is better not to do both, because children can confuse the sensation of the two layers with the sensation of wearing a diaper. In other words, once you think you’re ready to leave the house, make sure your child is going commando.

  5. The rest is history. The skills will continue to strengthen, and eventually you won’t even need to bring an “outside potty” along on your errands.

Glowacki describes the process in blocks, not days, but for most kids the whole thing happens pretty fast—anywhere from three days to two weeks to becoming fully potty trained. Only the first block requires complete vigilance, because at this stage your child is still unaware. Block two still requires a watchful eye, but at this point your child will be more actively involved in the process. Block three is just about “solidfying the skills,” she says.

The reason this method works fast is because you aren’t supposed to back down at the first sign of resistance. Glowacki explains that each one of the blocks has its own unique drama to look forward to, and your reaction to the drama will determine your child’s progress and attitude toward the process. Your child will resist change and might even feel afraid. “Do not invalidate her feelings,” Glowacki says, but do stay consistent or you will end up feeding into her fears. If you’re faced with full-blown tantrums over using the potty, Glowacki tells her clients to be firm but gentle: “Remind and then walk away...never does a child have a tantrum in an empty room.”

How Do I Choose The Right Method?

No matter what method you choose, project confidence. Experts in both camps agree that parental pressure is the enemy when it comes to successful potty training. Indeed, this fact is old news to the medical community. Doctors at the AAP note that “most toilet-training problems presenting to the health care practitioner reflect inappropriate training efforts and parental pressure.” Glowacki agrees: With more than a decade of experience working with families on potty training, she has seen firsthand how the two most common forms of parental pressure—hovering and over prompting—result in power struggles that derail the process. “You cannot and will not ever win a potty-training power struggle with a toddler.”

So basically, play it cool or you’re gonna be cleaning soiled underwear for a long time (and ruing the day you introduced your kid to the crapper).

What Are The Best Potty-training Toilets?

It all starts with the potty chair, so make sure you get a good and comfortable one. Check out these recommendations for parent-approved and toddler-accepted potties.

BabybjÖrn Potty Chair

This potty delivers on comfort, and the high back is a nice feature for a child in the stage of potty training that involves sitting for a long time with all the toys. Best of all, it’s super easy to empty and clean.

Jool Potty Training Chair

Comfort is key when it comes to convincing a kid to sit on a potty, and this training chair from Jool is another good option. The handles help wobbly toddlers stay stable when seating themselves and offer a place to grab onto when learning how to push out a poop in a seated position.

Kalencom Potette Plus 2-in-1 Travel Potty

A great product for venturing outside the house sans diaper. Pop it open at the playground, in a parking lot, anywhere! The disposable liners make for easy cleanup, and in the flat position it attaches to any standard toilet so your child can sit comfortably in a restaurant bathroom.

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Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...