The Truth About Potty Training (Because It’s Time We Stopped Lying to Each Other)

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It started out innocently enough: A friend brought a pack of cloth diapers to my baby shower, noting, “I saw you had disposables on your registry, and those are just so horrible for the environment. And expensive, so we thought you could use these instead.”

It was quickly followed with, “we’re not planning to use diapers at all when we have a baby—we’re going to use Elimination Communication and cut out all that diaper-changing,” referring to the potty-training method popularized by Ingrid Bauer’s 2001 book, Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene. It recommends looking to your baby’s natural grunts, furrowed brows and other cues they’re about to go to the bathroom, then hovering them over the toilet to do so.

My daughter wasn’t even born yet, and I felt potty-training shame. (Still, in the overwhelming first few weeks of parenthood, that shame wasn’t enough to get me to commit to cloth diaper or even attempting Elimination Communication.)

Fast forward two years, when I entered the world of traditional toilet training. Again, it seemed so easy: Parents would turn to me and say, “Oh, Violet ditched diapers completely over Memorial Day weekend—just use the Three-Day Method!” Or, “I dropped Winston off at daycare with underwear and a prayer, and the teachers took care of the rest!”

Or, “Take a week off work, never leave the house and let your kid run around bare-bottomed. Once they get used to the sensation of having an accident and what it means to use the potty, they’ll be all set!”

What they failed to mention: Your home will be a stinky, soggy hellscape and you will soon realize your charming, delightful child has absolutely no problem sitting in urine while fully enthralled in building a Magna-Tiles castle. (Because honestly, who has time to run to the bathroom when there’s a translucent rainbow tower to build?!)

Turns Out, We All Have Different Definitions of “Potty Trained”

Soon, little confessions would seep out—Violet’s potty trained, totally, but she still has accidents four times a day. Winston’s teachers took him to the loo every 20 minutes, and as long as you maintain that schedule, you don’t have to worry about accidents. The bare-bottom week worked—except for bedtime and the fact that the parents still smell phantom poo scents from the time their kid took a dump behind the fiddle leaf fig.

potty training is a process, not a one-time event
Dasha Burobina/PureWow

The more I talked to parents, the more I found we were all wondering, which method is the best? And when is the right time to potty train? And are we all just lying to ourselves about how easy it is out of fear we’ll look like failures because we can’t easily teach a skill that comes so naturally to us as adults?!

Spoiler: “There is no one-size-fits-all method to potty training, so never compare your experience to someone else's,” recommends Allison Jandu, owner and founder of Potty Training Consultant, a service that provides courses and expert guidance on making the transition to the porcelain throne. (Whoops—as you can see, I was all too guilty of the comparison trap.) “Every child is different, and every family lifestyle is different. Just because your child may not be getting the hang of it as quickly as you were hoping doesn’t mean that either of you are doing anything wrong.”

Jandu emphasizes that “potty training is a process, not a one-time event,” even though it’s often framed as something you tackle in a few days’ time. In fact, the process typically takes about six months, according to the UC Davis Children’s Hospital.

“Some children have it down pat in as little as a few days, and others take several weeks or months to really solidify their skills,” Jandu says. “When I'm working with families, most of them are in a really good place within the first two to four weeks of ditching diapers. Other aspects, like nighttime or pooping, may take longer to master.”

So, When Is the Right Time to Start Potty Training?

Jandu advocates looking for developmental and potty-specific signs your kid is ready to start using the toilet. “Some developmental signs include being able to follow simple directions, an eagerness to please, having basic communication skills (not necessarily verbal, but both some expressive and receptive language), mimicking the actions of adults and having a good grasp on gross motor skills,” such as sitting and walking.

In terms of potty-specific signs, your toddler might show more of a general interest in the toilet, wake up dry from naps, hide to poop and stay dry for longer periods of time than before.

“If only the developmental signs are present without any of the potty specific signs, it's still OK to start leading your child in the right direction,” she says.

The pediatricians at UC Davis Children’s Hospital made similar recommendations, adding that children should be able to control their sphincter before you start potty training, which typically happens between 12 and 18 months. Any earlier than that, and you’re just spinning your wheels. And even at or past that age, your child might not be mentally ready to make the transition. Don’t rush them—or yourself.

What Other Lies Are We Telling Ourselves About Potty Training?

Oh, there are many, Jandu says, but the three biggest are:

  1. Children aren’t capable of nighttime potty training; dry nights will just happen on their own eventually. The truth? “Children can learn how to use the potty at night if certain techniques are implemented, the biggest of which being removing disposable diapers/Pull-Ups to accelerate the learning,” Jandu explains. (She also recommends limiting their drinks at dinner to 4 ounces and waking your child 20 minutes early and having them go to the bathroom right away, since most kids empty their bladders first thing.)
  2. Boys are harder to potty train than girls. “Boys might start a little later and take a little longer to fully master things, but they are by no means harder,” she says. “I work with an equal number of boy and girl families who have struggles!”
  3. If your child is resistant to potty training at first, it means they aren't ready. As long as the physiological readiness signs are there, your child is probably ready, Jandu counters, with the caveat that you might need to slow things down or adjust your approach to accommodate their needs. (For example, “if there is a big change around the corner in your child’s life—think: a new sibling, moving to a new house, parents going through a divorce, etc.—then I recommend a six- to eight-week buffer period between the other change and the start of potty training to avoid a potential regression and not overwhelm your child with too much at one time,” she says.)

OK, But How Do I Get My Kid to Actually Start Using the Potty Consistently?

The key, as Jandu has shared via Instagram, is teaching your kids self-initiation, which involves—yes—going bare-bottomed for a bit to get used to the sensation of peeing, and learning their “potty language,” or how their behavior changes when they need to go.

She also recommends learning how frequently your child needs to use the restroom, since some kids need to go every half hour, while some are fine every three hours. Once you know—roughly—how frequently their bladder’s full, you can back off, so you aren’t bugging them every 15 minutes (and they start revolting and melting down). Early on, the Mayo Clinic suggests scheduling potty breaks every two hours, where you have your child sit on the potty and simply try to go, offering praise for the attempt, not only if they pee or poop.

And, for kids who are developmentally ready but just not all that interested in breaking away from Bluey to hit the dunny, as they say, many PureWow parents told us they made peace with offering certain rewards as incentives, be it stickers or candy. If you do, Jandu suggests that two weeks after consistent potty habits start to develop, you start setting longer-term goals, offering a reward for each good day of potty training, rather than each visit to the toilet. You may have to up the ante on your reward to make up for fewer rewards per day to keep your kid motivated, but that can be more successful than quitting rewards cold turkey, Jandu shares, which can lead to regressions.

The Bottom Line

Potty training takes way longer than we’d like to admit, but no matter how pee-saturated your life may seem right now—in the words attributed to an “Eastern monarch,” Abraham Lincoln and the band OK Go—this too shall pass. And one day, you too, shall be recounting to your new-parent friends that it took like, what? Two days to learn potty training?

candace davison bio

VP of editorial, recipe developer, kitsch-lover

Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...