The Potty Dance: Ten Steps to Success with Potty Training

I hated buying diapers. The whole notion of spending money—a lot of money—for something for my kids to poop on just never sat well with me. But I spent a lot more money on my floors (and my shoes), so I bought diapers anyway, longing for the day when that expense would disappear. It did—twice, but it took a lot of patience and determination (mostly on the part of my wife). It can be one of the more frustrating parenting challenges of toddlerhood, so whether you buy Pampers or roll your own, here are some tips for potty-training success.

1. Don’t rush it.

Most children are developmentally ready for potty training sometime between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old. Boys can take a little longer than girls, and siblings can vary significantly. If your child isn’t ready, don’t bother. I know you’re in a hurry, but you will save more in sweat and tears than you’ll spend on diapers. Here are some signs to watch for:

  • Some level of interest in going on the potty—watching you or siblings, talking about the potty, etc.
  • Dry periods of at least a couple hours (or an entire nap) between wet diapers.
  • The sensation of having to use the bathroom, which she may express verbally or by going to a “special corner” to do her business.
  • A general distaste for wet or dirty diapers, usually manifested by coming to you for a new diaper while the old one is still warm.
  • The ability to understand and follow simple instructions.
  • A desire for independence and accomplishment, or to be like older siblings.
  • The physical ability to walk to the potty, climb aboard, and pull his pants up (or at the very least, down).

2. Stock up.

Potty training requires some equipment that you may or may not already have (or that you may not have considered). Here’s a list:

  • A potty seat (or 4). I prefer the toilet-mounted seats for home and the self-contained seats for travel/car use.
  • Bathroom-size trash bags. These make great disposable liners to keep you from having to empty and clean the potty seat every time. They also keep your minivan from smelling like the men’s room at a football game.
  • A step-stool. When using a toilet-mounted seat, a stool can make your child feel more secure. (Try pooping with your legs dangling in the air…challenging, to say the least.) It also helps them reach the sink to wash their hands.
  • Small rewards that work for your child—M&M’s and stickers are popular choices. Make sure they can chew/swallow edible treats safely. If you go with stickers, have a special place to stick them.
  • Underwear/panties. Let your child pick them out—it works better with some buy-in. Make a HUGE deal about how these are what big boys/girls wear and how important it is that they stay dry.

3. Set the stage.

Introduce the idea with books or videos about potty training. Our favorite was “Potty Time with Abby Cadabby,” but there are hundreds to choose from. Demonstrate the process by putting underwear on a doll or stuffed animal, pointing out how dry they are, and showing how you take them off to sit on the potty seat. Even better, have an older sibling demonstrate. [After several failed attempts, our second one potty trained herself in under 24 hours because she decided to be like her big sister.] They’ll learn from watching you as well.

NOTE TO DADS: Teach your little man to pee standing up at your own risk. His aim will be sub-optimal on the first few attempts, and it’s perfectly ok to sit and tuck it. He’ll get there eventually.

4. Save the date.

Set aside a weekend (or a couple weekdays, if that works with your schedule–your kid won’t care), and plan to stay home the whole time. Don’t go out to dinner or have friends over. It’s just better that way.

5. Get [your child] naked.

Most kids don’t like to pee/poop on the floor, so being naked tends to make them more aware of the need to go. It also prevents anything from getting in the way of a quick break to the potty. Give them a ton of fluids to drink to create even more opportunities for learning. Take them to the potty every 15-20 minutes, as well as any time you just get the feeling they need to go. You can stay and watch or hang out around the corner if they prefer privacy; just make sure they don’t fall in. Reward successful attempts with the treats you bought. Don’t punish accidents—we’re working on positive associations. It’s ok to put the diaper back on for naps or at night, but devote your daytime activities exclusively to naked potty training.

6. Keep them dry.

After a day or three, once things are going relatively well, introduce the underwear. Stop the fluid overload to increase your chance of success. This is a huge step for your child and a major sign of independence. [Continue reading when you’re done crying.] Most toddlers around this age are very motivated by imitating older children, so really play up how special these “big-girl panties” are and how important it is to keep them dry. Put them on her and watch carefully for any signs of impending accidents. Promise a bigger reward (think: “toy store”) for making it through the day with dry underwear.

7. Be realistic.

Until your child is able to hold it for extended periods of time, plan your activities accordingly. “Mommy, I need to go potty” may very well mean that it’s running down her leg. Encourage your child to go potty just before your leave the house, and limit your extended excursions away from home. Keep a portable potty seat in the car for easy access (with the bags I mentioned in #2).

8. Phase out the rewards.

The rewards should only last a month or two. Slowly wean the treats—maybe every other time, then once a day until you stop. If your 9-year-old still asks for an M&M every time he poops in the potty, he’s milking it.

9. Accept failure.

Even the most successful potty-trainee will have accidents. Just clean it up and move on. But if the whole attempt went down in flames, take a break for a few weeks and try again later. Sometimes, as a parent, you have to pick a hill to die on; this isn’t it. Take some time off, and go back to step #1. You’ll get there. Also, don’t forget that daytime and nighttime dryness are not the same—bedwetting is considered perfectly normal until 5 years of age, and is extremely common even after that. I’ll leave that for another post—just put the diaper on at bedtime and get some sleep.

10. Celebrate your success.

You’ve rewarded your child during this whole process; now reward yourself. This is one of the more frustrating tasks of parenthood, and you made it through. Pour yourself a glass of wine and take a long bath with a book [that doesn’t have button-activated flushing sounds], or get a babysitter and have a date-night. You did it.