The Definitive Guide to Potty Training Your Kid

Everything parents need to know.

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The following was produced in partnership with Pull-Ups® Training Pants.

You spent hours documenting their first steps. For weeks, entire dinner conversations revolved around their ability to string two words together into a “sentence.” Knowing colors, naming barnyard animals, your child is Harvard-bound, no doubt. But what about the potty? You know, that awkward stage where it’s time for kids to learn how to do their business in the actual bathroom?

Potty training is in itself an important development milestone: It teaches your child how to use the bathroom like a grown-up, sure, but it is also one of the first exercises that tests your child’s ability to listen to instructions and take them into their own hands. With it comes a sense of mastery, autonomy, and independence comes. But how to get there? We’ve got you covered with these six straightforward steps.

Step 1: Spot the Signs

Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought: Potty-train when you want your kid to stop messing in her diapers, and potty-train when your kid lets you know she’s ready to stop messing in her diapers. As it turns out, a study in Pediatrics & Child Health concludes there is no single method of toilet training that is vastly superior to all others. Instead, look for a few of these telltale signs from the American Academy of Family Physicians to help you determine if it’s time to start potty training, including:

  • Your child stays dry at least two hours in a row during the day.
  • Bowel movements are regular and predictable.
  • Your child has specific facial expressions, postures, or words that indicate he’s about to go.
  • You can get her to follow simple instructions.
  • He acts uncomfortable after going in his diapers.
  • She can pull down and pull up her own clothes.
  • She asks to wear adult underwear.

Myth: Your kid can be too young to potty train.Fact: In some cultures, parents toilet-train straight out of the gates. That’s right, somewhere on this planet, there is a nine-month-old babe who (theoretically) pees in a pot. Or so we’ve been told. Similarly, there are plenty of three-year-olds working on potty training basics. And lots of kids continue to have accidents, at night or otherwise, until they are 5 or 6. What age you choose to start training is up to you, and to a certain extent your kid. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Step 2: Talk the Talk

Talk about poop. And pee. Talk about who does it and why they do it. Talk about when it happens and where. Talk about why it disappears into a hole and where it goes after. The more conversations you can have about all things bathroom-related, the less strange and scary it will seem to your youngster. Read books about it (bookstores have entire shelves devoted to the topic).

Along those lines, let your child join you when it’s time for you to go. Sure, it’s a little awkward, but it’s a helpful act of transparency. Most kids equate a closed door with secretive stuff. Keep your bathroom wide-open for invasion of the curious, and it will ease the way to quicker toilet training. Don’t make a big deal out of it, just have a fun conversation and expect that he will be picking up some important tips from you during your potty date. You can even place the potty chair next to the toilet, and let your toddler sit beside you.

Myth: If your child has to go, have them sit until they do.Fact: Do you sit on the toilet indefinitely? Probably not, even if you thought you needed to go but now nothing is happening. Your kid is no different. True, she’s still learning the signs of what “having to go” feels like, but being forced to sit there isn’t going to expedite matters. If nothing happens after a few minutes, get up and try again later. (And don’t be surprised if the first couple of times, the minute she gets off the thrown, she goes in her pants. Fair warning.)

Step 3: Purchase Tools of the Trade

You’ll want either a kid-sized potty or a kid-sized seat cover you can place over your own. If you go with a seat cover, you’ll also want to purchase a small foot stand that you can position at the base of the toilet — kids need to be able to plant their feet firmly on something in order to push better during a bowel movement.

For potty training to be a success, kids also need to be able to reach the bathroom on their own at any time, day or night. That means they should sleep in a bed, not a crib, and have the ability to walk from their room to the potty on their own. For this reason, many parents opt for placing a portable toilet just outside their child’s bedroom door at night, for any sudden emergencies.

Next, stock up on Pull-Ups® Training Pants. The perfect transition from diapers to underpants, Pull-Ups® Training Pants give your child the feeling of removing and replacing underwear when it’s time to go, but with the necessary absorption lining so they won’t worry if they have an accident (and you won’t discover, five hours later, that their cotton panties are a great big mess).

Myth: Accidents are a problem.Fact: In a perfect world, your toddler would slip on a pair of big-boy underpants, have an accident, feel sad and wet, and never do it again. In the real world, it takes a while to get the hang of connecting the urge to go with finding a toilet to go in. During this transition, training pants provide a level of comfort for both the child and the parent and can help make accidents less stressful when they happen.

Step 4: Pick Your Moment

Given that using the toilet is a new experience, and new experiences can be a little daunting, you want to choose a training time that doesn’t overlap with any other major life changes. For instance, moving to a new house, the introduction of a new baby in the family, a divorce, change in daily routine, or anything else that feels “different” to your normal set-up isn’t the best time to tackle potty training. (Similarly, don’t try it if your toddler is under the weather — even the slightest hint of diarrhea will cause training to fail spectacularly.)

While some lucky parents profess that their little whizzer learned the ropes in three days or less, the reality is that most kids need at least a week to grasp toilet basics, and anywhere from a few weeks to a year to achieve a passing grade. Accidents during this time aren’t just likely, they’re guaranteed. Consistency is key, especially at the start, so if you can set aside a long weekend to get the ball rolling, that’s ideal.

Myth: Once trained, always trained.Fact: Kids can appear to be totally potty-trained for a week — and suddenly regress to going in their pants. Don’t panic. It’s normal. Try to avoid conflict over using the toilet by asking questions like: “Do you want to practice big-boy underpants now or this afternoon?”

Step 5: Create a Routine

Scheduling a potty pit-stop every two hours is a great way to get your kid used to the idea of using the grown-up thrown. Like most things in life, the more she practices, the easier it gets, so plan on heading to the bathroom on a schedule, whether or not she has to go. Remember to review the steps each time. Raise lid, pull down pants, pull down Pull-Ups® Training Pants, step up to the throne, face appropriate direction, and wait. You can hang with your little one and read a book, tell a story (bonus points if it’s a bathroom tale), or just talk. Regardless of whether or not they go to the bathroom, follow the routine of flushing and washing hands after.

Myth: The more praise you give, the faster they’ll learn.Fact: Actually, too much attention — good or bad — on whether the kid pees in the pot can do long-term damage to the training process. Just as you should never shame or punish a child who has an accident or is struggling to grasp the concept of using the toilet, don’t give excessive praise for success, either. In your kid’s mind, all that focus on going to the bathroom can feel overwhelming, and accidents start to arise out of stress.

Step 6: Help Your Odds

While you can’t make a kid pee, you can encourage the process by offering your youngster a big glass of water or juice, then hanging out for 45 minutes or so before sauntering on over to the bathroom. That’s about the amount of time it will take for the fluids to circulate through the body and send a signal that it’s time to go. Other tricks include running the faucet or making her laugh, both of which may trigger a pee response. Note: If you have a girl, it’s important to teach her to wipe from front to back after she pees or poops. This will keep any residual poop bacteria from accidentally getting into her urinary tract, which can cause a painful infection.

Myth: Boys must pee standing up.Fact: Many parents find toilet training easier if they start their sons off sitting on the chair first, regardless of whether it’s #1 or #2. The seated position provides stability, which in turn provides a level of comfort so he can relax and go. Once he’s mastered going sitting down, it’s time to start target practice.

Regardless of your approach to potty training, you are virtually guaranteed two outcomes: It will be messy, and it will ultimately be a success. Rest assured that whatever approach you take, a study in Clinical Pediatrics shows your tactics are unlikely to be correlated with any toileting troubles down the road. If the whole thing is stressing you out though, check in with your kid’s pediatrician for some level-headed, been-there-seen-everything advice.

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