How and When to Potty Train a Toddler

Image of boy in orange shirt on toilet seat

Parenting is a double-edged sword: it’s the most rewarding job in the world, but it’s also the most demanding. Taking care of another human being is difficult, especially when you have to look after them and teach them about the world at the same time. Pretty soon parents learn just how complicated everyday tasks can be, and trying to explain it to their toddlers is a daunting task. Potty training is one such task – they are becoming too big for diapers, and you want to potty train them. You are aware that it’s going to be difficult to do it, which is why we have put together a list of useful potty training tips for parents.

What Age to Start Potty Training?

Just like with many other things about children, there aren’t any strict rules you should follow. It’s pretty much up to the children – when they decide they want to use the potty, they just will, but you can encourage them to do so. Sometimes children who are 18 months old will go on the potty, but there are also those who won’t use it until they’re almost 4 years old. There are parents who worry that their kids are too young or too old to start potty training for this very reason – there aren’t strict rules you should follow. There’s no reason to be worried and stressed though, children will start using the potty sooner or later, but there are a few things you can do to encourage them to do so earlier.

Even though some parents swear that their 18-month-olds are potty trained, it’s safe to say that these cases are exceptions rather than rules. If you’re a stay-at-home parent and you have enough time, you can start potty training your 18-month-old, but most parents agree that the best time to start is between ages 2 and 4. Keep in mind that it can take a while for you to learn to ‘read’ your child’s cues and to adjust to their rhythm before you successfully manage to get them to the potty in time, so prepare to be very hands-on about potty time for a while.

Whatever you decide to do: to start introducing the potty early on or to wait until they’re a bit older, you should first be able to read the signs that they want to go potty. Even if they are willing to do it, some children aren’t able to control their bladder well enough for the training to be successful. Fortunately, most kids who are between 2 and 4 years old can be reliably potty trained, and all it takes is the right approach and plenty of patience.

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How Long Does It Take to Potty Train a Toddler?

You might think that your child will be potty trained the moment they understand what’s going on in their bodies, but even though some kids get the grip of things very soon, it can still take weeks or even months to be completely independent. Statistics show that the earlier you start, the longer the training process will be, and patience on your part is the key factor here.

If your child is ready, it means that it’s going to take less time, but it doesn’t mean that it will be finished in a matter of days. If you notice that even after a few weeks your child isn’t showing any progress, it might be best to put the training on hold for a while because they might not be ready. In any case, there aren’t any strict rules that determine how long the potty training process should last for any child, and as long as you’re ready to work with them and they show a willingness to learn, you’ll be successful. I might take days, weeks, or even months, but your patience will eventually be rewarded.

What Do You Need for Toddler Potty Training?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: you’ll need a potty. Most children are afraid to sit on the toilet, so it’s better to get the potty that sits on the floor. This way, they will not have to climb the toilet in order to use it, and they’ll be more comfortable. When they get comfortable with it and get a better understanding of things, you could get a potty seat that goes on the toilet seat and encourage your child to use the toilet “just like grownups do”. You’ll also need to keep some diapers around and a change of clothes and underwear, especially when your child is at school or child care.

Also, keep in mind that nighttime potty training is going to be a bigger challenge because learning to control their bladder during the night takes much longer to master.  You can let your child wear diapers during the night just in case or, if you want to ditch the diapers altogether, waterproof mattress covers combined with overnight training pants will do the trick.

Nighttime potty training isn’t something you can teach them, they’ll get the hang of things eventually, and it’s up to you to be patient even if they wet their bed every now and then. Keep in mind that approximately 10% of kids aged eight still wet their bed from time to time, but if the problem persists that long you should consult a doctor because it’s likely that the problem is medical at this point.

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Potty Training Tips for Girls

When to Start Potty Training a Girl

We already mentioned that there aren’t strict rules that tell you when you should potty train your child, but in general, girls aged 2 to 4 respond to potty training the best. Also, even though they might start potty training at the same time as boys, girls tend to master the ‘art’ a couple of months earlier. Still, parents should understand that at the age of 3 and 4, children’s potty training journey isn’t over. Accidents still happen, and you could be full of patience and understanding because getting mad at them for not being able to control their bladder might result in fear and reluctance to try again.

Learn to read the signs that the child is ready to be potty trained: if they can undress and dress on their own, if they can walk or even run steadily and have good coordination, and if she has pretty much predictable bowel movements most of the time, it’s a sign that you can start potty training her.

Fight the fear

There are some kids who learn to pee in the potty in a blink of an eye, but simply refuse to use it for “number 2”. While parents are confused, experts point out that there are kids who see the bowel movement as a literal part of themselves and they’re afraid to watch it get flushed. If you think this might be the case with your little girl, use some potty training books to help you explain the process to her a bit better. An anatomy book is also a good source of information, and after you explain how her digestive system works, she won’t be afraid and she’ll be more willing to give it a try.

Let her try different positions

If your girl is surrounded with boy siblings and friends, it’s likely that she’s seen them pee standing up (or that she will in the future). Sooner or later she will want to try to pee just like them, but even though you already know that it won’t be successful, you should let her try it nonetheless. This way, she will soon learn that it’s something boys can do easily but girls can’t because it’s messy. It might “cost” you a few changes of clothes and underwear, but it’s a valuable and important lesson.

Potty positivity talks

It’s easy for parents to slip right into so-called negative words when referring o children’s poo or pee. They might call them “dirty” or “stinky”, but in the long run, it makes the children associate their bowel movements with negative vocabulary and eventually, negative emotions. This may influence their self-esteem, and they will hesitate to use the bathroom altogether. Instead of this approach, try praising children and use more positive reinforcement. Always call things their real names and don’t get mad at her even if she has ‘an accident’. Potty positivity will help them accept all parts of potty training and their bodily function better.

Body positivity time

During warm summer months, let your curious and energetic toddler spend some time without diapers. It will allow her to learn about what happens when she has to go potty, and she will soon start figuring things out on her own. While she plays, you keep an eye on her and keep the potty close by, and from time to time, encourage her to come over and spend some time sitting down on it. Not only will this help her become more familiar with the position, but she will learn to associate signs that she has to go with the activity of sitting on the toilet. Remember that this isn’t an instant-solution and accept that it might take several days for her to get the hang of things.

Teach them about proper hygiene

Girls are different than boys because they have to sit or squat when they pee as well as when they poo, and you should teach them to maintain proper hygiene when using the potty. Washing hands is a must, and you should start with this rule from day one. Flushing is also something they should learn to do early on, but wiping is particularly important. Teach the girls to wipe thoroughly and to make movements front to back, especially after bowel movement. By doing this, she will avoid accidentally spreading bacteria to her genitals.

Image of cute toddler boy in the yard

Potty Training Tips for Boys

When to Start Potty Training a Boy

Just like girls, boys age 2 to 4 best respond to potty training, but you should also pay close attention to their body language if you want the training to be successful. If they have longer “dry” periods and more or less predictable bowel movements, you can start preparing them for training. Another physical sign is when they are able to urinate a fair amount at one time. In addition, the boys should be able to stand and sit on their own, and take off and pull up their own pants.  

When they start squirming in wet diapers, it’s also a good sign because you can start explaining that they don’t have to wear diapers if they’re able to use the potty. If they don’t resist the idea to learn to use the toilet either, both of you are ready to give it a try.

Let them watch and learn

It’s a known fact that children learn best through games, but also by watching and copying the behavior of adults around them. Even though you might not feel comfortable having your boy follow you to the bathroom, it’s useful and beneficial for them because they will learn the right bathroom behavior from you. They might be confused at first to learn that men and women pee in different ways, but they will very soon learn the difference and enjoy being able to pee standing up.

Motivation with cool underwear

They will be more interested and focused on their potty training if they participate in the preparation process as well. Take some time to take him on a special errand and buy him new underwear – fit for big boys! Let them choose whichever he wants: briefs or boxers, dinosaurs or trains, stars or dragons… Spend some time talking about how big boys not only use the potty but also wear “real” underwear. Even if he hesitates to put them on at first, it doesn’t have to mean that all is lost – just let him wear them over his diaper for the beginning, and he will quickly get used to them. The next step is ditching the disposables and mastering the use of the potty.

Everything’s a game

A great thing about potty training for boys is their ability to aim when they pee. Use this to your advantage and place a sticker at the bottom of the potty for them to use as a target. Turn potty time into a game by encouraging them to aim at the sticker. What is more, there are also “magic” stickers that are blank at first, but once your toddler pees on it, an image appears. This can get them excited and they will be more than willing to pee in the potty so as to play with the magic sticker.

Reach for white lies

There are children who will refuse to go potty, especially when they have to poop. Positive reinforcement and patience go a long way, but you can also reach for some white lies to speed up the process a bit. You can tell them that the poop goes down the drain and that it eventually reaches the sea where little fish or some other sea creatures are feeding on it. Soon enough he will feel it is his duty to feed the poor creatures so he will be more willing to go.

Cancel the rewards

A lot of parents decide to give the ‘reward system’ a try, assuming that handing out sweets and treats will encourage children to earn faster. Even though this approach might work for some, it’s important to understand that your children don’t need to be given a candy or a Smartie when they go potty. Keep in mind that they will stop receiving rewards at some point, and it might get them confused or even angry because they’ll get used to treats easily. Instead of using treats and rewards, you should praise them for doing a good job with the potty, as most kids find praise to be reward enough. Still, if your boy is older (three and a half or four) and you feel they might need the extra motivation, feel free to use treats as the training process progresses, but try not to start with that system because it will send a wrong message.

As daunting as this task might be for you, it’s important to stick to your potty training decision and not give up after the first obstacles. Remember that not all potty training tips are meant for all children and that there aren’t fool-proof ways to teach your toddler to use the potty. Toddler potty training is a major step in parents’ life, but also in the lives of children because it’s one of the huge milestones on their way to adulthood. It will take a lot of patience on your side, but if you’re not discouraged and persist, you will be very proud of both yourselves and your child.

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Author: Mary Lynn Holden
Author: Mary Lynn Holden

Proud mom and stepmom to an adorable bunch of kids aged 7 and up. Deeply appreciates three things in life: the help of older siblings in the house, texts on parenting, and strong coffee. Shares her stories and experiences in order to help others navigate the unpredictable waters of parenting.

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