If your efforts to get your kid to use the toilet have stalled, this beyond-the-basics advice from real moms could get the training moving again.
After seven months of trying to potty-train my toddler, I was pooped. My son Nate was 3 years and 4 months old, and not only did he still wet himself occasionally, but I could also count on one hand how many of his bowel movements had actually made it into the toilet. He simply didn’t understand what was so bad about having dirty underpants—or should I say dirty big-boy underpants.
The countless books I’d read (okay, skimmed) offered no game-changers. All made it sound like the learning process would be over in weeks, if not a weekend, and failed to warn me that entire seasons could pass with zero progress. None discussed secretive pooping, morning wrestling matches over wet nighttime training pants, and a host of other maddening head-scratchers. Perplexed and frustrated, I decided to do what only a journalist mom can: put on my reporter hat and find answers, not just to my own problems but to those of dozens of fellow parents struggling with the potty process.
1. “I want to get rid of nighttime training pants, but I’m worried that it’s too soon to take that step.”
Check your kid’s diaper first thing in the morning for two weeks straight. Dry every time? That’s a good sign he’s ready. But prepare for setbacks by outfitting his bed with a waterproof mattress cover, just in case, says pediatrician Laura Jana, M.D., author of The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today That Will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow.
2. “Using the potty is finally a piece of cake. Now I’m worried that switching to the big toilet will set my son back.”
Don’t transition too early. You’ll know he’s ready for the porcelain throne when he’s able to climb up by himself (step stool optional) and sit steadily even if you remove the child-size seat. This usually happens around age 3, says Ashley Hickey, a potty-training specialist in Hamden, Connecticut.
3. “My daughter is so resistant to the potty that she’s been holding in her poop for days.”
Her comfort (and avoiding constipation) matters more than potty success at this point. “When she refuses to go, the poop can get hard and be painful to pass, making her want to poop even less, which can then lead to a vicious cycle,” says Dr. Jana. Get advice from your pediatrician to determine whether or not you need to bring your child in for an evaluation. Making diet changes, like avoiding constipating foods (cheese, bananas) and increasing foods with fiber (raisins, prune juice), is often the first step.
4. “Girls are supposed to be easier to train than boys, but my daughter isn’t getting it.”
She’s normal. What they say about girls is a myth. In reality, gender is irrelevant.
5. “As soon as I stopped rewarding my toddler with treats for using the potty, she stopped using it.”
Consider switching from sweets to stickers, suggests Dr. Jana. Instead of candy, give your child a sticker each time she successfully makes it to the potty. As she progresses, you can begin to gradually taper the rewards so that she earns a sticker only after going to the potty twice, then three times, and so on. “Your toddler will learn that she doesn’t get the incentive each and every time she makes it to the bathroom. When you’re eventually ready to phase out the prizes, she’ll forget all about them,” adds Hickey. “You should stop the rewards once the behavior you want is fully established.” (That means accidents are only happening once in a blue moon.)
6. “Every morning my daughter pees in her training pants before I have a chance to whisk them off her. ”
Talk about her pee like a sneaky villain. When you remove her training pants and find they’re wet, say, “Oh no! The pee-pee tricked you! It got into your training pants. You can be smarter than your pee and put it in the potty,” Dr. Jana suggests.
7. “My kid wants to wipe his own butt, but I’m not sure that he can.”
This is a skill that takes several years to master, but it’s never too early for him to start learning the basics. “If he’s 18 months old, just let him hold the toilet paper the way you’d let a baby hold a spoon while you feed him. As your child learns to pull his pants up and down and wash his hands, encourage him to lend a hand with the wiping too. Then you can help finish the job,” says Dr. Jana. He should be able to master the task solo by the time he reaches kindergarten.
8. “Two minutes after she’s peed, my daughter often says she has to go again.”
Have her spread her legs wide when she sits on the potty so she can see the pee coming out, and encourage her to pee until nothing’s left, says pediatrician Mary McAteer, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. The visual will help her understand what she’s feeling while emptying her bladder.
9. “Even if it means waiting until bedtime, my son holds in his poop until he gets his training pants on.”
You have two options:
1. Help him adjust to the potty slowly. Without pressuring him to poop, have him sit on the potty for roughly 10 minutes after his nap or dinner, or whenever he tends to go. At some point he’ll feel the urge to make number two—and since he’s already sitting there, he’ll go for it. “When that happens, reinforce him with lots of praise,” says Hickey. Gradually he’ll start to feel more at ease.
2. Offer him a pull-on diaper and make him sit on the potty while he’s wearing it. Once he’s comfortable sitting down and having a BM, suggest he sit directly on the potty instead. Keep suggesting this (yes, it may get annoying!) until he starts opting to skip the diaper more often than not. At that point, you can stop offering him the choice.
10. “My kid won’t tell me when he has to go!”
That’s because you keep asking him. “You’re not teaching self-initiation that way,” Hickey says. Instead of inquiring all day if he has to pee or poop, remind him all day that he needs to pee and poop in the potty, that he wants to keep his pants dry, and that he doesn’t want to have an accident.
11. “For weeks I’ve been telling my son that big kids don’t poop in their pants. Now he’s insisting he’s a baby.”
Rock him and reassure him that you’ll hold and comfort him whenever he needs you to. Then reiterate to him that only big boys are allowed to do lots of the things he loves to do, like ride a scooter and play soccer. Not working? In future conversations about accidents, ixnay the big-boy talk. Instead, talk about potty training in terms of learning a new skill—and how cool that is, suggests Dr. McAteer.
12. “We’re flying across the country in the middle of potty training—and I’d like to put my son in a diaper.”
For most children, that won’t be a big deal! A single day of diapers (whether for a flight or a long car trip) is unlikely to cause a kid to regress. If he seems skeptical, explain that the diaper is just backup in case you can’t leave your seats on the plane or find a bathroom on the road. “Some kids may still cry in protest and resist wearing one. Rather than fight a battle, bring a towel or a blanket for him to sit on instead,” says Dr. Jana. Either way, bring along a change of clothes and a plastic bag for any soiled items.
13. “I’m so burned out and frustrated. I just want to give up.”
If you’re locked in a battle of wills, put the training on hold, says Dr. Jana. It’s often best to stop talking about the potty for a while. You can also revert to training pants instead of diapers so that you’re only taking a half step back.