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Is potty training your #1 (and #2) priority? Here's what you need to know.

potty training help

As a pediatric psychologist, I work with a lot of parents who are struggling with potty training. So many, in fact, that several of them have taken to calling me their “Poopcologist.” I should probably just go ahead and put it on my business card.

I’ll be the first to tell you: potty training is not for the faint at heart. (Or nose.) You hear stories about kids who are diaper-free at two years old and think to yourself, “What am I doing wrong?!” It’s easy to put pressure on yourself to get it done quickly.

I have a 15-month-old daughter and I’m already knee-deep in it. (The pressure. Not knee-deep in anything else…yet.) Just the other day, I thought about bringing out the potty chair at home. I had to remind myself that she is way too young. And I’m an expert! Just check my business card.

So. Think you might be ready to tackle potty training? Or have you already started, and you’re having some challenges? Here are some helpful things to consider.

 

Is your child ready? Are you??

Parents ask me all the time: what age should I start potty training my child? Here’s what I say: there’s really no right or wrong age. It’s totally dependent on them. (And a little bit on you, too.)

First, consider your child’s developmental level: do they understand cause and effect? Can they pull their pants up and down? Are they able to get on and off a toileting device? Do they have periods of dryness? Can they communicate the need to go? Do they have some awareness of wet or dirty?

If your child isn’t interested, is very resistant or doesn’t follow directions most of the time, they’re not ready yet. As for you: if you’re stressed just thinking about it? Then it’s not the right time, either. I tell parents all the time: don’t worry about it. Wait until you know everyone is ready.

So many people think that 2 1/2–3 years old is the age for a child to be fully potty-trained, but if you ask most doctors, it’s more like 4 1/2–5. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics says readiness determines when it’s time to start, not age.

 

Bribery is perfectly fine. (Yes, really!) 

Call it bribery, but what we’re really talking about here are rewards or reinforcement. And rewards are essential—we all work for them, right? For young kids, offering a reward is key to gaining momentum in toilet training.

A few things to remember, though: rewards must be desired, immediate and consistently delivered in order to work. If your child gets the thing they want without having to go potty, they aren’t going to want it. Who would work for the cherry on top when they already have the ice cream sundae?

Think carefully before offering a big reward, too: you could offer me a trip to Bali for running a marathon in under two hours, but I just physically can’t do it. You can offer your child the biggest reward in the world, but if they don’t have the skills, they won’t ever be able to earn it.

Know that potty training is hard work for a kid. Keep the rewards small and within reach.

 

Repeat after me: There will  be accidents. 

This one is so important for parents to learn: accidents are going to happen. Lots of them. Accidents are not intentional and should never be punished. Punishing your kid will absolutely make the problem worse and will make lying about accidents more common. And this might go without saying, but never, ever use physical punishment for accidents. End of discussion.

It’s also important to avoid shaming your kiddo (e.g., “your friends will see your pull-up”)—something lots of parents mistakenly think helps to motivate them. Shaming affects kids’ self-esteem, and while parents might think they’re protecting their kids, it can make them feel bad instead. Be positive and tell your child, “You will get potty trained.” Instead of causing them to worry about negative things that might happen, help them figure out what to say if kids ask about it. Give them the skills they need, and keep the positive reinforcement flowing.

Just like there will be accidents (seriously, SO many accidents), there will be setbacks, too. Setbacks most commonly occur following a bout of constipation; untreated constipation is one of the biggest barriers to potty training. We don’t want kids to learn that pooping hurts—if they do, they will stop pooping. If you suspect your child may be constipated, seek medical help before proceeding any further with toilet training. Setbacks can also occur during big transitions (e.g., starting or ending school, a big move), following a vacation and occasionally after an illness (think antibiotics-poops).

Remember, if there’s an accident or a setback, it’s important to keep the long-term goal in mind: your child will get there.

There may be a few unique challenges, too — like: 

  • The Shy Pooper. I hear this one often—and it can be frustrating. Your kiddo does a great job potty training...up until it’s time to go #2. They only want to poop in their diaper, and when it’s time to do so, they run and hide. (And if parents try to take away their diaper, they go on a poop strike.)

    Try to understand that this is new to them—and sometimes it’s hard for them to give up what they have control over. They might need a little privacy, or the safety net of a diaper. To help encourage them, try moving wherever it is they like to poop closer to the toilet. If it’s a tent, put it in the bathroom. If they have to wear a diaper, okay. Let them go in the diaper sitting near the toilet, or on the toilet with the lid down.

  • The Automatic-Flush Freakout. This is a fairly common one, too. A parent will come to me because their child is terrified of automatic-flush toilets and they don’t know how to help them overcome their fear. Here’s a simple way to fix that: carry a pack of post-its in your bag everywhere you go, and put one over the auto-flush sensor. That way, it won’t flush until they’re out of the stall, and will help your kiddo feel like they’re more in control of their environment.

  • The Never-Ending Wipe Assist. A lot of kids don’t want to clean themselves after they’re finished going to the bathroom. And there’s really no hard and fast rule as to what age they should start taking that over for themselves. If this is something you struggle with, start handing over the responsibility to them in stages: have them either start or finish. You do one time, they do the other. Then work on increasing that—and don’t forget the rewards. Anything that’s a difficult behavior for them should be rewarded.

Take a deep breath. You got this. 

Think you’re ready to potty train your kiddo? Here’s a good way to get started, and what I plan to do with my own daughter when she’s ready.

I’ll throw her a “potty party”: I’ll give her lots to drink, put her in underwear (or nothing on bottom) and stay near the potty with her. For about 3–4 hours, I will prompt her to sit on the potty every 15 minutes until she pees. If she starts to pee on the bathroom floor, I’ll use a “startle statement:” a higher-pitched, staccato phrase to stop her mid-stream. Something like, “PEE-PEE GOES IN THE POTTY.” It’s not yelling, and it’s not punishment. It’s just enough to catch her attention quickly. Then, I’ll put her on the toilet and any pee that gets in the toilet—even a drop—earns a reward. (Like some Cheerios or a round of me singing “Baby Shark,” both of which are gold in my house.)

Whenever you decide the time is right, there are a few helpful things you’ll want to have on hand. (And because there’s a good chance you’ll literally have things on hand, antibacterial soap is a must.)

  • Lots of fluids
  • Books about pottying
  • Dolls to practice with
  • Potty chair or toilet insert
  • Rewards (candy is always a good one)
  • Underwear
  • Carpet cleaner
  • More carpet cleaner

Think you’re ready? Good luck, and remember: it will happen. And that’s coming from an official Poopcologist.

For more on potty training, check out parts 1 & 2 of our online training module developed for families dealing with autism, where you’ll find strategies that also apply to young children.


Pediatric Psychology