Potty training is a huge developmental milestone for children. Unfortunately, for many parents, it’s often an incredibly frustrating experience. But it doesn’t have to be!
The main reason potty training can be such a difficult process is because parents are starting before their child is ready. On average, kids are ready for potty training between 2-4 years old (girls are often closer to the younger end of the spectrum while boys are closer to older). That said, you should focus less on any particular age and more on your child’s individual readiness.
How to know when a child is ready
There are a few telltale signs to look for. The first one is dry diapers. If you’re used to changing your baby’s diaper every couple hours but are suddenly finding it dry, that could be a sign that your child is learning what the urge to use the bathroom feels like and are able to hold it. Another thing to watch for is your child’s interest in the potty — are they watching you use it, are they investigating it, flushing it, etc. Finally, above all else, your child really should tell you. When they — on their own, without prompting from you — tell you that they have to use the bathroom, you know they’re ready to give it a try.
When you feel your child is ready, it’s important to start slow. Talk to you child about the potty and what it’s for. Read them books on the subject. Show them the potty and how it works. Have them put the lid up and down and flush it. You want your child to be familiar and comfortable before you start. When you go to purchase a potty chair, take your child with you and even have them pick it out.
The next step is to develop habits. I recommend parents have your child just sit on the potty chair several times a day with their clothes on to start. I like to suggest that whenever you use the bathroom, bring your child in with you and have them sit on their potty chair — that’ll help them to understand what’s going on and develop a routine. The routine is the most important part — when they first wake up, before and after naps, right before bed, an hour or so after meals. Once the routine is set for a couple weeks, you can remove the diaper.
Accidents will happen
Even with all the prep and routine, accidents will happen. When they do, don’t scold or shame your child. It’s more productive to use positive reinforcement for successful potty experiences — some parents use physical rewards such as toys or candy and that’s fine, but not always necessary. You know what your child responds to best.
You can help reduce the number of accidents and lessen the frustration for both you and your child by establishing some clear guidelines. Rules like “diapers in bed” or “diapers in the car” until a pre-determined amount of accident-free days are a great way to set expectations and give your child a clear goal to track. Marking down those accident-free days helps gives your child ownership of the process.
The main thing to keep in mind — and it’s easier said than done — is to not stress out too much. Potty training is a long process and children can sense your stress and frustration and that will only make the process harder. Every child is different and it’s important not to compare your child’s progress to others.
The last bit of advice I’ll share is not to start potty training if there is a major change on the horizon for your family. Change can be stressful for children and many will temporarily regress as a result. If you’re getting ready to move or have another baby, postpone potty training until everything is settled.
As always, if you have any questions or concerns about the potty training process, your pediatrician is the best resource.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has primary care offices throughout southeast Wisconsin, including Delafield Pediatrics and Pewaukee Pediatrics. Find a pediatrician near you.
Learn more about Renee Szafir, MD.