Those words are terrifying for all parents of preschoolers. I had heard so many horror stories, in fact, that I was fairly petrified when it came time to potty train my oldest. With that in mind, I started doing quite a bit of research. My method is basically a combination of several ideas and methods that I’ve read about, and really, the results speak for themselves: My four-year-old is completely 100% independent of me (well, as far as bathroom habits go.) She knows on her own to use the restroom; at our house and familiar homes, she doesn’t even notify us that she’s going. She wipes, flushes, and hand-washes. And she’s been this way since she was around 2.5. I trust her so strongly that I never even think of packing a change of clothes for her… and that’s only backfired a couple of times in the last 2 years.
I am hoping that this post can help take some of the fear and tension out of this whole process of potty training. Both of my kids have gone through a three day potty training bootcamp, and that has worked well for us. By the end of a three day bootcamp, your toddler should be peeing and pooping in the toilet consistently, barring the occasional accident. You will still be wiping him/her, and most likely, they won’t have mastered pulling pants up and down yet.
How can you know if your toddler is ready for potty training?
- Sleeps dry at night.
- Pulls at diaper/shows annoyance when diaper is soiled.
- Shows curiosity about toilet.
- Is between the age of 18 months and 2.5 years.
For Claire, she only slept dry at night. Aside from her age, that was the only sign that she was ready, yet her potty training was a breeze. For Cam, he’s shown all of these signs. Personally, I think 18 months is a bit young. There is a sweet spot, though… starting them too young is like banging your head against a wall (from what I’ve observed with other friends), and starting them too old is dangerous because it becomes a control/power issue (also from observation.) In other words, if you start too late, you may very well be embarking on a potty training adventure that will last for two years.
So what did we do?
Pre-Bootcamp Brainwashing. A week or so before starting the bootcamp, I started having the kids watch “Potty Power,” just so they’d be thinking about it. Kids also learn through observation, so the next time they’re invading your bathroom space, point out that you’re going potty.
Set aside three days when you can be 100% there. For me, that meant rearranging my work schedule a bit so I could be home. You will want to be in your house completely for those first three days. Don’t plan on going out before that point, and don’t plan on leaving anywhere in there.
Choose your potty chair. I personally hate potty chairs. One more thing for me to clean?! No thanks. So here is something similar to what I found: A potty training seat with a ladder. Other easy options would be a simple stepping stool with a potty seat, which would probably be better anyway because the ladder is fairly tricky for a toddler to maneuver.
Follow your progress. Get a piece of paper. Make three columns: Pee, Poop, and Accident. Mark each time your kid goes to the bathroom. Do this for each day; you’ll be amazed by the difference between day one and day three.
Underwear with no pants for days 1 and 2. Some people say it’s better completely naked, but I think the feeling of wet cloth is a pretty big adjustment, and the pee will still run down their leg (which is a pretty big shock for them.) I used normal, thin underwear as opposed to training pants which are more absorbant; those I saved for our trips out and about. With Claire, we always used panties; with Cam, we were about half and half, undies versus completely naked. In fact, most of the first day, he was completely naked… because I quickly realized that there was no way for him to keep his undies on while going potty.
Liquids and salty snacks throughout the day, so they’ll have to pee more. It gives you more opportunities for practice.
Rewards system. M&M’s, jelly beans, stickers… whatever you want. But most importantly, be your kid’s personal cheerleader. Freak out, run around, be happy! For Claire, M&M’s were a crucial part of her process… so much so, that I carried a bag of M&M’s in my purse for a couple of months. Cam only wanted verbal affirmation; he was really confused when I tried to give him jelly beans. He never connected that he was being rewarded for going to the bathroom.
Don’t shame or yell. Your kid is going to have accidents, ESPECIALLY on day 1. However, don’t say, “It’s ok,” either, because it isn’t. A phrase I used repeatedly: “Ew yucky! Pee pee goes in the potty!” After an accident, put your kid on the potty for a minute, even if he’s finished, and talk about how we go pee pee in the potty.
Getting Started (Day 1)
Put your toddler in underwear. Talk about what a big deal it is; ooh and ahh over it. Give your kid lots of liquid and salty snacks. And set your timer. That morning, take him and set him on the potty every 15 minutes. He WILL pee on you at some point. Don’t shame him, but do say something like, “Ew yucky! Pee pee goes in the potty.” After accidents, immediately take him to the potty and sit him there, even if he’s already done. Talk about how pee pee goes in the potty. When he goes in the potty, freak out, dance around, cheer, and make a huge deal out of it. Let him be the one to flush the potty. And then reward him in some way.
The first time you set your toddler on his potty seat, he may freak out. With both of my kids, this is the moment I started inwardly panicking, ‘Oh no! What if they’re not ready? What if this doesn’t work?!?’ Have a stack of things to distract them with handy. Books, toys, iPhones… you get the point. Your goal should be to keep your toddler on the potty for as long as possible. The first time he pees in the toilet will likely be by accident, so increase your chances by keeping him there longer!
Once your little one seems to grasp the concept of peeing in the toilet and not their undies, move the time to every 20 minutes. Once that settles in, move the time to 30 minutes. Then to 45 minutes, but ask if they need to go at the 20 minute mark. Always watch for the potty dance, and help them articulate if they need to go potty.
Helpful hint: when we got to the 20 minute cycle, we started watching Yo Gabba Gabba (we TiVo it) and going potty between episodes. Their episodes are right around 20 minutes long. Most of the shows on Nick Jr are about that long. Anyway, I don’t want to turn this into a “TV or No TV” debate; I just know that we have the TV on as background noise for a lot of our day, and that was an easy, natural way to time it.
By the end of Day 3, the goal is to have a mandatory potty time every hour, but to frequently ask if they need to go. The goal is to help them become responsible for identifying the urge to go potty and to learn how to communicate as much to you.
By the end of the Potty Training Bootcamp, your toddler should be able to go out and about in underwear. Will there still be occasional accidents? You bet. Will there be full on set backs that require a mini-bootcamp (reverting to going potty every 20 minutes again)? Maybe. But the hard part is over.
For the next year:
- Always pack two changes of clothes for everywhere you go.
- Be sure that nursery workers/daycare/grandparents/babysitters know to make them go potty every 30 minutes. (A new environment without you present is a situation begging for accidents.)
- Always make your kid go potty before going anywhere, even if they just went. Make it a mandatory habit.
- Carry a folding potty seat in a ziplock bag in your purse. And a pair of undies. And pants.
- Once they’re done with the bootcamp, make them help clean up their mess for any accidents. This really solidifies the nastiness of it for them. Claire had to rinse out one pair of poopy panties, and that was all it took. Make sure you’re taking the tone of, “We always clean our mess,” and not, “This is your punishment,” so it becomes a natural consequence of their actions as opposed to a punishment.
- Keep pull ups on hand for when they’re sick. If your kid has the stomach bug, they will not make it. Don’t punish them for that. Help them try to get there, but also talk about how they’re sick.
- What to do when they sleep? For Claire, I let her sleep in pull ups for 2 or 3 months before switching to panties. For Cam, I’m hoping to transition him a little sooner. Putting them in pull ups at night feels like a recipe for disaster, just because I was afraid they would start to hold out for the pull ups to pee in. (I had a friend who’s son did that.) Claire NEVER wets the bed. We’ll see if that holds true for Cam, too.
You may also like: Potty Training a Boy: What I Wish I Had Known