Easy Potty Learning for Toddlers

The simple truth about toilet training is that if the child is ready, it happens very easily. If not, a power struggle often ensues -- and we all know that no one wins a parent-child power struggle. Fights with your child about his or her body are fights you will never win.

Photo: Marvelous Momma

Luckily, there is a never a reason to fight with your child about this. Moving from diapers to being self-sufficiently able to use the toilet is a natural process. Humans have been doing it for a long time. They all get out of diapers sooner or later.

So you don't actually need to "toilet train" your child. Instead, set up conditions so your child can learn. Your goal is to make it as easy and effortless as possible. Think of this as a process of learning that unfolds over time, like all other learning and mastery.

Here's a step by step guide for child-led potty learning.

1. Begin by reading books about toileting with your child.

One great one is Toilet Learning by Alison Mack. Potty training dolls can also be very helpful. Most kids love them.

2. Remember that most of what kids learn is through our modeling.

Start talking about what you're doing in the bathroom. Let your child watch. Boys will benefit by watching other boys or their father use the toilet.

3. Kids love to copy other kids;

Slightly older cousins or friends who are willing to use the bathroom in front of your toddler can be invaluable in modeling. For boys, you might make a game of it by putting a small bulls-eye in the toilet for them to aim at.

4. I strongly recommend having a potty in each bathroom of the house.

That way, kids can practice sitting whenever they want, including while they keep you company in the bathroom.

5. Don't be in a hurry to start.

Just encourage your child to sit, fully clothed, on his potty. It builds muscle memory for your child to get on and off the potty, and you want her to feel comfortable sitting there. Make sitting on the toilet festive and fun, well before she even thinks about peeing in it. For instance, be sure there is a stash of books next to the potty. Sing silly songs or give special cheers each time she gets on and off the potty. But never force your child to sit on the potty, or to stay there.

6. After he's used to sitting on the potty clothed...

...ask him regularly if he wants to sit on it naked. Sometimes he will say yes, and sometimes No. Don't make a big deal of it. Your goal is just for him to get completely comfortable. Read potty books and other books to him while he sits there. Toddlers are busy. You have to make the potty a place they love being if you want them to spend enough time there to let anything come out.

7. Once she's totally used to sitting on her potty...

...begin dumping the contents of her diaper into the potty each time you change her diaper. Explain that every day her body is making poop and pee, and they belong in the potty. Tell her that whenever she is ready, she will begin peeing and pooping right in the potty. Admire it there, don't be in a hurry to dispose of it. After awhile, let her help you empty the potty into the toilet and be the one to flush it. Cheer happily each time and wave goodbye to the poop.

8. When he does pee or poop in the potty...

...be sure to celebrate with a special song and dance or parade through the house. But be sure you're celebrating other things, too, like his climb to the top of the play structure or the sun coming out. Don't make such a big a deal of his using the potty that the pressure on your child makes him anxious. He isn't confident yet of his abilities; don't make him feel like he has to repeat his use of the potty -- this should be his choice. Remember, your child should be in control of the process. No pressure.

9. Don't make the move into underwear until your child insists.

In fact, try to avoid mentioning underwear until your child brings it up. Let it be her idea, let her choose it herself, and don't rush it, or you're just asking for accidents.

10. Notice when she gives signs that she is about to defecate:

Becoming quiet, withdrawing to squat in private. Give her language for what's happening:

"Are you ready to poop? Do you want to do it in the bathroom?"

Humans naturally like privacy when they defecate, and it's fine if she wants to go off by herself. Remind her that the bathroom is a great place for poop, that you will help her take off her poopy diaper whenever she is ready. It may take her awhile to begin telling you, but she will begin to learn the concept that when she feels like this, it's time to go into to the bathroom. Eventually, she will probably be pooping in her diaper in the bathroom. Once that's a habit, you can ask if she wants to try sitting on the potty to poop, even with her diaper on.

11. Be open if she requests a toilet seat.

Many toddlers squat to poop and prefer a potty that allows them to assume a similar position. They prefer a potty because they are afraid of falling into the big toilet or are afraid of the flush. Some kids, however, will want to get a seat that goes right on the big toilet. If so, be sure her feet rest securely on a stool. Dangling legs tighten rectal muscles and make defecation difficult.

12. If you're buying a seat to go on the potty, find one they love.

Flip seats have a regular toilet seat plus a training seat. Some kids will love a seat that makes music when something is deposited in it. Just google potty training seats and you'll have lots of choices. I particularly like the ones at the end of this article, which my clients have used with great success.

13. Institute regular times when you both use the potty:

First thing in the morning, after breakfast, before snack, before and after lunch, etc. Your child doesn't have to go, just to sit with you while you go, and to try himself. Make clear that the rule applies to you, also, so your child doesn't feel singled out. This will help your child's body move onto a schedule, which will be a bit easier for him to manage. Of course, if he asks to go on his own schedule, cheer him on for listening to his own body. Usually, over time, he will ask more and more, gradually taking on the responsibility.

14. Every time your child actually uses the potty...

...celebrate with your potty song and dance or parade. But don't assume she's toilet trained until she's initiating. Toilet-trained is when she knows when she has to go and gets herself there.

15. Expect accidents.

Don't express any disappointment at "accidents," or you'll make the stakes too high and your child may rebel or give up. Instead, respond to accidents by shrugging, and saying with a warm smile:

"Oh well, accidents are how we learn. Soon you'll get it in the potty every time. Let's go in and try again."

16. Accidents are a step in the right direction...

...when your child learns from them without getting discouraged. If your child has herself noticed the accident as soon as it started, but hasn't made it to the bathroom, encourage her:

"You noticed as soon as you started to pee! Good for you! Let's go quick to the bathroom in case there's more to come out. Then we'll clean this up together. You noticed yourself when you needed the potty! Next time you'll probably notice sooner and get all the way to the bathroom!"

17. Be enthusiastic but never pushy.

Pushiness complicates toilet training. NEVER punish or disapprove of your child when he has an accident, or it will backfire.

18. If your child poops in her pullup or pants...

...help her to put the poop into the potty and admire it there.

"Look at that wonderful poop your body made! Poop belongs in the potty. Soon you'll remember every time."

19. Make it a habit.

At first your child will probably need help recognizing the signals that mean it's time to head to the bathroom. If you notice him getting antsy, or starting to squat behind the couch, you'll need to remind him. Every time your child does notice and tell you that he needs to use the bathroom, even if he doesn't make it in time, is an opportunity to admire his progress in the right direction.

20. What about pull-ups and Pods?

Many parents feel that pull-ups are too much like diapers and mask the feeling of the accident, but Pods are useful. Sometimes pull-ups are a good intermediate step but toilet learning can get stalled until you get into real underwear. There's certainly less clean-up with pull-ups than bare-bottomed, but they tend to drag out the whole process because they confuse the child. My recommendation would be to try bare-bottomed, but I should add the obvious caveat that this is not practical with a carpeted floor. If you can roll up your rugs for a month, that's often a good solution.

21. Troubleshoot.

Usually bowel training is easiest to control and happens first. If your child has mastered peeing in the toilet but not bowel training, he is probably afraid of the toilet and needs some reassurance. Or, he is used to the feeling of squatting and needs more support under his feet so he can push.

22. If your child is afraid to use the potty...

...help her with her fears. Any silly, playful games that get your child giggling about the potty will help her let her anxieties about the potty evaporate. Here's a letter about helping your child with her fear by playing: Toddler with Potty Learning Fears

23. Don't begin toilet learning under pressure.

Wait till you have some time when you can be relaxed and attentive to your child. Many preschools demand that children are toilet trained; that kind of pressure can only be bad for you and your child.

24. Watch for constipation.

Many children--especially those who don't eat as many vegetables or whole-grains, or who don't get as much exercise-- tend toward harder stools. That makes them more likely to put off pooping for as long as possible. This can happen even before a child is out of diapers but it is especially prevalent once a child is using the potty, because it requires him to stop what he's doing and go to the bathroom. The more the child gets in the habit of procrastinating, the harder the poo gets, and the more painful to pass, and the more the child avoids it. 

The problem with this is that even children who eliminate on a daily basis often build up fecal matter inside their bodies. This can deaden the usual sensitivity of the child to the need to use the toilet, so the child doesn't even know he needs to go. And since it pushes on the bladder, it can also cause pee accidents and even bed wetting. Unfortunately, most parents whose child is in this situation don't even know their child is constipated and don't understand why he's having accidents, until an xray reveals the extended rectum. (For more info on this issue, I recommend Dr. Steve Hodges' book It's No Accident: Breakthrough Solutions to Your Child's Wetting, Constipation, UTIs, and Other Potty Problems.)

25. Potty training is a partnership, and you're the junior partner.

You can set the stage, but your child has to do the work. I'll say it again: The MOST important secret for stress-free potty learning is that the child be ready. If you push your child, you may end up with serious issues, from a child with constant accidents to power struggles to a child with fecal retention. WAIT until he's ready. Does it really matter when that is? Sooner or later, everyone uses toilets.

Handled with good cheer and confidence that he will master it in good time, the process of toilet learning can be enormously empowering for your child. This is a big step for your son or daughter. Your job is to make it a positive one.

***

Q: Should I punish my child for accidents?

A: Adults have spent years using the toilet, so we forget how hard it is for a child. For a toddler who has spent their entire life in diapers thus far, noticing their urge to eliminate takes great attention and hard work. Consistently controlling that urge until they get to the potty is a major achievement. Some children are motivated to master this because they don't like the feeling of being wet or messy. Others are motivated by their urge for mastery or their desire to be like older children. The rest are motivated by their desire to emulate their parents, who they love and whose lead they want to follow.

Because all children master this developmental step sooner or later, we can think of this as "potty learning." Like all learning, the child needs to be ready to learn, and to proceed at their own pace, but parents can provide encouragement and conditions for success.

"Potty training" assumes that we need to "train" the child, like a dog, and substitutes rewards and punishments for the child's own natural desire for growth and achievement. While rewards can be effective to incentivize a child who is fearful about taking this big leap, punishment just increases the child's fear. Punishment actually makes it more difficult for the child to control his body because fear shuts down the learning centers of the brain.

What's more, punishment erodes the relationship with the parent and therefore eliminates the child's desire to follow the parent's lead, which is his main motivation to do the hard work of potty learning. When we punish a child who is not succeeding in learning to use the potty, he feels humiliated, ashamed, and like giving up. He already didn't know how to do this, and now he feels like a failure. He also feels wronged and angry. All of these tangled emotions make it more likely that the child will have more accidents.

Punishing kids about toileting ALWAYS seems to result in more accidents. Most likely this is because the child stops seeing toileting as an opportunity for mastery -- which all kids want -- and starts seeing it as a source of stress. We know that stress causes children to regress, and punishment is a huge stressor. 

According to the American Association of Pediatricians, potty training is the time in a child's life when they are most vulnerable to abuse. That's because the punishment doesn't work; it actually makes it more difficult for the child to control the accidents. The parent gets more frustrated, and the punishment escalates. The situation spirals out of control, and tragedies are more likely.

In short, punishing your child for potty accidents will NOT hasten potty learning. In fact, it will lengthen the process, and it will damage your relationship with your child. Just don't do it.

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