Valerie L. Sizelove
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Freelance writer, mom of four.

Are you nearing the days of your sweet little baby becoming a “big kid?” If potty training is around the corner, you might have some questions and concerns about the process. Learn how to tell when your child is ready to begin potty training, how to plan for the big experience and some steps to help you along the way.

What are signs your toddler is ready to potty train?

Some kids begin showing interest in the potty as early as 18 months of age, while others aren’t ready until well into their third year. Every child has their own unique learning curve and developmental rate. While you may be excited to ditch the diapers, remember that pushing your child to potty train too early can cause issues for them later.  

According to early childhood educator Terri Swim, children must master two skills before they can successfully potty train: the ability to feel urine or a bowel movement coming so they can take the appropriate action and control of the pelvic floor muscles that release waste. Swim claims that children who are pushed to potty train before they’re ready may experience anxiety or other problems going to the bathroom later.

So, how can you tell if it’s the right time? While every child is different, you can watch for developmental signs that they might be ready. Your child may be ready to start potty training if they:

  • Can walk to and sit on the toilet by themselves
  • Recognize the feeling of “poop” or “pee” before they come
  • Stay dry for at least two hours at a time
  • Show awareness and discomfort in a wet or dirty diaper
  • Can pull down and pull up underwear or training underwear
  • Communicate that they need to go to the bathroom

If you think your child is truly ready, give potty training a try. However, make sure not to push your child too fast or make them feel shame about having accidents. It’s a learning experience that should be pleasant for a child — not cause fear and anxiety. If you begin the process and your child just isn’t making any progress, it might mean you need to wait longer for your child to develop more of the necessary skills.

Preparing to potty train your child.

Preparing and planning for potty training will help the process go more smoothly for your child and your family. The more you prepare your child ahead of time, the more comfortable and confident they’ll feel. Here are some ways you can get prepared for the big developmental change:

Make a plan.

You might begin thinking about potty training before your child is ready. This is fine — you can use this time to create a plan for your individual child and how you will train them. Research different methods, talk to the child’s other parent and caregiver about plans and come up with your family’s own potty training plan.

Buy a children’s potty.

You’re going to need one. Large, adult-sized toilets are difficult for children to sit on, especially when they’re trying to learn such a difficult skill. There are lots of options out there, from portable child-sized seats that fit on top of standard toilet seats to small children’s potties that sit on the floor. Some are fancy and some aren’t — just remember, no matter how much you spend on the potty, it’s going to serve the same purpose. It’s not necessary to go crazy.

Read books about it.

Reading books with your children is a great way to teach them about new skills such as toilet training. Check out books at the library, or search on Amazon for some age-appropriate books that will help introduce the idea. Sometimes, favorite characters can have a big influence on a child’s interest in the subject, too.

Establish bathroom talk.

Make sure your child is comfortable talking about potty training with you. Even before you begin, talk to your child when changing their diaper about bodily functions. Establish go-to words that you and your child can use, such as “pee” and “poop” so that talking about potty training is easy. The more you talk about this, the more comfortable your child will feel during the training process.

Encourage “big kid” behavior in general.

Encouraging your child to perform “big kid” tasks in general will make them more excited to master the “big kid” task of potty training. Give your child praise when they do things like clean up after themselves, eat with silverware and wash their hands.

Potty positives.

Talk to your child about the positive sides of using the potty. For instance, you could talk about how they will get to ditch diapers and wear underwear like a big kid. They may get to do more activities, like go to daycare and not deal with dirty, yucky diapers.

Tips for potty training your child.

Each family should use whatever potty training process that works best for them. Here are some guidelines to help you get started:

Introduce the idea.

When your child is showing signs that they’re ready to begin training, there are multiple ways you can introduce the idea of potty training. Actually, it’s better to introduce the idea even before they’re ready. You can use books or videos or even just talk about it with your child. The more they understand what potty training is and why it’s important, the more likely they are to be successful.

Create a habit or a ritual.

One method that can help with potty training is to create a habit out of using the bathroom. For instance, using the toilet immediately when your child wakes up, before or after meals and right before bed can instill habits that will become natural to their body.

Ditch the diapers and pull-ups.

Another method used by some families is allowing the child to run around the house with no diaper or pull-ups on at all. They can wear underwear or just have a bare bottom to make getting to the toilet easier. The idea is that without the comfort of a diaper or pull-up, the child will learn quickly that it’s much more comfortable to use the toilet than to have an accident. Don’t shame your child when they have an accident, just help them clean up and let them know they can try again next time.

Encourage fluid intake.

While it might seem counterintuitive to avoiding accidents, encouraging fluid intake during potty training gives your child more opportunities to use the toilet, and therefore more chances to learn. Take them to the potty every 15 minutes or so until they successfully use the toilet.

Give rewards and verbal praise.

Each time your child pees or poops in the potty, give them lots of praise. Even if they aren’t successful, praise them for trying to use the potty. Some parents use sticker charts that lead to rewards to motivate and reward children. You can also keep telling your child how they’re a “big kid” and pump up their self-esteem.

Try multiple methods.

Potty training isn’t one-size-fits-all. Because every child and family are different, the age and methods they use also vary. Feel free to switch up your potty training method if one doesn’t seem to be working. You can keep experimenting until something works for your family.

Nighttime potty training.

Your child may still have to wear pull-ups at night, up until anywhere between age five and seven. Nighttime is a long period of time for children to go without using the bathroom, and young, sleeping children don’t yet have the ability to awaken when the feeling to urinate happens. There’s not much you can do to stop bed wetting at this age, but here are a few tips to make this period easier:

  • Encourage bathroom use one or two times right before bed
  • Use pull-ups or other training underwear
  • Use a waterproof cover or mattress
  • Have patience — nighttime accidents are completely normal

Be patient.

Potty training can be a stressful time. Just when it seems like your child is getting the hang of things, they might revert back to their previous diaper behavior. Remember to have patience and take comfort in the thought that your child won’t be in diapers forever. You guys will get the hang of this together. One day, you’ll be wondering where the days of potty training your toddler went.

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