On every online parenting forum, you’ll see parents who post questions about potty-training, and other parents leap in to share their experiences. The wise ones say “here’s how it worked for me, but your experience may be different.” But that message can get drowned out in “just do it MY way, and it will go great.” Or they may share stories of on-going, exhausting battles.
For a first-time inexperienced parent, it can feel overwhelming. It may feel like “I don’t know what the right answer is!!” And the answer is that there is no one right answer. Like all things with our children, what works depends on: their temperament, our temperament, their motivation to learn and our motivation to teach, plus circumstances in our environment.
As a parent educator, I’ve read countless books and articles, and talked to countless parents about this process. I’ve summarized my best advice in this one-page summary, or in the long version. I also address the 20% of kids who refuse to poop in the potty.
In this post, I’ll share stories from my personal experiences of how this can play out. I have three different children, and three different potty-training journeys, so I’m definitely not telling you any “right answers” here, just the range of what you may experience.
Child #1: At a fairly young age (probably around 2), she could keep her diaper dry for hours. She could pee in the potty when I put her there. She could poop in the potty. She had good body awareness, so knew when she was doing something. So, most of the skills were in place. But… she lacked motivation. She was a child who was very engaged in her play – she had an incredibly long attention span where she would stay focused on what activity for a very long time. She didn’t like transitioning from her chosen activity to other activities. So, if she was in the middle of something and needed to poop, she’d just do it there in her diaper. She didn’t want to interrupt her play to go to the potty. Sometimes she needed to pee badly enough that she was rocking her bottom back and forth, but if we asked her if she needed to use the potty, she’d just say “I fine. I fine.” In other words “leave me alone – I have more important things to do than go to the potty.” I think we tried some motivational things along the way like stickers, but it wasn’t enough. So, when she was 3, I bought a cool dollhouse and some fabulous big girl underwear. I put them in the closet, showed them to her, and said “whenever you’re ready to start using the potty ALL the time, you can have these. But once you have these, we’re not going back, OK? It will be no more diapers from then on. So, you decide when you’re ready for that.” I closed the closet and walked away. She went to use the potty, and was potty-trained from that moment forward. Now again, remember this was a child who already had all the skills in place to make this move. This was just the final motivation to commit to a new way of toileting, even if that meant interrupting her play.
Child #2: She pretty much trained herself. We were busy and didn’t have a lot of time to worry about it, or nag her about it, but it just happened. She’d follow us into the bathroom and follow her sister into the bathroom, so she knew how it all worked. As she got older, she’d pull down her own clothes and sit on the potty, and was soon peeing into it successfully. We talked about it, and praised her for it, but it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t require that she use the potty, but she generally chose to do so, and I think she totally gave up diapers at around 2 years 9 months.
I think part of this was having a big sister to watch. But, a big part of it was her temperament. She was (and is) an independent child who likes to be seen as mature and competent and doesn’t like to burden others. She liked taking care of her own needs.
Child #3. When he was 2.5 years old, we thought we were on the verge of potty training. His bladder control was perfect. He could keep his diaper dry for hours until he got to a potty. He was dry overnight. He wasn’t pooping in the potty yet, but we figured that would come soon.
He finally pooped in the potty for the first time a year later at 3.5 years old!
He had one week of doing it consistently. Then he stopped.
The next time he pooped in the potty, was a year after that. He was 4.5 years old!
In that full two year period, he had perfect bowel control and predictable bowel patterns. He would choose to poop in his diaper every afternoon, when he was alone for naptime. He went to a preschool that required potty training, and we explained our circumstances. We told them that they would never need to deal with it, and sure enough, he never peed or pooped in his diaper at preschool the whole year. He saved it till he was home for nap time.
Why wouldn’t he poop in the potty? I wish I knew! We tried to figure out if it was fear or aversion or if he’d had a painful poop that scared him or what. We never knew. We tried to motivate him in a lot of ways. We tried offering stickers and candy and so on. But, although he would sit on the potty for us, no poop ever came out. We gave him privacy, we tried to help him feel safe. We tried having him sit on the potty with his diaper on to see if he could poop if the diaper was on. Nothing worked. You just can’t get someone to poop on command. When he reached 4.5 we started having occasional success which we rewarded and praised. We went on a road trip, and were afraid we would lose progress when we were away from home, but instead, that was when he finally potty trained. We did give him rewards for each poop, but I don’t think that was the reason he did it. I think he was just finally ready to do it, and the rewards were a nice perk.
By a few weeks after that, he was pretty much independent. He knew when he needed to pee or poop. If we were out of the house, he’d ask to use the potty. At home, he’d just go use it on his own whenever he needed it. He didn’t wipe himself, so that was still a learning process to go through. But huge progress at the end of a long marathon.
By temperament, he is a child who thrives on routine, and likes to do things the same way every time. So, I think he had a routine for his bowel movements and it was working for him, and it was hard for him to change to a new way of doing things. (When he got older, he was diagnosed with autism. He’s a very bright kid with strong language skills and a fair grasp of social skills, so you might not peg him as autistic, but one of the ways it manifests is that he has a really hard time with change. Here’s some advice I found later on about potty training a child with autism.)
So, we’ve tried child-led potty training, we’ve tried sticker charts, we’ve done gradual, we’ve done “Big Day”, we’ve tried a wide variety of methods. But our success depended not so much on what we did as the parents, but on our individual children and what worked for them. The best recommendation I have for other parents is: collect advice. Try the things that feel like they match your preferences and your child’s personality. If they work, keep doing them. If they don’t work, take a break for a month or so. Try not to stress about it. Try again with a new approach when you feel like you can do it in a non-stressed and supportive manner. Try not to lose faith along the way. You’ll get there eventually!