There’s no doubt about it: Potty-training is a hot-button issue. As parents, we all need to go through it with our children, but the schools of thought on how to do it the best, fastest or easiest way (or all of the above, please) vary dramatically. With Pinterest, blogs, social media and word-of-mouth from other parents, there’s a head-spinning amount of information and opinions on the subject. Is there a right or wrong way to potty-train? Can kids really ditch diapers and use the potty in three, two or even just one day?
Professional potty-trainers Jamie Glowacki, author of Oh Crap! Potty Training, and Ashley Hickey, owner of Successful Potty Training, have built successful businesses helping thousands of kids do their business. Here are some of their best potty-training do’s and don’ts:
Do: Prepare yourself first.
Here’s the thing: Potty-training is a potentially messy and frustrating undertaking. It requires patience, commitment and the understanding that, yes, your child is probably going to poop on the floor at least once. Lots of programs require an entire day or more where your child is naked and you do nothing but watch and steer him to the potty when he starts to go. Even if it’s just for a few days or a week—both Glowacki’s and Hickey’s programs can work in a week or less—it’s still a process.
But like anything children master, from walking to learning their ABCs, they only get it after a lot of practice. Understanding that pee and poop now go in a potty, not a diaper, and connecting the dots between the sensation of needing to and then using the potty are skills that need to be taught.
Choose a program, start it and stick to it, says Glowacki. Once you decide you’re going to start on Day One, take that diaper off and only put it back on for sleep (and only until the child stays dry through naps and nighttime).
Don’t: “Wait until they’re ready.”
Both Hickey and Glowacki hear this from parents all the time: “We’re just waiting until she’s ready.” That may sound fair, but guess what? A lot of kids may never be “ready” to start using the potty. This philosophy places the burden of beginning potty-training on the child instead of the parent.
Hickey says: “I am often told by parents that their pediatrician has recommended they wait until their child seems ready to potty-train, [that] their child will let them know when they are ready. Although this may be true in some cases, it is more likely the child will stay in diapers as long as they can.”
Think about it from a toddler’s perspective, Glowacki says. As adults, we probably think the idea of wearing a diaper—even a clean one—sounds pretty unpleasant. But for little ones, it’s all they’ve ever known. The diaper can be a sort of security blanket.
Plus, disposable diapers are more thin and absorbent and therefore more comfortable than they used to be. A soggy, bulky disposable or cloth diaper made kids feel uncomfortable sooner and hindered their movement. Now, Glowacki says, some kids aren’t feeling “ready” to potty-train until they’re 4 or 5, which, she says, is too late.
Do: Start when the child is capable—ideally, between 2 and 3.
Instead of “ready,” Glowacki uses the term “capable.” So when is a child capable of beginning potty-training? Does your child turn his back from you or hide to poop? That’s one indicator. Can he communicate his needs to you? That’s another one.
Another big indicator, Glowacki says, is surprising: Can your child throw a tantrum? Usually a tantrum happens because the child wants something she can’t have. Tantrums mean that kids are “completely aware of their insides, and they’re acting on it on their outsides, so they’re perfectly capable of recognizing their bodily functions and the signals for those, and acting on them,” Glowacki says.
Both Hickey and Glowacki say between 2 and 3 years of age is the best time to potty-train. Glowacki has whittled that ideal window to 20 to 30 months, with 24 months being the “magic number.” Why this age? First, there’s a lull in the child’s development, so it’s a good time to add a new skill. Second, you want her to be using the potty before the arrival of the “three-nager.”
“At the age of 3, the child starts individuation, in which they recognize for the first time ever that they’re separate from you,” Glowacki says. “It brings on free will and choice, but it’s not going to be your free will and choice—it’s going to be theirs. That’s my only caveat for waiting until after 3: Think about what 3-year-old behavior looks like. They’ve got all this personality, and that’s awesome and developmentally appropriate, but you don’t want to add pee and poop on top of that.”
Don’t: Send mixed messages.
Hickey says a common mistake parents make is starting and stopping potty-training, or being inconsistent. “This can be frustrating for everyone and confusing for the child,” she says.
Another no-no? “Switching back and forth between underwear and diapers or Pull-Ups,” Hickey says. “Again, this can confuse the child, or the child may forget what he is wearing. When you’re ready to begin training, the child should be in underwear full time.”
Glowacki isn’t a fan of Pull-Ups, either. “Pull-Ups are diapers—period,” she says. “Very few children use them as underwear. You’re using something that is exactly the same as [a diaper], and yet you expect them to use it differently. That is asking an extreme amount from a small child.”
A new phenomenon that really concerns Glowacki is parents letting their kids use diapers just to poop. This, she says, is the only true potty-training mistake that parents can make. “It’s very hard to fix, and I get 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds who are still entrenched in this habit,” she says. “If that’s happening, please contact me or one of our trained experts to help you work through the child’s fear of pooping.”
Do: Prompt—don’t ask—the child to use the potty.
If you ask a child if she has to use the potty, the “no” that follows is practically inevitable. You’re now backed into a corner of either letting her skip it or forcing her to go. Instead of a question, Glowacki recommends using prompts in the form of a choice, a challenge or a statement. Here are her suggestions:
• Choice Prompt: “Do you want to go first or second?” or “Do you want to use the little potty or the big potty?”
• Challenge Prompt: “I’ll beat you to the bathroom!” or “I can pee more than you!” or “I bet I can pee faster than you!”
• Statement Prompt: “It’s time to go to the potty” or “We’re going to use the potty before we go to the store.”
Do/Don’t: Give kids stickers, M&Ms or other rewards.
Kids should be praised for their successes, but the experts have differing opinions about rewards. Hickey is a fan of using rewards as positive reinforcement. “When trying to determine a reward, think outside the box,” she says. “Some of my favorite examples are a spoonful of frosting, a favorite activity, or a treasure box filled with different items. A reward should be used for success.”
Glowacki doesn’t use rewards. “I think it’s too young to reward for expected behavior,” she says. “I know it works for a lot of people, but I’ve had parents who’ve bought out the mall for their kids, and they’re still not pooping on the potty. You can start having power struggles over the candy. There’s plenty of time for bribery in later years, but not at 2.”