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Most parents eagerly anticipate toilet training as a milestone in their child's development – if for no other reason than that it means an end to changing diapers. But few moms and dads are prepared for how long toilet training can take.
Sure, some kids master it within a few days (see how to potty train your child in three days), but others take several months or longer. You and your child have a better chance of success if you understand the important elements of training before you start. Here are the basic steps:
A. Assess your child's readiness – and your own
When children are about a year old, they can begin to recognize that they have a full rectum or bladder. Some are ready to start potty training as early as 18 months, while others aren't interested until after age 3. Many parents begin potty training when their children are about 2 1/2.
Because there's such a wide age range for when kids develop an interest in potty training, watch for signs that your child is ready to start: Can she follow simple instructions? Can she walk and sit down? Can she take off her pants and put them back on? Try not to pressure her – if she's not ready, it will only be counterproductive.
And don't expect your younger child to have the same timeline as your older child. Boys tend to train a bit more slowly than girls, while second (and subsequent) children may learn more quickly than firstborns.
Also consider the other challenges your toddler is dealing with now. If she's experiencing any turmoil or major change in her life, like a new school, caregiver, or sibling, the potty-training process is likely to hit some snags. Consider holding off until things settle down.
The same goes for you: If you're in the middle of remodeling your house, have just taken a challenging new job, or are experiencing morning sickness with your next pregnancy, it's probably not a good time to try to potty train your child. Wait a couple of weeks – or months – for other pressures to ease.
Plan to start potty training when you or your child's primary caregivers are able to devote time, patience, and a dash of humor to the process. And be prepared for potty training to take several months.
B. Buy the right equipment
First and foremost, invest in a child-size potty chair or a special adapter seat that attaches to your regular toilet. This can make children feel less anxious about using the grown-up toilet – some fear falling into it, while others dislike the loud noise of the flush.
Figure out what equipment is best for your child before you go shopping, then ask him to help you pick out a potty chair. When you get home, write his name on it and encourage him to play with it.
If you're buying a potty chair for your son, look for one with a removable urine guard or without a guard entirely. You may have to wipe up a little more stray pee, but the guards tend to scrape a little boy's penis when he sits on the potty, which can discourage him from training.
If you're using an adapter seat, make sure it's comfy and secure, and buy a stool to go with it. Your child will need the stool to get up and down from the toilet quickly and easily, as well as to brace his feet while sitting.
C. Create a routine
Set your child on the potty seat, fully clothed, once a day – after breakfast, before her bath, or whenever else she's likely to have a bowel movement. This helps her get used to the potty and accept it as part of her routine. If there's not a bathroom nearby, bring your child's portable potty outside, to the playroom, or wherever she usually is.
Once she's fine with this routine, have her sit on the potty bare-bottomed. Again, let her get used to how this feels. At this point, let her know that pulling down your pants before using the potty is a grown-up thing to do, and that this is what Mommy and Daddy (and any older siblings) do every day.
If sitting on the potty with or without clothes is upsetting to your child, don't push it. Never restrain her or physically force her to sit there, especially if she seems scared. It's better to put the potty aside for a few weeks before trying again. Then if she's willing to sit there, you know she's comfortable enough to proceed.
D. Demonstrate for your child
Children learn by imitation, and watching you use the bathroom is a natural way to understand what using the toilet is all about. If you have a son, it's simpler to teach him to pee sitting down at first. When he's mastered that, he can watch his dad, older brother, or friend pee standing up – he's bound to get the hang of it quickly with just a little encouragement.
When you demonstrate for your child, it's helpful to talk about how you know it's time to go to the bathroom. Then explain what's going on as you're using the toilet and let him look in the toilet afterward. Also, show him how you wipe with toilet paper, pull up your underwear, flush the toilet, and wash your hands.
Even though you'll be helping your child with these activities for some time, especially wiping after a bowel movement, seeing you do it and hearing you talk through it will help him get used to the whole process. (If your child is a girl, help her wipe from front to back, especially after a bowel movement, to minimize the risk of urinary tract infections.)
If your child has older siblings or friends who are potty trained, consider having them demonstrate too. It can be helpful for your child to see others close to his age exhibiting the skills he's trying to learn.
E. Explain the process
Show your child the connection between pooping and the toilet. The next time she poops in her diaper, take her to the potty, sit her down, and empty the diaper into the bowl. If she wants to, let her flush so she can watch her feces disappear. (Don't force her if she's scared.)
You also may want to pick up a few picture books or videos on potty training. Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi, is a perennial favorite as well as Where's the Poop? and Once Upon a Potty, which even comes in a version with a doll and miniature potty.
Keeping a book like this in the bathroom, or a poster or flipbook that illustrates the steps to using the potty, can help your child take in all this new information and get familiar with the process.
F. Foster the habit
Encourage your child to sit on the potty whenever he feels the urge to go. If he needs help getting there and taking off his diaper, make sure he knows it's okay to ask you any time.
If you can, let him run around bare-bottomed sometimes with the potty nearby. The more time he spends out of diapers, the faster he's likely to learn (although you'll probably have to clean up a few more puddles). Tell him he can use the potty whenever he wants to, and occasionally remind him that it's there if he needs it.
Sometimes kids won't sit on the potty long enough to relax and let anything come out. Calmly encourage your child to stay put for at least a minute or two. You may have better luck if you keep him company and talk to him or read him a book.
When your child uses the potty successfully, shower him with praise to give him positive reinforcement as he masters potty training. Chances are that he'll continue to have accidents but will start to grasp that getting something in the potty is an accomplishment.
(Just try not to make a big deal out of every trip to the potty or your child may start to feel nervous and self-conscious.)
G. Grab some training pants
Once training is under way, consider adding training pants to your routine. Training pants are disposable or cloth diapers that pull on and off like underwear. They enable your child to undress for the potty on her own, which is a critical step toward becoming completely potty trained.
Although cloth training pants are less convenient than disposable pull-ups, many parents say they work better because your child can really feel when she pees or poops in them. Whichever option you choose, introduce them gradually – probably for just a few hours at a time – and stick with diapers at night for the time being.
When your child consistently looks for the potty whenever she has to go, it's time to move on to "big-kid" underwear. Many moms and dads have found that undies with a favorite character on them encourage kids to stay dry.
H. Handle setbacks gracefully
Toilet training can be difficult for parents and children. Keep in mind that temporary setbacks are completely normal, and virtually every child will have several accidents before being able to stay dry all day long.
An accident doesn't mean that you've failed. When it happens, don't get angry or punish your child. After all, it's only recently that his muscle development has allowed him to hold his bladder and rectum closed at all, and he's still learning why it's important to use the potty. Mastering the process will take time.
What can you do? Reduce the chance of accidents by dressing your child in clothes that are easy to remove quickly. When he has an accident anyway, be positive and loving and calmly clean it up. Suggest sweetly that next time he try using his potty instead.
I. Introduce night training
Don't give away that stash of diapers just yet. Even when your child is consistently clean and dry all day, it may take several more months, or even years, for her to stay dry all night. At this age, her body is still too immature to wake her up in the middle of the night reliably just to go to the bathroom. It's normal for kids to continue wetting the bed well into grade school.
Before embarking on night training, keep your child in a diaper or pull-up at bed time, but encourage her to use the potty if she has to pee or poop during the night. Tell her that if she wakes up in the middle of the night needing to go, she can call you for help. You can also try putting her potty near her bed so she can use it right there.
If she seems to be staying dry consistently at night, it might be a good time to start nighttime training. Put a plastic sheet under the cloth one to protect the mattress. Put your child in underwear (or nothing) and have her use the toilet before you tuck her in. Then see how it goes. When she wakes up, get her in the habit of using the bathroom before she begins her day.
Just remember that many kids aren't able to stay dry at night until they're school-age. Bed-wetting is involuntary, and children have no control over it. If your child is unable to stay dry overnight, put her back in nighttime diapers, reassure her that the bed-wetting is not her fault, and try again in a few months when she's a little older.
J. Jump for joy – you're done!
Believe it or not, when your child is mentally and physically ready to learn this new skill, he will. And if you wait until he's really ready to start, the process shouldn't be too painful for either of you.
When it's over, reinforce his pride in his achievement by letting him give away leftover diapers to a family with younger kids, or help you pack up the cloth diapers and send them away with the diaper delivery service one last time.
And don't forget to pat yourself on the back. Now you won't have to think about diapers ever again – for this child, anyway!
Get advice on potty training from other parents, and discuss bed-wetting in the our site Community.