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Potty Training: A Primer

From timeline to training pants, we’ve got proven potty training tips and tricks to make the process painless for your kid – and you!

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We’ve all heard the stories: the miraculously diaper-free one-year-old, or your neighbor’s cousin’s uncle’s two-year-old who was rocking underwear in a single weekend -- even if it was a long weekend! So it’s no wonder you’ve been dreading those two words that make every parent cringe: potty training.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, potty training -- just like any new experience, for mama or child -- has a bit of a learning curve. But you and your kid can tackle it together. And it might even be -- dare we say it? -- fun!

From timing to training pants, potty training expert -- and proud papa -- Dr. Pete Stavinoha, who wrote the book on the subject, weights in on the biggest things to consider when you take on the challenge.

Mix things up.

Yeah, your sister-in-law swears by pull-ups. But your playgroup pal went straight to underpants and had great results. Does that make one method better than the other? Not necessarily. “Parents should consider all the methods and strategies that are available to them,” says Dr. Stavinoha, . “There’s no one strategy that will work for everyone, and there may be more than one strategy that can work for you and your child. You may have to mix and match to get the desired results.”

He suggests parents look at the whole training thing as a marathon – rather than a sprint. Everyone will have different timelines, and different experiences. “I think it’s about understanding your child – but also yourself,” says Stavinoha, director of neuropsychology at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, and a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. “It’s about your lifestyle, your schedule, your tolerance, your patience, the time you’re able to commit.”

Look for signs.

Your toddler might not come out and declare that he’s ready to use the big boy throne, but kids as young as 18 months may show signs of early interest in potty training. “There’s no one right age,” says Dr. Stavinoha, author of Stress-Free Potty Training: A Commonsense Guide to Finding the Right Approach for Your Child. “But your child will tell you, in not so many words, that they’re ready. It might be barging in on mom or dad in the bathroom, or coveting his big brother’s Spider-Man underpants.”

The key, says Stavinoha, is to gently encourage without forcing it. “It’s baby steps,” he says. “When we talk about waiting for the child to show signals, we’re not being passive. Maybe, at two, you start talking about it more, opening the door to it more. A hybrid works best -- active attention to the child’s signals, and active facilitation of their interest and their skills, without actually expecting them to be trained immediately. Do thinks like reading potty books, letting the child flush the toilet so they’re desensitized to the noise.”

Timeline is everything.

Understanding your own lifestyle, temperament and priorities are key when you’re plotting your training timeline. Yes, some parents can cram it all into one weekend or a couple of weeks, really focusing on training as a focused task. But that takes a major commitment. “You can’t do it halfway,” says Stavanoha. “It’s being home, right near the bathroom, with easy access for that given time frame -- otherwise it won’t work. Then life gets in the way. And then you’re thinking your kid ‘failed’ at potty training.”

Shrinking the timeline can also up the anxiety for your kid -- and for you. “There are some kids who can do it in a weekend or a few weeks. But others can’t. That puts a lot of pressure on both the kid and the parents,” says Stavanoha. “Maybe doing it longer term works better for those families. Either way, the result will be the same: the child will end up potty trained.”

And, Stavanoha points out, “When there really is no pressure put on it, and the parent goes in thinking, ‘I know this could take months’ -- some of those kids train overnight. Because there really is no pressure. Everybody feels good about it.”

Find the right tools.

Decisions, decisions! In figuring out how to train your tot, you’ll have plenty to make. The first: whether to get a dedicated seat for your kid. Choosing a special, kid-friendly training seat -- whether a child-sized stand-alone or one that balances over the big potty -- may increase your kid’s interest learning. But if your tot likes to play big kid, he may get a thrill out of graduating straight to the grown-up throne.

The same goes for the idea of training pants. These days, the intermediary step from diapers to pull-ups seems like a natural move, right? “Training pants do take some of the pressure off,” says Stavinoha. “If you don’t have time for major clean ups, then training pants are a smart bet.”

But there are drawbacks, too, of course. “The big knock against training pants is that there is no consequence if there’s an accident -- so there’s no inherent motivation to move on the next step,” he explains. “Whereas with underwear, there’s a clear, immediate consequence.”

With underwear, says Stavanoha, it’s more of a big kid move for sure -- but they can also mean more of a mess. “It’s about knowing your kid, your own patience level and how much time you can commit. If you’re more tolerant of a mess -- and have time to deal with the clean ups -- maybe you don’t need the training pants.”

Consider the rewards.

If pull-ups or underwear aren’t motivation enough, you may turn to a rewards system to get training on track. But the best motivators, says Stavinoha, are the more intangible kind -- like praise, hugs, kisses and cuddles. “It’s an emotional response you’re trying to cultivate,” he explains. “The child wants to please the parent, and we have an unlimited supply of praise and hugs and tickles..”

While some parents swear by rewarding a potty success with a treat or a prize, that can get old fast -- or blow expectations out of proportion. “Tangible rewards have a place -- but to a limited degree,” Stavinoha says. “They shouldn’t be the first line of defense, because then there will be that expectation that the reward always has to be bigger and better. That escalates quickly.”

You might supplement your potty praise with a chart that tracks successes -- never failures! -- with smiley faces or other motivators, as a progress monitor. But this shouldn’t be the primary reward system. “And don’t expect it to start with a full on accomplishment. It may be, in the beginning, that the smiley face is just for sitting on the potty for a minute. Then for peeing. Then for pooping. It can grow with the child’s skill set.”

Adjust your expectations.

As with all learning experiences, you should expect challenges -- and accidents. So go easy on your kid -- and yourself. “Pressure can be counterproductive,” says Stavinoha. “If you’re gung ho about doing it in two or four weeks, it may take you six months. That can create frustration for both the parents and child.”

Whatever you do, says Stavinoha, avoid negative language or full-on punishments if your kid faces setbacks during training. “If you’re relying on fussing or punishing the child as your primary method of potty-training, first of all, it’s going to inhibit or slow down the process -- because you’re going to frustrate and make them anxious,” says Stavinoha. “But it also has broader implications.”

In the end, he notes, “it’s not just about teaching your child to use the potty. After all, potty training is just one experience in the big picture -- it’s really all about how you relate to, teach and motivate your kid.”

Plus, More from The Bump:

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-- Sona Charaipotra

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