Encouraging potty training

Dirty diapers are no walk in the park, but toilet training isn’t always the light at the end of the tunnel, either. Whether because their bodies aren’t mature enough, they don’t want to grow up so fast, they’re having trouble mastering the skills, or just because they don’t want to stop playing long enough to go to the potty, toilet training toddlers can be a long and difficult road. Toilet training takes a lot of skill and coordination, including body awareness, and the ability to make a plan and carry it out, even if they meet with distractions along the way.

Ideally, toddlers would be able to potty train at exactly the point when they’re ready, but other factors, from peer-pressure to preschool to tired-out moms and dads can mean that toilet training may need to begin before a toddler is very enthusiastic about the idea of waving goodbye to diapers. If you think your toddler might be ready for potty training, but you’re having some trouble getting the potty-project off the ground, there are a few different strategies you could try introducing into your home.

Signs of potty training readiness 

Pushing a toddler into toilet training before they are ready can lead to some messy accidents and resistance, but like a lot of timing issues in parenting, it can be hard to tell when a tot is ready to give the toilet a try. Toddlers who are ready to potty train do generally show some of the same characteristics, though, including:
  • Interest in the toilet, toilet training, or underwear
  • The ability to listen to, understand, and follow basic instructions or directions
  • The communication skills and body awareness to let someone know when they need to go
  • Discomfort with wet or dirty diapers
  • Physical skills for undressing, like the ability to pull pants up and down on their own, and the ability to sit down on and stand up from a potty chair
  • The ability to stay dry for 2 or more hours at a time

Ways to encourage potty training

Toddlers who aren’t showing signs of readiness to potty train generally aren’t ready to give it a try, but even toddlers who do show signs of readiness may not be that enthusiastic about getting started. Toddlers who aren’t happy about starting potty training, or are having trouble once they do start, may benefit from different types of encouragement. If your toddler isn’t taking to potty training quite as easily as you might have hoped, here are a few ideas to try.

  • Celebrating their triumphs: Small victories are important, too – let them know how much you appreciate the ways they are growing closer to potty independence. Positive reinforcement goes a long way.
  • Keeping an even keel: Negative reinforcement, or getting upset, which can make Baby upset, can get in the way of the process. Accidents can happen many, many times – that doesn’t mean they isn&;t making progress. Children commonly have trouble staying dry through the night all the way up to 6 years old, so even if things have been going smoothly, the occasional bump in the road is nothing to worry about. On the other hand, getting upset about a potty accident may make them less willing to let you know if they have another.
  • Encouragement through stories: Books and make believe are great ways to introduce toddlers to new concepts in their lives. Reading books about potty training gives your toddler the idea of potty training as a goal without pressuring them about it, and gives them the mental framework to think about potty training and the words to talk about it. Acting out using the potty with a doll or stuffed animal can have the same effect, once your toddler has started to play pretend.
  • Changing your language: Your toddler is their own person, with their own point of view, and that may mean figuring out how to talk about potty training in a way that works for them. Many toddlers want to do anything that bigger kids do, and are eager to do anything “grown up.” Potty training is an easy one to sell as a big kid activity, but not every toddler is attracted to the lure of growing up. Other toddlers may feel unsettled by the idea of letting go of the familiar, and talking about using big kid underwear or the big kid potty can just add to your stress. You know your toddler best, and it’s important to use that knowledge to talk to them about potty training in a way they understand and is comfortable with.
  • Giving them a tour: Toddlers are still just learning about the world, which means that things that seem normal and harmless to adults can sometimes be frightening to toddlers. Toilets in particular can seem scary in the same way that the drain in the bathtub can seem scary to some babies and toddlers, and even if your tot is using a friendly-looking potty chair now, they can make the connection easily enough. One thing that can help is giving them a tour of the toilet, and showing them how it works.
  • Don’t make them lead the way: Showing your toddler that they're not alone in using the toilet can encourage them, and may even help them put the pieces together when it comes to an understanding of toilet training. This may mean letting them see you or an older sibling on the toilet, or may mean having playdates with children who are also potty training, or who are already toilet trained.
  • Introduce a little bit at a time: For toddlers who like to take a little extra time to figure out transitions, easing into potty training by introducing the potty chair as a piece of furniture that’s around the house first can help it to feel non-threatening, before you even start offering it to them.
  • Make it a game: Some families find that they can help make potty training something to celebrate, instead of something to resist, by offering treats or incentives for using the potty. Offering stickers or stars for each time using the potty, working up to a big reward, can last long enough to establish the habit and say goodbye to diapers without setting up the expectation that using the potty deserves a treat every time as they grow up. 
Some toddlers who need a little help with potty training may just need a little extra encouragement, but others may need a little more time to grow before it’s time to take that challenge on. If your toddler isn’t jumping into potty training with all the excitement you might have hoped for, they may also do better taking a brief step back from potty training, or at least with taking a little bit of the pressure off.

  • Laura Markham. “Easy Potty Learning for Toddlers.” AhaParenting. Dr. Laura Markham, 2016. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Potty training: How to get the job done.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, November 15 2014. Web.
  • “Gentle Encouragement for Potty Training.” New Beginnings. 23(2): 78-80. Web. March-April 2006.
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