Potty training is a major milestone. Get the facts on timing, technique and handling the inevitable accidents.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Potty training is a big step for kids and parents alike. The secret to success? Patience — perhaps more patience than you ever imagined.
Potty-training success hinges on physical and emotional readiness, not a specific age. Many kids show interest in potty training by age 2, but others might not be ready until age 2 1/2 or even older — and there's no rush. If you start potty training too early, it might take longer to train your child.
Is your child ready? Ask yourself these questions:
- Does your child seem interested in the potty chair or toilet, or in wearing underwear?
- Can your child understand and follow basic directions?
- Does your child tell you through words, facial expressions or posture when he or she needs to go?
- Does your child stay dry for periods of two hours or longer during the day?
- Does your child complain about wet or dirty diapers?
- Can your child pull down his or her pants and pull them up again?
- Can your child sit on and rise from a potty chair?
If you answered mostly yes, your child might be ready for potty training. If you answered mostly no, you might want to wait awhile — especially if your child has recently faced or is about to face a major change, such as a move or the arrival of a new sibling. A toddler who opposes potty training today might be open to the idea in a few months.
There's no need to postpone potty training if your child has a chronic medical condition but is able to use the toilet normally. Be aware that the process might take longer, however.
When you decide it's time to begin potty training, set your child up for success. Start by maintaining a sense of humor and a positive attitude — and recruiting all of your child's caregivers to do the same. Then follow these practical steps.
Pull out the equipment
Place a potty chair in the bathroom. You might want to try a model with a removable top that can be placed directly on the toilet when your child is ready. Encourage your child to sit on the potty chair — with or without a diaper. Make sure your child's feet rest firmly on the floor or a stool. Help your child understand how to talk about the bathroom using simple, correct terms. You might dump the contents of a dirty diaper into the potty chair to show its purpose, or let your child see family members using the toilet.
Schedule potty breaks
If your child is interested, have him or her sit on the potty chair or toilet without a diaper for a few minutes several times a day. For boys, it's often best to master urination sitting down, and then move to standing up after bowel training is complete. Read a potty-training book or give your child a special toy to use while sitting on the potty chair or toilet. Stay with your child when he or she is in the bathroom. Even if your child simply sits there, offer praise for trying — and remind your child that he or she can try again later.
Get there — fast!
When you notice signs that your child might need to use the toilet — such as squirming, squatting or holding the genital area — respond quickly. Help your child become familiar with these signals, stop what he or she is doing and head to the toilet. Praise your child for telling you when he or she has to go. Teach girls to wipe carefully from front to back to prevent bringing germs from the rectum to the vagina or bladder. When it's time to flush, let your child do the honors. Make sure your child washes his or her hands after using the toilet.
Some kids respond to stickers or stars on a chart. For others, trips to the park or extra bedtime stories are effective. Experiment to find what works best for your child. Reinforce your child's effort with verbal praise, such as, "How exciting! You're learning to use the toilet just like big kids do!" Be positive even if a trip to the toilet isn't successful.
Ditch the diapers
After several weeks of successful potty breaks, your child might be ready to trade diapers for training pants or regular underwear. Celebrate this transition. Go on a special outing. Let your child select "big kid" underwear. Call close friends or loved ones and let your child spread the news. Once your child is wearing training pants or regular underwear, avoid overalls, belts, leotards or other items that could hinder quick undressing.
Most children master daytime bladder control first, often within about two to three months of consistent toilet training. Nap and nighttime training might take months — or years — longer. In the meantime, use disposable training pants or plastic mattress covers when your child sleeps.
Know when to call it quits
If your child resists using the potty chair or toilet or isn't getting the hang of it within a few weeks, take a break. Chances are he or she isn't ready yet. Try again in a few months.
You might breathe easier once your child figures out how to use the toilet, but expect occasional accidents and near misses. Here's help preventing — and handling — wet pants:
- Offer reminders. Accidents often happen when kids are absorbed in activities that — for the moment — are more interesting than using the toilet. To fight this phenomenon, suggest regular bathroom trips, such as first thing in the morning, after each meal and snack, and before getting in the car or going to bed. Point out telltale signs of holding it, such as holding the genital area.
- Stay calm. Kids don't have accidents to irritate their parents. If your child has an accident, don't add to the embarrassment by scolding or disciplining your child. You might say, "You forgot this time. Next time you'll get to the bathroom sooner."
- Be prepared. If your child has frequent accidents, absorbent underwear might be best. Keep a change of underwear and clothing handy, especially at school or in child care.
Occasional accidents are harmless, but they can lead to teasing, embarrassment and alienation from peers. If your potty-trained child reverts or loses ground — especially at age 4 or older — or you're concerned about your child's accidents, contact his or her doctor. Sometimes wetting problems indicate an underlying physical condition, such as a urinary tract infection or an overactive bladder. Prompt treatment can help your child become accident-free.
Nov. 16, 2011
- Turner TL, et al. Toilet training. http://www.uptodate.com/home/index.html. Accessed Aug. 23, 2011.
- Howell DM, et al. Toilet training. Pediatrics in Review. 2010;31:262.
- Practice guide: Toilet training. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.aap.org/sections/scan/practicingsafety/Modules/ToiletTraining/ToiletTraining.pdf. Accessed Aug. 23, 2011.
- Smith LE. Toilet training. In: Berkowitz CD. Berkowitz's Pediatrics: A Primary Care Approach. Washington, D.C.: American Academy of Pediatrics; 2008:183.
- Urinary tract infections. American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp050.cfm. Accessed Aug. 23, 2011.