Today, let’s talk about teaching kids how to use a toilet, (also known as potty training). Potty training isn’t exactly a medical issue . . . until it is. If a child struggles with the potty and then refuses to go, it can lead to several unquestionably medical concerns. So, I’d like to prevent such medical issues by addressing potty learning here today. Using a toilet can just be one of the many things our little kids learn as they grow up. This post includes several different types of resources for potty learning.
I’ve spoken with countless families about their concerns and questions regarding potty learning. I feel like I’ve “heard it all.” However, this post can’t cover every specific situation. I do think it’s a good starting point, and hope it can point parents in the right direction. No matter how bizarre and frustrating or funny potty moments are, there’s almost always a step forward.
I’ll list specific books, blogs, and experts, as well as helpful supplies for many kids learning to use the potty.
But first, here are a few overarching important things to remember when it comes to potty learning.
Here are a few quick pointers I feel like gently whispering to any parent about to embark on helping their child learn to use underwear and a toilet.
1. Your relationship with your child is more valuable than the potty.
This is why I personally don’t recommend resources that suggest any kind of punishments for mistakes made during potty learning. It’s not worth sacrificing the connection with your child.
2. Every piece of advice regarding potty learning should be taken with a grain of salt.
No one knows your child like you do. One of my favorite resources (listed below) recommended a phrase that makes perfect logical sense in encouraging a child to learn to use the potty. I loved it. I see why they suggested it. However, when I tried it on my child, it was a total failure and clearly not the right set of words for my family. So, even though it came as an expert recommendation, I knew I didn’t need to use it.
Also, I mentioned the variety of stories and challenges I’ve heard. And, kind of like sleep, there is no one magical solution that fits every single family. So, grain of salt, please. Take what works for you and don’t feel guilty for leaving the rest.
Another example? Many parents recommend cheering wildly for your kid when they pee in the potty. Calling family members, giving sticker prizes etc. Oh my goodness, how fun this could be if that works for your child and your family. I must say that this could be a huge flop with some other kids. I share here because I don’t think there’s enough written about the kids who just prefer to learn this new thing with minimal fanfare.
3. Consider our word choices. “Learning” versus “Training.”
Like many of the listed experts, I also prefer phrasing it as “learning” instead of “training.” I think it keeps things in perspective. Does a toddler walk perfectly for miles as soon as they take their first step? Do they properly feed themselves with no crumbs out of place? Of course not. They’re learning. So it is with the toilet as well. It’s a process. When I helped my first child learn, I definitely had more of a “training” mindset. The book I referenced used that phrase and I followed the directions to the point of actual stress! With my second child, I learned more and embraced the term “learning.” And, now, I’m hyper aware of the mindset shift when I see it as “learning” as opposed to “training.”
Two experts, Joan Morgenstern and Mr. Chazz, discuss the importance of word choice in their podcast conversation linked below. They describe the process as “potty mastery.”
4. Keep goals in perspective.
This is a huge big-picture important point (and also thanks to Joan Morgenstern for emphasizing this in the interview linked below). We must remember that our goal for children who need to pee or poop must be for the pee or poop to actually leave their body. If it doesn’t happen precisely on the toilet every time, that’s okay. It’s better than them withholding. However stressful it may be for stool or urine to land outside the toilet, it’s probably more stressful to have a child who refuses to poop. (I don’t want to presume anyone’s stress responses. I say this based on many conversations).
A few general tips for potty learning
Now that my general thoughts are out of the way, how about some concrete advice? These are a few tips based only on my experience with my own kids and talking with many families. There is not great evidence-based research on something that has so many variables/nuances and cultural differences. So, please keep that in mind and feel free to ignore.
1. A calm parent makes a big difference.
My number one advice I wish I could go back and give myself the first time I went through this is, “Chill out. Please please just chill out a little.” Children pick up on our mood, our mindset, our general vibe. So, if a parent can stay calm, the process itself is more likely to be calmer.
2. Many kids are ready to start potty learning somewhere between 18-36 months of age.
If you think your child is ready to learn to use the potty, and you personally are still feeling calm about the process: Stay the Course. Don’t give up after just 2-3 days. For many kids, things start off easy peasy, then they have a Rough Patch, and then it gets better. Obviously I can’t predict if this will be your child’s experience, but consider just confidently continuing the process, especially if they’re in this 18-36 month age range.
3. Consider permanently forgoing diapers during waking hours at home.
Along a similar vein, once you’ve decided to help your child learn, consider a permanent goodbye to diapers during waking hours at home. As some toddlers may say: “All done!” Going back and forth between diapers and underwear can be a little confusing for kids who are concrete thinkers. So, this means to be prepared for some pee mishaps at home.
And, again, choose what works for your kid, but I like the terms “sleeping diaper” and “travel diaper” as they learn. A travel diaper may refer to a diaper while in a car seat, for example. Some experts advocate for not even using a travel diaper, and just dealing with whatever happens. It’s even more consistent and logical. This is fine too! However, for me, I chose to have my kids use one (for a while) in order to follow tip #1 (Remain calm. For me, it’s easier to chill out when I don’t have to worry about cleaning urine from a car seat during a road trip).
I should also note that others, like Janet Lansbury (linked below) suggest offering to go back to diapers if things aren’t going well. See? We all have different ideas. And, we all have different kids. Please choose whatever keeps you calm and your child feeling loved.
4. Nighttime dryness is a Separate Thing.
Many kids wet the bed long past the time they’ve learned to stay dry during the day. I really suggest families focus on daytime potty learning first.
5. Consider extra sets of clothes as one form of stress management.
If possible, have enough extra supplies so that laundry isn’t an added stressor. When my child was in preschool and learning to use the potty, the school asked that we send 4 complete extra sets of clothing during the process. For just a few hours of the day. (They still napped in diapers). How’s that for some perspective?
This is a great opportunity to use those hand-me-down pants.
List of Resources for Potty Learning
And now, onto the list. I don’t formally recommend all of these, but offer my thoughts in case you’re considering some. I’ll also list a few physical supplies.
Note: This post may contain affiliate links. This means that I may earn a small commission on qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.
Potty Informational Resources
Hopefully there’s something here you’ll find useful. Podcast? Instagram page? Book? Here’s an example of each.
Mr. Chazz’s Leadership, Parenting and Teaching Podcast
Consider the podcast episode featuring Joan Morgenstern. This podcast features two parenting experts discussing potty mastery. It has some gems of advice. It is definitely worth a listen. Joan Morgenstern also has many useful bite-sized pieces of information on her Instagram page (@joan.morgenstern).
Janet Lansbury discusses potty learning is a an episode from her “Unruffled” podcast. There’s a transcript available. This may be helpful for those interested in an entirely child-led approach.
Montessori approach to toilet learning.
There are countless articles and books on Montessori toilet learning. So, if you’re browsing, consider pausing on ones that claim a Montessori approach. The ideas are usually very respectful of kids. They also focus on gradual independence. See which ideas suit your family. (Full disclosure: the aforementioned preschool that recommended 4 sets of clothing per class session was a Montessori school. Occasional wet clothes were expected and completely no big deal).
Thoughts on a well-known book.
Let’s chat about the Oh Crap! Potty Training book, written by Jamie Glowacki. I have to list this book because it’s so commonly recommended. It was also one of the first books I read as I attempted to teach my oldest. I think it has some valuable information. For those that need a scripted approach, they may find it useful. So, I share it here with a few caveats:
- I have never met a family who successfully used or followed the chapter on nighttime “training.” As I mentioned earlier, a child waking at night to empty their bladder is a separate developmental skill. If someone uses this book, I often suggest they consider skipping the nighttime chapter. (If you have read this book and had success with the nighttime recommendations, please comment to let me know).
- Secondly, I cringed mightily when the author suggested a tiny form of punishment for stool not making it into the toilet. So, I’d skip that part too.
Lastly, please refer to my earlier comments about staying calm. When I tried to precisely follow this book’s advice, my goodness, it was nearly impossible to stay calm. So, I suggest reading it with an open mind and choosing to use only what truly feels okay for your family. A positive note: I credit this book for the term “travel diaper.”
Physical Supplies for Potty Learning
Below, I’ll share a few supplies families may find useful when preparing to teach their child how to use a toilet.
foldable travel potty seat (affiliate link)
- A child-sized potty seat. I try to be minimalist with kid supplies, but this one really is important. Most adult-sized toilets are just too big for most toddler-sized bodies. I liked this style for a stand-alone potty. (The exact one my kids used was from Wal-Mart and doesn’t seem to be available anymore. It’s the one pictured at the top of this post, decorated with stickers by those who used it. Wal-Mart still has some similar ones). It’s very transportable and easy to clean. And, of the potty seats that rest on top of the standard toilet, I prefer this foldable one. It’s easier to clean, and it goes with us when we leave the house. So far, it has fit on every public toilet we’ve tried.
- Plenty of underwear. The specific choice is a personal preference, obviously. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really helpful to have enough. Please just allow me to comment because I’ve been holding it in for far too long: Why is underwear marketed for boys much more sturdy and durable than that marketed for girls?
- Extra supplies some may consider:
- Wipes. I love these washable cloth wipes from a shop on Etsy. (For stool with my kids, I used the disposable wipes. For urine only, I dampen these washable ones or dab away)
- A book or toy for potty time, somehow striking the perfect balance of having a child sit still for a few seconds, but not want to stay there for hours. We used a board book about a popular TV character learning to use the potty. It was good for those first few days. Not everyone needs this, by any means. For awhile, we also used a page torn from a magazine that had a cute picture of a puppy. Anything to spark a few seconds of conversation.
- Clothing that’s easy to pull up and push down. This mean pants, skirts, or shorts with an elastic waistband. No need to fuss with a zipper or buttons during this process.
- A “pee pad,” also known as a Chucks underpad. This is helpful at the beginning of the process when your child is going to be sitting on some furniture or a carpeted floor for more than a few minutes. Both washable/reusable and disposable options are available. Even a thick towel or a bath rug could work. (We also take one along for any overnight travel after toilet-learning is complete. We just tuck it under bedsheets of where our child sleeps. Even kids who normally stay dry at night may occasionally wet the bed when they’re older).
Summary: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to toilet learning.
If we prioritize our relationship with our toddler, everything else can fall into place. Eventually. I hope some of these resources are helpful starting points. Please feel free to share any other suggestions. We can all use more resources when it comes to potty learning and helping kids learn a new skill.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., F.A.A.P. is a board-certified pediatrician and mom.
toilet paper photo by Roberto Sorin on Unsplash