For many parents, potty training is a frustrating developmental milestone. It can cause stress for parents and children alike.

Many parents have unrealistic expectations about how soon their child should be potty trained. Every child is different and will be ready at a different time. A lot plays into the timing, the normal range of development of milestones, the child’s temperament and timing for the parent to be consistent with training. Generally, if a child is not potty trained by his or her fourth birthday, you should discuss the challenges you are facing with your physician.

Preparing for potty training

Parents can begin to introduce concepts about toileting before starting active potty training. Around the time a toddler reaches 15-18 months of age, when language skills are developing parents should start:

  • Teaching the child to use words that are useful for potty training such as “pee,” “poop,” “dry,” “wet” and “clean.” Take advantage of multiple opportunities for word repetition during diaper changing and when the child is showing visible signs of stooling.
  • Change the child’s diaper frequently to encourage him or her to prefer a dry diaper.
  • Get a potty chair and allow it to become a familiar part of their environment. They can sit on it fully clothed while playing or reading.

Potty training readiness

Around 18 to 24 months old, a child may start showing signs that they are ready for potty training. For other children, it may be 2 to 3.5 years to show signs of readiness. Again, remember more than the age of the child determines training readiness. Watch for the following signs of awareness:

  • Facial expressions that they are aware they are stooling/voiding
  • Holding the genital area
  • Tugging at clothes
  • Pacing, squatting or shifting from foot to foot

Once a child starts showing these signs, move the potty chair into the bathroom. Try to capitalizing on “catching” them when they are ready to go and place them on the potty. Do some practice runs and see how receptive they are to this. If they are receptive, ask him or her to try to go to the bathroom in the toilet. Don’t let him or her sit there much longer than four or five minutes. Never force them to sit on the toilet, as this will become a struggle of wills.

How to potty train

If the child is receptive and seems ready, begin to actively potty train. You will need to have scheduled potty breaks. Taking these breaks approximately every two hours will increase the odds that you will have a successful potty attempt. All potty attempts should be celebrated, but when it is successful it should be especially celebrated with fanfare, a sticker on a chart, lots of hugs, high fives, fist bumps or small rewards. If they are using a small seat that sits on top of the big toilet, ensure they have a stool so that his or her feet do not dangle but can rest on the top step.

If a child consistently says no, conceal your frustration. Potty training should never be associated with punishment or criticism. Toddlers are strong-willed and there are few things in their life that they have some control over. “I do it” is a common phrase at this age. If potty training becomes a battle, you will not win. If this has occurred, take a break from potty training for one month or so to allow your child time to forget that he or she does not want to sit on the toilet.

When you begin potty training again, use lots of words of praise, encouragement and how much of a big kid they are by going on the potty just like a big sibling, parent or friend. Potty training typically takes anywhere from weeks to months. For some, it may take longer. The key is starting potty training when the child is truly ready. Starting too soon will mean that it just takes longer. Even after parents feel potty training is complete, there will be accidents from time to time. Kids become engrossed in activities and may not have fully developed the ability to recognize when they need to stop an activity and head to the toilet.

Remember, patience and encouragement are the keys to successful potty training!

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Dr. Erica Martin is a pediatrician with Boys Town Pediatrics. Read more about her here

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