I went into potty training armed with the research into physical aspects of potty training and theory behind the motivation. I have come out with practical potty training tips and tools that for us, worked really well. This is a bit of a different post, because it is experience, not research-based, but I hope you find it valuable. Here are some tools and tactics that really helped (and most of them you probably have lying around). As an aside, I’ve included what worked here – so it’s the highlight reel – we had our moments too. I think what makes potty training so hard is that children at this age are just learning to assert their independence, and going to the potty (or not), like sleeping (or not), are areas where the child has power, whether we like it or not. You can take a child to the potty, but you can’t make him pee.
PHASE 1: Preparing for Nappy-Free time
1. An empty box. When I felt it was almost time to start potty training, I emptied all the nappies (Australian for diapers) into a box, and told Alex that these were the last nappies. When these ran out, he’d have nappy free time. Every nappy change I would ask Alex to take a nappy from the box, and near the end, we’d count how many were left, then we’d discuss (usually I would ask and he would answer) what would happen when they ran out (nappy free time, poo poos and wee wees in the potty etc.). This helped to get him ready and reminded us both what we were preparing for. It also helped on the occasions when he would ask to wear a nappy (after we’d started potty training), I could show him the empty box and say “Sorry, no more day-time nappies left. We only have sleeping nappies. You can only wear sleeping nappies in your bed.” Some days Alex would decide to spend a long time in his bed after a nap before he was ready to go nappy free.
2. Musical potty. We would play dance to the music, then sit on the potty as quickly as possible when the music stopped. This was a fun game that helped Alex practice sitting on the potty in a hurry.
PHASE 2: Mother-dictated potty time
Initially, I could see when Alex needed to go, but he wouldn’t ask, and sometimes he wasn’t keen if I asked. I wanted him to feel successful with potty training, but initially felt he needed my help to know when to go. So I developed a number of tools to encourage him to go to the potty without having to force the issue.
3. Timer. I’d tell Alex that when the timer went off, it would be time to sit on the potty, then ask him to set the timer.
4. Choices. I’d offer many choices. Here are some of them. “You need the toilet. Do you want to sit on the potty or the toilet.”
“You need the toilet. Do you want to go now or in 2 minutes? (Could also be now or after activity x”)
“You need the toilet. Do you want to walk or jump to the bathroom?”
“You need the toilet and you want x (e.g. to play with duplo). How about you do that while you sit on the potty.”
PHASE 3: Alex-dictated potty time
You’ll notice that although I provided choices and gave Alex as much control over the process as possible, I stated “you need the toilet”, I didn’t ask. At some point, after about a week or two, Alex started to resist me telling him when to go, wouldn’t wee if I initiated it, and very occasionally initiated potty time himself. So I took this as a sign that he was ready to look after the timing himself.
5. Observation not judgement: I’d comment “Alex, you’re doing the potty dance” but I would only insist he sit on the potty if we needed to go out or just before nap or sleep time.
Out and about
Initially potty training in three days really appealed – less mess on the carpet and easier I thought. But the 3 days of intense potty training were really hard work, whereas this gradual approach has fit better into our schedule. For a long time (months) Alex went nappy free all the time at home, but wore pull up nappies when he went out. This did mean that sometimes he did a poo in his nappy while he was out, but each time he did, we discussed what he could have done instead (ask to go to the potty). After a couple of months he began to ask while we were out most of the time.
6. Porta-potty: We always carried a porta-potty with us. This certainly took the stress out of it. We used the Potette Plus (Affiliate Link, thank you), which can convert to a toddler seat on adult toilets. It was small, and light, and so could fit in or strap to our bag. It did need some force to click into and out of stand-alone potty mode, but got easier with practice.
PHASE 4: Always nappy-free
Again I used the empty box to phase out pull up nappies. Alex is now nappy and undy free all the time except for sleep (he’ll be sleeping in a nappy for a long time). We’ve tried undies a couple of times, but I have the rule of only one pair of undies a day. So far they haven’t lasted a day. We’ll keep trying while we’re at home. Phase 5 will be undies at home, commando out. Phase 6 he’ll be in undies all the time.
7. Ping pong ball: Alex isn’t learning to do his wees standing yet, but when he does, we’ll be keeping a ping-pong ball in the toilet for him to aim at.
8. Natural consequences: Throughout all phases the focus was on natural rewards and punishments. For example, Alex could only flush the toilet after he did a wee or poo, and could only press the “poo poo button” after a poo. After doing a poo in his nappy he’d often ask to see it, and we’d say no, you can only see your poo poos if you do them in the potty or toilet. Even these small things were rewarding for him. In this last phase he no longer wore a pull up nappy when going out, so it became very important that he went to the toilet or potty before going out. When I could afford to (when we didn’t have to go out) I told Alex that he would need to go to the potty before we went out, and explained why, but didn’t force the issue. We ran out of time to go out a couple of times and he was very disappointed, and got a lot better at going to the potty when asked after that.
Relying on natural consequences required me to let go of control. I had to accept that we might go out, or might not, he might wet his pants (or worse) or not. It wasn’t easy not to nag or pressure, or try to save him from making a bad decision, but I tried to intervene minimally – just enough to make sure that Alex understood the consequences of his actions or inactions.
The boy who cried potty
Z went through a short phase where he’d ask to go to the potty, and then refuse to sit when we got there or change his mind on the way. After he’d done this a few times I told him the story of the boy who cried potty (very similar to the boy who cried wolf) and explained that if he changed his mind, that was fine, but he wouldn’t get another opportunity until after we’d finished activity x. The natural consequence was being uncomfortable for longer and potentially having an accident.
Before I started potty training I thought it didn’t matter that Alex couldn’t pull his pants down and up. I figured he’d learn pretty quickly when he had to do it often. That logic would have been fine except that I had a young baby, and couldn’t always be there to help at the drop of a hat. When we restarted later and Alex was able to pull his pants down, it meant I could be a lot more relaxed because he could go to the potty on his schedule, not mine.
Using the potty as a delay tactic
Sometimes we suspected that Alex was saying he needed the potty to delay doing something, like going to bed, or to get up before designated wake-up time in the morning. Again I implemented natural consequences. I would take him to the potty or toilet happily – I didn’t want to discourage him asking at any-time – but I wouldn’t stay with him (so it wasn’t that interesting), and he still couldn’t come out and play until his usual wake time, and at bedtime we’d put a reasonable time limit on potty-time.
Potty Training Principles
Potty training for us, has been relatively smooth, but there have certainly been bumps and challenges along the way. Here are the principles I’ve based my decisions on:
- It’s your body, it’s your choice (but the mess is my responsibility, so I will set boundaries to minimise awkward outcomes)
- Choice is empowering
- Natural consequences are the best teacher
- This is a skill learning process with 3 levels (thus the potty chart that you can access if you sign up)
- EASY: Naked (immediate feedback and easy potty use)
- MEDIUM: Pants but no undies (doesn’t feel quite like a nappy)
- HARD: Undies and pants (feels like a nappy)
Do you have more tips and tools? Please share them below!