On (Not) Potty-Training

OK, potty-training. I’m doing it wrong, for sure. Because here’s how potty-training was explained to me:

“It’s totally no big deal. You just hunker down for three days, OK? Do it in the summer so your kid doesn’t need to wear any pants, then set the timer for every ten minutes. Give them a Skittle every time they go successfully. Done! They’ll be potty-trained in no time.”

And then. Here’s how it worked for me:

DAY ONE. I get really excited about the possibility of potty-training. Bee’s interested in the toilet, and I’m interested in never changing diapers again. I get overzealous and buy big girl underwear and declare THIS DAY to be day one of our potty-training adventure. I forgo the Skittles, because for Bee, flushing the toilet (whoosh!) is reward enough. She loves that thing. Also, sugar-fueled toddler and three days of hunkering don’t equate in our house.

So, things are moving. Two successful trips to the toilet (“It’s working!” she says) and only three messes to clean up. Bee wants to go outside, but I’m terrified of bugs crawling in her… crevices? I do not understand why potty training is easier in the summer for this reason alone, so I make a note to ask my friend later. The phone rings; it’s a neighbor. She invites us to a cookout with marshmallows, so I don’t say no, obviously. Diaper on.

DAY TWO. So now, day two is day one. We start our day with lots of messes, mostly because I’m distracted and on a deadline and I keep saying “just a sec” to the ten minute timer until twelve minutes pass and Bee pees in the dog bowl. I have to finish this email, so diaper on. I realize how much easier it is to say “Diaper On!” then the frenetic back and forth of bathroom trips and bathtub clean-ups, so we stick with the diapers for the rest of the day.

DAY THREE. I woke up with allergies, so let’s be honest, I gave up in the first hour. Diaper on. For the duration of the day, I second-guess the decision to potty-train in the first place. I mean, she’ll learn eventually. Shouldn’t my unwavering commitment be best channeled elsewhere, like attending summer festivals and eating four million blackberries? There’s nothing life-threatening about diapers, and hey, it’s summer. Let’s coast a bit.

And that, friends, I realize is my thing with potty-training. Unless someone is behind me on the high dive, I do not jump. And with potty-training, you have to just dive right off. You just decide to do it, whether you’re ready or not.

Of course, here lies the life lesson for me (oh, you knew it was coming). I’ve never been entirely comfortable calling the shots or deciding what’s best for others. My gut is a confusing place to live, and my head and heart are rarely on the same page. I’m not – in most cases – one of those intuitive mothers where I just know it’s time. And as a result, so many of my parenting decisions are reactive. Like the time Bee learned to climb out of her crib and OK, now I totally understand the big girl bed thing. Let’s do it!

But with potty-training, there’s not really anything to push you off the high dive. There’s no big moment to react from. You just sort of jump in and try, and fail a bunch, and then succeed a little. And if you’re prone to second-guessing your decisions, it’s a rough road. Am I rushing her? Will this take forever? Will it stick? Will we scar her for trying too soon? Will we scar her for attempting too late?

Silver lining sidenote, of course: this is the part of parenting where a husband like Ken just sparkles. For any non-immediate or non-life-threatening kind of change, I’m prone to sort of float around aimlessly, waiting for a sign (neon and flashing and not at all subtle, preferably) and Ken comes sweeping in and just makes it happen. He can teach anything. He’s like, Mister Rogers in a cooler cardigan. (Who am I kidding, there is no cooler cardigan than the one Mister Rogers wears, am I right?)

So, anyway new strategy. Potty-training 2.0, if you will. Take a cue from King Friday Ken and just make it happen. Bite the bullet and commit. Three days, right? That’s like a blip.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the mean time, how did potty-training work for you? Help a sister out!

  • It takes time! I used stickers on a chart for my boys – no sugar, and what kid doesn’t love stickers? I will admit, number one went a lot faster than number two, but there were lots of puddles on the floor (thank GOODNESS for hardwoods) before we were through. If she’s interested, let her try it out. Just keep lots of cleaning supplies on hand.

    If motherhood were easy, guys would do it. :P:P

    • Ha, thank you for the stickers tip! I’m being dramatic, but ohhhhh the patience involved. :)

  • OK, so for starters whoever said it’s “no big deal” is lying. Potty training is the absolute worst. I have a 8yo girl and a 4.5yo boy so I’ve done it twice with both genders and I hated it equally each time. We did stickers, we did character underwear, we did m&ms, blah, blah, blah whatever it sucked, it took longer than three days but then it was done.

    So after all that positive encouragement (HA!) I will say that yes, eventually she will get it and then it will be done and a distant war story memory and you will have a kid who uses the toilet like a real person and it will be glorious. :)

  • Yes, stickers! We let our son sticker the entire bottom of the refrigerator. He was VERY proud. Yes to keeping her without pants for as long as it takes for her to start to identify the sensation before there’s a puddle on the floor. For our son, that was nearly a month. I hear that girls get it faster. Yes to positive reinforcement…within reason. We learned quickly to choose our words carefully. Hearing, “It’s okay” parroted back to you when it is decidedly NOT okay that we are cleaning up yet another puddle made us re-think our word choices. We emphasized over and over and over again that the only appropriate place for pee and poo was the potty. End of story. Instead of “It’s okay,” we said, “Ooops, that’s NOT okay. Pee-pee belongs in the potty.”

    Pee is certainly easier than poo. We had to dramatically up our game to get poo into the potty. You have to figure out what motivates your child. We bought about a dozen small diggers and lined them up on the mantle. When there was a successful poo, he got to choose one until they were gone. That plus stickers got us about 75% success rate. To get the last 25% (month 2.5…seriously, boys take longer), we used negative reinforcement and took away high value items/playtime (all things baseball related) if there was an accident. That got us to about 98%.

    Now at 4 months into potty training, he can go for 2-2.5 weeks and then there’s likely an accident. Advice: Buy the big girl underpants and let her tell you when she’s ready to wear them. Leave them in a super-accessible place. One day my son woke up, ran over to his drawer, pulled out his Thomas-the-Tank-Engine underpants and said, “These Mommy. THESE. No diapers.” And so we were potty training. I would not have chosen that time. Seriously, I would NOT have chosen that week/month. But, I was determined to meet his motivation. I had a scorched-earth policy — once he declared himself ready, no diapers during awake hours. Period. There was no going backwards. It was a new day. It didn’t matter how many loads of wash I did or how many puddles I cleaned up. I was determined not to undermine his motivation. It was NOT an easy road but it mostly seems to have worked.

    Best wishes!

    • Ohhhhh your advice is so, so helpful. Thank you for these thoughts! Bee’s already asking for her big girl version, so I suppose it’s a sign. Next week, maybe? ;)

  • oh boy, we are here right now too—with twin girls. I was so psyched when they were telling us *before* they pooped in their diaper—I thought, they’re ready! And then the toilet chair arrived and they were scared to death of it. They love love love the “Potty” board book, and now will at least will sit on the potty chair. So 2 steps forward, one step back over and over is the name of the game I think. I’m trying to be chill about it and wait for their inevitable urge to be like the big kids at daycare. All my experienced friends tell me NOT to rush it. I’m going to wait for the neon sign. They won’t stay in diapers forever, right?

  • I totally get the wavering thing. Liam is only 19 months so I worry it’s too soon but his pediatrician said as long as he’s interested then go for it. Plus now we have another one of the way so only wiping one bottom would be fabulous. I’ll admit, I half-chickened out and bought pullups when really I should just go with the big-boy pants. Also we just bought new furniture so I’m a little concerned about where the..um.. sprinkler is going to go off. That’s what the Bissel is for, right? ;) I feel partially responsible for you writing this post by pestering you a few weeks ago. I’m sorry! Could you and Ken come out this direction and just potty-train mine too? I’ll buy you a whole bushel of blackberries. LOL

    • Haaaaaa, don’t feel bad in the slightest, Jennifer!!! I’m happy to hear others are wavering!!! It’s a full-on commitment, that’s for sure. :)

  • With each of mine I began putting them on the potty just before I turn on the bath water. Every night. I noticed (with my first) that she would always go just after waking up, so we added that on to the times she went. With my second, she always goes after breakfast, so I hold off after she wakes up. I would suggest you begin at least with the bath time scenario, as the water is sure to help them along. My oldest began telling me every time she had to go right away, my second will go when I put her on, and is just starting to tell me for “#2,” but not for the other. Routine helps, whatever your routine becomes, I find it works.

  • We are in no hurry at all. It’s 6 weeks until my due date and 3 weeks until little is officially two-and-a-half, and now is NOT the time for me to be changing our hygiene situation. Unless she comes up to me and says, “No more diapers, Mommy,” we are just going to give it some more time.

  • With girls, let them train themselves! She’s such a smartie, don’t over think it. (Though Ken has this all figured out, I’m sure!) Old school grandma’s say kids should be potty trained by 2, but girlfriend, you are still in the pretty early stages. Just chill and enjoy the diaper time, especially when running off to a summer festival where there’s only port o potties. That means no public bathrooms to worry about, and that my friend is where diapers are amazing! ;-D

  • I wait until they’re almost 3. Well, you know, the first time I started at 2. And that turned out to be a long and useless year. About the time she turned 3, like a light switch, we were done. Same with my second kid. You know all the things that were magically easier when you were old enough to really do them? Like I remember the first time I threw something toward the trash can from across the room and actually hit it. I was shocked. I was 8. And then later some class they talked about hand-eye coordination shifting at 8. That was just the time for it to happen. At 3 they understand what’s up. At 2 – just let her be interested and investigative and it’ll come together when she’s ready. Until then you might just be torturing both of you.

  • Definitely having King Friday Ken to hand is KEY!! Brilliant work. My son was three when we did the potty training – we had every excuse in the world up until then. We had been travelling to more than 20 different cities, living in more than 10 different houses, and there is definitely never a good time when you are travelling. But, when I was 35 weeks pregnant I knew it was now or… arrghhh! I didn’t want two in nappies, that’s for sure! SO we bit the bullet and did the three days at home. But we made sure we had loads of fun things to do as a family that we didn’t usually do – and instead of sweets we had bags of little toys that we could hand out for each and every wee in the potty. As a result we now have a house filled with his then favourite thing – bugs and beatles. (They still surprise and terrify me when I discover them in the places he has hidden them – under the sofa or in cupboards – as part of his archaeological adventures!!) Definitely this was the way to go. We tried stickers, but they only worked for those first three days – the toys were an immediate reward that he was super excited to get. Every child is of course so very different, so it all depends on what your brilliant negotiator decides is the winning ticket. However, what with the party potty mood in our house, the constant flow of joyful toys and our surrendering to a few days at home, we had a pretty fun time of it. After that, it’s just a matter of taking two or three changes of clothes every where you go and never ever getting them into their car seat without having first visited a toilet. Good luck and have fun (really truly, have fun – the number one rule always!.

    • Oh, these are SUUUUUUCH great tips, and Suzanne, your home sounds like SO MUCH FUN! What a great mama you are!

  • I want to start. But I can’t until they start at daycare because they won’t support it in the room he’s currently in but moving out of soon (please, soon!). Right now I have a frog potty on the floor that he sits on and gets to try on when he asks, and he also gets to try on the big potty if he asks, which so far is AFTER he wet the diaper. He tells us when his diaper is wet, and tells us NO when we ask if his diaper is dirty. He’s wet through swim diapers a couple of times and really didn’t like that liquid running down his legs so I have high hopes of at least trying the 3-day method when I can to see how it goes. He apparently did poo on my mother in law’s floor last week on accident, while having some diaper-free time, and when he saw it he pointed and said “Dog-dog!”. I figure if we have a sense of humor we’ll make it through. P.S. friends used the negative-reinforcement on their 3+ year old, with success, because he was refusing to try any other way. You’ll get it, Erin, and then won’t life be grand?

    • Ha! I love hearing about other methods, and yes, we WILL get it! And then we’ll reach another hurdle. ;)

  • Bee is only a couple months older than my daughter (who will be 2 in 2 weeks) and honestly? I haven’t even THOUGHT about potty training yet. I’m not ready to deal with it. Fueling my indifference is that fact that last time we were at the pediatrician, she said “she goes to daycare right? Let the daycare do it.”

    DONE. :)

    (In all seriousness, the daycare doesn’t start them until she moves to the next room, so there’s no point in us even trying until then.)

  • I tried for four months on and off with my oldest. One day I couldn’t take it any more and sent my husband a text at work. It read. “I am (bleeping) done. You have four days off in a row next week. Your turn”. Don’t you know that my husband got in done in like 2.5 days (while our central air was broken and it was in the high 90s). I almost had a ‘failure as a mom’ pity party but I was just so happy that it was done and I didn’t have to to it.

  • It is NOT easy, and takes as much confidence from you in your child, so he knows they can do it. My son saw my determination which really helped. I’m one of those people who did it in 1 loong day, but my son was READY at 2 yrs 9 months. This isn’t to say there weren’t accidents, but these tips (taken from the book ‘Pottywise’) were a huge help to us.

    Being ready includes: Of a certain age (at least 2), can talk about pee and poop, can stay dry for a long while, goes to a certain place to ‘do their business in their diaper’ and sometimes wakes up dry from a nap (even better – in the morning).

    Wear underwear: Focus on keeping the underwear ‘clean and dry’, not performing on the toilet. This was key for us. An m&m every 30 minutes for keeping his underwear clean and dry was great motivator for my son. When he performed on the toilet, he got 2 m&ms. We also had a chart with stickers which tracked ‘being clean & dry’ as well as ‘performing’ which we kept up for a week or two.

    Be consistent: Again, I can’t say enough how important this is. My son is pretty strong willed. When he saw I had confidence in him, and was determined to reach this goal, it worked.

    Lastly – EVERYONE is different. Every parent, every child. Everyone is ready at a different age. Give your self a break. This parenting thing is hard, but you can do it.

  • Just my experience but I did NOTHING to potty train either of my kids aside from making real underpantsvavailable. The whole idea of taking them to the potty constantly was just crazy to me. Who is really being trained, the parent or the kid? It’s like parents see this as the ultimate, super stressful and messy right of passage. But it’s not about the parent, right? Both my kids just woke up one day (around age 3) and decided they were done with diapers. Neither of them ever had an accident and I never had to remind them to use the restroom. Just thought I would offer a different perspective. There IS another way that is far less stressful for everyone.

    • Whoa, that makes sense!! We’re taking a break for now; your method sounds like a winner to me. ;)

  • Not every kid is the same, don’t feel that you have to potty train by a certain age, or otherwise you will feel like a total failure as a mom. I started potty training my daughter who was also interested in potties and paper, and flushing and all of that at around 26 months mark, and it didn’t go well, mostly because SHE wasnt really ready, not because I was distracted or lazy. Then we tried again a month before her 3rd year, and VOILA, she was all ears. RECEPTION is the key, they need to be ready, and we moms need to be relax about the whole thing. It took a week and now she’s all potty trained even at night, we don’t use diapers, or any special leak proof for her bed. Good luck to you and Ken. It will come eventually!

  • The toilet learning approach I like best is to empower the child to care for their body. My son was trained in ten days with no rewards and no constantly taking him to the toilet. He was 3 at the time, and one day I made a happy fuss that we were putting away his nappies (we used them at night time only) and he was starting to use big boy underwear. I went out as little as possible, and told him he was in charge of using the toilet when he needed to. I told him that he would make mistakes but mistakes were ok, we would clean them up together and he could try again next time. The first three days he went bare bottomed and I cleaned up so much pee that I contemplated stopping! Fortunately he got much better at predicting his wee after that. Number two he got the hang of even quicker; he did not like doing that anywhere except the toilet.

    You will find your way eventually. Although if you really say you don’t have gut feelings about parenting decisions then I would suggest you think about why/what that means and explore getting in touch with your own competence. It will benefit you and your child in the long term. But that’s really a life’s work and in the mean time you will have to help with toilet learning anyway :)

    I recommend against using punishment or negative consequences. This will nearly always make things worse AND it teaches the child fear and shame about learning new things; there’s plenty of research/evidence about this related to toilet learning if you want to google it.

  • Hi Erin. I totally agree with Alison above. It just never makes sense to me when parents stress out about it. When Aaron was three, his pediatrician said that it should be called “potty learning” and not “potty training”, because if you wait for them to be ready, it will be easy-peasy and they will do it, for the most part, overnight. That has, mostly, been the case for all of our kids…. and I don’t reflect back on our potty training seasons as stressful at all…. really! A number of other things were stressful, but that wasn’t one of them! ha! ;)

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