How to Potty Train a Toddler
As a first time parent, the thought of potty training was always a source of confusion and dread. I had no idea when or how to start. Because I think many parents can relate, I was inspired to write this post on how to potty train a toddler.
Table of Contents
When to Start Potty Training
Most people I know with older kids told me they potty trained between 2 1/2 and 3 years old. Some beyond 3. So when my son was 22 months old, I figured I could put it off for another 6 plus months.
But when a friend sent me a link to Andrea Olson’s “The Tiny Potty Training Book”, I decided to start right away with my son being 22 months old at the time.
You can download the first 2 chapters of Olson’s book for free. I was sold after reading those first 2 chapters, and bought the digital download to use as a guide. (This is not any sort of paid promotion.)
18-24 Months Old: The Optimal Potty Training Window for Toddlers
In “The Tiny Potty Training Book”, Olson (2015-2016) states that 18-24 months is the golden period to potty train. She says that beyond this time frame, things can get more difficult. So with my son being 22 months old at the time, I did not want to risk waiting much longer.
Olson explains that in the 1950s, the majority of toddlers were potty trained by 18 months old, and that they are still fully capable by this time today.
Why then, are parents now waiting until 2 or 3 years old, or beyond to potty train? According to Olson, the arrival of inexpensive and disposable diapers simply makes it easier to put off potty training these days.
What About ‘Signs of Readiness’ to Potty Train?
Prior to reading Olson’s book, the only other information I had on potty training came from casual google searches. From these searches, I gathered that I should begin potty training when my toddler displayed certain ‘signs of readiness’.
In “The Tiny Potty Training Book”, Olson (2015-2016) states that this idea of ‘signs of readiness’ is a myth. She explains that the concept is something that diaper companies have capitalized on in order to keep parents buying those diapers in bulk.
Interestingly, I realized that when I had previously googled potty training information, those first links that popped up were sponsored by big name diaper companies. And the only information I really gathered from them was all about waiting for signs of readiness rather than strategies and timelines. Hmmm… coincidence?
If you don’t believe me, google ‘potty training signs of readiness’. Among the first ranking websites for this search, at least at the time I am writing this, are Pampers and Huggies. If I actually waited for all of their listed signs of readiness to potty train my toddler, who knows when that would be.
And since my toddler is now successfully potty trained and seemingly thrilled about it (and still would not meet their signs of readiness criteria), I am inclined to believe Olson’s take on the matter. Perhaps we are relying too much on corporate America to tell us what to do with our children. And perhaps also not giving our children enough credit for their potential and capabilities.
So while I never want to push my child to do something that he is truly not ready for, I also do not want to hold him back from something that he is ready for. In addition, I am glad that we are no longer contributing mounds of diapers to landfills. I think diapers made up at least half of our weekly household garbage.
In any case, I think most toddlers show interest in and capability to use the potty by 18 months old. For parents who are frequently followed by their toddler into the bathroom, you know what I’m talking about.
Potty Training Supplies
While potty training really doesn’t require much in the way of supplies, I found that there are a few essentials to have on hand before beginning;
A Portable Potty
A Toilet Seat Reducer
While not necessary the first few weeks, we also got a toilet seat reducer with an attached ladder. Our toddler still isn’t using this much, but it will be nice to not have to clean poop out of his portable potty at some point in the near future. They also make these without a ladder attached.
Update – 1 1/2 months later: Our toddler has fully embraced his toilet seat reducer with the ladder, and can independently climb up and down it to use the potty. He loves it! It has become an important part of encouraging his independence. You can check out my post on How to Create a Toddler Friendly Home for more ideas on this topic.
At Least a Couple of Days to Commit Full Time to Potty Training
We reserved a whole weekend for focusing on nothing but potty training.
In “The Tiny Potty Training Book”, Olson (2015-2016) gives a more specific timeline of 1-10 days for the initial phase of potty training basics (depending on your child), but I think that taking 10 days off if both parents in the home are working or you are a single parent is not entirely realistic.
I do think that taking at least 1-3 days to make sure your child is registering the basics is important. And from there, I imagine parents can talk with their childcare providers to make sure everyone is on the same page about continuing to encourage and practice what their toddler learned in those initial days.
Stretchy Elastic Waisted Leggings
Elastic waisted leggings were good to have once our toddler was past those first couple of days. Those initial days are pantsless/underwearless days so that your child becomes familiar with what it feels like to be diaperless.
Underwear can sometimes feel too much like a diaper, so our son went commando with leggings for about a week.
Stretchy leggings with an elastic waist are also easy to pull up and down in a potty emergency. They also help toddlers learn to pull their pants up and down independently.
Games and Toys
Since it was too cold to potty train outside when we started, we made sure to have toys, games and books on hand since we were stuck inside.
We have hardwood floors so just needed a few rags and soapy water to clean up pee accidents. I imagine having carpet, you would want some other supplies on hand.
A Learning Tower and Sink Faucet Extender
I wouldn’t classify these items as essential, but they definitely make life easier!
Learning to use the potty is such a big step towards independence for toddlers, so why not give them even more tools to let them practice their independence.
We stationed our toddler’s learning tower in front of the downstairs bathroom sink, and put a fun duck faucet extender on the sink so he can reach the water easily. We also have a hand towel within his reach. We just have to help him with the soap.
For more ideas on how to encourage independence in toddlers, see my post on How to Create a Toddler Friendly Home.
Pro Potty Training Mindset
I am discussing mindset under the supply list section, because I found having a committed mindset was absolutely essential to get through potty training.
Be confident, calm and consistent. This is a message that Olson (2015-2016) repeats over and over in her “Tiny Potty Training Book”. If you display behavior that is consistent with this mindset and approach, your toddler will also have confidence that he or she can learn to use the potty.
There is a certain amount of patience needed when getting started (at least with our toddler). I had to remind myself a number of times especially that first rough day of training to stick with it.
A Note About Supplies for Nap/Nighttime Potty Training
Because we are tackling nap and nighttime potty training after daytime training, I am not including supplies for nap and night time here.
In “The Tiny Potty Training Book”, Olson (2015-2016) says that you can do both at the same time, or do the sleep time potty training 2-3 weeks later.
In our case, I wanted to give our toddler a chance to get familiar with the concept before diving into the sleep time training. Plus it all sounded a little overwhelming to deal with all at once as a parent as well.
Update – 1 1/2 months later: We are still using diapers at nap and nighttimes. This is because we simply don’t want to have to deal with multiple nighttime wake ups at this particular point in time. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to keep using diapers during sleep times for now.
Even though our toddler wears a diaper at nap time though, he has naturally stopped peeing during his naps. He also occasionally wakes us up in the night telling us he has to pee. So once we make the final transition out of diapers, I don’t think it will be too big of a deal.
Potty Training Timeline and Strategy
Day 1 of Potty Training
Day 1 was the most challenging day of the 3 days that it took us to do basic potty training. I imagine some toddlers master it sooner, while others take longer.
Compared to day 1, days 2 and 3 were a breeze. We started on a Saturday so that my husband could also be there for the first couple of days, which was enormously helpful.
Bye Bye Diaper Ceremony
We started day 1 by making a lighthearted ceremony out of saying goodbye to diapers. We chanted “bye bye diaper” after taking off his diaper first thing in the morning. We then all went to throw it away. We told him that he was going to learn to use the potty today and that he would not be wearing a daytime diaper anymore.
We have not resorted to using a diaper during daytime/awake time since this little ceremony. Olson (2015-2016) says it can be confusing to your toddler if you resort back to diapers. The only time to use diapers now is during nap and nighttime (if you are waiting to sleep potty train that is).
After taking the diaper off, we left him naked from the waist down for the rest of the day. This is so that he could get used to knowing what it feels like without a diaper, and also so that as soon as he started to pee or poop or gave signs that he was going to, we could plop him on his potty.
Watching Out for Potty Signs
Olson (2015-2016) talks about learning what your toddlers signs are that he or she has to pee or poop. Details about these signs are in her book “The Tiny Potty Training Book”, but I think we can all kind of figure out when our toddlers are showing us that they have to go.
Catching Pees and Poos on the Potty (As Much As Possible)
We kept the portable potty nearby all day, and anytime our toddler started to pee we would pick him up and put him on the potty. Very very little pee was actually caught in his potty that first day.
Our toddler was NOT pleased with the process at this point. There was a lot of crying and fighting being put on the potty. See the Potential Challenges section for more on this.
He was also upset when he would realize that he was peeing on the floor, which was often. Since he never had to worry about when or where he was peeing before, it makes sense that he did not have much body awareness at this point.
Because he was hating this whole scenario, he was trying to hold his pee for as long as he could. This day was no fun for anyone.
Staying The Course
We had to remind ourselves this first day that of course this was going to be challenging. Our son had been wearing a diaper his entire life and change is hard, for toddlers and adults alike!
Day 2 of Potty Training – Practice, Practice, Practice
While I wasn’t feeling great about the whole process after day 1 of potty training, I felt much more confident after day 2. We kept our tot naked from the waist down again for day 2.
Our toddler seemed to clearly understand that pee and poo went in his potty at this point, and for the most part, we no longer had to physically hold him on the potty. And when he realized he was successfully going pee in the potty, he was so so proud of himself! And this was so fun to see him recognizing his new skill.
There were still some accidents on the floor, but we could tell that he was becoming more acquainted with his own body signals and knowing when he needed to go. It was a sharp learning curve!
Day 3 of Potty Training – Celebration and Maintenance
And by day 3, I was amazed by how quickly our toddler was developing his potty skills. He woke up that morning of the third day and he voluntarily went and sat right on the potty and peed first thing.
The rest of the day went pretty smoothly and I felt like we were ready to begin some outings. At this point, Olson (2015-2016) says that you can technically call your child potty trained when they reach the point that they are recognizing when they have to go and then voluntarily going on the potty.
Day 3 and Beyond – Outings and Refining Potty Skills
Once we were confident that our toddler clearly understood the concept of using the potty, we started going on short outings. To start out, Olson (2015-2016) recommends just 15 minute outings.
We went on walks around the block or played in the yard. We would go on these outings after he had successfully used the potty in the house, in order to avoid accidents while out and about.
We are now doing longer outings (an hour and a half or so), and we always take his portable potty with us, along with some wipes and a change of pants. It’s easy to duck behind a tree or even set his potty up in the back of the car so that he can use it on the go if there are no bathrooms around.
So at this point we are continuing to practice potty awareness and getting to the potty on time. We are also practicing those skills around pulling up and down pants, washing hands, and wiping with toilet paper. These are all things that are taking time, but with a little time and effort I think he will have them down soon.
Potential Challenges During Potty Training
Since every toddler is different, there are likely different challenges that will come up for parents during potty training. I am only going to cover the specific challenges we encountered with our son, but Olson has a list of potential problems and troubleshooting tips in her book (2015-2016).
When Your Toddler Does NOT Want to Sit on the Potty
That first morning, there was a lot of crying and cleaning pee off the floor. There was also a lot of physical resistance to sitting on his little potty. Olson explains that in these cases of physical resistance, you can “hold him… in a hug”.
Well, that doesn’t so bad on paper. “Hugging” doesn’t quite seem like the right word though when your toddler is screaming and fighting you to get away from the potty.
Olson (2015-2016) explains though, that sometimes we have to do this. The same way that we sometimes have to hold our child down while strapping him or her in the carseat.
What also comes to my mind is the countless times I have had to carry my child kicking and screaming away from the park when it is time to go home. He never wants to leave, but at some point, we simply must. And once we have completed the transition, he is just fine and on to the next thing.
It’s a delicate matter though, when it comes to these situations and how we talk about essentially forcing our children to do things. And really delicate if any kind of physical hands on method is used.
Let’s be clear though, that physically holding a child on a potty does NOT mean yelling, being aggressive or being rough. Remaining calm and being gentle and reassuring is so crucial. Being consistent is also important so that toddlers know what to expect. This can ease fears they have and help them feel safe.
I also think it is important to acknowledge the big feelings toddlers have around difficult transitions like potty training. And we need to help them through those moments. I talk about ways to do this and support healthy toddler emotional development in my post Helping Toddlers Deal with Big Feelings.
So while I truly struggled with having physically held my child on the potty, I do not think it was detrimental to his wellbeing. For example, after that first horrible day of potty training, he woke up the next morning and voluntarily sat on the potty like it was no thing. And he was SO proud of himself. He also liked carrying the potty to the bathroom and dumping his pee in the big toilet and flushing.
Pooping on the Potty
Our tot did not poop that very first day of potty training, and Olson says this is normal for toddlers to hold it for a day or two when they begin potty training. He was able to go the next day though in the potty, and is getting better at knowing when his body signals that it is time to go. We have had a couple poop accidents that have snuck up on him while out at the park though, but when it comes to poop I think we just need to be patient.
In our toddler’s case specifically, he has struggled with constipation since he was about 1 year old. Despite a diet that is full of fresh fruits and vegetables and as much liquid as we can get him to drink, he is on a daily dose of miralax and still occasionally gets backed up. You can read my post on Is Miralax Safe for Toddlers if you are in a similar boat.
Our pediatrician explained that making sure we stay on top of the constipation is additionally important when it comes to potty training, because issues around pooping can make potty training really difficult.
Supporting Our Toddlers Growing Independence with Potty Training
Our big little toddlers are capable of so much, and it is amazing how quickly they learn new skills. I found potty training to be difficult initially, but it’s such an exciting developmental step for them in terms of their self awareness and independence. And 1 rough day is a small price to pay for the amount of time I will save by not having to change diapers!
I’m sure there are many strategies and approaches in regards to potty training, and I hope sharing my experience at least gives some idea of what the process can be like. And of course, I’d like to give full credit to Andrea Olson’s “The Tiny Potty Training Book”, since it was my guide throughout the process.
Would love to hear about any potty training experiences, successes and challenges you have had or are having, say hi in the comments!
Olson, Andrea (2015-2016). The Tiny Potty Training Book. eBook Version 2.0.