How to Start Potty Training: 8 Steps So Simple They’ll Actually Surprise You

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Last Updated on March 20, 2021 by Creative Parenting

Are you looking to start potty training soon?

You’ll have an easier time cracking open a frozen pecan than deciding on the best time in advance to potty train your kiddo.

And yet, the potty training milestone marks the transition of your little toddler into a grown up child.

This transition comes with high highs and low lows.

But once you’re done with it everyone’s life gets a bit easier.

When you think about potty training, you might dream about it only taking a few days.

In fact, on Pinterest, plenty of guides tell you that it can be done in a weekend! Unfortunately, that wasn’t our experience.

We’ve got some good news and some bad news….

The good news is : You WILL potty train your child. But it might take longer than you think.

While you might think your planning chart with stickers and M&Ms will work great…

Clean bathroom for potty training
A beautiful bathroom… but you’ll need to decorate to get your toddler engaged with potty training!

All it takes is a stubborn toddler to derail the process.

Plus, if you’re a busy parent, you might not be able to cram it all into one weekend.

Although it might turn out more difficult than you originally thought, that doesn’t mean you can’t get through it!

Remember back to previous big transitions early in your child’s life.

They were tougher than you imagined… but you prevailed!

There’s no reason you can’t do an awesome job here.

While your kiddo won’t magically start using the bathroom themselves…

…that doesn’t mean you can’t get there sooner rather!

For us, it took many months to potty train our son.

So many people want an easy solution. But what you need is patience.

Now, before we jump into the tips, let’s talk about some research on this.

Research on Potty Training

There is a lot of research out there. One article we found covers a lot of the historical approaches to potty training.

But some of the best resources on this will be authoritative places like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institutes of Health, and the CDC.

Here are a few articles we found helpful:

Toilet Training Children: When to Start and How to Train

This is a great article from the National Institutes of Health, published in 2012. It notes the lack of scientific info out there on how to toilet train kids. It then attempts to summarize some of the approaches that do exist.

Our take: Toilet training is more of an art than a science! That’s why you should beat yourself up if it takes longer than a weekend.

Here’s some things we learned from this article:

  • Toilet training is COMPLEX with a lot of factors
  • Different cultures have different norms
  • Old methods of toilet training were coercive and abusive
  • Dr. Spock introduced the idea of a child-oriented approach
  • There are methods even of training infants, but they aren’t scientifically studied
  • One randomized trial suggested that avoiding negative terms associated with defecation “was better”
  • AAP recommends starting at 18 months
  • Downsides of trying toilet training include: your kid won’t want to poop on the toilet, they’ll hold it in, hiding, and problems with clearing the bladder
  • On the one hand, training later could lead to challenges, but starting early could mean you’re training for a longer period of time
  • Several studies found that the age at training doesn’t predict future urological problems
  • If your child is over 24 months age, they might wet themselves more

Among Healthy Children, what toilet training method is most effective...

This is another article from NIH. This is a systemic review of toilet training. Here are some things we learned:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends training between 18 and 24 months
  • It’s good to avoid negative words when talking about potty training
  • One study where children potty trained quickly had poor follow up
  • An intense training method might not be suited to the child

That last bullet spoke to us.

Our son is a gentle soul, and we took a more patient approach, rather than forcing him to learn it all in a day.

Stool toileting refusal: a prospective intervention targeting parental behavior

Ok, with those shared, let’s hop into the tips and ideas you can use for how to start potty training!

start potty training with an elmo toilet
Lotta people love starting with the Elmo Potty!

#1 Start Potty Training With An Elmo Toilet

An easy way to start talking about the whole idea of using the toilet with your toddler is to get an Elmo toilet. What could get them more excited about it than having a toilet of their own?

What’s great about starting with an Elmo toilet is you can use it as a physical prop to start teaching basic potty skills.

As they start to master basic concepts you’ll be able to talk more about what to do on the toilet.

And our next tip is about how to do that.

#2 Before You Start Potty Training, Start Talking About It

Depending on how verbal your toddler is and how good their language skills are, this may or may not work for you.

But if you do have a talkative toddler, you start introducing the concept and plan sooner than you think.

You’ve gotta potty train them eventually, so the sooner they start thinking and talking about it, the sooner they’ll be ready to try.

You can also use your conversations around potty training to lead to behavioral changes.

Not only will it help them to adjust to the idea of it faster, it’ll help lay a conceptual foundation for their new potty habits!

#3 Make A Special Space

One of the first things you can do to make your toddler feel comfortable about potty training is to make a super special place in the bathroom for them.

It’s easy when you spend so much time in the bathroom to overlook this step!

But if you’re going to try and get your toddler excited about using the toilet, you’ve gotta think about what you can do to liven up the bathroom and make it a fun space to start potty training.

Instead of just putting the Elmo toilet in the bathroom and calling it a day, decorate the place with some fun inspiration.

Now, you don’t have to go crazy, but you do have to make it fun!

A sticker poster, M&Ms, Elmo Potty, and Bjorn toilet seat should do the trick!

#4 Give Off A Positive Vibe When You Start Potty Training

Once you have your physical potty training space all set up you can strategize about your mental energy.

After all, like any transition as a parent, the transition to start potty training isn’t going to be easy.

But once you have the special space set up and ready to go, you’ll be ready to get psyched up.

Now, if you’re wondering why you might need to do that, let me explain.

At first, everything will be new and exciting. But over time it’ll become less so.

And when that happens, you’ll want to make a conscious effort to model a positive vibe.

Cause if you’re better able to give off positive vibes and energy, the more likely your child will associate positive emotions rather than negative with the whole experience.

So instead of letting your negative energy get picked up and turned into resistance by your little one…

…stay mindful and reframe it.

You’ll give off a positive vibe and that’ll translate into more success with potty training!

Once you start potty training and see some early success, you can track it with a sticker poster:

#5 Make A Sticker Poster

A simple sticker poster is a key ingredient to getting your little one motivated in the beginning.

Not only will it allow you to create a reward system for long term progress, but it’ll help provide a tangible reward to your toddler in the moment of their success.

Pick some bright colored paper, draw a solid grid with tracking and space for stickers, and tape it up in the bathroom somewhere that’s reachable for your toddler.

Then you’ll be ready to tell them all about it and get them excited about tracking their “trys” as they go.

Once you’ve got that setup, you’ll be ready to start creating a routine.

#6 Start Potty Training By Creating A Routine

Pictured: The BabyBjorn Toilet Trainer.

They say one of the best things you can do as a parent is to build a routine for your kiddo.

And that’s true for potty training as it is with everything else.

With that said, there seems to be so much pressure out there to somehow instantly potty train your toddler. Some even say it’s possible in 3 days or less!

Let’s be realistic, folks.

Think about it:

When did your child accomplish ANY new behavioral change in LESS than three days?

Now sure, if you’ve only got one at home you might be able to do it. But if you’ve got more than one kid?

You’re gonna need to be patient.

But just because you’re not potty training in three days or less doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build a routine in order to be consistent.

The key is figuring out when in your very busy day you can work it in.

The most effective way to do this – if you’re NOT training in three days- is to build it into existing routines.

So for example, if you’ve got an existing bedtime routine you can add it into the mix for that.

Or if you’ve got a morning routine going you can add it in right after your toddler gets dressed but before you brush teeth.

Either way, the idea here is that you’re building on existing routines, rather than making some Herculean effort to train them all in one go.

So once you’ve got a routine going, then the next step is to keep it from becoming too routine!

#7 Find Ways To Make Them Excited To Start Potty Training

Now that you’ve got the space set up and a routine going, the key is to not let it get too boring.

You don’t have to get fancy in trying to do this, either.

It’s not that it should always be so fun and engaging, but rather like with anything else your young kiddos do you’ve got to keep their attention engaged.

You can get them excited to start potty training a few ways:

  • Sit across from them on the bathtub and talk to them
  • Sing their favorite songs
  • Let ’em have a favorite toy (but not so big they’ll drop it in)
  • Read a book to them
  • Talk to them about their day
  • Talk to them about what they’re doing

With these strategies, you won’t completely get rid of those moments when they get a bit bored, you’ll be able to refocus their attention when they do!

Once you’ve tried out a few of these strategies, keep a list of what seems to work best so you can add them to your toolbox.

#8 Up The Ante If You Need To

girl at the beach

Let’s say so you’ve done all the above and still are finding it challenging to start potty training your son or daughter.

You’ve even had some success with your little one using the bathroom, but then things start to stall.

What do you do then?

Well, if you’ve set up a reward system and you find it’s not working well enough, then it might be time to up the ante.

A simple tweak can make a difference between getting results, having fun, and making it all a battle.

If you’ve hit a wall, an effective approach to see results faster is to up the ante.

So for example, if you’ve got a treat of some kind, say, M&Ms, increase the number they get.

If the reward is stickers, increase the number of stickers they get to play with and put on their poster.

If it’s M&Ms, you can start with a reward of one M&M for a try on the toilet, two if they pee, and three if they poop.

Try this for a week or so and if you’re not getting results, increase the reward.

The sweet spot might just be 2, 3 and 4 M&Ms, and so on.

It might take some time and experimentation to figure out what reward best motivates them…

But you’ll get there!

And drop us a comment below and let us know your favorite tips on how to start potty training.

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