5 Potty Training Tips

Potty training. The very words tend to elicit groans from even the most seasoned parents. It’s not exactly the funnest stage of toddlerhood, not even close. However, if one wants to get from Point A (Diaper World) to Point B (Underwear!) – kind of essential to daily life at some point before the age of 5 – one must go through the Land of Potty Training.

I have potty-trained a total of 2 children in my life, so I  do not by any means consider myself an expert on the subject! In fact, I have no advice of my own to offer. However, before I ever embarked on the Great Adventure of Potty Training, I did some serious thinking and studying and learning. There was no way I was about to attempt something so seemingly complicated without a hefty store of knowledge on my side! I spoke to countless moms who had been there and done that, moms in real life, and moms online. I read blog posts. I read articles from experts. I even read a book or two. I sifted through all the information given to me (and wow, was it a lot!), found the common threads, and came up with my own potty-training philosophy. And then, with a heavy dose of apprehension and skepticism, I dove in.

And I was successful! Twice! With Boys! And they were only two years old! 

Honestly? I still kind of can’t believe it. Everyone – and I mean everyone – warned me how difficult it was to potty train boys. I was seriously dreading the whole entire process, and could not believe my good fortune when the deed was done. And in a relatively short amount of time, too! I have to say that it was so much easier than I had been led to believe, and success came much more quickly than I expected. 

And it’s not because I’m SuperMom. Ahem. No way. It’s because all those mommies and experts I consulted were totally onto something… and I was smart and listened to them!

So now, I’m going to give you the nuggets of advice that were given to me that were such a tremendous help, and, I think, were so effective in our potty-training endeavors.

Tip No. 1: Use Cloth Diapers

Truthfully, I believe the fact that we used cloth diapers is the number one reason both my boys were so easy to potty train. I didn’t even use them exclusively (my younger son struggled a lot with diaper rash, so I used disposable diapers fairly frequently with him), but I don’t think anything else can prepare a child for successful potty-training like cloth diapers can. When wearing cloth, an infant and young toddler can learn to recognize and associate the feelings of needing to pee and poop with the sensations of a wet and dirty diaper. Since disposables pull the moisture away from the bottom, it’s a lot harder for a small child to feel a wet diaper and create those associations. (By the way, my friend Erin has written THE ultimate resource on cloth-diapering if you want to look into that.)

But if it’s too late, and you haven’t been using cloth diapers, don’t despair! There is still much you can do.

Tip No. 2: Timing is Everything

One of the most oft-repeated pieces of potty-training advice is “Wait until your child is ready”, and there is much truth to this. You will only frustrate yourself and your child if you attempt to start potty-training before they are physically and emotionally ready… not to mention mature enough! I think it’s also easier the more verbal your child is, and the more easily he or she can communicate. I actually first attempted to potty-train my younger son right after he turned two, and while he was physically ready… he was definitely not mature enough, so we paused the potty-training and waited a few more months.

Typically, a child is physically ready to potty-train if they exhibit the following signs of readiness:

  • fewer diaper changes (indicating they have more control and can hold it)
  • communicating when they need a diaper change and/or insisting on a diaper change
  • knowing when they need to go and indicating that by finding a special place to do their business
  • understands his/her bodily functions
  • can follow directions
  • is physically capable of pulling pants up and down, sitting on the potty, etc.

Many parents take this advice to heart and wait until their child is 3 or even 4 years old before attempting to potty-train, but there are 2 sides to this timing coin. Prior to the age of 3, the average child tends to be a little more cooperative and malleable in their character. As toddlers get older, they gain independence with every new skill, and with that independence comes a fair amount of stubbornness and obstinance. Those character traits will not be on your side when you begin attempting to potty-train!

Furthermore, prior to the advent of disposable diapers (see Tip #1), the average age of potty-training in the United States was 18 months. (Read Diaper-Free Before Three for in-depth information on the history of diapering and potty-training in the United States.) It’s only been in the last few decades since disposable diapers have become the norm that the average potty-training age has doubled!

By the way, before I read that statistic, I had intended to wait until the age of 3 or so before attempting to potty-train, assuming it would be easier then. The fact that previous generations had continuously and successfully potty-trained their babies a lot sooner than that convinced me that there was no real need to wait until my children were “old enough”. 

Tip No. 3: Get Your Child Ready

Here’s the step I think a lot of parents miss. They see the wisdom in waiting for their child to be ready, so they watch and wait for the signs of readiness, all the while unaware that they as parents can do an awful lot to help their child get ready. Instead of passively waiting for your child to show you he or she is ready (which could take forever), there are plenty of steps you can take to ensure your child is ready for potty-training long before they reach the age of 3:

  • Purchase a child-size potty (or a contraption that fits on the regular toiletas soon as your child is capable of sitting up (I’m serious!), and give them plenty of chances to use it. At the very least, have them sit on it whenever they take a bath. If you have time when you’re changing their diaper, have them sit on it for a little while. Whether or not they do anything on it is immaterial at first; it’s just the whole concept of sitting on there and becoming familiar with it.
  • If your child exhibits signs when they need to go (mine never did), then watch for those cues and put them on the potty as soon as you can.
  • Talk to your child incessantly about their bodily functions. Whenever I changed my boys’ diapers, I talked about that part of their body and its function, and I talked about how it felt when their diaper was wet or dirty. I talked about what was in their diaper and the difference between a clean and dirty diaper. We talked “potty talk” a LOT!
  • Give your kids opportunity to observe an adult doing their business. It might be awkward, but it helps them understand the proper way to go about things.
  • Make it clear that you expect your little one to – sooner or later – learn to do their business in the potty and not in their diaper. They need to understand from an early age that there’s an end to the whole diaper experience.

If you begin putting into practice all those elements from an early age, your child will be “ready” to potty-train a lot sooner than if you just let time go by without so much as a mention of the whole concept. Both of my boys started exhibiting signs of readiness around 15-18 months of age.

Tip No. 4: Don’t Use “Pull-Ups”

I learned this one when I was a teacher and wasn’t even thinking about having kids, let alone thinking of potty-training. Hands down – and it doesn’t take a study to prove this – the children I encountered who were having difficulty potty-training all used pull-ups. To a kid, a pull-up is just a diaper. It feels the same, no matter what you call it. There is no incentive to take care of their needs anywhere other than where they always have… in the diaper. And the longer they wear the pull-up, the more deeply those habits become entrenched.

As a mom, though, I recognize the need to get out of the house and go places with your kid even during the potty-training phase. Of course, you don’t want to be cleaning up messes while you’re out! A friend of mine has a unique solution – she puts underwear on her child first, then puts a pull-up over that. The sensation of cloth is there, but the pull-up helps contain any mess. I used this method on several occasions with my older son and it was very effective.

With my younger son, however, I just take him out and deal with the mess if it happens. I bring along a few sets of clean underwear and shorts just in case, but I dont’ have to use them very often. (It happens, of course, and usually when you least want it to!)

Tip No. 5: Get Down to the Bare Essentials

And by this I mean, your child should have nothing on from the waist-down when you first begin to potty-train. I have to admit, I ignored this advice with my first son, and just kept him in underwear (no shorts) the first few days of potty-training. He had no problems grasping the concept of using the potty, though, and I didn’t even think about it when I started potty-training Son #2.

Then the common sense underlying that advice began to make perfect sense to me! Even a small child doesn’t want to experience the mess that is made by eliminating all over his legs and onto the floor, so foregoing underwear is a definite incentive for using the potty! Our little Tiger Cub (which is what we call the aforementioned Son #2) was very happy to do number one in the potty whenever he needed to, and that part was relatively easy to train. Going number two in the potty was another story altogether! He eventually discovered that going just a little at a time in his underwear was  a lot more comfortable than going in the potty. However, when we removed the security of his underwear, he didn’t have any choice but to relieve himself in the right place. Periodically, he’ll test us on this, so we’ll take off his underwear until he poops in the right place. It takes less time each time, and the occasions when we need to do that are becoming fewer and farther between.


Of course, the very next day after I wrote this post and scheduled it to publish, Tiger Cub had a serious regression in his potty-training. Prior to that point, he had been regularly doing all his business on the potty, needing only occasional encouragement on our part, with rare accidents. Then, suddenly, he seemingly forgot HOW to go in the potty. He would run into the bathroom, and then just stand there while he did his business. Even worse, he both peed AND pooped in his underwear. At church. In the nursery.

*sigh* After a great deal of mental angst and deep pondering, it occurred to me that just a day or two prior to that, my DH and I had stopped rewarding little Mr. Tiger Cub with Skittles (his treat of choice – it’s amazing how motivating one little ball of sugar and additives can be!) every time he peed on the potty. Aha! Little Mr. Attitude apparently decided that if we weren’t going to reward him every time he did what he was supposed to… well, then, he just wouldn’t.

We have since reinstated the Skittles, and Tiger Cub appears to be recovering his ability to do his business in the right place. Moral of the story? (And the BONUS TIP?!) Keep up the incentives until your kid is good and potty-trained. And I mean GOOD and POTTY-TRAINED!

As I consider our approach to potty-training and the road bumps we encountered (or avoided) along the way, I believe these 5 tips have made the difference between success and failure for us. I hope they are as helpful to you as they have been to me, and I wish you the best of luck in your potty-training efforts!