Potty training your toddler can be a milestone that’s as eagerly anticipated and it is dreaded! So turn potluck into a lucky streak with our expert potty training tips that show you the best way to potty train…
We’ve all done it. Your friend tells you 20-month-old Oscar is “dry all day” and you go into a spin of self-doubt and criticism that your child isn’t at the same level. “Every child is an individual and every child with potty train differently so don’t beat yourself up,” says Amanda.
Look for these four signs that you child is ready to pee and poop in the potty:
“When you see them stop in their tracks when they are playing, or go away and hide each time they do a wee or poo in their nappy,” says Amanda. “This means they are aware and acknowledging that something is happening.”
The gap between wetting and soiling their nappy is at least an hour.
They have the physical ability to sit on a potty and get up from it.
They respond to, and follow simple verbal commands. “Some children will pull off their nappies and demand to be changed when they are wet,” says Amanda. “This is a good sign that they want to be out of those nappies!”
Generally speaking, children aren't ready to start using a potty until they are between 18 months and three years old, though everyone is different. Boys tend to take a little longer than girls to ditch the nappies.
How long does potty training take?
With more than 500 toilet training successes under her belt, ‘toilet whisperer’ Amanda has honed her technique down to three days, but she says you have to realistic about what you can achieve.
“While I might be able to sit with the child all day and help them train, most parents won’t be able to do this as they have lots of other commitments. Understand that your child is learning a new skill, and that you are learning too and this can take time,” says Amanda. “Toilet training takes from a few weeks to a month on average to master but all children are different. Boys tend to be ever so slightly slower than girls and if your child has toilet-trained siblings they may be quicker.”
You’ve seen the signs, now it’s time to buy the tools…
Potty: Buy a potty a couple of weeks ahead and leave it around the house so your child gets familiar with it. Take a look at our Mother & Baby potty training award winners here.
Underwear: Amanda says: “Go to the shop and buy ‘big girl or ‘big boy’ pants together. Involving them from day one can really improve their chances of success.”
Stickers: “Brilliant for reward charts to celebrate their little victories and also to decorate their potty and make it their own,” says Amanda. “Most children don’t want to potty train and need lots of encouragement. Give them a reason to want to do it.”
Storybook: “A week or so before you plan to start training, buy a good storybook for your child that gets them used to the concepts and the words associated with toilet training,” says Amanda.
Soap: Get them used to the idea of washing their hands early on. “A really nice children’s hand soap can add a bit of a fun to a routine task,” adds Amanda.
Step stool: Handy for getting to the sink and, eventually, transitioning to the big toilet.
How to potty train: top toilet training tips
Learning how to use the loo is a complex skill set for a little one to grasp. He must learn what poos and wees are, how to recognise when one’s on its way, how to pull his pants down – and back up – and what the loo roll is for and how to wash his hands. And that’s without the tricky business of actually doing his business.
Teach your toddler all these other skills before removing his nappy and suddenly potty-training is a whole lot simpler. You can start this countdown from the age of 18 months…
10) Change his nappy in the bathroom
It's a big ask for a toddler to leave a game that he's absorbed in and go to a boring bathroom. 'If he's used to interrupting his play and going to the bathroom to do a nappy change, it will be easier for him to accept he must stop playing to use the potty,' says Judith. It's also a good idea to make your bathroom into a place where he likes to be. 'If he's comfortable in there, it will be far easier to get him to use the loo,' says Judith. Make a mini library, put up a poster or wall stickers, or collect a tub of easily disinfected toys. It's important to make the bathroom as appealing as possible so he's not in a rush to leave.
9) Take him to the loo with you
Your child will learn best by copying the people around him. Encourage him to come with you when you go to the loo. Talk him through what you're doing. Show him how much loo roll you use and explain why you wash your hands afterwards. 'Boys need to see their dads using the loo too,' says Judith. 'If Dad's not around, ask a man you trust to be the loo model.'
8) Choose the words they'll need
There's no getting away from the fact that, over the next few months, you're going to be talking a lot about poo and wee. So you need to find words to describe loo life that you're comfortable with and will be happy to stick to. Use language you find embarrassing and you'll make your child feel uncomfortable – and this could cause problems with potty training. Instead, find words that make you feel at ease and you're happy using in public. If saying penis or vagina makes you squirm, try willy and woo-woo. 'The best words to use are simple, plain ones that everyone understands,' says Diane. 'Choose ones you're happy using and be consistent about using them. Make sure any other care-givers knows the words you're using too. Otherwise your mum might babysit and say something confusing like, 'Shall we pay a visit to the little girl's room?'. Once the words you use are consistent, your child will find it natural to use them as part of his vocabulary.'
7) Explain what poo and wee is
Toddlers can be fearful of poo and wee leaving their body. 'Modern nappies are very absorbent, so children don't ever feel wet,' says Judith. Make the learning process into a game by both drinking a glass of water and seeing how long it takes to have a wee. Or have sweetcorn and see when it appears in your poo. You'll need to explain where the wee and poo goes too – try 'Poo Land' and 'Wee Land'.
6) Talk about going to the loo
'Children need to know it's normal to use the loo,' says Judith. 'Chat about using the loo.' Try asking 'does Captain Barnacle have his own loo on the Octopod?' or 'how old do you think your cousin was when she started using the big-girl loo?'.
5) Introduce a pre-potty reward chart
'Children respond well to instant gratification,' says Diane. 'So, put a pre-potty reward chart up in the bathroom and give him a sticker for every part of the routine he does well. It'll make him learn that routine much faster!'
4) Start a bathroom routine
It's time to take pre-potty training up a notch. 'Get your little one used to every part of going to the loo, except actually using the loo,' says Judith. You're still changing her nappy, but get her to do everything else (eg washing her hands) as if she was using the potty. 'Talk the process through, from turning the light on,' advises Judith. If you're changing a nappy with poo in, tip the contents down the loo and flush. 'Repeat the routine every time and she will get used to it.'
3) Choose a potty together
Let your child choose his own potty and he'll be far more excited about potty training. 'It's a good idea to have a plan before you go to the shops,' says Diane. 'Potties are all slightly different and you want your child to find one that he likes, but that's within your budget. Do some research before you go. Identify three potties that would be good options, then let your child choose one from the three.' Some children simply don't get on with potties and prefer a child's loo seat instead (again, let your child choose his favourite). If you can afford to, buy both so your child can experiment to discover which suits him best.
2) Make Teddy a potty
Everything is more fun with a friend – and a cardboard box is fine for Ted. Get your child to install his and Ted's new potties in the bathroom. 'Get your little one used to sitting on the potty,' says Judith. 'It's fine for him to sit on it in his nappy.' And encourage him to sit on the potty while you're mid-nappy change. 'That can feel very weird,' says Judith. 'Ask him to tell Teddy what he needs to do, to distract him from feeling uncomfortable.'
1) Play get-to-the-potty-on-time
Make a game with your toddler out of getting to the loo. 'Ask him if he can get to the potty before having a wee,' says Judith. 'It will help get him used to sensing when he needs a wee, and to start trying to hold the wee in.' Your aim should be simply to get him sitting on the potty in his nappy having a wee. Encourage him to go to the bathroom to do a poo too, though he may prefer to squat rather than sit on the potty. Master this last step, with the rest of the bathroom routine in place, and you've given yourself and your little one the very best chance of stress-free potty-training.
What happens if they have an accident?
It’s easy to get frustrated if your child has an accident but you have to try and keep calm and upbeat (even if you don’t feel it). “You wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t get upset when they stand in front of you and poo!” says Amanda. “But rather than say ‘don’t worry, it’s okay’ be firm and say ‘that’s not where the poo goes is it, that’s not right”. Pick up the poo in their pants, pop it in the potty and take it to the toilet so they can see where is should go. It’s much better to say this is right and this is wrong than ‘never mind’. Give them lots of praise and attention when they do get it right.”
The less anxious you are about the whole situation the better. “If you show your child you are worried or cross they will feel like there are doing something bad. Be consistent, patient and calm,” says Amanda. “And above all, make sure everyone who looks after your child i.e. nursery teachers, childminders, grandmas, are informed about how you are potty training them and what you expect. Communication is key.”
Never start nighttime training when your child is potty training in the day. They should be fully toilet trained in the day for at least one month before you consider bedtime training, and have several nights in a row of dry nappies. “If they are still having three to four accidents a day, they’re not trained,” says Amanda. “It’s all about their bladder being capable of holding on to fluids for longer periods – and it pays to wait. Getting up at 3am is a massive upheaval for the whole family and everyone is likely to get upset, setting your toilet training back.”
Ensure you buy some nighttime kit such as a mattress protector, so if there are any accidents it’s not so difficult to clean up. Put a potty in their room at first as they may not be able to get to the loo in time, and buy a night light so they feel happy getting up in the night. “And ensure there’s no milk before bed!” adds Amanda. “Avoid drinks 30-40 minutes before bed, and this includes fruit and fruit juices. They are still young and their bladder cannot hold as much as an adult’s overnight.”
Relax: Your child might be physically and mentally ready, but you need to feel ready too!
Remember accidents will happen: Your child is trying to reach two physical milestones when potty training - learning how to open and close their bladder, plus learning how to use it as a muscle to hold in wee. As your child practises holding on, he'll often have a big accident because he's holding on to a lot of wee. Despite seeming like a step back, this is a good thing!
Keep giving reminders: Remember to keep asking your child if he needs a wee every 20 minutes or so.
Be patient: It's important to teach your little girl to wipe herself from front to back after a wee, but don't expect your little one to be able to wipe their bottom - they won't have the dexterity to do that until they are around four.
Try and see the funny side: Be prepared, you'll probably find a poo behind the sofa or under the bed at some point!
Remember potty training is easier at home: If your child goes to nursery, you might find they have more accidents there than they do at home - this is normal. When a child feels confident at home is often different to when they feel confident out of the home. Stick to your routine and try and get support where you can.
Give positive attention: It's common for potty-trained children to have accidents again when a baby sibling comes along as a way of getting attention. Other situations that contain a degree of stress, such as moving house or divorce can aslo cause accidents. Try and ignore them and give positive attention when your child is being helpful.
Nighttime nappies: Remember until your little one is reliably dry in the daytime, leave the nappy on during the night.
Potty training games to play with your toddler
If you build positive associations with the potty before you even start, by having lots of fun and giving him loads of your attention, your toddler will start the potty-training process wanting to take his nappy off.
We've rounded up the best potty training books for boys and girls, that will hopefully get your toddler out of nappies, onto the potty and eventually towards the toilet. Check out our potty training books guide, here.
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Lorna is the digital executive and regular contributor for Mother&Baby. After running the Yours magazine website which specialises in content about caring for kids and grandchildren, she has now brought her expertise to the UK's #1 leading pregnancy and parenting magazine. Lorna specialises on a range of topics from potty training and nutrition, to everything and anything that will keep your tot occupied!
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