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Toilet Teaching Your Child

Many parents are unsure about when to start toilet teaching or "potty training." Not all kids are ready at the same age, so it's important to watch your child for signs of readiness, such as stopping an activity for a few seconds or clutching his or her diaper.

Most children begin to show these signs between 18 and 24 months, although some may be ready earlier or later than that. And boys often start later and take longer to learn to use the potty than girls.

Instead of using age as a readiness indicator, look for other signs that your child may be ready to start heading for the potty, such as the ability to:

About Timing

There are some stressful or difficult times when you may want to put off starting the toilet-teaching process — when traveling, around the birth of a sibling, changing from the crib to the bed, moving to a new house, or when your child is sick (especially if diarrhea is a factor). It may be better to postpone it until your child's environment is stable and secure.

Also, some experts may recommend starting the process during summer because kids wear less clothing, but it is not a good idea to wait if your child is ready.

How Long Does It Take?

Of course, teaching a toddler to use the potty isn't an overnight experience. The process often takes between 3 and 6 months, although it may take more or less time for some children.

And although some little ones can learn to both make it through the night without wetting or soiling themselves (or the bed) and use the potty around the same time, it may take an additional month to even years to master staying dry at night.

Potty Types

The two basic potty options are:

  1. a standalone, toddler-size potty chair with a bowl that can be emptied into the toilet
  2. a toddler-size seat that can be placed on top of your toilet seat that will let your child feel more secure and not fear falling in

If you opt for the modified toilet seat, consider getting a stepping stool so that your child can reach the seat comfortably. Stools can also help kids learn to push with their legs when having a bowel movement.

It's usually best for boys to first learn to use the toilet sitting down before learning to pee standing up. For boys who feel awkward — or scared — about standing on a stool to pee in the toilet, a potty chair may be a better option.

Buy a training potty or seat for every bathroom in your house. You may even want to keep a potty in the trunk of your car for emergencies. When traveling long distances, be sure to take a potty seat with you and stop every 1 to 2 hours. Otherwise, it can take more time than your child may have to find a discreet location or restroom.

About Training Pants

Experts sometimes disagree about whether to use disposable training pants. Some think that they're just bigger diapers and might make kids think it's OK to use them like diapers, thus slowing the toilet-teaching process.

Others feel that training pants are a helpful step between diapers and underwear. Because kids' nighttime bladder and bowel control often lags behind their daytime control, some parents like using training pants at night. Others prefer that their child use training pants when they’re out and about. Once the training pants remain dry for a few days, kids can make the switch to wearing underwear.

Ask your doctor if your child would benefit from using disposable training pants as a transitional step.

Common Problems

It's common for a previously toilet-taught child to have some trouble using the potty during times of stress. For example, a 2- or 3-year-old dealing with a new sibling may regress (return to a previous level of development).

But if your child was previously potty trained and is having problems, talk with your doctor just to be on the safe side and to rule out things like an infection.

If your child is 3 years or older and is not yet potty trained, talk to the doctor, who can help determine the problem and offer advice to make the process easier.

Tips for Toilet Teaching

Even before your child is ready to try the potty, you can prepare your little one by teaching about the process:

If you've decided that your child is ready to start learning how to use the potty, these tips may help:

Above all, be sure to praise all attempts to use the toilet, even if nothing happens. And remember that accidents will happen. It's important not to punish potty-training children or show disappointment when they wet or soil themselves or the bed. Instead, tell your child that it was an accident and offer your support. Reassure your child that he or she is well on the way to using the potty like a big kid.

And if you're torn about when to start the toilet-teaching process altogether, let your child be your guide. Don't feel pressured by others (your parents, in-laws, friends, siblings, coworkers, etc.) to begin. Many parents of past generations started potty training much sooner than many parents do today. And it all depends on the child. Kids will let parents know when they're ready.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2011

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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