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Toilet Training Basics, Ages 1 to 3

How do I know when my child's ready?

Boys tend to stay in diapers longer than girls, but most children are ready to potty-train sometime between their second and third birthdays. There's enormous variation, though: Some children train themselves when they're about 18-months-old, while others show no interest until after their fourth birthday. To figure out if it's time to start the process, ask yourself these seven questions.

1. Does your child know what a toilet is for?

2. Does he like to come into the bathroom with you?

3. Can he stay dry for at least two hours at a time?

4. Can he follow simple instructions, such as those for washing hands?

5. Does he recognize at least a few moments ahead of time that he's about to go? (Typical signs: He may grimace, squat suddenly, grab his crotch, or run from the room.)

6. Can he sit on the toilet without help?

7. Does he understand the meaning of the words wet and dry?

If you answered yes to all of the above, your child is ready to learn. If the answer to one or more questions is no, wait a few weeks and reevaluate.

How do I get started?

Pick a time when your child's daily routine is proceeding smoothly and he hasn't recently faced any major disruptions such as a new sibling or starting school. You want him to be in a receptive phase, open to new challenges.

  • Lay the groundwork. If you're not already doing so, let your child come into the bathroom with you. Talk about what you're doing there. And if you don't already use the correct words for body parts such as the penis and vagina, make the switch now. If your child says "elbow" when he means elbow but "wiener" when he means penis, he may wonder if he has to feel abashed about this particular body part.
  • Get equipped. Buy a potty chair that's sturdy, comfortable, and low enough that your child's feet are flat on the floor when he sits on it. That way he can get on and off it whenever he wants to and has some leverage for pushing when he's having a bowel movement. Take your child with you when you shop for the chair, both to get a good fit and to help him feel involved.
  • Personalize. Get your child comfortable with the potty chair by showing him that it's his own. You could write his name on it together and let him decorate it with stickers. Put the chair in the bathroom, and encourage your child to sit on it with his clothes on, so he can get used to the idea.

What's the best method?

How you work toward your goal -- getting your child out of diapers -- will depend on your daily schedule and whether your child is in daycare or preschool. If he is, you'll want to coordinate your strategy with his daycare provider or teacher.

Whatever your daily routine, start by choosing a time when your child can run around the house bottomless for a while. (Weekends are great if you work outside the home.) Put the potty in an accessible area, and encourage your child to sit on it at regular intervals. Watch for signs that he has to go, using these cues to suggest it's potty time. You can do this on several consecutive days, in the evenings when the family is all together, or just on weekends, but the more time your child spends out of diapers, the faster he'll learn.

There will undoubtedly be a few accidents, but eventually your child will experience the triumph of getting something in the potty. Celebrate this moment with fanfare. Reinforce the idea that he's reached a significant milestone by rewarding him with a "big kid" privilege such as watching a new video or getting an extra bedtime story.

At this point you have to decide whether to use the back-and-forth method of switching between diapers and underpants or the cold-turkey method of going to underpants full-time. Again, this will depend on your schedule. You'll want to continue using diapers at night and on long trips out for a while. And your daycare provider or preschool teacher will have her own opinion on when to switch to underpants at school.

How can I prevent messy accidents?

The short answer is, you can't. But here are a few suggestions for minimizing the number of accidents and making them less stressful.

  • For kids on the go, keep an extra potty chair in the trunk of the car.
  • Dress your child in loose-fitting clothes that he can easily take off himself. Buy underpants a size too big.
  • Don't overreact or punish. Nothing can derail toilet training faster than making a child feel bad for having an accident. Keep in mind that even children who have used the toilet successfully for months occasionally have accidents when they are engrossed in an activity. If you feel frustrated, remind yourself that scolding your child for wetting his pants might mean months of diapers ahead.

How can I make potty training fun?

Here are a few ideas for getting your child interested and building his confidence.

  • Buy a packet of "big kid" underpants decorated with a cool design or your child's favorite movie hero. He'll find them an incentive to get out of diapers.
  • For a boy, use targets to teach him to pee standing up. Cheerios floating in the toilet bowl are great fun to aim at. And if you're not squeamish about him peeing in the yard, you can paint or tape a target on a tree. (You might need to tell him that this is okay in our back yard, but not something he should do at the park or in a friend's yard.)
  • Make a "potty" for a favorite doll out of a small cardboard box. You can also buy dolls that come with their own miniature potties. When your child teaches his doll how to use the toilet, he's teaching himself.
  • Help your child choose a book about toilet training from the library or bookstore. A longtime favorite is Once Upon a Potty, which comes in separate editions for boys and girls. Toddlers also chortle over Taro Gomi's Everyone Poops as well as The Princess and the Potty by Wendy Cheyette Lewison.
  • Put blue food coloring in the toilet bowl water. Your child will love the magic trick of turning it green.

When is my child ready to sleep without diapers?

Wait until he's securely toilet-trained, then start checking his diapers in the mornings and after naps to see if they're dry. Many children start staying dry during their afternoon naps within about six months of learning to use the toilet. Nighttime training is trickier, because it depends on your child's body being able to hold the urine for an extended period of time and is also affected by how deeply your child sleeps. If he wants to try sleeping without diapers, go ahead and let him. Should a few nights of this experiment show he's not ready, put him back in diapers in a nonjudgmental way. You can also support his attempts to stay dry by restricting how much he drinks after 5 pm and getting him up for a bathroom trip before you go to bed.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. Toilet Training. http://www.aap.org/healthtopics/toilettraining.cfm

Zweiback, Meg. Keys to Toilet Training, Second Edition. Barron's Educational Series. 2009.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five. 2009. Bantam Books.

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