Updated: Nov 6
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Potty training can be an intimidating process—it requires patience and consistency and can be messy. The key is to know when to start and how to handle the setbacks.
Fortunately, you aren't alone on this journey—Pathfinder Health is here to help! This article will discuss some helpful tips and tricks to make potty training an easier experience for your little one and yourself!
In this article:
What does it mean to "potty train"?
Potty training is the process of teaching your toddler to (1) recognize the feeling of needing to pee or have a bowel movement, (2) get to a toilet or potty in time, rather than peeing or pooping in a diaper, and (3) independently remove clothing, wipe themselves, and replace clothing as part of the toileting process.
The potty training journey for the average child—your experience may differ and that's okay!
When to start potty training
Set your child (and yourself!) up for success by waiting until they are ready, which will make the process less stressful for everyone involved.
Typical ages for potty training
You can begin to potty train your child whenever you are both ready to start. However, most children in the U.S. begin the potty training process between 2 and 3 years old and the majority are toilet trained for both pee and poop by 4 years old.
Keep in mind that if you start potty training too early, the process will likely take longer.
Do not fixate on when other kids potty train—this is your child's journey!
Biggest signs of potty training readiness
Every child is different, but the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has identified some common signs that a child is developmentally ready for potty training. Rather than focusing on your child's age, look for these readiness signs:
1. They can stay dry for a longer period of time—at least 2 hours. This shows that that a child is beginning to develop bladder control.
2. They are uncomfortable with a wet or dirty diaper and want to be changed promptly.
3. They indicate that they are about to pee or poop. The specific signs depend on the child, but may include the following:
Making a face or grunting
Grabbing their diaper or underwear
Freezing or stopping an activity
Squirming, crossing their legs, or doing a "pee-pee dance"
Hiding or going to a private place before they have a bowel movement
4. They show an interest in the toilet or potty or even ask to use it.
5. They can follow simple instructions.
6. They can get into the bathroom and undress themselves.
7. They ask to wear underwear.
Remember to be patient and wait until your child is truly ready before starting potty training.
Signs your child is NOT ready for potty training
If you start training too early, before your child is ready, the process will likely take much longer and lead to frustration in both you and your child, further derailing the process.
Signs that your child is NOT ready include:
1. They can't stay dry for at least 2 hours.
2. They don't mind having a wet or dirty diaper.
3. They aren't aware of or curious about using the toilet.
4. They refuse to sit on the toilet or will only sit for a brief time.
5. They aren't able to undress themselves.
If your child shows any of these signs, they are probably not yet ready to potty train, so it's best to wait until they show all of the signs.
When to hold off on potty training
Potty training is a big step in your child's life and it will require a lot of attention from both of you. For this reason, it's best to avoid starting the potty training process when there are other major changes occurring, if possible.
For example, you might want to delay for a couple of months if:
You have a new baby,
Your family is moving,
Your child is starting school or daycare, OR
There is a family crisis, such as serious illness, death, or divorce.
The potty training process
How long does potty training take?
Every child is different and may take more or less time to become fully potty trained. Some children may figure out the process in only a few days. Others may quickly learn to pee in the toilet but take significantly longer for bowel training. Still others may take months to consistently stay dry while wearing underwear.
The differences in time depend on many factors—the child's and parents' personalities, the child's readiness to begin training, the time of year, and the method used.
Potty training strategies
It can be helpful to read one or more potty training books before beginning the process to gain general knowledge and learn about different potty training methods. Just remember that kids have very different personalities and what works for one child may not work for another!
The child-oriented approach
The child-oriented approach was developed by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton in 1962 and set out in Toilet Training-The Brazelton Way. It encourages parents not to rush their children into toilet training before they are ready. This method is highly effective, but can take from 6 to 18 months before total training is complete.
With this method, parents stick to the following series of steps while paying attention to their child's readiness signs.
Step 1: Let your child explore the potty fully clothed.
Step 2: Once your child is comfortable with the potty, have them sit on it without their pants and diaper. Praise them if they successfully use the potty, but be careful not to go overboard—this can create unnecessary pressure.
Step 3: When your child pees or poops in their diaper, sit them on the potty, empty the contents of the diaper into the potty, and explain that poop and pee go in there.
Step 4: Have your child go diaper-less for short periods of time and encourage them to use the potty independently.
The key to this method is to wait for the child to show interest before moving on to the next step.
The 3-day potty training method
The 3-day potty training method is a structured, time-based approach that aims to transition a child from diapers to underwear in a short span of time, typically over the course of 3 days. It may start with a potty training boot camp over a long weekend, in which the child goes without a diaper or underwear.
This method often uses rewards and positive reinforcement to motivate the child to use the potty.
Potty Training in 3 Days: The Step-by-Step Plan for a Clean Break from Dirty Diapers details this method.
The Oh Crap! potty training method
Another popular potty training strategy is detailed in Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right, by Jamie Glowacki. This approach is all about empowering the child and building their confidence.
Unlike the 3-day method, Oh Crap! Does not focus on a set timeframe and discourages the use of complicated reward systems. Instead, it tries to develop intrinsic motivation by giving the child the time and space they need to understand their body's signals. This means lots of naked time and plenty of positive reinforcement.
Successful potty training, step-by-step
You've decided that your toddler is ready to ditch the diapers—this is it! The following steps will set you and your little one up for potty training success.
1. Gather the right tools
Although it is certainly possible, it is more challenging to teach a child to use a big toilet. They have to learn to balance themselves on the seat and may fall in, which could derail the process.
For that reason, many parents choose to use a child-sized potty chair or a toilet training seat, which help a child feel more secure and build their confidence.
A potty chair is a small, portable toilet. Because they are closer to the ground than a regular toilet, it's easier for many children to climb on and off by themselves and use the bathroom independently.
Potty chairs often come with removable bowls to make cleaning quick and simple.
Potty training seat
A potty training seat sits on the real toilet but makes the seat smaller for your little one's small bottom, reducing the risk of falling in. Using this seat, your child pees and poops into the big toilet and can practice flushing.
Whether you choose a potty chair or potty training seat depends entirely on how much space you have and what works best for your family.
Other useful items
1. If you opt for a potty training seat, your child will likely need a stool so that they can climb onto the big toilet independently.
2. Be sure to have plenty of extra pairs of underwear, since your child may have frequent accidents at the beginning.
3. A potty training watch can be a fun way to remind your child to sit on the potty regularly, but is not essential.
2. Explain the process
Make sure that your child knows what it means to use the toilet. Explain the process to them using real words for their body parts and avoiding negative words like "stinky."
Make sure that your child understands how to tell when they need to pee or poop, what they should do when they feel the need to go, and where the pee or poop will go when they are finished.
You can read books about potty training together to help them feel excited and prepared. You might even ask them to pretend that a doll or stuffed toy is using the potty.
It can also help for them to watch a parent in the bathroom so you can model the steps for your child.
3. Implement a schedule
At least at the beginning, it's helpful to prompt your child to sit on the potty on a regular basis. Encourage them to sit on the potty when they get up in the morning, before nap time and bedtime, before mealtimes, and whenever you leave the house.
Throughout the day, you should also prompt your child to sit on the potty approximately once every 2 hours. If you wait too long, you might miss an opportunity and your child will have an accident. If you make your child sit on the potty too frequently, they might become bored and resist your prompt, which could derail the process.
When you prompt your child to sit on the toilet, keep each attempt short—about 3 to 5 minutes. This will give them enough time to go if they need to without getting bored. If your child sits for a few minutes with no pee or poop, let them get up and try again later.
4. Teach good hygiene
From the beginning of the potty training process, it's important to teach your child good hygiene. This includes:
Wiping carefully and thoroughly after bowel movements,
Disposing of used toilet paper in the toilet, and
Washing hands immediately with soap after sitting on the potty or toilet.
5. Be consistent
Once you begin potty training, you should fully make the transition. Help your child understand that they will be peeing and pooping in the potty now, not their underwear or diapers.
Avoid diapers or training pants during the day
To reinforce this new process, you should avoid using disposable training pants (also called pull-ups) during the day. These can interfere with the potty training process for several reasons:
They are more absorbent than underwear, so a child may not immediately realize if they have an accident.
A child may feel more comfortable peeing or pooping in a pull-up because it feels like a diaper.
They send a mixed message to your child—are they supposed to use the potty or is it okay to pee or poop in the pull-up?
If you are not nighttime potty training at the same time, it is still fine to put your child in a diaper for bedtime. This is a different enough situation that it should not confuse your child or prolong the daytime potty training process.
Give potty training a chance to work
After a few days, it may feel like your child is making slow progress—or no progress!—and you might be tempted to give up. Resist the urge!
Despite the popularity of the 3-day method, potty training can take time.
However, if you have been consistently working on potty training for a week or more with no sign of progress, it probably means that your child simply isn't ready. Take a break of a few weeks or a month or two and then try again.
6. Keep it positive!
Be sure to provide lots of praise when your little one makes progress in their potty journey. Tell your child that you are proud of them for using the potty.
If your child does have an accident, be matter-of-fact about it and don't make it a big deal. Never shame your child for accidents. Simply get them cleaned up, get dry clothing, and remind them to pay attention to their body so they'll make it to the potty next time.
Even when your child consistently uses the potty, you can expect occasional accidents to happen. Just stay calm and remember that it's a normal part of the process.
7. Consider using a potty training chart
Depending on your child's personality, you might consider using sticker charts or offering small rewards for successful attempts.
There are multiple ways to use a potty training chart. You might give a child a sticker for each time they successfully use the potty, for each day they stay accident-free, or for completing certain potty-related tasks (undressing themselves, washing hands, etc.). You can track stickers earned in one week, or keep a running count over multiple weeks.
Once your child has earned a pre-determined number of stickers, you could provide a simple reward, such as a small toy, special treat, or activity that you do together. It's best not to offer anything too large or special, since this may cause disappointment if your child has an accident.
Two versions of potty training charts:
Printable potty chart #1: Successful attempts or accident-free days
Printable potty chart #2: Weekly chart
Introducing a potty training chart
To set your potty training chart up for success:
Hang it where your child will see it frequently—this will remind them to use the potty.
Use a chart featuring your child's favorite characters.
Explain the chart in simple, positive language so your child will understand the reward system and feel excited to earn stickers.
Empower your child—have them help decorate the chart, select stickers, and apply a sticker when they earn it.
Gender differences in potty training
There is limited evidence that gender affects when an individual child is potty trained. Two and 3 year old boys tend to be extremely physically active, which can make it harder for your little guy to sit still on the potty. However, many other factors influence a child's readiness to begin potty training and depend on the individual child, not their gender.
For this reason, you should watch for the readiness signs described above to determine when to begin potty training for your little girl or boy.
You can also use the same process outlined above for training a girl or boy. However, there are a few special considerations for girls and boys, which we discuss below.
How to potty train a girl
Extra potty training tips for girls:
Teach proper hygiene. It is essential to teach a girl to always wipe carefully from front to back. Wiping from back to front can bring germs from their rectum forward and lead to urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Choose simple clothing. Choose clothing that your little girl can quickly remove when she "feels the feeling"—avoid complicated buttons or long skirts that might slow her down.
Encourage sitting down. If your toddler girl has seen an older sibling or male friend pee standing up, she may want to try it too! She may need to have her mom or a female relative model how to sit down on the toilet.
Use correct terms for body parts. Teaching a girl the correct names for the parts of her body will help her communicate her needs clearly.
How to potty train a boy
Extra potty training tips for boys:
1. Begin by teaching a boy to pee sitting down. This gives him a chance to learn to follow his body's cues and get used to the toileting routine without having to worry about aiming or when to sit or stand.
2. Once a boy is comfortable using the potty, he can learn to pee standing up. A dad or another male figure may need to help them with this step. Accidents will be very common at first! It can be helpful to practice with floating targets like cereal O's to encourage better aim.
3. Don't rush potty attempts. Active little boys may be overly eager to finish on the toilet and get back to playing. Encourage your little guy to stay on the toilet until his bladder and bowels are empty.
Potty training regressions
Potty training regressions happen when a child who was successfully using the toilet suddenly begins to have accidents again. There can be a variety of reasons why potty regressions occur, such as a change in routine, stress or anxiety, illness, or developing a fear of the toilet.
The following tips can help you manage a potty training regression:
1. Stay calm and supportive—negative reactions will create stress and only worsen the situation.
2. Consult with your child's doctor to rule out any medical issues that might be causing the regression, such as constipation or a urinary tract infection.
3. Address any anxieties or fears that might be preventing your child from using the toilet, such as fear of the flush or fear of falling into the big toilet.
4. Try to identify any triggers, such as a significant life change.
5. Go back to potty training basics and remind your child to use the potty regularly.
6. Use positive reinforcement and praise for successfully using the potty.
7. Be patient. With consistent encouragement and a little extra patience, most children will eventually get back on track.
Frequently asked questions
1. What is the best age to start potty training?
The best age to start potty training is when your child is ready, which will vary by child. Signs of readiness include staying dry for at least 2 hours, feeling discomfort with a wet or dirty diaper, and being able to indicate that they are about to pee or poop.
2. What is a good potty training schedule?
Encourage your child to sit on the potty first thing in the morning, before naps and bedtime, and before leaving the house. You should also gently prompt your child to try sitting on the potty for 3-5 minute attempts every 2 hours or so.
3. Which potty training method is best?
Every child is different–they are ready to train at different ages and respond to different methods and incentives. It can be helpful to read about different potty training methods, but it’s best not to rigidly adhere to one single method. Instead, do what works for your child and family.
4. What is the 3-day potty training method?
The 3-day potty training method involves intensive toilet training over 3 days, spent largely at home with the child naked from the waist down. It emphasizes consistent potty attempts, positive reinforcement, and patience with accidents.
5. Does the 3-day potty training method work?
The 3-day potty training method may be effective for some kids, but it’s not foolproof. Its success depends at least partially on whether the child is ready and the parent is consistent. If a child still has trouble after 3 days, it’s best to wait a couple of weeks and try a different method.
6. How long should a toddler sit on the toilet when potty training?
Keep each potty attempt around 3-5 minutes. This will give your child enough time to go if they need to and increase the likelihood of success. If your child sits for longer than 3-5 minutes, they may feel bored and begin to avoid sitting on the potty.
7. Is it bad to force potty training?
You should not try to force your child to use the potty—if training becomes a power struggle, it will be difficult to get it back on track. An unwilling child may also withhold their pee or poop, which can lead to constipation or urinary tract infections.
8. Why are pull ups bad for potty training?
Pull-ups may interfere with the potty training process because they feel like diapers, so a child might not recognize that they are wet. They might also feel more comfortable peeing or pooping in a pull up and forget that they are supposed to use the potty.
9. Which potty training seat is best?
Great options for potty training seats include these simple, no-slip models:
Potty training can be a stressful time, but with the right attitude and preparation it doesn’t have to be. Just remember that all kids are different and follow your own child's cues. Continue to be patient and positive, especially when progress is slow. Your child will figure it out when they're ready!
Brazelton TB, A Child-Oriented Approach To Toilet Training, Pediatrics 29 (1): 121–128 (January 1962), available at https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.29.1.121
Lang ME. Among healthy children, what toilet-training strategy is most effective and prevents fewer adverse events (stool withholding and dysfunctional voiding)?: Part B: Clinical commentary. Paediatr Child Health. 2008 Mar;13(3):203-4. doi: 10.1093/pch/13.3.203.
Schum T, Kolb TM, McAuliffe TL, et al. Sequential Acquisition of Toilet-Training Skills: A Descriptive Study of Gender and Age Differences in Normal Children. Pediatrics 109(3):E48 (April 2002) DOI:10.1542/peds.109.3.e48