So It Begins

*The* Ultimate Guide To Potty Training Your Toddler

Feel like you don’t know sh*t? Start here.

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When you have a baby, you don’t realize that becoming someone’s parent also makes you their first teacher. You’ll show them how to eat, walk, talk. You’ll also be the smartest person in the room to them, answering a barrage of questions day in and day out. So, when you notice them tugging at their wet diaper every time they pee, you’ll realize it’s time to take up yet another mantle: potty training coach extraordinaire.

Only, how the hell do you teach a toddler to use the potty when they don’t listen to much else you have to say? Do you need that influencer’s e-book? A miniature toilet? A pound of M&Ms? Here’s the thing, the answer to pretty much any question you have about potty training is: it depends on your child. Here, two pediatricians share everything evidence-based they know about potty training: how to do it, when to start, and whether or not you need a bunch of gear.

What does it really mean to be potty trained?

So, you want to toilet train your child. Does that mean they are doing all their business in the bathroom without fail? Still wearing a Pull-Up some of the time? What’s a realistic expectation?

Being successfully potty trained means your kid stays dry for the majority of the day, says Dr. Liz May, M.D., FAAP, pediatrician at Texas Children’s, but it’s still normal for them to have accidents and wear a Pull-Up to sleep.

AleksandarNakic/E+/Getty Images

“Accidents are going to happen for at least the first six months after, and then intermittently it may happen for the next couple of years. Nighttime is a whole different thing. It is normal to still not be dry at night until 5 or 6 years old and even later if it runs in the family. If they’re still wet at night, it’s not a failure in potty training,” she says.

It’s also harder to teach kids to poop in the toilet than pee, says Dr. Katie Lockwood, M.D., MEd, pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Primary Care, and associate professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. So, don’t feel discouraged if you spend longer working on that skill.

Signs your kid is ready to potty train

With so many milestones in infancy and early childhood, it feels like the age ranges are pretty slim: baby should be sitting without support by 9 months, taking some steps at 1, and chatting it up around 18 months. But the “right” age to potty train depends entirely on your child, and can happen anytime within a 1.5-year range.

“Anywhere between 18 months and 3 is normal, but falling outside that or being an outlier does not mean that there is necessarily something wrong with your child,” says May. “When we think about what your child needs physiologically, developmentally, emotionally to be able to potty train, these things start happening around 18 months to 24 months. In the U.S., the average time that a baby is potty trained is about 2.5 years old.”

To use the bathroom, your little one needs to recognize the urge to go, have the self-control to stop what they’re doing, and head for the toilet. There’s also the physical skill of being able to control when you go, and the brain development to put this all together. So, experts say when your child can do the following things, they’re developmentally ready to potty train:

  • They stay dry for two hours or more at a time during the day, or wake up dry after naps.
  • Their bowel movements are regular. If your child is dealing with constipation, bring it up with your pediatrician before trying to potty train. It can be a barrier to them learning, May and Lockwood agree, and you don’t want them to associate using the potty with discomfort or pain.
  • You recognize their facial expressions, postures, or behaviors (like running off to hide) when they’re peeing or pooping in their diaper.
  • They can tell you they’ve pooped or peed, or somehow indicate they’re uncomfortable having a dirty diaper after they go.
  • They can get to the bathroom on their own and pull their pants up and down.

Research shows that if you start the process of potty training too soon it can take much longer, says Lockwood. So, don’t rush to train just because your little one hits 18 months. “While some people think, ‘Oh, if we can get potty-trained right away, it’ll be so great and we’ll just be done with it,’ it may really draw the process out a little bit more.”

When is the best time to potty train?

If your toddler is showing all the signs of readiness, great! But it takes two to tango, so you’ll need to be up to the task as well. Start potty training at a time when not much else is happening at home.

“Look at your schedule and think about what’s coming up. Are there major life events or changes? Is there travel? Are they changing classrooms? How many other variables are they going to have to adapt to? Even if they’re interested, you may want to just slightly delay it until big changes pass,” Lockwood says.

“Not only does the child have to be ready, you have to be ready as well. If you’re facing a huge deadline at work and you feel like your patience is thin, you don’t feel like you have a lot of time to dedicate to the cleaning, it may not be the right time for your family either. All of those things go into it,” says May.

How to potty train a toddler, according to experts

Talk to them about the process of using the bathroom before you start training.

Basically, act like a toileting tour guide. “I always say narrate your day. If it’s Mom, say, ‘Oh, Mommy feels like she needs to sit on the potty and pee. I feel pressure in my belly. Do you want to come with me? I’m going to go.’ Show them that we sit on the potty, we clean, we flush, we wash our hands, and we’re done,” says May.

Read books about using the potty.

A little literature about the subject can help your child understand the concept, too. These books are highly rated by parents, which means they’re likely also beloved by their toddlers.

Watch some shows on the subject, too.

Some of your child’s favorite shows may actually have episodes about potty training buried in their backlog. Queue it up to engage your little one in some discussion about how if Daniel Tiger and Peppa Pig can learn to use the bathroom, they can, too.

Start sitting them on the toilet when you think they might need to go.

“Have them sit on the potty at times when you think that they may need to use the bathroom so that you increase the likelihood that they’re successful. For example, first thing in the morning when they wake up or after they’ve eaten a meal, or when the bath water is running at nighttime and you’re getting them undressed. Then if they accidentally are successful at using the toilet, you give them lots of praise and show them that this is something that you want them to do more of,” says Lockwood.

If your little one is responding well and you’re ready to start potty training, have your child start wearing underwear around the house (or they can just go naked from the waist down). Diapers absorb all the uncomfy moisture, but having some accidents helps your little one learn that they don’t like the feeling of wet undies nearly as much.

“Once we’re going to make the leap into potty training, we’re committing. The recommendation is not to go back to daytime diapers,” says May, noting that most kids will still need to wear a diaper or Pull-Up at nighttime for a while yet, and that’s totally fine.

Use rewards as positive reinforcement.

When your child pees or poops in the potty, the crowd should go wild. Positive reinforcement — in the form of rewards and praise from you — are what will motivate them to keep up the behavior.

“One of the most rewarding things to your child is the words of affirmation, and physical touch. So hugging, kissing your child, telling them they did so great,” says May. “[You can use] things like sticker charts, or some people will give a little treat every time they’re successful, and that can continue to build momentum and interest in using the potty. It’s important to remember though that this process is not always linear in that there are setbacks, there are accidents, and kids should never be scolded or punished if they have an accident during this process because that’s a normal part of potty training.”

What about all the three-day potty training methods online?

There’s no shortage of potty training courses, e-books, and free PDF guides available from parenting coaches on Instagram. Bloggers and even major diaper brands have their own guides online. They all go something like this: you set aside a weekend where your kid runs around in underwear or naked at home, and your sole focus as a family is potty training. The idea is that a few days’ intensive — using all the evidence-based tips Lockwood and May recommend — gets the job done quickly rather than drawing it out. So, does the quick and dirty method actually work?

“I’ve had parents give me feedback about the strategy of doing a weekend kind of bootcamp where the child is mostly naked, and there’s some thought that that is a good way to get potty training done quickly. I think it depends on the child’s age and readiness whether or not that works,” says Lockwood. “I’ve had families who say it worked great and families who have been very frustrated about a weekend where their child peed or pooped all over the house. What we know from research is that there is no one best way or right way to toilet train. There is a lot of flexibility for parents to do what they want and what works for their family.”

You can certainly try methods you find online, May and Lockwood agree, and if they work for you and your child, that’s wonderful. If for some reason they don’t, just don’t beat yourself up about it. All children learn differently, and you may just need to switch up your approach in some way.

If you’re browsing for potty training methods online, May says to steer clear of any programs that:

  • Make guarantees about your results, like saying that your child will definitely be potty trained with zero accidents by the end.
  • Recommend any kind of punitive discipline or punishment as part of potty training.

What should you give as rewards for potty training? How do you use them?

Both doctors say in a perfect world you’d use non-food rewards — like stickers or small toys — but if M&Ms are the little treat your child covets most, it’s not the end of the world. Maybe just steer clear of gummies as rewards; Lockwood says because they stick in the teeth, and you won’t be brushing them out each time your child eats one, they can be bad for dental health when eaten one at a time over the whole day.

Here’s how you should actually go about using rewards to reinforce your potty training: “Start small with your reward and then you can vary or escalate it as needed,” says Lockwood. “Maybe in the beginning they’re getting a sticker every time they sit on the potty, but then eventually we want them to actually use the potty. Then you can change the rules, and if it’s too confusing based on their age to change the rules for that reward, then change your reward. Like, ‘OK, you’ve been so good at sitting on the potty. Now you get this little toy every time you pee on the potty,’ or, ‘Now you get two stickers if you pee on the potty.’”

If your kid can understand long-term rewards, you can offer them one of those, too. For example, you could say, “Every time you pee on the potty you get an M&M. If you stay dry for three days, we’ll go to the store and pick a new toy.” Or, you could offer to take them somewhere they’ve wanted to go. This gives them that positive reinforcement at the moment, while knowing something new and exciting is coming down the line (hello, motivation).

Do you need a small potty or training seat?

Do you have to add a little seat insert to your toilet, keep a stool handy, or buy a miniature commode? No accessories are required, but you might find they make the process a lot easier for your little one.

“You want them to feel comfortable, and often that does mean adding a little seat to your regular toilet so they don’t feel like they’re going to fall in, and sometimes needing a little step stool underneath their feet because it is uncomfortable to have to sit on a toilet with your feet dangling, especially for stooling,” says Lockwood. Basically, it’s harder to relax the muscles in your pelvis to pee and poop if you’re straining to hold yourself up at the same time, she says. And picking out their own seat with their favorite characters on it can be motivation to use it, May adds.

As for the toddler-sized toilets, they’re not necessary for everyone, but they’re easy to keep nearby if your actual bathroom is far away from where you and your child spend most of the day, Lockwood says. They also come in handy when you need to travel with your kid in the car — just pop the tiny toilet in the trunk and go.

“At the end of the day, no matter which one you use, your child is going to be potty trained. What’s best for your family is fine,” says May.

What should your child wear after potty training?

Is it all undies all the time now? Is it OK to occasionally stick them in a diaper or Pull-Up? Stick to underwear going forward to avoid any confusion, experts say.

“It can be confusing or promote some regression. If we are going to start potty training and using underwear, try to [stick to] underwear, or if you’re at home, nothing on below the belt during those times that we’re potty training. It can give a mixed message of what the expectation is for going to the bathroom if we’re going back and forth between Pull-Ups and underwear,” says May.

If your little one is having frequent accidents and needs to wear a Pull-Up to school to be comfortable, that’s OK, says Lockwood. “You can say, ‘This is just in case of an accident. I still want you to go on the potty,’ and have the teachers reinforce that so that they understand, this is really just to keep them dry so that they don’t feel embarrassed at school, but not something that you want them to actually be using.’”

Are regressions in potty training normal?

It’d be weirder if your kid didn’t regress a little at one time or another. “There’s going to be some regression at some point in potty training,” says May. “It may be [because of] things you can pinpoint: we moved homes, they transitioned to a new child care center. It may be things you can’t, or they’re in a new stage that they are testing their independence, their boundaries, and that is normal. Expect regression and still try to maintain as much positivity as you can during that time.”

To keep things moving forward instead of backward, May says to just keep cheering your kid on. Celebrate when they use the bathroom successfully — FaceTime Grandma to tell her, brag about it to the other parent when they get home, the works — and take accidents in stride. “For a child, knowing that their progress is being recognized is one of the biggest motivators.”

Do girls really potty train quicker than boys?

You’ve probably heard a friend or family member mention that boys just take longer to potty train than girls (or something to that effect). There may actually be some truth to it.

“Anecdotally, yes, I’ve seen girls potty train faster than boys. There is a study in Pediatrics from 2002 and it does say that there is a slight difference in terms of girls achieving toilet training skills earlier than boys. So I think there is a slight gender difference,” says Lockwood. She adds that kids with older siblings tend to potty train a little faster than only children as well since they have a brother or sister modeling the behavior.

How long does potty training take?

It’s hard to say, according to May and Lockwood. Some children will pick it up quickly and others need a little more time. Again, it’s normal to keep having accidents for up to six months after you begin training.

“I don’t think there’s an expectation of how long it should take. I think if you have been trying for a month or so with very little interest or resistance despite changing your methods, that would be a reason to talk to your pediatrician,” May says. Your child’s doctor can weigh in with new techniques to try and help you troubleshoot.

Potty training can be frustrating, but May suggests using this process to understand how your child likes to learn and communicate. “These are things you’re going to learn about your child that you’re going to be using for years and years and years. This is your time to be a little bit of a scientist. Hone your skills on observing and changing methods if needed. Say you read one of the books and you have all the supplies they recommended and you’re ready. It’s totally OK if it doesn’t work. Step back and say, ‘What can we do that does work and makes it so we both enjoy the process?’”

And so, the second part of your parenting life begins.

Study referenced:

Schum, T. R., Kolb, T. M., McAuliffe, T. L., Simms, M. D., Underhill, R. L., & Lewis, M. (2002, March 1). Sequential Acquisition of Toilet-Training Skills: A Descriptive Study of Gender and Age Differences in Normal Children. Pediatrics, 109(3), e48–e48.


Dr. Liz May, M.D., FAAP, pediatrician at Texas Children’s

Dr. Katie Lockwood, M.D., MEd, pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Primary Care, and associate professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania