Potty training traps and setting yourself (and your child) free

Potty training seems to incite fear and stress among parents.

And with all the horror stories we read and hear from family, friends, neighbors, etc…it’s no wonder. It doesn’t help that there’s a stark paucity of science to support one strategy over the other. Even timing is up for debate. So, what’s a potty training parent to do?

First, take a deep breath, relax, and know that your child will progress on to big kid underwear. I promise. It will happen.

I’m a huge believer in “follow your child’s lead” and the rest will eventually fall in to place. I also advocate for keeping it as low key and stress free as possible. I’ve got two potty trained kiddos under my parenting belt. One potty trained at 3 ½ and needed much encouragement and positive reinforcement. The other at 2 ½ and she practically potty trained herself.

Which brings me to my next potty training mantra…tailor your approach to match the temperament and development stage of your own unique child.

Parents frequently get trapped by their own good intentions when it comes to potty training. I’ve gotten trapped myself. But…no need to get hung up on some common potty training pitfalls. Save yourself (and your child) time, stress, and worry by making sure you don’t get hung up on these…

Comparing your child to your friend’s child. Or to a younger or older sibling for that matter. In general, it’s not a great idea to compare milestones with other moms. Kids are unique and develop on their own unique timelines. Potty training is no different. Just because your friend’s daughter was completely potty trained by 2, does not mean your 3 year old is delayed or that your friend has superior parenting skills.

In fact, the age at which a child potty trains is not a reflection of good or bad parenting. It’s ultimately up to the child. It is, after all, the child’s success. Not ours to own.

What matters most is to get started with the process once your child displays readiness signs such as ability to help dress/undress self, shows interest in using the potty, can tell you when he is wet or needs to go poop, takes pride in his independence, and really wants those big kid underwear.

In general this can happen anytime between 18 months-3 years old. Some studies actually show that initiation of potty training prior to 27 months old does not lead to completion sooner than if you waited. Both my children fell on the latter end of the spectrum and the upside to that is they reached completion fairly quickly. No long drawn out process.

Potty training is more important to you than to your child. Toddlers are incredibly intuitive. They know when you’re stressed, anxious, or upset. And if you’re any of these things when it comes to potty training, you can bet your little one will put up quite the fight. Your child must want this. If not, you’ll just be banging your head against the wall.

You punish or get upset when your child has an accident. Do your best to stay positive, even on accident filled days. We know accidents will happen. The first few days will be a steep learning curve for everyone. Praise for effort and by all means, if your child is motivated by reward charts…use them.

All or nothing. Parents often expect nighttime dryness to coincide with daytime potty training. In most cases, this simply doesn’t happen. And it’s completely normal. It often takes months to years for children to become dry at night. It’s okay for your child to wear pull-ups at night. This is not considered a potty training failure or set-back by any means.

Also? Many children will not have a bowel movement in the toilet for months after being potty trained. Be patient. It will happen. No need to force the issue.

Constipation. If it hurts for your child to have a bowel movement, you can bet he’ll be resistant to try to poop in the toilet. Make sure your child’s stools are soft and regular by offering fiber rich foods and plenty of water daily.

Potty training, like many parenting issues, is not an exact science. Take heart in knowing that you can support and guide your child through the process, but ultimately this milestone is his to accomplish and own. It’s such a fantastic step toward independence for them. Do your best to lovingly support and gently encourage. When they are ready it will happen.

It will.

And soon, you will be packing up all the left over diapers and pull-ups ready to donate them to a friend in need. The tears welling up in your eyes will be your bittersweet reminder that time indeed marches on and diaper clad toddlers grow up and blossom into preschoolers donning big kid underwear.

Relax my dear friends, family, and parents in the throes of potty training. Free yourselves from the potty training traps. For in this case, time is really on your side.

How did potty training go in your household? What questions do you have about potty training? Are you stressed about it?

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9 Responses to Potty training traps and setting yourself (and your child) free
  1. Nichole
    July 23, 2012 | 2:21 pm

    Thank you SO much for this, Melissa.
    We started trying with Matthew last week and after a good deal of resistance, several accidents and general unhappiness felt by all, we decided to put it on hold for a few more months. He’ll be three in November and I just don’t think he’s ready yet.
    I’m bookmarking this and I’ll be rereading when the time comes! xo

    • Sarah
      August 5, 2012 | 4:47 am

      Nichole, my third will be three in November too and he is nowhere near ready to potty train! You are not alone! My eldest trained at 3.5 with a push from me and he was fully trained day and night in a few days. My middle child was poo trained by 18 months and totally done by just over two and as I wrote above the youngest has no interest! They all get there in the end! I watched friends USB kids who weren’t ready and they had months of accidents and stress. When you child is ready it really does happen quite natural and often with minimal mess! Good luck!

  2. Evee
    July 23, 2012 | 5:45 pm

    My son will be 3 in October and he is not ready to be potty trained. Everyone says I should just keep trying that he will get used to it. I did that for a bit, bought a potty and big kid underpants but he wants none of it. He prefers to wear his diaper and do his business in there. I have just decided to let it rest, till he is ready and I dont know when that will be.

  3. Ali
    July 23, 2012 | 7:27 pm

    So timely that you wrote (and I’m reading) this because we just started potty training our son Dean TODAY! I was getting so impatient this morning only because I want the process to be over already. But obviously I know that this is a process, and with Dean’s low muscle tone and such, it could be a *long* process. We’ll see. And it’s hard not to compare only because our first son practically potty trained himself as well and was just under 2.5. Dean is 3.25. Thanks for the reminder to approach each potty training adventure as a separate one and to follow our child. :)

  4. Gina
    July 24, 2012 | 2:26 pm

    I agree with Melissa (<—author), comparing the experiences from the older siblings & other people's kids led to failure. I have potty trained my 3 children (including my younger siblings) successfully. However, I now have a 4 year old son and in misery in our potty training sessions, to the point that he forced himself to hold it in and end up with a severe case of constipation, with the help of a specialist gastrointestinal doctor a fiber regime & childish persuasion aid is helping. Day & night urinating is not a problem, only passing stool is the problem. He will be entering preschool in 2 months and I am still working on it, like Melissa said "Potty training is more important to you than to your child". Right now I make it a game to race him to the toilet and making it as if it is not obligating me, because once he sense's it, then hinders the purpose and affects the process. Otherwise, my 4 year old feels that he is putting a burden on me therefore he retreats and holds it in, then we end up back to the start. So far so it’s working :).

  5. Lois Freisleben-Cook, MD
    July 29, 2012 | 5:24 pm

    Great article. I like to include motivating activities based on the personality of the child. One that immediately turned on the switch for my then self determined three year old was a musical DVD called “Baby Songs” . The first in a series of similar DVDs it has a song called “Today I took my diapers off” depicting a child taking charge of the whole process from picking the potty chair, declaring ownership of it and her sole possession of it, putting her diapers in the drawer etc. While the entire DVD has a lot of reassuring and empowering material for children of this age, this one has repeatedly worked with my patients whose temperament is more “self determined” . The same daughter, now 18 years old, chose, applied to and earned a scholarship to a wonderful college before even mentioning her choice to us, her parents. She still feels she has the ability to make her own decisions and we agree.

  6. meg
    August 4, 2012 | 6:04 pm

    i completely agree with the whole “follow your child’s lead” when it comes to potty training. but what if she’s so stubborn that she’s holding her urine for over 8 hours at a time?

    we started potty training almost two weeks ago and it started off really well. she quickly understood that peepee goes in the potty and not in her underwear (we threw all her diapers away one morning and allowed her to just wear underwear all day). she only had 2 accidents before she understood. at first i put her on the potty chair every 20 minutes but after awhile she began telling me when she needed to go, so i just followed her lead.

    now, however, she’ll hold her pee so long that it worries me. today, for example, she peed right when she woke up and not since. she’s been drinking regular amounts of fluid, so i know she’s definitely got urine in her little bladder. when she finally can’t hold it any longer, she’ll dribble a little bit in her panty, tell me she has to use the potty, but when she sits there, nothing else comes out and then she wants to get up off the potty cuz she doesn’t wanna sit there anymore. i don’t know what to do anymore. if we ask her if she wants to use the potty, her answer is always no. if we tell her it’s time to use the potty and sit her there, she’ll sit there for an hour before either she or i lose patience and she gets up. but if we follow her lead, she’ll pee in the potty maybe twice a day. is it normal? should i back off? or continue having her just tell us?

  7. […] Potty training traps and setting yourself (and your child) free from Dr. Melissa Arca […]

  8. Naples Mama
    August 31, 2012 | 1:29 pm

    Our daughter trained easily for urination but, struggled mightily with bowel withholding until the age of four. Despite endless Google searches and countless calls to our pediatrician, none of the recommendations produced the desired results. Adding to the frustration was the lack of printed material dealing with this potty training problem. Finally found a great book on Amazon.com: “I Can’t, I Won’t, No Way! A Book for Children Who Refuse to Poop…written entirely from a child’s perspective, it went a LONG way in breaking down our daughter’s resistance. Want to share the resource for any household dealing with this widespread…yet, seldom discussed potty training pitfall!