Jun 19, 2024
June 19, 2024

Potty training your toddler

Potty training your toddler can feel very overwhelming. You may have many questions like: When do I start? How long does it take? What should I do if my child has an accident? To cover all the basics, Jennifer Gillette, MA, Summer Health’s child development and behavioral specialist, offers her expert insights and guidance as you support your toddler through this milestone.

The right age to potty train

There isn’t a “best” age to begin potty training. Rather, it depends on when your child shows signs of readiness, usually between 18 months and 3 years. Every child develops at their own pace, and they’ll show signs when they’re ready to move on from diapers. The key is to be patient, attentive, and prepared when the time comes.

When that time does come, potty training involves three key steps:

  1. Body awareness: Children need to recognize their body parts, especially the penis, vagina, and bottom. They should also be aware of their bladder and bowel signals, showing signs of control and understanding when it’s time to pee or have a bowel movement.
  2. Learning the process: Children must learn how to use the toilet, follow instructions, and sit or stand in the correct position.
  3. Willingness to use the toilet: Children must be willing to relieve themselves on the toilet.

Potty training: Signs of readiness

Here are a few signs that your toddler is ready to use the toilet:

Staying dry for longer periods

If your toddler can stay dry for at least two hours during the day, it’s a good sign they have the bladder control needed for potty training. Next time you head to the park, try a gentle test by casually mentioning, "Let's hold our pee until we get home." Check their diaper when you return to see if it's wet or dry.

Showing interest in the bathroom

When your child starts becoming curious about the bathroom—wanting to go inside, watching you use the toilet, asking questions about the toilet, sink, or toilet paper, or expressing interest in wearing 'big kid' underwear—these are signs they might be ready for potty training.

Body awareness and communication

When your child signals that it’s time for a diaper change or expresses discomfort with a wet or dirty diaper, they are showing signs of body awareness. Older children may directly ask to be changed, while younger ones might use facial expressions or body language.

Motor skills

Certain motor skills can enhance the potty training process. These include independently walking forward and backward to sit on the potty, pulling their underpants up and down, lifting up their dress, and ripping toilet paper. While these skills are not required for potty training, they can certainly make the process smoother and more efficient.

Following instructions

Potty training involves a series of steps and requires following simple directions.

Family readiness

Potty training is a team effort involving the whole family. It typically takes a few weeks or months of commitment and dedication. That’s why it’s best not to start the process during a move, travel, when welcoming a new sibling, starting daycare or camp, or when other big changes are happening. It’s important that everyone is patient, flexible with their schedules, and committed to maintaining a consistent routine.

How do you prepare for potty training?

To set you up for success, here are a few expert-approved tips to potty train your toddler:

Gather supplies

You don't need much, but a child-size toilet, toilet seat insert, travel potty, step stool, and training underwear can be very helpful. If you're using an adult-size toilet, be sure to have a step stool so your child’s feet can be firmly planted while sitting.  

Use a timer

Potty training timers can remind children to use the bathroom at regular intervals. Avoid asking if they need to use the bathroom when the timer goes off. Instead, give them a choice to help them decide. For example, you can say, "It's potty time! Do you want to use your potty or my toilet?"

Create a routine

Kids thrive with routines, and they can also help create consistency. Involve your toddler in creating a flexible potty training schedule using a potty routine chart, and post it on the bathroom wall. Be sure to include hand washing as part of the routine.

Play it out

During playtime, practice potty training through imaginative play. Act out potty training scenarios with stuffed animals or puppets to provide a pressure-free way to talk about using the potty. You can also read bathroom-themed picture books to further reinforce this important milestone.


Schedule a playdate with a friend who is already using the potty. If the parents are comfortable, invite the friend into the bathroom to demonstrate and explain the process.

How long does it take to potty train your toddler?

Potty training can take anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on your child's readiness, temperament, and the consistency of your approach. Some children grasp the concept quickly, while others need more time.

Should I potty train for daytime and nighttime?

Start by focusing on potty training during the day. Potty training is an overwhelming experience for both parent and child, and a gradual approach is usually more sustainable.

The 3-day potty training method

The 3-day potty training method is an intensive approach that involves dedicating three consecutive days to teaching your child to use the potty. It requires close monitoring and plenty of encouragement and is best done when you can stay at home with your child. While this method works for some families, it doesn't work for everyone and can sometimes cause unnecessary stress and anxiety.

What are some alternative methods?

  1. Child-oriented approach: This method follows your child's lead and pace, focusing on readiness signs and gentle encouragement without a strict timeline.
  2. Scheduled training: Take your child to the potty at regular intervals rather than waiting for them to indicate they need to go.
  3. Elimination communication: This method, often used with infants, involves recognizing your child's signals and then holding them over a potty.
  4. Reward-based training: This is a system of rewards to encourage your child to use the potty. You can use sticker charts or small prizes. To reduce pressure, provide rewards for following the new routine, not for what’s left in the potty.

What to do if your toddler is scared of potty training

For kids, potty training is a drastic change from what they’re used to. They may feel overwhelmed or even fearful of the new routine or the toilet itself. That’s why a gradual approach to potty training is key. Here are some additional tips if your child is nervous about potty training:

  • Reassure and comfort: Offer comfort and reassurance, letting your child know that using the potty is a normal part of growing up.
  • Desensitize gradually: Help your child get used to the potty by allowing them to sit on it with clothes on, read books about it, or act out the potty routine through pretend play.
  • Positive associations: Let your child create positive associations with the potty by decorating it with stickers, singing special potty songs, blowing bubbles on the toilet, or adding food coloring to a toilet bowl of pee.
  • Patience and understanding: Be patient and avoid forcing or pressuring your child to use the toilet. Give them time to feel comfortable with the new routine.
  • Modeling: Show your child that using the potty is part of everyday life, allowing them to observe you while you use it.

What if potty training doesn’t work?

If potty training isn’t working out, it might mean your child isn’t quite ready. If you find it challenging, here are a few steps to consider:

  • Take a break: Take a break for a few weeks or even a few months. Together, create a countdown calendar to restart potty training.
  • Reevaluate readiness: Make sure your child shows signs of readiness and isn't feeling rushed into training.
  • Consistency and routine: Establish a consistent routine to reinforce potty habits. Use a potty routine chart posted visibly.
  • Consult a health professional: If challenges persist, consult your local or Summer Health pediatrician or a child development specialist.
  • Stay positive: Stay positive and keep the potty training experience relaxed and enjoyable. Avoid punishing or reacting negatively to accidents or setbacks.

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s potty training experience, consult your local or Summer Health team for individualized guidance and support.

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