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6 tips for potty training success

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 20, 2012 09:14 AM

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When I was new to doctoring and parenting, I thought of potty training as very straightforward--and very cookie-cutter, very one-size-fits-all. Twenty one years later, I know better. It's not that potty training is the hardest thing you do as a parent--there's lots of stuff that's harder (teaching your kid to drive, for example--much more risky, for starters). But it's not necessarily straightforward, and it's definitely not cookie-cutter.

So here are the tips I've learned over the years:

1. Do it when your child is ready. To be ready, your child should have the motor skills needed to get his pants down (and back up), to sit on the toilet (or stand in front of it and not get pee everywhere), and wipe. He also needs to be able to communicate with you that he is about to pee or poop. And, last but not least, he needs to be interested in doing it. If he's not even vaguely interested, it's not going to work very well.

Most kids are ready between 18 months and three years. It's not always easy to know for sure if your child is ready (sometimes you have to try it out to really know), but it's important to look for signs of readiness before you buy that potty.

2. Do it when the other people in your child's life are ready. If your child is ready but you just had a new baby, or just moved or started a new job, or your daycare really can't help you out just yet, then don't start. Hold off. Things will go much better if everyone is on the same page.

This actually works the other way, too. If you're on the fence about your child's readiness but the daycare is potty training all the kids in the class, or you have some time and energy to devote to it that you aren't going to have in a couple of months, I say give it a try. You can always stop if it isn't working.

3. Tailor your approach to your child's temperament. The basic principles are the same no matter what: introduce potty, have child sit on it, try to get them on it when they tell you they need to use it (or when you think they need to use it). But how and how quickly you do that, whether you use the potty or toilet, when you start using underwear...so much depends on your child. If you have a child who hates change, you might want to take it slowly, and start with reading potty training books together even before you try out the potty. If you have a child who is bold and loves to try new things, more of a cold-turkey approach might work. This is a really crucial part of potty training that I didn't understand at the beginning. But having now potty-trained five children and helped countless other parents potty train theirs, I have come to understand that every child and every family is different, and each has their own best way.

4. Use rewards. We all are more likely to do things if we get something out of it. The biggest reward should be praise, of course. But stickers or other little prizes can make a big difference (Matchbox cars did it for my youngest)--as can earning an extra story at night or a special trip to the park or museum with you. Try not to go overboard with rewards, though. Not only could it get expensive, you could end up setting a precedent that comes back to bite you.

5. Be patient. Chances are your child won't go to high school wearing a diaper. There are kids who have special challenges (more on that below), but the vast majority of them figure this stuff out. It may be quick, or it may take months. If your child seems really upset by it, you're probably better off stopping for a while and trying again later. Don't worry if you see other kids the same age already potty trained--remember, every child and every family is different. And remember that accidents at night are really common through at least six years.

6. Ask for help. Definitely talk to your doctor ahead of time if your child has any physical or developmental issues that might get in the way of potty training--but even if she doesn't, talking to your doctor is a good idea. I try to bring it up with all families at the 18 month visit so I can answer any questions and we make a plan together. You should also ask for help if your child is having trouble or if you're feeling frustrated--and if your child is still in diapers at her fourth birthday.

For more information and tips, visit the Toilet Training page of the Boston Children's Hospital website.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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