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Parent Corner: Prepping for the Potty

by KAREN COREKIN-DeLaMER, Education and Community Relations Coordinator, Northern Door Children’s Center

Dear Karen,

My son is almost three. He isn’t potty trained yet, and I always figured he’d let me know somehow when he was ready. Some of my family keep telling me he should have been potty trained a long time ago, and I’m worried that maybe they’re right.

I talked to him about going on the potty, got him those pull-on diapers that look like underwear and had him sit on the toilet regularly. He had a few successes with urinating, but after the first week, he refused to sit on the potty.

We were both getting stressed, and he said he wanted his diapers. My sister says I’m babying him, and I should just make him sit on the potty. That doesn’t feel right to me. What should I do, and what’s the best way to do it? 

— Conflicted about Potty Training

Dear Conflicted about Potty Training,

Often, well-meaning family members offer opinions based on their own children’s experiences, but be confident that no one else knows your child like you do! 

Children develop at different rates. Some children might be ready at 24 months, others not until much later. You were right on when you said your son would let you know when he was ready, and for the process to be a positive, confidence-building step toward independence, he needs to be ready in both mind and body. 

Readiness in mind is demonstrated by showing a strong interest in sitting on the toilet, telling you when he needs his diaper changed and even expressing a desire to wear “big boy” underwear. Readiness in body may involve him staying dry and clean for longer periods of time and having a special place to be when he goes in his diaper. These aren’t all-inclusive indicators, but several of them together may be your son’s way of letting you know he’s ready. 

Some children might have an interest in going on the toilet, but bladder and bowel control haven’t developed yet. Other children may have control but no interest. Once both mind and body are ready, children can begin the process.

When you and your son feel he’s ready, it’s fun to shop for underwear, and he’ll enjoy wearing underwear he’s chosen himself. I don’t recommend using pull-on diapers. The feeling is the same as a regular diaper, and to be successful, children should experience how it feels to have an accident in underwear. In this way, they can make the mental and physical connection of “Oh, when I have that feeling, I should go potty, or I’ll have an accident.” Be sure to buy underwear in quantity! 

Before starting, help your son decide whether he prefers to sit on the toilet, use a seat that fits on the toilet or sit on a separate potty chair. Begin having him sit at regularly scheduled intervals. (Because your child is a boy, he may eventually decide to urinate while standing.) Usually, every 20-30 minutes is good, but you’ll quickly see whether that’s too often or not often enough.

Use a timer as an auditory reminder that it’s time to try. This also gives him more independence because he can hear the cue and go right to the bathroom by himself. You may choose to give your son a treat such as a sticker for success on the toilet, but you might also find that your excited acknowledgment and hugs are the best reward of all!

When your son has an accident, be kind and matter-of-fact about it, saying something like, “Everyone has accidents, and that’s OK. Let’s go together to change your clothes.” Shaming children for having an accident undermines the process and makes them fearful.

Potty learning is an affirming experience that will help your son feel good about himself, and accidents are a big part of what makes the process work. Bladder control usually comes before bowel control, so don’t be surprised if one happens before the other. 

Sometimes, despite his best effort, your son still may not be ready. If he’s resistant after a week or two or becomes upset when you ask him to go, it may be time to take a break. This is very typical and not a failure in any way. Potty learning may take several starts and stops, but let your son know you’re proud of him for the attempt! Power struggles over potty learning are never helpful, and if your son sees that you’re fine that he wants to take a break, he’ll be more likely to try again soon.

Keep trusting your excellent intuition, follow your son’s lead, and when he’s ready, it will happen!

Karen Corekin-DeLaMer holds degrees in elementary, special and early-childhood education. She has been a teacher, administrator and parent educator since 1984 and is the education and community-relations coordinator for Northern Door Children’s Center in Sister Bay. Email your questions to her at [email protected].