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Potty Training: 10 Practical Tips

potty chairIntroduction

Potty training is one of my least favorite stages of parenting small children. My guess is there are an awful lot of families who share my sentiments considering the stories I’ve heard.

Of course I laughed when a few of my friends declared, at the height of potty training their little ones, they were done having children because they just couldn’t take it any longer.  That’s because I could totally relate to how they were feeling.  I’ve been there before and I still have one more to go.

We’ve learned a few things about potty training after having done it 4 times already. Yes, that’s right. We’ve done it 4 times already and still have one more to train. You’re probably wondering who else we’ve potty trained if we only have 4 children of our own. Well, let me tell you about him…

Meet Max

Shortly after Peter and I bought and moved into our first home, we decided to add this little Lhasa Apso puppy to our family.

Potty Training Max

Max was cute, funny, cuddly, playful, sweet, and…terribly challenging to potty train! Regardless of our painstaking efforts to convince him to do his business outdoors, he continued to mark his territory all over our house.

Whereas dog treats (or people food) would work to train most young pups, Max was not inspired or motivated by them.  We had to resort to other, more embarrassing, means.

At the advice of our veterinarian, we needed to take Max out to do his business every 15-30 minutes when he was not in his kennel.  And, when he actually did something outdoors we needed to make it a very big deal so he knew he was doing something right and wanted to repeat the behavior.  So…we did the Happy Dance.”

Oh, yes, it was every bit as silly as it sounds. Every time we took Max out and he did his business for us, Peter and I would clap wildly, cheer loudly, run around, and dance like fools. And, Max loved it!  While I’m sure our neighbors thought we were lunatics and enjoyed our escapades immensely, we figured, “Hey, whatever works!”

We’ve learned a few things about what works for potty training, some of which were learned the hard way…  Let us share what we’ve learned with you.

10 Things that Worked for Us

Potty Training

1. Wait until your child is ready to potty train!

There is no sense in putting your child (or yourself) through potty training unless your child is capable of potty training.

Kayli had just turned 2 years old when she asked to start using the potty. Stephanie was about the same age when she started showing interest.  Ethan was a bit older. Although we gave him opportunities to try several times after he turned 2 years old, Ethan didn’t actually potty train until he was 3 1/2 years old.

Kids are not all ready to potty train at the same age, as we learned with our kids.  Boys typically are ready to train later than girls.  You really need to watch for signs it’s time to start potty training your child.  You know your child is ready when he or she:

Potty Training

  • can walk to the bathroom independently
  • shows interest in using the toilet
  • can tell you when he or she needs to go potty
  • doesn’t like wearing wet or stinky diapers
  • shows interest in wearing underwear
  • wets or produces stinky diapers at predictable times
  • stays dry for longer periods of time
  • can pull his or her pants up and down independently

2. Choose a time to start that will allow for you to focus on potty training.

Potty training can be stressful for everyone.  So pick a time to start working with your child when you have no where to go and no place to be at any particular time.

I tried to do this with Kayli.  Around her 2nd birthday, in May, she started showing interest in potty training.  We were planning to move from our townhouse to our new home at the end of June.  I figured it would be nice to have the potty training all done before all the stress of packing up and moving someplace new.

So I gave it a shot.  And, Kayli was not ready.  I let it go and figured we’d give it a try again once we got settled into our new home.  We were in no rush, I figured.

Well, Kayli didn’t agree with me.  The day after we moved into our new home and in the middle of me trying to unpack the boxes (by myself with an 8 month old baby and a 2 year old)  just so we could live in our house, Kayli insisted she wanted to use the potty!  There was no convincing her to wait for another, more convenient time for me to help her learn.

To make a long story short, I let her try the potty.  She went!  She tried again a short while later.  She went!  And then, she had several accidents on the carpet, the new couches, and all over the bathroom floor.  Busy Mama was stressed out and super crabby.  I put Kayli back in diapers and sternly told her I wasn’t planning to let her try potty training again until she was serious about it…because I was tired of trying to clean up the messes and move into a new home at the same time. We both were in tears.KayliPottyTrain

Two days later Kayli insisted she was ready to try again.  We both wanted her to be successful.  So this time I dropped everything and focused on just helping and encouraging Kayli to use the potty.  By the end of our 2nd day of practicing, Kayli was completely potty trained!  She never wore diapers or Pull-Ups again, even at night. For me it was a lesson learned!

timer3. Take your child to the potty often.

Use a timer and set it to go off every 15-20 minutes. When the timer rings, take your child to the potty and encourage him or her to try using it.

Try reading books or singing songs while your child is on the potty.

We found it easier to get our kids to sit there if they had something to do. Our kids especially liked when we made up silly songs with them.

We usually waited a couple of minutes and if our kids didn’t do anything on the potty then we’d set the timer for another 5 minutes and repeat the routine. We continued setting the timer for 5 minutes at a time until our kids were successful (or had an accident :-().  Then we went back to setting the timer for 15-20 minutes again.

Ethan and Stephanie were especially challenging to potty train because they were very stubborn about not wanting to go when we asked them to try using the potty.

With both kids, the timer was helpful. When it went off they’d go on their own to use the toilet. It helped us avoid arguments or having to convince the kids to head to the bathroom.

4. Make it a positive experience and encourage your child to try using the potty.

Try taking your child to the store with you and helping you pick out “Big Kid Underwear.” Talk about how fun it will be to have those new underpants and what needs to happen before your child can start wearing them.

Read books about using the potty.  There are lots of them out there to choose from. Here are the ones we used.

Potty Training Books


Spend some time in the bathroom looking at the potty and learning about how to flush and wash hands.

We started out using a potty chair, but emptying it out and cleaning it up each time our kids used it got really old really fast.  

We opted to take the potty seat and set it on the real potty instead. The potty chair became the step stool the kids used to sit up on the potty while they were too small to get on independently. 

We didn’t like having the potty seat sitting around the bathroom all the time, so we purchased a 3M Command Strip Adhesive Hook and applied it to the side of the cabinet.  We taught the kids to hang up the potty seat on the hook in addition to closing the lid of the toilet and flushing before washing hands.

5. Offer praise when your child does it right.

This is when you get to do the “Happy Dance!”  When your toddler is successful using the potty you need to recognize it (each time for a while) for the big deal that it is.

Figure out what motivates and inspires your child to repeat the behavior.  And, just to let you know, what works for one child doesn’t always work for another.

Kayli’s Story

Kayli liked the “Happy Dance,” but she needed more incentive than that. We started off giving her an M&M each time she used the potty, but even that didn’t last long.

What worked for her were Dum Dum suckers. She wanted to go to the potty every 5 minutes just so she could get another one.  

I actually started to worry about the number of Dum Dum suckers she was consuming, but everyone assured me that the novelty would wear off.  It did.  I think by the end of Day 2 of the potty training it was second nature to head to the bathroom when she needed to go and she no longer asked for the suckers.

Rock Crawler

Ethan’s Story

None of those things worked for Ethan. We tried having him sit and stand. We tried offering suckers, M&Ms, silly dances, floating Fruit Loops to sink. Nothing worked.

And then my Mom bought him this remote control Rock Crawler.

Ethan loved this toy. So we used it to our advantage. Every time he peed in the potty he got a sticker on a reward chart.  When he earned 5 stickers he earned 5 minutes of driving the remote control Rock Crawler.

That worked to get him to want to pee on the potty, but he still didn’t want to poop. So we upped the ante. We went to Target and he picked out a special toy. 


We brought home Dinoco King, let Ethan look at it (still in the package) and then placed it on top of the computer desk in plain sight. We told Ethan the only way to get the toy out of the package was to poop on the potty. That worked.

When he was successful putting poop in the potty the first time, we let him take out the toy and play with it a few minutes.  Then the toy went back up on the computer desk until the next time he pooped.  

He had to stay dry and earn 5 stickers for pooping on the potty before he was able to keep the toy permanently. By the time he earned Dinoco King, we had a fully-trained little boy!

Stephanie’s Story

This little girl was not motivated by treats, “Happy Dances,” or toys to use the potty. We had to figure out something else. One thing we knew about Stephanie was that she loved these shoes.

 images-4She wanted to wear them all the time. We don’t allow shoes in the house. So it was a big deal for Stephanie when we offered her the chance to wear these shoes in the house for as long as she wanted (as long as she stayed dry).

The first time she had an accident and the shoes got wet, we had to wash them and put them up to dry.  She was devastated. She didn’t make the same mistake again.  Stephanie started using the potty!

 6. Expect accidents.

They happen. Sometimes a lot! It’s always a huge, disgusting mess. There is a lot of extra laundry to do.

But whatever you do, do not resort to using Pull-Ups when you are at home! We’ve found that one of two things end up happening if Pull-Ups are used to avoid the mess resulting from accidents:

  1. The kids get confused.  They have trouble remembering when they aren’t wearing them and have more accidents.  
  2. They use them to avoid using the potty.

With Kayli, we went cold-turkey with the underwear.  Potty training Kayli was an event, not a process.  It happened over the course of 2 days.  They were a somewhat rough 2 days, but they were 2 days!

With Stephanie and Ethan we used Pull-Ups. Potty training them was definitely a process rather than an event. It took a long time (weeks actually) to get them fully trained. And in the end, we ended up having to go cold-turkey with Stephanie anyway.

Accidents are unavoidable. Plan for them.

7. Stick with it once you start.

Potty training takes commitment and endurance. Once you decide to start, stick with it until your child is potty-trained. Otherwise you’ll not only confuse your child, you’ll have to do all the yucky work all over again at another time!

8. Don’t be lazy.

You need to be focused and intent on potty training. Considering that you’ll be running to the potty with your child every 15 or 20 minutes for a while, don’t plan to sit down and relax. You will be doing a lot of extra work.

9. Plan ahead.

If your child will be going to bed for the night soon, don’t give him or her any more things to eat or drink! At our house we cut off all eating and drinking after dinner time. And, always have your child use the toilet before bed.

If you are planning to run errands, time your stops so that you know you’ll be in a convenient place when your child needs to use the potty.  Know where the restrooms are located!

As an aside, all 3 of our kids hate public restrooms for one reason or another.

Both girls REFUSED to even sit on one without a potty seat for quite a long time. We actually purchased an extra potty seat to leave in the car so that we could bring it along to the public restrooms.

10. Have lots of “Potty Training Clothes” on hand.

Make it easy on your child and yourself. Have your child wear pants that are easy to pull up and pull down. Sweatpants or leggings work great. Shorts are easy as long as they have no snaps, buttons, or zippers to worry about. Dresses fall in the toilet easily. And forget the Onesies!

Other Things

So there you have it. Those are the top 10 tips we have for potty training children. If you have any other tips or suggestions, please take the time to share them in the comments for the rest of us! Don’t forget, I still have 1 more to potty train!

Oh, and I’ll be sharing more things we’ve learned along the way while raising 4 kids. If you liked this post you may want to consider subscribing to Practical MOMents or liking Practical MOMents on Facebook. It’s free!

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  • Rochelle March 15, 2013, 12:50 pm

    Definitely wait until they are ready!!! Our little boy wasn’t ready until he was three! It was so easy when he was ready! We spent the weekend camped out in the kitchen with the potty chair. We heard this idea from others and found that it worked wonders! If the kiddo has an accident it’s on vinyl and not a problem to clean up. I’ve also heard of people doing this outside during the spring or summer. Anyway, we brought in the kids table etc into the kitchen with some fun activities like play doh and stayed in the kitchen for the weekend. Our little one used the timer and went every 15 minutes. By the end of the first day he was pretty much trained.
    We did find he was scared to poo. We used the book “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi as suggested by his pediatrician. What worked for him though was Mom telling him (after many on purpose poos in pants) that it made me very upset and that people don’t poo in pants etc. and that would mean he needs to go back into diapers. Of course I wasn’t going to put him back in diapers. He WANTED to be trained so bad that the idea was enough for him. From then on he was potty trained.
    Oh I should mention we used a remote control Monster Truck as incentive and M&Ms. He also used a potty chart with train and Disney Cars stickers. He helped make the chart and LOVED the stickers.
    Now lets hope it goes just as easy with my second one!

    • Karen March 15, 2013, 3:04 pm

      Thanks for sharing what worked for your family, Rochelle! Camping out in the kitchen or outside is a great idea!

  • Carolyn April 13, 2013, 4:43 pm

    This took a considerable amount of time in our house. We tried EVERYTHING. Nothing motivated our son for long and I could see he understood what needed to happen and chose to do his business right before getting to the toilet. My advice if something isn’t working with your child move on. Don’t get hung up on the fact that it worked for someone else.
    One thing that worked well for us was adding an incentive for flushing the toilet and washing his hands. Whether the incentive was stickers or candy or a trinket toy he could potentiall earn two more incentives just by doing these tasks. I chuckle now when he goes to the bathroom in the middle of the night and washes his hands in the end just like during the day. Yes!