The Potty Training Journey: Words of Wisdom and What I Wish I Knew Before We Started

One whole month without a post and I apologize – Masters course work was keeping me busy at the end of the semester. But now that it’s over… I can finally complete this post about our potty training journey!

This post is going to be split into three sections: preparation, attempt(s), and a short review of any evidence around potty training! I am hoping this is the post I *wish* I had when we were thinking of starting to potty train Maggie…

Disclaimer: this is not medical advice, this is for information only. Please seek medical advice from your trusted healthcare provider.

Preparing for Potty Training

First off, don’t rush.

We say this about a lot of things in childhood. Don’t rush it. Usually it’s around more special moments than using the washroom… but it holds true. There is no rush – only the one you create for yourself.

I know we’re all keen to have our kids out of diapers.. but the truth is that it’s not our choice. Learning to use the washroom is a developmental process which means that yes, we can probably support this but we cannot force it. Think of it like any other developmental milestone – crawling, walking. There are actions we can take to encourage our children, but in the end it’s up to them.

And to build on that: the “right time” is not one size fits all.

And the other thing you should mentally prepare yourself for is the fact that it’s not a race. Because Suzy is potty training doesn’t mean Mary should be too, even if they’re the same age. You probably know from even a bit of time parenting, that each child goes at their own pace.

Additionally, other factors can affect potty training such as anatomic, behavioural and other health conditions. As always, if you have concerns around the timing of your child’s development your primary care provider or care team should be there to answer your questions and explore possible causes.

As hard as it can be – try not to compare to those around you. Just like with other milestones… it’s best not to compare and just focus on your own child and supporting them.

My approach: wait for them to be ready.

I tried the “just do it” when you’re (the parent) ready approach and it didn’t work for us. I’ll explain in the “attempts” section on why, but I think the best way to prepare (probably for most) is actually to wait. There are a few little things you can do while you wait to support the change, but for us, trying to move before Maggie was ready simply didn’t work.

Some people do have success with the “just go for it” method though! That weekend blitz of potty training. No judgment here, as always with parenting you should do what works best for you and to figure that out may take trial and error (like it did for us!).

A good question though is: how do you know when your child is ready?

For every child, this is probably going to be slightly different – just like the approach you take might need to be different.

Some “signs of readiness” for potty training include:

  • Awareness of “need to go” re: bowel & bladder sensations. This could happen as early as 18 months, around or before 24 months (or maybe after, this is the ‘average’)
  • Ability to toilet, including pulling down and up their own pants (and follow instructions/direction too!)
  • Desire to do it! This is the big one!!
  • Some physical or verbal signs such as:
    • Staying dry for longer periods (2+ hours or after naps)
    • Hiding to go poop or squatting (seems counterproductive but it’s actually showing they want ‘privacy’)
    • Uncomfortable in soiled diapers (big one)
    • Asking to wear underwear or use the toilet (demonstrating interest or desire)

I’ll talk about where we were when we started in the next section.

We bought a potty.

We bought a small potty pretty early – probably around 18 months. Not because I wanted to potty train at that time or thought Maggie was ready.. but simply because I wanted to expose her to a potty. She had of course, as every child has, been in the washroom with me before.. but she’d never been on a potty.

The one I ended up getting also acted as a bathroom stool (it had teeth brushing music and such that you could turn on) so it worked out really well that we were also really promoting more tooth brushing at that time too. So for awhile it was a stool in our bathroom but Maggie’s interest definitely grew and she eventually, just shy of 2 years, started asking to sit on it.. (more on that shortly). We went with the separate little potty to start because we knew she could easily get on/off it when she first started training.

Here is the potty we got (Amazon affiliate, I may earn from your purchases). I liked it because it is more “aesthetically pleasing” than some options – yes, sometimes I like things to look good in my house but for the most part that has been a major fail!

We read potty books & talked about the potty.

We also purchased a few books around using the potty and made sure to talk about it as often as we could. Even before we wanted her to use it, we talked about potty use just so she began to hear the concept and understand what it was all about.

I was also able to find some potty books at the library – so if you don’t want to purchase potty-related books because you don’t need them forever, you can just borrow them! I ended up saving the one we did purchase for James.

Additionally – if your child watches TV sometimes, there are also a few shows that cover potty related concepts as well! Probably some of your child’s favourites, so it’s worth looking into that too.

Attempt #1: 22-23 Months and the Reward System

So just before Maggie turned 2, she started using the potty (which I know, was so early!). Beyond what I mentioned above (buying a potty + talking/reading about potty), we had around this time just started to ask her if she wanted to try sitting on it at times, like before her bath. And to our amazement – she just started going!

In terms of readiness, she was showing some awareness (since she was able to successfully go) and a desire to try. She was not fully able to pull her own pants down though – which is actually really important unless you want to be there doing it every single time! Some people don’t mind this but it does take away from the independence factor toddlers later crave. She had also started showing some of those physical signs – dry for longer periods during the day and over naps and hiding to go to the washroom.

There was no magic formula to this “attempt” and we weren’t really even attempting – as you can see, she didn’t quite check all the boxes for readiness either. I was very pregnant with James and it was actually terrible timing for me because of this (bending over to help her was not easy!) but I just went with the flow. We did institute a “rewards system” – with a potty magnet board, small treats, and a bigger reward at the end of the week.

Tip: I do not recommend a magnet board with little ones – they just pull them all off and lose them!! This got even worse when James started moving and we still had it out. If you’re doing it, store it away between use.. or just use a whiteboard like method!

For us, the rewards weren’t working after some time. We used some healthier snack options and it was motivating her at first, but she quickly got over it. We tried to offer bigger end of the week rewards, but she didn’t quite understand things that were set in the future yet. I think rewards works better when children are a bit older – maybe the 3-4 range. We personally did not return to doing any type of formal rewards system in our second attempt, but I could see how it could work for others!

Anyways – she was doing really well until James was born and then… it just stopped. Which I knew or predicted would happen.

A new sibling is a common possible trigger for regression, as are other major life changes like starting at childcare or at a new childcare; family challenges or changes; moving; and also, any health issues.

This regression lasted over a month so we sort of hit pause (which is what the AAP states may be needed). There was a lot going on for all of us and with James, our new family member, we wanted to focus on just enjoying the upcoming spring and summer and bonding as a now family of 4.

During this time, there was still potty use but it was not at all consistent. Again, I just continued to let her guide me until we noticed her interest peaked again.

I’m not going to lie – around before she was about to turn 3, I started to get a little bit anxious. I definitely started to do what I now advise against – compare myself to others. A lot of my friends kids who were in the same age group as Maggie had already potty trained successfully and I felt like we were “behind”. Simultaneously though, I knew that you cannot work against a toddler.. she had to be fully on board and motivated to be successful and we just weren’t there. I accepted this and just after her third birthday, there was a change…

Attempt #2: Slow and steady wins the race…

Following her lead was our success story! In the past few months, there was a huge change in her intrinsic motivation and she really wanted to start using the potty consistently. We supported her.

I will also mention, in this time she had started to get dressed on her own (just needs help with shirt and sock fixing) and was now able to pull down and up her own bottoms. She also started getting very uncomfortable in any soiled state.. she wanted to be changed immediately. I think these two signs, combined with a renewed desire, were really “key” to success for us.

There were also three things that we did at this time, that may or may not have helped:

  1. Got underwear that she picked out.. She was really excited to wear big girl underwear and we had purchased it during the first attempt, but this time I let her choose (as a suggestion from other moms). It was very motivating!
  2. Got a travel potty seat – like one that attaches to any toilet with suction cups. I got it from Amazon and this was very key for us in terms of success. We don’t do a ton of travelling in the winter, but in the summer we do so we wanted to be prepared. But also, we noticed that if we did go out, she’d almost always ask to go and we didn’t have a seat! This seat has worked well for us and I keep it in the diaper bag (which we keep in the car for James).
  3. Added potty seats to our big toilets AND got stools – at some point in recent months, Maggie did not want to use the little potty all the time and wanted to use the big one “like us”. So we made sure to have a seat for each of our toilets. Additionally, we made sure to have step stools so that she can access them herself. She can move the stool and set it up and put the potty seat on her own now. This was definitely important for encouraging her and keeping her motivated, as if you have a 3 year old you know they want to do everything themselves.

I think these things were really supportive and led to… success! Maggie is now only in pull-ups at night time and often will stay dry even overnight. She has also recently started at a new childcare centre and has not had issues with regression thus far.

I think that following your child’s lead is key here – and I say that knowing some people have success just picking a weekend to train their child. That didn’t work for us – we just didn’t have the time to do that over a whole weekend and I just didn’t want to have a naked child running about my house haha!! To each their own. You know your child and what works best for them + what you can accommodate. There is more than likely a happy medium where you can meet – but I really do think that waiting for your child to be ready (based on the readiness criteria above) helps, with the most important factor being their own motivation – because we all know that when a toddler doesn’t want to do something well… good luck!

A Quick Evidence Check

It should surprise no one who reads my blog regularly that I did check for studies on potty training, but also that there is basically little to no evidence around most aspects of it. Sigh.

I did manage to find one article that looked at evidence around toilet training and the conclusions were that there is little evidence around any specific method; and that it should only be initiated when both parties (child and yourself, the parents) are ready.

Some evidence suggests that “late training” may result in some problems like UTIs or other similar issues – however existing studies are contradictory in that one said “late” was after 18 months (what?!) and one say after 42 months (makes more sense to be deemed later). Before you take any conclusions from this (either the risks or the use of the word late) – these are only two studies and there is a huge gap in information here. If you have concerns that your child is potty training late, a trip to your care providers should help to answer your questions.

Another study found that training between 18-26 months resulted in a longer period of training – which makes sense to me. We technically started in this window and the training was on and off for like, a year which is crazy to me but it’s also a huge life skill and I think that we as parents, who use the washroom multiple times a day, forget this.

It’s like expecting a child to use a fork or walk perfectly balanced over a weekend, you know? Like I said at the beginning, this is another milestone and should be viewed as such.

There was one study cited that showed that children who were just encouraged to try again, versus being rewarded (or punished, yikes!) were less likely to have issues with incontinence or UTI later. This is interesting, but definitely more research needed to understand the relationship – because it’s just a correlation.

Take away: Implement those supports (what you are comfortable with and what works for both of you), be their cheerleader, and work together when you are both ready to do so. As with many parenting decisions, this is a choice based on preferences mostly (and as always, safety). Do what works best for you and your child, and what is safe! If you have concerns around this milestone, consult a care provider.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: