The sweltering summer I was pregnant with twins, I ventured into the uncharted territory of playgrounds. I had heard about a moms’ group that gathered at the park near the hospital where I would give birth.
Even though my babies were still buns in the oven, I couldn’t wait to plug into a network of ladies who knew a thing or two about raising kids in NYC. Without family nearby, that group became my lifeline. In true, pregnant-and-ready-to-burst style, I asked a gazillion questions.
One mom still stands out in my memory nine years later. For one, she brought me the most delicious spaghetti and meatballs a week after my twins arrived.
More vividly, though, I recall one morning in Central Park. She stationed herself in a shady area near the center of the playground, from which she could spot her toddler no matter which direction he wandered. She pointed out her son navigating a ladder. Suddenly, we noticed a wet spot appear and spread down his shorts.
“We’re potty training,” she explained as she rushed over. I glanced around, mortified on her behalf, as she grabbed her stroller and offspring and fled the scene.
Fast forward three years, and I endured my own potty-training marathon. Each of my four children responded to different approaches and took their own time. I’m happy to report that diapers no longer have permanent residence on our shopping list.
Here are some tips that might click for your family—and save you some tears, diapers, and gray hairs along your journey.
Set Everyone Up for Success
1. Explore potty training books with your child. Never underestimate the motivational power of Elmo and Thomas the Train.
2. Check for signs of readiness, such as staying dry longer, an interest in using the toilet, and the ability to pull pants up and down.
3. Offer rewards (stickers, M&M’s, toys, videos, trips, phone calls to Grandma) for accomplishments (sitting on the potty, peeing, pooping, earning 10 stickers, staying dry all day, etc.)
4. Drink lots of fluids to encourage successful bathroom trips. My kids loved the new straw cups that arrived the day we started potty training. They drank so much water, they were constantly needing to pee.
5. Make no plans. Instead, celebrate a successful toilet trip with a diaper-free walk around the block. Then come home, drink up, and get ready for round two.
Get the Right Gear
6. Try various toilet options. With a small, stand-alone potty chair, you can model sitting on the regular toilet while your child sits on her potty. It’s not as intimidating as the big toilet. Store the seat in the tub or shower to save space and contain messes. Or, try a kids-sized seat to place on top of a regular toilet (great for saving space and traveling).
7. Invest in a step stool so little legs feel grounded while sitting on the toilet and kids can reach the sink to wash hands.
8. Teach kids to work their own sticky tabs on regular diapers to avoid Pull-Ups, which are expensive and hard to neatly roll up when soiled.
9. Let kids pick out their “big-kid underwear” as an incentive. Emphasize how cool and comfy they are. More absorbent styles work well for the initial accident stage. Once you leap to underwear, stick with it. Resist reverting to diapers.
There Will Be Accidents
10. Always keep the nearest bathroom on your radar. For kids who are reluctant to use public restrooms, stash a portable potty and plastic bag under your stroller. Or, bring a diaper they can quickly use and discard.
11. Don’t be afraid of accidents. Bring a gallon Ziploc bag filled with wipes and a complete change of clothes (socks too!) wherever you go. Use the bag to contain soiled clothes after an outfit change. No need to cut your outing short.
12. If your child poops in his underwear or diaper, let him watch as you dump the poop into the toilet. Say, “This is where poop goes.” It’s OK to throw away grossly soiled underwear. Otherwise, rinse dirty clothes in the bathtub before laundering.
It’s All about Timing
13. Train during warm weather so kids can roam the house naked without goosebumps. Dealing with accidents outside is also much easier without winter layers.
14. Avoid potty training your toddler while you have your hands full with a newborn. Either train a few months before the new baby arrives (and prepare for backsliding) or wait a couple of months after birth when you can refocus on your toddler.
15. Set your phone alarm to ring hourly so you don’t forget to take a family bathroom trip.
16. To give yourself and/or a reluctant toddler a deadline to work with, stop buying diapers. Show your child the dwindling diaper supply and hype it up. “How exciting! You have 12 more diapers in your drawer, and then it will be time to wear underwear all day!” Let your child pick how many diapers should go in the drawer and hide or give away the rest.
17. Until you’re ready to tackle nighttime and naptime potty training, say matter-of-factly, “We wear underwear during the day and diapers to sleep.”
Potty Training Is Not over Once They’re Big Kids
18. Understand that normal, healthy kids can wet the bed up to 8 years old.
19. Protect the mattress with a waterproof pad. Have extra sheets nearby for nighttime changes. Or, double up as you make the bed so you can peel off the wet sheets and mattress pad in the middle of the night and already have a dry set ready underneath.
20. If you’re fed up with both diapers and wet sheets, wake your child for a midnight bathroom trip.
Hang in there! What resonates with one child may not with the next, so keep calm, avoid power struggles, and get creative. Some kids need a weekend to run around in their birthday suit and see their pee on the floor. Others will learn from playgroup toileting routines. Some will have 100 accidents and others only one. A little patience and a lot of wipes will go a long way.