Guess what? You don’t have to potty train your kids

Instead, set up conditions so your child can learn.

child led potty training

The simple truth about toilet training is that if the child is ready, it happens very easily. If not, a power struggle often ensues—and we all know that no one wins a parent-child power struggle. Fights with your child about his or her body are fights you will probably never win.

Luckily there isn't really a reason to fight with your child about this. Moving from diapers to being self-sufficient to use the toilet is a natural process. Humans have been doing it for a long time—they all get out of diapers sooner or later.

So you don't actually need to "toilet train" your child. Instead, set up conditions so your child can learn. Your goal is to make it as easy and effortless as possible. Think of this as a process of learning that unfolds over time, like all other learning and mastery.

Here are some pointers for child-led potty learning.


Potty do's

Remember that most kids learn through modeling. Start talking about what you're doing in the bathroom. Let your child watch. Boys will benefit by watching other boys or their father use the toilet. Kids also love to copy other kids, so slightly older cousins or friends who are willing to use the bathroom in front of your toddler can be invaluable in modeling. For boys, you might make a game of it by putting a small bulls-eye in the toilet for them to aim at.

I strongly recommend having a potty in each bathroom of the house. That way, kids can practice sitting whenever they want, including while they keep you company in the bathroom. [Editor's note: This compact potty is one of our faves—it's perfect for moving around the house or taking on-the-go.]

Make it a habit. At first your child will probably need help recognizing the signals that mean it's time to head to the bathroom. If you notice them getting antsy, or starting to squat behind the couch, you'll need to remind them. Every time your child does notice and tells you that they need to use the bathroom, even if they don't make it in time, is an opportunity to admire their progress in the right direction.

After they're used to sitting on the potty clothed, ask them regularly if they wants to sit on it naked. Sometimes they will say yes, and sometimes no. Don't make a big deal of it. Your goal is just for them to get completely comfortable. Read potty books and other books to them while they sit there. Toddlers are busy. You have to make the potty a place they love being if you want them to spend enough time there to let anything come out.

Notice when they give signs that they are about to defecate. Becoming quiet, withdrawing to squat in private—give them language for what's happening: "Are you ready to poop? Do you want to do it in the bathroom?" Humans naturally like privacy when they defecate, and it's fine if your child wants to go off by themselves. Remind them that the bathroom is a great place for poop, that you will help them take off their poopy diaper whenever they are ready. It may take them awhile to begin telling you, but they will begin to learn the concept that when they feel like this, it's time to go into to the bathroom. Eventually, they will probably be pooping in their diaper in the bathroom. Once that's a habit, you can ask if they want to try sitting on the potty to poop, even with their diaper on.

When they do pee or poop in the potty, be sure to celebrate with a special song and dance or parade through the house. But be sure you're celebrating other things, too, like their climb to the top of the play structure, or the sun coming out. Don't make such a big a deal of using the potty that the pressure on your child makes them anxious. they aren't confident yet of their abilities, so don't make them feel like they have to repeat their use of the potty—this should be their choice. Remember to let your child be in control of the process. No pressure.

Be open if they request a toilet seat. Many toddlers squat to poop and prefer a potty that allows them to assume a similar position. They prefer a potty because they are afraid of falling into the big toilet ,or they're afraid of the flush. Some kids, however, will want to get a seat that goes right on the big toilet. If so, be sure their feet rest securely on a stool. Dangling legs tighten rectal muscles and make defecation difficult.

If you're buying a seat to go on the potty, find one they love. Flip seats have a regular toilet seat plus a training seat. Some kids will love a seat that makes music when something is deposited in it. Just google potty training seats and you'll have lots of choices.

Institute regular times when you both use the potty. First thing in the morning, after breakfast, before snack, before and after lunch, etc. Your child doesn't have to go, just to sit with you while you go, and to try himself. Make clear that the rule applies to you, also, so your child doesn't feel singled out. This will help your child's body move onto a schedule, which will be a bit easier for them to manage. Of course, if they ask to go on their own schedule, cheer them on for listening to their own body. Usually, over time, they will ask more and more, gradually taking on the responsibility.

If your child is afraid to use the potty, help them with their fears. Any silly, playful games that get your child giggling about the potty will help them let their anxieties about the potty evaporate. Here's a letter about helping your child with their fear by playing: Toddler with Potty Learning Fears

Watch for constipation. Many children—especially those who don't eat as many vegetables or whole-grains, or who don't get as much exercise—tend toward harder stools. That makes them more likely to put off pooping for as long as possible. This can happen even before a child is out of diapers, but it is especially prevalent once a child is using the potty, because it requires them to stop what they're doing and go to the bathroom.

The more the child gets in the habit of procrastinating, the harder the poo gets and more painful to pass, and the more the child avoids it. The problem with this is, even children who eliminate on a daily basis often build up fecal matter inside their bodies. This can deaden the usual sensitivity of the child to the need to use the toilet, so the child doesn't even know they needs to go. And since it pushes on the bladder, it can also cause pee accidents and even bed wetting. Unfortunately, most parents whose child is in this situation don't even know their child is constipated and don't understand why they're having accidents, until an x-ray reveals the extended rectum. For more info on this issue, I recommend, The M.O.P. Book: A Guide to the Only Proven Way to STOP Bedwetting and Accidents by Dr. Steve Hodges.

Potty don'ts

Don't begin toilet learning under pressure. Wait till you have some time when you can be relaxed and attentive to your child. Many preschools demand that children are toilet trained. That kind of pressure can only be bad for you and your child.

Don't be in a hurry to start. Just encourage your child to sit, fully clothed, on his potty. It builds muscle memory for your child to get on and off the potty, and you want them to feel comfortable sitting there. Make sitting on the toilet festive and fun, well before they even think about peeing in it. For instance, be sure there is a stash of books next to the potty. Sing silly songs or give special cheers each time they get on and off the potty. But never force your child to sit on the potty, or to stay there.

Don't worry about accidents. Don't express any disappointment at "accidents," or you'll make the stakes too high, and your child may rebel or give up. Instead, respond to accidents by shrugging, and saying with a warm smile, "Oh well, accidents are how we learn. Soon you'll get it in the potty every time. Let's go in and try again." Accidents are a step in the right direction, when your child learns from them without getting discouraged. If your child has noticed themselves the accident as soon as it started, but hasn't made it to the bathroom, encourage them, "You noticed as soon as you started to pee! Good for you! Let's go quick to the bathroom in case there's more to come out. Then we'll clean this up together. You noticed yourself when you needed the potty! Next time you'll probably notice sooner and get all the way to the bathroom!"

Be enthusiastic but never pushy. Pushiness complicates potty-learning. Never punish or disapprove of your child when they have an accident, or it will backfire.

Don't make the move into underwear until your child insists. In fact, try to avoid mentioning underwear until your child brings it up. Let it be their idea.

Remember, learning takes time, and you're there for support.

You can set the stage, but your child has to do the work. The MOST important secret for stress-free potty learning is that the child be ready. If you push your child, you may end up with serious issues, from a child with constant accidents, to power struggles, to a child with fecal retention.

Wait until they are ready. Does it really matter when that is? Sooner or later, everyone uses toilets. Handled with good cheer and confidence, they will master it in good time, and the process of toilet learning will be enormously empowering for your child. This is a big step for your son or daughter. Your job is to make it a positive one.

We've got what you need to set the stage for success. Check out these popular favorites from The Motherly Shop.

BABYBJÖRN smart potty

Baby Bjorn smart potty

We love this super portable, easy-to-clean potty chair. Keep one in each bathroom for easy access and bring one along when you're out and about.

$20

Puj easy seat toilet trainer

Puj easy toilet seat trainer

Toilet seat trainers are great for little ones who aren't intimidated by the grown-up potty. This soft, stain-resistant and anti-microbial insert is comfortable on little tushies and makes clean up a breeze. Win win!

$15

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[This post was originally published November, 2017. It has been updated.]