If you feel as though your 3-year-old is the last kid in her class to master the potty, you’re not alone. While many kids start to show an interest in the potty at 2 years old, recent research indicates that only 40 to 60 percent of children are fully toilet trained by 36 months. The potty training path your child follows will likely be based on temperament, developmental readiness, interest, and even gender, explains Abigail Klemsz, M.D., a pediatrician at Riley Children's Health. “The time it takes to potty train depends on the child. Each of my six kids did it differently,” notes Dr. Klemsz. To help you figure out the best tactics to try, see Dr. Klemsz’s tips below.
Seek out key signs
“Be aware of cues that your child is ready,” says Dr. Klemsz. If you try to push the process too early, you may be in for a long haul. Consider questions such as:
- Does your child ask about the toilet?
- Does he let you know when he’s going to pee or poop?
- Is he able to stay dry for a couple of hours at a time?
- Can he follow simple directions?
- Can he pull up his pants (it’s okay if he needs help)?
If you answered, “yes” to most of these, your child is likely developmentally capable of getting the potty process started.
“Regardless of the method you use, your child is mostly going to dictate how quickly the potty training goes,” says Dr. Klemsz. “So your biggest job is to behave in a positive manner, and not to make the experience negative.” That means you’ll want to give lots of positive reinforcement for successes, such as hugs, praise, and toy trinkets. “Make the act of being on the potty fun,” adds Dr. Klemsz. “I would always have my kids read on the potty, or I would read to them, because the more parents are involved and supportive, the better it is.” When accidents happen, keep your reactions neutral. You might say, “Oh well, we didn’t make it to the potty this time. We’ll keep trying!” Keep your cool so that you don’t turn your child off to the whole endeavor.
Keep the course
What if, despite your 3-year-old’s developmental readiness, she wants nothing to do with the potty? “Make diaper changes very business-like,” says Dr. Klemsz. Whereas previously, diaper changes may have been a chance to connect and cuddle, it’s time to transition your behavior around going to the bathroom. “Dump poop in the toilet to give your child a signal that that’s where pee and poop go,” adds Dr. Klemsz. And if you haven’t done so already, let your child into the bathroom with you so she associates the toilet (not diapers) with going to the bathroom.
Work through fears
Pooping on the potty can be a scary concept for children. To combat the fear, show your child there is no danger versus just telling your child. “You can’t rationalize with a 3-year-old about this,” says Dr. Klemsz. Instead, put your child’s doll on the potty and demonstrate how she is okay with the activity. Or let your child see you on the potty and point out that you are just fine.
Keep things flowing
Beyond the common fear of pooping on the potty, children are simply not used to passing stool in a seated position, so it may be hard for them to get the hang of it. Help keep things flowing through your child’s system by giving him lots of fluids and fiber-filled fruits and vegetables. That should make the act of going to the bathroom easier. If you notice a significant change in your child’s normal pattern (say he used to poop once a day, and now he’s not pooping at all), talk with your pediatrician about constipation solutions. Your doctor may also want to see your child in order to make sure there is no other underlying issue. “Sometimes it just takes backing off on the training for a couple of days to get your child back on track,” says Dr. Klemsz. After all, stress about potty training can lead a child to hold it in, which can cause constipation, and ultimately pain when pooping.
Give it time
“You have to provide the structure, the potty or toilet, and the encouragement, but your kid has to want to do it,” says Dr. Klemsz. And remember that if there are a lot of stressors in your child’s life (like a recent move or a new sibling), it can make potty training tougher. But as long as you give potty training a fair shot, “for most kids, they’ll take to it somewhere between ages 3 and 4,” says Dr. Klemsz. In the meantime, she offers this sage advice: “Instead of looking at potty training as a chore, look at it as a chance to get to know your child better—how she learns and how she adjusts to stress. You’ll learn a lot about your child’s personality and the lessons you learn about your child during potty training will inform how you guide her through other challenges from then on.”