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Learning to Use the Potty

Dear Debi,
I’m currently trying to potty train my 3-year-old son, but he seems to have a hard time telling me when he has to use the bathroom. How long should it take for him to use the potty?
Flor Bolańos
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Children must be physically, cognitively & emotionally ready
  • Every child learns to use the toilet at his own pace
  • Encouragement & positive feedback are most effective
  • Communication within children’s circle of care is essential to avoid regression
Expert Advice
Susan Baxter
Susan Baxter
Early education instructor
Instead of “potty training,” we should really refer to this as “toilet learning.” The idea is that parents and care providers are helping a child to learn how to use the toilet. It’s a developmental process – not something we train children for. Developmentally it is no different from the concept of sitting up or walking. In these cases the child learns the skill when he’s ready, and toilet learning is the same.

Parents should begin to teach their child to use the toilet when a combination of two things happen – the child is showing interest in the process and his body and language skills are developmentally ready. This means that you would observe signs such as: the children being dry for longer periods of time (which usually means greater bladder control), they can walk to the toilet, they can dress themselves, and they can communicate their needs.

When learning to use the toilet, a toddler may show progress, and then suddenly regress and go backwards again. It happens in all areas of development. The reasons can vary, but the most common reasons include major changes in family rhythms, such as moving to a new home, a new baby being born, or a change in child care arrangements. Another possibility is that toddlers and preschool children do not "multitask" very well, so having just learned to use the toilet and then starting to pick up on a new, more demanding skill, they may lose focus on the toilet learning. It takes a while for them to build on their repertoire. I think that we just notice it more because it is the adult who can be anxious about the success of toilet learning.

Adults should manage a child’s accidents by being prepared, calm and matter of fact. “Oops! We didn't get to the toilet in time. Let’s see what pair of dry pants we have in the bag today?" Whatever parents do, they should never shame the child or get angry or frustrated. These responses actually delay the learning process and cause the child a great deal of anxiety. Toilet learning takes time. There are a lot of new skills the children need to incorporate, such as undressing, dressing, sitting down in a whole new way, wiping, flushing, and washing.

For those parents who feel that their child should learn to use the toilet by a certain age, I recommend they relax, stay calm and trust the process. Their children have already learned so many other developmental skills on their own, like feeding themselves, walking, climbing and talking. They will learn to use the toilet too when they are ready. Preschool children naturally strive to be independent. Our job is to know the signs of when they are ready and to make the bathroom as routine, easy and accessible as possible. Don’t discourage them by becoming frustrated or shaming them. Be supportive of all their attempts and efforts.
Child Care Provider Comments
Deborah Vasquez
Deborah Vasquez
Grandmother of 12
I realized my grandchild was ready to learn how to use the toilet when one day she just pointed at the toilet and she was pulling on her diaper. So my daughter and I put her on the toilet and she actually went. Sometimes I would put her on the toilet before bath time so that she could get used to the potty. She is small so I take her to the bathroom with me. She mimics me and wants to sit on the big potty, too.
David Cooley
David Cooley
Father of one daughter
Anytime my daughter wanted to sit on the potty, we practiced and we let her sit on it for fun. She didn’t really understand the concept before. It’s been a huge help that they have started talking about it at her preschool. We had a potty for her when she was a year old so that she would be comfortable. She didn’t do much with it. She never used it. The first time she went potty was at school at one of the potty parties. We made a big deal about it when she went at home and at school, so she was just excited to use the potty.
Darlene Patterson
Darlene Patterson
Family child care provider for 22 years and mother of three
In my experience, it seems like kids aren’t fully ready until they are about three years old. It’s never good to force them. It could be a very scary and intimidating thing. If a child feels forced, they will hold it and won’t use it at all. They have to learn how to control their bladder. You have to make it fun. I love the seat covers because they can sit on top of the “big” toilet seats.

Potty Learning Techniques Featured Activity:
Potty Learning Techniques
Learning to Use the Potty Featured Video:
Learning to Use the Potty
Topic: Health & Safety
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