How we can approach potty training in a loving, non-shaming, and effective way that is based on a clear understanding of children’s developmental needs.
Start with self work
One time, a long time ago, I was babysitting a child who was in the middle of potty training. They had taken to it pretty easily and weren’t having many accidents anymore. We were on our way to their playgroup when the subway stopped between stations and they said they had to pee, like right this second. I saw a puddle start to spread over the seat we were sitting on while they stared at me, confused and surprised. It was really one of those defining moments, where the thing I thought couldn’t possibly happen had happened, and I wasn’t prepared. I realized I could either freak out and everyone would notice and this sweet child would freak out too, or I could just let it go. So, I laughed. I laughed and took off my sweatshirt and soaked up the pee and told them it was fine, it’s just an accident, we can change when we get there.
Just like most things where children are concerned, potty training can be humbling for us caregivers. It can be frustrating, non-linear, smelly, embarrassing. Using the bathroom isn’t something little kids are good at yet—that’s fine. If you’ve gone in your pants for three years, suddenly being told that that’s the wrong thing to do can be confusing and disorienting. They’ll get it eventually, but how you react in that learning time is important. Hear me when I say: it’s not about you. Them peeing on the slide (or the subway) doesn’t make you a bad caregiver, it makes them a normal potty training kid. The more you hold on to embarrassment or shame about their accidents, the more they’ll learn to associate those feelings with using the bathroom, which can cause problems down the line and needlessly stress everyone out!
Early Potty use
If you’re working with someone 18 months or younger
Use cloth diapers from the get-go. They’re about 1,000 times better for the environment and allow a child to actually feel wet, which is an awareness you’ll be working with when you switch to the potty. If your lifestyle works for it, follow elimination communication protocols from as early an age as possible (I’m not the best person to teach you about this, but there’s tons out there).
Otherwise, still use cloth diapers, and start offering the potty around 12-18 months, when children are more mobile and will (no matter what you do!) learn where to put their pee and poop. If you offer the potty they’ll learn to go there, if you offer diapers they’ll learn to go there. I recommend looking into Montessori potty learning advice if you’re working within this phase.
(If you don’t have an easy laundry situation or just don’t feel like dealing with that aspect of cloth diapers, Diaperkind is a great cloth diaper service in New York you could look into)
Toddler Potty training
If you’re working with someone 18 months-3
The goal, when you’re working with children this age, is for them to learn their body’s own signals and understand that instead of just going in their pants like they’ve been taught, they should go in the potty. This is a complex endeavor for a little one! If you try to wait until they’re old enough to grasp the logic of it from an intelectual place, you’ll be waiting a long time. Instead, tie their learning to their experiences—give them opportunities to feel wet, to feel what happens when their pee/poop comes out. Give them opportunities to feel “success” (“wow! You peed in the potty! Now your pants will be dry.”) and don’t put so much pressure on accidents: just like learning anything, we all start off pretty terrible and our mistakes are how we learn.
Close to home. In warmer weather ideally. Roll up your rugs.
I recommend that people start by going pants-free around the house and yard. Make a weekend (or week) of it! This can also be a great strategy if you’re on a beach or country vacation where you won’t have to get in any cars for a few days and they can just run around naked. Your kid will pee on the floor. They may well poop on the floor. But they’ll learn much more quickly to be aware of what is coming out of their bodies, and they won’t equate the feeling of peeing in underpants with the “correct” feeling they’ve learned of peeing in a diaper. Have a little potty nearby at all times.
A few starting tips:
Avoid a reward/punishment system. The goal here is that they figure out that not sitting in their own pee is a reward in and of itself! Bribery in general tends not to work to develop habits in the long run, as we learn to associate accomplishment with external motivators, rather than the intrinsic value of the activity.
If you want to “explain” what’s happening, you can say: "You can learn to put your pee in the potty now!" Saying "like a big kid" works for some kids, but can be a little scary to others who actually are really just fine being a little kid for now! You could mention their friends who have learned to pee in the potty, or just say "like me!"
For children with penises, sitting down to pee is ideal (though some might see a caregiver pee standing up and be really into imitating that, in which case I wouldn't push it.) It takes the "aiming" out of the equation, and often they actually have some poop that has to come out too. Depending on their body, some children might need to learn to gently poke their penis down a little, so they don't pee up. I find that being pants-free can help with this, because they can spread their legs wider and often their penis will hang down more when they adjust their pelvis like that.
Take some deep breaths, this is all normal, we’ve all done it.
you have to leave the house eventually
Now comes the transition to underwear. Still be pants-free as much as possible—at home, in nature, at the houses of very understanding friends… Dresses are also great for this transition as they offer some coverage without the need to push them down/pull them up.
First underwear should be "training pants:" underwear with built in absorbency, like period panties but for children and pee. (weird metaphor?) They won't totally sop up a pee like a pull-up, but they help a lot--you usually won't have a pee dribbling down their legs and onto the subway floor. They also learn that when they pee in their pants they get wet, while pull-ups/paper diapers are too absorbent and moisute-wicking for them to feel wet.
When they do inevitably pee in their pants, don't make a big deal out of it! The phrase I use is "oh! I see you peed in your pants. if you pee in the potty your pants (or the floor) will stay clean and dry!" That way you’re tying in the inherent reward of staying clean and dry, rather than shaming them for messing up in a process that can take a while! Stay casual, chill, and matter-of fact about the whole thing.
When you start venturing out, you need to have a plan for inevitable urgent calls of nature. Children can’t hold it for very long, so searching for a Starbucks when they say they have to go will cause undue stress to everyone and usually result in an accident anyways. Depending on how comfortable you are with such things and where you live, you can just teach them to “nature pee.” You can also get a travel potty (more below) that you can break out anywhere—the side of the road, the back of your car, the corner of the playground…
If your child is regularly waking up dry, I recommend going diaper-free at night too. You can get a waterproof mattress pad just in case and put a little potty next to their bed for a first thing in the morning pee try. For older children, the message of "you want to stay clean and dry so put your pee in the potty, but at night actually it's fine to pee in your pants" can be confusing! Younger children can't always hold their pee all night, and a nightime diaper will save a caregiver having to wake up and help them with the potty a few times a night, which will make everyone happier.
You’ll need potties: one for travel (the foldable “potette” is my all-time favorite), and one for home. When they start using the big toilet, a seat reducer will be helpful (I like this one because it’s built right in, so they can be more independent!) as will a dedicated stool so they can get up and down by themselves (a squatty potty actually works really well for this, tucks away neatly in tiny bathrooms, and helps with grownup pooping.)
When you introduce pants back into the equation, be sure to find some that are stretchy and easy for the child to to push down/pull up on their own—elastic waists are best! Training pants are also essential. If you’re worried about leaks at first even with the added absorbency, you can get/continue to use cloth diaper covers over them, which should really eliminate the chance of puddles. Be sure to carry a wet bag with you for when they do inevitably wet their pants: they’re more functional, less ugly, and more earth-friendly than just using plastic grocery bags. Bonus tip: you can store your used travel potty in one too!
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