A Resource for Nannies and Families

Potty Training Tips

There are three basic approaches:

1. letting children train themselves,
2. training the caregiver to remind and require the child to sit on the potty at scheduled times
3. awareness of bodily sensations

When you consider also whether to use rewards and consequences, there is a lot for parent and nanny to talk about when deciding how to guide a particular child.


Don’t expect just to plunk the child down and see him produce. Start by providing experience in just sitting on the potty or toilet — usually fully clothed unless your child insists otherwise. Let him see how easily training pants pull up and down: with thumbs hooked under the waistband on each side, he can do it by himself.

To demonstrate the toiletting process, you can, depending on willingness and availability, use yourself, the same-sex parent and/or sibling, an adored older neighbor child or cousin, and/or a doll, suggesting that the child help the doll practice.

Teach handwashing well before toiletting, and the skill will be in place when needed. Put a sturdy stool by the sink and demonstrate, one step at a time, turning water on and off, washing, rinsing, and drying. Liquid soap bottled in the shape of a favorite character will be more fun — and it dispenses the right amount of soap.

Letting the Child Train Himself

A very forward, independent, and imitative child would be a good candidate for this method, and self-motivated children (who are also ready) usually train easily. Give the child a potty, show him what it’s for, tell him he can use it instead of diapers when he wants to. Then wait without prompting or pressure until the child asks to use it, and give help as requested. This works nicely for easygoing parents/caregivers who can be patient with what might be a long process, or whose priority is minimizing struggles between themselves and the child.

Catch and Remind

This method may suit a child who is eager to please, or hasn’t yet hit the “terrible 2’s.” An oppositional child is not a good candidate because he may not relax and release on the potty even when she tries. In preparation, make a chart of those times of day when the child routinely eliminates. Take her to the potty just before she is expected to “go” — just after meals, 20 minutes after a drink, etc.

Every 1-1/2 to 2 hours, take her to the potty just to “try.” It helps to spend several relaxing minutes reading, singing, or playing with your child, or providing special potty-time-only books and toys while she sits — to relax those sphincter muscles. Praise this sitting, or reward it, with special emphasis when the child succeeds in eliminating into the potty.

This method can save a lot of diapers, and it can be comfortable for adults who like to be involved. Also, since the child is sitting on the potty often and for several minutes at a time, she’s apt to experience many encouraging successes whether intentional or not. Toddlers often resist leaving an interesting activity in order to use the potty, so say “It’s time to go,” rather than asking if she wants or needs to — and consider incentives.

Plan ahead: choose a week that’s free of distractions and focus primarily on training — a week for your trainee to adjust to the routine, though she will not necessarily be fully trained.

Body Awareness

Here the caregiver uses the child’s own behavior to encourage his awareness of bodily sensations. While children don’t naturally associate the sensations of elimination with what comes out, you can help make that connection by pointing it out. Remind him as the need arises to make the trip to the potty. Eventually he will initiate these trips himself. A child in diapers may be treated to gradually increased “panty time” during the day (starting with an hour or two daily), or given the choice each morning of wearing diapers or panties for the day.

Toileting Fears

Some children develop fear of the sound of flushing, of falling into the water, or of being flushed away with the water and waste. They can be good candidates for potties rather than for training on a toilet — or toss a largish doll or toy in and flush to demonstrate that it will not disasppear. (I heard of one woman who stuck her foot in the toilet to prove it wouldn’t fit down the hole.)
Sometimes a special seat that fits on the toilet will ease these fears. Short “practice” sessions sitting on the toilet may convince a child that he won’t fall in. Teach a child who is afraid of the sound to cover her ears — it may allow her to feel she controls the noise, so the fear can subside.

A boy who begins to clutch his penis and talk about people or things being cut (or bitten) off may be seeing feces in a toilet as penis-shapes being flushed away — he’ll need reassurance that his penis will always be on his body where it belongs.

If a child sees his waste as a part of him being callously thrown away, explain that pee and poop are what’s left from our food and drink after our bodies have taken all the good stuff out. It is the part our bodies don’t need, the “trash” that bodies want to throw in their special “waste baskets” or whatever image the child can accept.

When practicality doesn’t serve, fantasy may work for the fanciful child. One of my charges expressed a fear that her pee and poop was scared to get flushed away. Addressing it on her terms, I enthused, “Oh, no — all the other pee and poop is waiting for yours. They’re going to say ‘Hooray! You’re here!’ and have a party!” That turned her around — from then on she used the potty with confidence, waved cheerfully as she flushed, and told Pee and Poop to have fun at their party. It worked.

Tips to Make Potty Training Easier

When it comes to potty training, adult attention is so important, first for consistency, because the more promptly you respond to his need to “go,” the sooner he’ll learn to respond likewise.

But there’s another basic reason: as disturbing as it is to your child to let potty breaks interrupt playtime, your undivided attention sitting beside him to read or play can make potty time a sweet deal. It’s almost as sweet a deal as remaining a “baby” in diapers. You see, toileting is one of the first absolute responsibilities that a small child is asked to accept. It helps him tremendously to get something concrete in return.

Further suggestions:

  • Consider setting a timer to ring at potty time, so you are not the bad guy interrupting play.
  • When requiring a child to sit, use consistent times each day: prime potty times are just after meals, 20 minutes after drinks, and just before bed
  • Make frequent opportunities for practice by offering lots of liquids.
  • Wave cheerfully with the child as everything flushes away. This ceremony helps the child separate from what was only moments ago part of his very body.
  • Parents/caregivers usually need to help with wiping for quite some time before otherwise trained children can master cleaning themselves. Poor hygiene leaves little girls at risk for painful urinary tract infections during toilet training — help them learn to wipe from front to back to avoid spreading germs from anus to urethra.
  • Some boys may be completely uncooperative and then turn around once Daddy takes over the encouragement and rewards.
  • Some children do well with disposable pull-ups, but for others they are so much like regular diapers that there’s confusion about expectations and little urgency to train.
  • If pull-ups don’t work for you, consider using them only for naps (over the underwear, once the child has shown some success at staying dry at nap time) and at nighttime as “big-kid sleeping pants.”
  • Pull-ups can also be reserved as insurance for outings to places or events where a leaky toileting accident would be a disaster, such as a visit to Great Aunt Betty’s fully-upholstered antique-laden family gathering.
  • Consider making potty training part of a neighborhood play group in which your friends and their potty-ready children get together regularly for play and pot-sitting. Adults have each other as support, and kids have each other as audience and role models.
  • Remind yourself to take a deep breath and let it out slowly when frustrated or impatient.
  • Be patient with accidents and regressions, but give yourself a treat at the end of a difficult day. Acknowledge to yourself as well as to the child that toilet mastery does not (usually) come easily, and that you can both be proud of all your hard work and persistence.

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