Child-Led Potty Training: V Style

We started the process of potty training with V when she was 16 months old.  At the time, she was saying “Butt” when she had to go potty, and trying to help mom and dad wipe.  She was putting her dolly on the potty.  We thought we’d capitalize on her interest and start potty training.

She took right to the potty chair, then progressed to using her travel potty seat at the American Museum of Art.  She did both #1 and #2’s the first week.  She had days with only one accident. So we were pretty thrilled parents of a potty enthusiastic child, thinking she would have this potty training down before she even turned two.  Little did we know the long potty training journey was only beginning for us…

We quickly learned that as a new potty milestone was mastered, V lost interest.  For months, she alternated between periods of successful potty use and periods where she showed a complete resistance to going on the potty.

We tried a few methods:  using a timer to help us remember to put her on the potty.  That ended up being a battle of wills and so that method was summarily abandoned.  Thinking that the use of disposable training pants (we replaced cloth diapers with training pants as an incentive when V first started using the potty) was perhaps stinting our progress by absorbing like a diaper, I put her in big girl undies that were repeatedly soiled.  I gave that effort up after a frustrating three days where she and I both felt like we were spending all our time cleaning up messes.

Ultimately, we decided on a child-led potty training course.  When V wanted to go potty, we put her on the potty.  When she wanted to use the big girl potty with her seat, that’s what we did.  When she wanted to use her training potty, she did.  We would ask and remind her gently, and sometimes put her on the potty when she was compliant but disinterested.  We had weeks of great interest, and weeks where we backed off training completely.  Since V started learning so young, and had not had any difficulty learning how to use the potty, I figured it was a matter of readiness.

Around March or April of this year, potty interest peaked for all of us.  We were tired of shelling out the money for expensive training pants and/or dealing with the leaks in her cloth diapers (we resumed using these sometimes so she would sense when she was wet).  She started sticking her hands down her backside after a BM, disgusted with what she found.  (SUCH a GROSS experience for both of us!)   And she wanted to wear big girl panties.  So here’s what we did:

We made a sticker page to hang in the bathroom.  She earned “stickers for pees, candies for poops.”  (A suggestion with the whole candy thing:  give only a few M&M’s or chocolate chips.  I made the mistake of letting her take a handful when she went and that led to some sugar fueled days.  Also, I don’t like the food coloring in M&Ms, so we switched to a homemade cookie, animal crackers, or chocolate chips based on what motivated her on that particular day.)  We told her that if she went for a whole day with only one or two accidents, she could wear big girl underwear.  After a period of weeks, and obsessive reading of Girls’ Potty Time, a potty training book she loves, we switched to underwear like the big girls in the book.  Another incentive was the “potty party” we promised to her when she would go all the time on the potty.

The week finally arrived when she wore underwear all week, having spots of accidents but making a concerted effort to go every time.  We set the timer as a reminder, but if she said she did not have to go, for the most part, I didn’t push it.  She did learn that when I reminded her to go, and she didn’t go, she might have an accident.    There were a few days when we seemed to have more accidents than either she or I would like.  When we both were feeling burned out of potty training, we sometimes made use of training pants so that we could get a break and relieve some of the pressure.  Typically, this was late morning, right around lunch, when we both were busy eating and getting ready for naptime.  After naptime, we would try using real underwear again.

We celebrated V’s potty party with her Grammy, Auntie K, Uncle J, and Cousin A during a well-timed visit.  We had a special cake, Star Wars napkins and plates, and a few gifts I had picked up from various dollar bins (Star Wars coloring books!).  She loved her potty party, though she slightly confused it with her birthday!

For travel, nap, and bedtimes, we used training pants initially.  Now, V mainly wears underwear when we go out, unless the trip will be longer than 45 minutes.  I have her go on the potty before we leave, and she has made a 50 minute trip wearing big girl underwear with no accidents.  The trick is to pack lots of back up clothes (keep some in the car).  I also put a folded up cloth diaper in the bottom of her car seat for easy clean up in case of accidents and keep others in the car to replace used ones.  Make sure you have plastic bags handy for wet clothes.  I now leave V in underwear during her naps, and we have noticed that she has made it through several nights with  dry training pants.

V is fully day-time potty trained now.  We have an occasional accident but more accident free days than not at this point.  We plan to gradually work on nighttime training as we observe her having more dry training pants and initiating visits to the potty throughout the night.

While we did not follow any one training routine or philosophy, here are some lessons I would share with those getting ready to start the process:

  1.  Follow the lead of your child. Remind gently but back off when you find yourself pressuring rather than supporting.
  2. Keep training positive.  Give lots of praise for effort.  Praise your child’s efforts to other people where they can “overhear” you. Use incentives where appropriate to provide encouragement but make sure they are something you feel comfortable with (if you don’t want your kid eating a ton of candy, don’t introduce it as an incentive…).  Remember that incentives only work if your child is ready.
  3. Allow for training hiatuses.
  4. If you feel yourself getting angry at your child for accidents, put them back in diapers and give both of you a break from training.  Spend time together connecting and try again when you are both in a better emotional space.
  5. No one method works for all children.  Do what feels best for you and your child, but be open to ideas and integrate them into your potty training routines.
  6. Remember that all children learn to use the potty eventually.  It will happen!
  7. Always keep spare clothes and clean up materials handy!  Teach your child to wash their hands after every potty attempt.
  8. Prepare yourself for periods of intense training where you spend a good portion of the time in the bathroom with your child and little else gets done.
  9. Read to your child on the potty; this helps them relax, you get in some quality time, and they enjoy some wonderful stories.
  10. Remember that use of incentives will fade as they get the hang of things.  V has lost interest in her stickers and sometimes forgets her candies.  If they don’t ask, don’t remind them, just let the potty routines become habit and the incentives evaporate.

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