Many have asked about how my wife and I potty trained both of kids around age two. I have been hesitant to offer a full account of what we did because I think it misses the point: The goal is not and cannot be to have your child use the potty on a deadline. A child must learn to use the potty when they are ready to, and it must be THEIR idea, not yours. You cannot have an agenda with regard to learning to use the potty, else it will backfire and become a power struggle between you and your child (which you will lose), rather than a source of pride for them.
What we did is a hybrid of RIE principles and Elimination Communication (EC). Generally I’m a huge advocate of RIE and not a fan of EC because EC misses the point — a parent should spend their time and energy connecting with their child’s mind, not their bowel movements. But many of the techniques are taken from EC, so I want to give proper credit.
Also, I don’t like to call what we did “potty training” because the focus is not on the parent training the child, but rather the child learning a skill for themselves. “Potty learning” is a better description of what we did. So, with that frame of mind, here are the guidelines we developed and followed:
Offer Potty Opportunities.
When our kids were infants, as part of the diaper change process (and when it was convenient for us), would hold them over the sink and give them an opportunity to pee. When they did, we’d observe “you’re going pee.” No praise or “good job” or disappointment if it didn’t happen.
We’d also offer the potty at routine times, such as after waking up or before going in the car for a road trip. Again, offering an opportunity is not the same thing as making it happen. If the child says “no,” always respect that.
Model the Behavior.
We always had a kiddie potty in the bathroom. I would bring my children in the bathroom with me when I had to go and just let them observe.
Occasionally I would lightly prompt my son or daughter when going to the bathroom myself: “Do you want to try to sit on your potty?” If the answer was no, no problem. “Okay, if you want to try to use the potty just let me know.”
When to Offer Underwear.
At a certain point we would offer our kids underwear to wear. The prerequisites include your child having the physical skills to use the bathroom, such as being able to get on and off the potty and sit on it, pulling pants and underwear down, etc. Potty independence can’t come until they are physically capable of using the toilet. Children’s toilets and easy-to-use clothes help facilitate this.
Once we were confident in their abilities (and we were ready), and the child showed at least some interest, we would give the option of wearing underwear after a diaper change. Again, this must be the child’s own choosing, so give the option. “Do you want me to put on a diaper or wear underwear?” No shame, praise, judgement, and communicate only acceptance: either way must be fine with you.
Set Limits Around the Process.
We would also set limits around the bathroom. When our son wandered into the bathroom and wanted to flush the toilet, for example, we would stop him and say, “Flushing is for after you pee or poo. When you make potty, then you can flush.” Same with toilet paper. I think that motivated him a bit too, because he was interested in the mechanics of it all (our daughter, on the other hand, showed little interest in the process outside of actually doing it, so your mileage may vary).
Dealing With Accidents.
We did have accidents. Whenever we had two or three in a row (even if the child said he wanted underwear), I would put the child back in diapers for the rest of the day. Then I would offer underwear the next day and go from there (one time my MIL put a lot of pressure on him about the potty and he had a lot of anxiety wearing underwear so I put him back in diapers and didn’t offer underwear again for a week).
We would offer the same choice at night (cringing when he chose underwear!). We had much fewer accidents than you might imagine. In fact, both our son and daughter were dry sleeping through the night long before he was not having accidents during the daytime! Also oddly enough, both our kids were 100% with bowel movements after a week or two. We never had a problem there. Pee was harder, especially when playing or doing anything really stimulating.
With accidents, you don’t make a deal about it. Just clean it up, involve the child if you want to and he wants to. It’s best to be straight forward, even-keeled and matter of fact about all this.
Do Not Prompt to Use the Bathroom.
Aside from offering routine potty opportunities, DO NOT prompt your child to use the bathroom, even if it’s been a long time. If you are constantly reminding your child to use the potty, he or she will never learn to initiate going to the bathroom on their own. They will rely on your prompting rather than learn to listen to their own body.
Yes, prompting may save a few short-term accidents, but skips learning a necessary step for the whole process. On a recent road trip, my daughter (now three years) was able to communicate the need to use the bathroom with ample time to stop at the next gas station without an accident.
In all, it was a much longer process than I imagined, but it was also a lot EASIER than I imagined. Both our kids started to really want to wear underwear around two years and we were pretty much accident free after a couple of months (bowel movements and sleeping at night not an issue after a week or two).
The hardest part is letting go and not having an agenda to potty train. If he had chose to wear diapers and wasn’t interested in underwear until after three years old, that would have been fine with me.
It was much more important that using the potty was my child’s idea, not mine. I think our children are much the prouder for it, too. The child is doing it for himself, not to please a parent or to avoid punishment if a mistake is made.
Finally, I want to make clear that this is not the RIE approach to potty learning and is much more “leading” and prompting than is typically advised in RIE. For example, in RIE one would wait for the child to ask for underwear rather than prompt the child for it (even as a choice), and would not advocate holding your infant over the potty during a diaper change (this worked occasionally for our son but our daughter never took to it). And while I think our approach was ultimately respectful and still offered the child the benefit of autonomy and it being their “own idea,” you obviously must make your own assessment about what works best for your family. I offer this post only as one possible approach that you are free to adopt, adapt, or or throw away completely.