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8 Lessons from Active Potty Training

I asked two mothers I admired when they potty trained their now pre-adolescent children. They both didn’t seem to remember and said, 'it just happened.' 

I was anxious. It seemed like a very grown up thing to do - teach a human how to use the toilet. We didn’t really cinch house training with the fuzzball so I severely doubted my ability to teach another living being this essential life skill.

I’d bought the No-Cry Potty Training Solution around the same time I bought the No-Cry Nap Solution but only got around to reading it when E was 10-months old. We had minor successes with getting her to eliminate in the potty (read about our adventures here) but I think she forced herself to learn how to walk because she just wanted to get away from the potty. The poor expensive potty sat in a corner of the bathroom, unused.

We didn’t force her to use it because we’d read enough Freud or at least the Wikipedia entry on Freud to suspect that the premature potty training of an unwilling child might manifest in unknown and unwanted ways in her later life. 

So when when we’d talked about it pre-baby, we were very clear that there was to be no shaming or forcing her to use the potty. That, as when she was ready, she’d use it. Still, as we neared her second birthday and she was continuing to showing no interest in using the potty, we started getting concerned about sending a child in diapers to preschool.

Since we had been pre-potty training E for over a year, she was familiar with with the products of elimination and their rightful place in the world. Still, we needed to transition from diaper to toilet.

Here are my learnings from my yet-to-be-concluded experiment of potty training a 2-year old.

#1 - It Will Take Time

Super important lesson, this one. Don't get fooled by those, "Potty Train Your Child in 3 Days" clickbait ad-traps. Potty training can be stressful for a first-time mother because, let's be honest here, you're on as steep a learning curve as your baby is.

I tried the quick-fix, potty training your baby in three days thing. I failed halfway through Day 1. I found it nerve-wracking, setting all the timers and keeping an eye on a baby with no pants on, waiting for the millisecond that she starts to relieve herself so that I can race her to the potty-seat.

What's more, this is how we trained the fuzzball. The dog is 7-years old and quite far from housebroken.

We tried the same tactic a month later. When we ended up with a trail of poop from the bathroom to the nursery and maybe even a wall, the lesson was learnt.

Don't look for a quick-fix, short-term, high-stress solution for a lifetime habit. It will backfire.
Pretty much.

#2 - It Will Take Multiple Attempts

It's okay to fail at this. In fact, the second you start feeling overwhelmed or you think you're stressing your baby out with all the 'pee here, don't pee here' nonsense. Stop. Take a break. Take a step back and try to look at the big picture. Think about how you could incentivise using the toilet for your child. Think about whether you want to incentivise the process.

Your child is not going to be in diapers forever. You're either going to teach the child or let her wear diapers until she's old enough to say, "Mom, this is embarrassing. I'm going to use the toilet from now on."

So if it's becoming stressful (for you or your child), ease off and try again in a month. Signs of stress in a child include, refusal to eliminate in the potty, screaming or crying when placed on the potty, eliminating everywhere but the potty. Signs of stress in a parent include, getting angry at the child for not learning, lack of motivation, and an overwhelming tendency to open a bottle of wine at noon.

When you cease active potty training, remember that you're then pre-potty training. So you can't stop the messages. You can do little things everyday to mentally prepare her (and yourself) for the next attempt. You could:
  1. Show her your underpants pervy, I know and show her how you don't wear diapers.
  2. Include her in your bathroom expeditions. Show her how you sit and pee. Ask her to hand you some toilet paper. Include her in pushing the flush button (kids love this).
  3. Don't change her diaper frequently - let it get a little uncomfortable for her so that when you do finally change her diaper, you can talk to her about how diapers are uncomfortable but underpants aren't.
  4. Praise her for a dry diaper. 
  5. Conversely, make a big show of throwing the poop from a poopy diaper into the toilet and flushing it. Reiterating, "Poo-poo goes in potty. Not in the diaper."
  6. Change diaper brands - go for a cheaper alternative so that it gets uncomfortable for her faster. I switched from Pampers to Libero - cheaper on the wallet and it got the job done - she started asking for diaper changers, which gave me the segue into, "Underpants rock. Diapers suck. You're totally missing out on all the fun."
  7. Once you see that she's beginning to think about switching to underpants, ask very nonchalantly if she'd like to make the switch. If she says no. Just shrug and say something noncommittal like, 'Oh, that's too bad. They're really comfortable. Maybe you'll feel differently later.' and if she says yes, BUY ALL THE UNDERPANTS
It took us three attempts spread over three months to get her to use the toilet consistently. Each time, we tried something different but we stuck with the messages.

#3 - It Will Take a Lot of Gear

Capitalists love the baby-care industry. It's the best place to prey on a new parent's paranoia and you don't even need strong marketing messages to get parents to buy everything.

We bought a potty rather early thinking we could potty train a 10-month old but that potty probably got used 5 times. You may want to buy both, a potty and a toilet seat adaptor (or a few if you have multiple bathrooms) to see what your baby takes to. 

Books are a great way to introduce the concept of eliminating in a potty to your child. We bought the following titles:

  1. P is for Potty in which Elmo hangs out with his cousins and they discuss the various options a kid has when it comes to medium of elimination.
  2. Potty by Leslie Petricelli, in which diaper baby looks to his pets to understand that defecation must be restricted to certain spaces.
  3. Dinosaur vs. the Potty by Bob Shea, in which the juvenile dinosaur consumes large quantities of tasty liquids before eventually being defeated by the need to pee.
Read these books frequently especially when you're between attempts, to reiterate the 'all-elimination must-be-in-the-potty message.

Snazzy underpants are a huge plus. Your kid will get excited about wearing knickers, only if you get excited about it. So look for patterns or prints you know your kid will love. These underpants featuring strawberries and flowers are easy on the wallet, well-fitting, and cute enough for a kid to want to wear.
When the underpants arrived, I got E to help me put them in the washing machine, put the detergent it, see them getting washed, help me put them out to dry, fold them, and choose where to keep them. Even then, I made her wait till the next day to try them on.

So when I finally asked her the next morning, 'Diapers or underpants?' there was no debate to what the answer was. 'Underpants!' she cried. 'Strawberry underpants.'

Finally, you will need a travel potty seat adapter. Despite its bad reviews on, this potty seat gets the work done, you just need to place it correctly on the toilet in question and convince your toddler to not squirm or she will fall through. We may switch to another product later but a month into using this one and it seems alright for a 2.5 year old.

#4 - It Will Take a Lot of Steps (Forwards and Backwards)

They will have accidents even after you think you've successfully potty trained. The child will need to be consistently accident-free at home before you can start to venture outside with a diaper-free child. Even then, you will need to take baby steps. Start with a short stroll around the neighbourhood. After a few uneventful walks, go for short car rides to places you know have clean and easily accessible washrooms. I will have a post on this soon - I refuse to believe that some malls and 5-star hotels are the only places in India with clean bathrooms.

When going out, remind your child frequently that she is wearing underpants and that there is to be no pee-pee on the floor/car seat/swing-set. Ask her where pee-pee goes and make sure you get her to answer.

Recently, we decided to take a chance and take a diaper-free child on an airplane, confident because she hadn't had an accident in two weeks. We were wrong. An hour into the plane ride and I was the parent whose kid peed on the seat.

I realised that day that we would have to take this really slow. That the excitement of plane travel outweighs the excitement of wearing underpants. That it will take time for E to volunteer information about her need to pee. Even now, she only tells me she needs to go if: a) I'm doing something else and she isn't getting my undivided attention (this is usually a false alarm); and b) when it's reached the stage of red-alert complete emergency and she will lose control of her bladder upon sight of the toilet.

So I need to watch for the dance of the full bladder and the grouchiness of a full bowel and ask E to use the toilet. Sometimes I ask, and she'll say no and then five minutes later, there's a puddle on the floor being blamed on the fuzzball. Somedays I'm okay with it, somedays I'm not. Either way, I try very hard not to yell even if it's the fifth pair of underpants. I tell myself that it's my mistake as much as it is hers and that, next time I'm not going to listen to my toddler chant her favourite word when asked if she needs to go pee-pee.

Kids have no idea about time.

#5 - It Will Take a Routine

I can't begin to describe how important a routine is for a young child (which is probably why I still don't have a post on the importance of routine). I'm still compiling the many, many benefits (and few drawbacks) of a routine but potty training is much easier if you can just build it into your child's day. It gives the child predictability and a sense of how long it will be till the next potty break.

The problem with following a clock to schedule potty breaks is that a child who cannot read the clock has no idea that it's been two hours since the last pee and she will not want to disrupt playing with block (fun!) to go sit on the potty (boring!). So if you want to minimise potty time battles, build it into your day and tell your child when the next break is going to be.  

#6 - It Will Take a Bribe

Let's face it. Sitting on the toilet is boring. If you aren't looking at your phone, I bet you're reading the labels of all your bathroom products. It's the same for your child. Some parents choose to bribe with M&Ms or other candy. Other crafty parents might use elaborate charts and stickers. I took the easy route and temporarily relinquished my iPad for the larger cause of sanitation. #SwacchBharat begins at home, yo.

Completely wiped and loaded only with age-appropriate apps, E was handed an iPad to get her to stay seated on the toilet. When we started out, she got an iPad at every potty break but after a month, I could get her to pee by promising her iPad time if she peed and then eventually, I could get her to pee by just telling her a story or singing a song. She still needs the iPad for the big business but I know that I will eventually reduce this as soon as her bowel movements regularise to once a day at a particular time. Maybe I'll get crafty too and introduce stickers.

#7 - It Will Take a Sense of Humour

When was the last time you laughed at farts and stinky poop? Potty-training a toddler will force you to loosen up about these most natural of bodily functions.

Pretty soon, you'll find yourself giggling in the toilet at your baby's surprising ability to toot on command.

This needs to be a thing.

#8 - It Will Take a While Before Sleep-time Dryness is Achieved

Even if your child can successfully control her bladder when awake, it takes a while for this success to carry into her sleep.

I still put her in pull-up diapers at nap time and bed time, explaining that once I see a dry diaper after a nap, she can wear her underpants to bed. I'm in no hurry to clean soiled bedding so she can sleep in diapers forever as far as I'm concerned but E doesn't think that way. She seems genuinely upset at wet diapers at the end of a nap. I reassure her and tell her that she'll be able to do it soon. I'm assuming this is potty training going well. The kid sees value in staying out of diapers and in underpants.


The key lesson for us over the last few months was not to press the issue with her and to listen and understand her cues, as we have with everything so far, whether it was sleeping, breastfeeding, and weaning. 5-months into potty-training and she barely has any accidents. We just need to watch her for signs of discomfort and fussiness and not listen to her say 'no' when we ask her if she needs to go although she said yes for the first time today.

I just need to let her get there on her own time. And then, ten years from now, some new mother will ask me how I potty-trained E, and I’ll turn her to this post because I’d probably say something inane like, ‘oh, it just happened.'