Common Mistakes of Potty Training

a child sitting on a potty training toilet
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Potty training can be a trying experience for both the child and the parents. Success doesn't usually come without accidents—and likely some tears or other setbacks—along the way. Learning to use the toilet isn't a one size fits all endeavor. Regardless of how your potty training experience is going, it's important to make sure your child feels supported and that you communicate a positive attitude while they work to master this new skill.

While positivity is key, there are some definite "don'ts" you need to know—and avoid falling into. Below are some of the most common well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive traps to steer clear of while potty training your child.

Don't Force the Issue

Make sure that your child is developmentally ready to use the potty before you start training. Typical signs of readiness include a child being able to communicate their needs, showing an interest in bathroom independence, and the ability to handle the physical requirements, such as dressing themselves, feeling when they "need to go," and following a series of simple steps. If you suspect your child may not be ready, it's advisable to give them a few more weeks or months before trying again.

If your child refuses to go, forcing them to go and sit on the potty will likely create a negatively charged atmosphere and can ultimately lead to more resistance. This can produce negative associations with using the bathroom that can be hard to undo and may cause your child to withhold urinating or voiding, which can be harmful.

Always aim to offer encouragement and support. If the process becomes a battle, even if your child otherwise seems "ready," you might consider putting on the brakes. You'll get the best success (with potty training and your relationship) if both of you are enthusiastic about this "big kid" step.

Try to approach this time of learning much the same as you did with other milestones like sitting up, walking, and talking. Honor that while almost all kids get there, some take a little more time and patience to master these skills.

Don't Start Potty Training During a Time of Stress

Even good stress is bad stress when it comes to potty training. Marriages, new babies, holidays, visitors, and vacations can be unsettling for your child—similar to the challenges of coping with a divorce, death, or a move to a new home.

If anything big and new is on the horizon in your lives, reconsider potty training right now. Wait until life settles down and the normal flow of activity resumes. This creates security for your child and helps them place toileting easily alongside other normal routines. Plus, you will have more attention and positive energy to put towards helping your child transition out of diapers.

Don't Set Deadlines 

More often than not, young children don't work well under deadlines and they don't have the same concept of time as adults do. Be realistic with your potty training expectations. Or, better yet, throw them out the window altogether. Know that kids potty train at different rates and ages. Some kids learn before 18 months, but many take a year to a few years more until they're ready. Some don't master the skill until just before kindergarten. While a few kids do toilet train rapidly, for many, it is a much longer process.

Programs that promise that your child will be potty trained in three days, one day or even 100 days aren't taking your child's individuality into account. Each child has a unique temperament and developmental schedule, and they bring different skills to the table, so there is no true one-size-fits-all method out there.

Programs that operate under a time schedule often suggest punitive measures, are inflexible or are actually training the parents (as in having you monitor your child's every grimace or race your child to the bathroom every 10 minutes) instead of the child. This sets many parents and children who don't meet the deadline up for a feeling of failure and lots of unhealthy stress.

In addition, they may not take into consideration the many different lifestyles families have, which include parents who work, families with many children, children with special needs, multiples, and parents who share custody. Make sure any method you use is flexible and meets the needs of everyone involved. Most importantly, choose a potty training method the helps your child feel good about the process, whether it takes a few days or many months.

Don't Treat Accidents Like a Big Deal

One of the cornerstones of positive and effective potty training models is to remember that "it's just a normal part of life." Reinforce to your child that going to the bathroom—and the occasional accident—is natural and nothing to feel badly about. Accidents happen, and when they do, we learn from them as part of the expected process.

Overemphasizing accidents can actually reinforce mishaps or amplify feelings of shame, leading to more accidents. So, when they occur, keep the tone even and matter-of-fact, or even silly. Enlist your child in clean-up activity and move on to the next opportunity to use the potty.

Don't Use Clothes That Are Difficult to Manage

Ask any childcare teacher who's in charge of a group of potty trainees and they will tell you just how difficult it can be for little arms and hands to manipulate complicated buttons, snaps, zippers, pants, overalls, multiple layers, and other unwieldy clothing when the urge to pee or poop is looming.

Make it as easy as possible for your child. Use your child's motor skills as a gauge when choosing clothes during potty training. Simple elastic waist pants, shorts, or skirts are ideal for most.

Shy away from overalls unless your child is adept at removing them and putting them back on. The same is true for suspenders, belts, tights, one-piece shirts that snap at the crotch, and anything with lots of zippers, snaps, buttons, or other fasteners that might be a challenge for your child to manage quickly and independently.

When at home, consider letting your child run around in just underwear or in the nude if you're comfortable with it. After all, it is the ultimate potty training outfit. Many parents advocate for this approach, as it works well to let our child know right away if they need to go (or just missed getting) to the bathroom.

Since winter in colder climates is a time of layers, bundling, and heavy coats, most experts and parents agree that it may not the optimal time to start potty training. When potty training in the summer, kids wearing swim trunks or two-piece swimsuits have it made. Kids in one-piece suits will face a bigger challenge pulling them off (especially when wet). Opting for swim outfits with a separate bottom will make it easier to remove as needed.

Don't Give in to External Pressures

External pressures (in terms of how and when to potty train and how quickly results should come) can arrive from many sources: Grandparents, other parents at the playgroup, preschool administrators, teachers, and partners. Keep in mind that while others may be full of wisdom about childrearing, some advice just may not resonate for you or won't work best for you and your child. Go with your own instincts and rely on the knowledge you have about your child's readiness and the approaches that make you (and your child) the most comfortable.

Whether intentioned or not, it's easy to end up feeling judged, less than, or in competition with other parents around the timetables our kids meet various skills. Remember that these are skills that the vast majority of children will learn—they all just learn at different times, at their own pace. Resist getting caught up in worrying about who potty trained first or quickest or easiest. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter and can just end up making you feel stressed or just plain bad.

Don't Blindly Follow School Timetables

Schools that require your child to be potty trained by a certain age may do so simply to meet licensing standards or avoid inconvenience. Licensing standards require that any room with a child in diapers be equipped with a diaper changing table and a sink as well as other supplies. If the sink must have hot water at a temperature that differs from that of the sink available to children, this can mean that the school must run new plumbing from a separate hot water heater.

Schools may not want to deal with the hassle of equipping a room, or they may not want to spend the money. Think about it this way, if the school is already setting an arbitrary deadline for toileting skills and not taking into account the individual needs of each child, what other areas will they apply this thinking to as well? If this is the reality at your school and you have options, it may be worth considering whether it's the right school for you or your child.

Don't Expect Night Time Training Right Away

Generally speaking, urinary control comes before control of bowel movements and dry nights come well behind both. It is completely normal for bed-wetting (or enuresis) to occur in children until they are 4 years old or older.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 20% of 5-year-olds and up to 10% of 7-year-olds experience bed-wetting. For many children, bladder control at night comes years later and bed-wetting does not necessarily signify any medical problem. Know that many healthy kids out there use pull-ups or wet the bed occasionally well into elementary school, but don't hesitate to speak to your child's pediatrician if you are concerned. The vast majority grow out of this naturally as their body develops greater urinary control—it just takes time.

The AAP lists two main factors: Your child's bladder may not yet have developed the ability to hold urine the whole night and/or they haven't learned to recognize when they have to go, to wake up, make it to the toilet, and use it. For a child who is asleep, that's a four-step process. Some kids are such deep sleepers that they just don't wake up before it's too late.

Trusting that your child will get there eventually and not putting too much emphasis on it as a "problem" lets your child know that what they're experiencing is normal and nothing to be ashamed about, which in turn can help speed along the process.

Don't Discount Your Child's Fears or Attachments

Children can develop fears during potty training, and they are as large to them as fears adults may have. Kids can also get scared of something you'd never think of as an adult. The important thing is to honor and care for their feelings.

Children may not understand the mechanics of the toilet and that loud flushing sound in that small space can be frightening. If a child experiences even one slip off the toilet seat and their bottom touch water, it could set them back to square one or even require a potty training hiatus. Some children have a hard time dealing with watching their poop disappear down the drain as if it were as much a part of them as an arm or a leg.

Treat these fears with sensitivity. Discuss the fear without invalidating it or making your child feel as if their feelings are unimportant. Some children may need help expressing their concerns and coping with their feelings, so offer them the vocabulary that seems appropriate.

The same is true of attachments children may exhibit during this time. Diapers may represent a feeling of security or "special" babyhood. It is a time when parents are intimate with their children and are taking care of their needs, and letting go of that takes some children more time.

This doesn't mean you need to abandon training or let your child choose to go back and forth between wearing diapers and training whenever they want, but it does mean making sure they are ready to take that step of independence. If your child seems to want to cling to diapers, suggest that it's potty time and offer that afterward (whether they've used the potty or not) they can have a story on your lap, some tickle-time, or another special activity. It may not be the diaper your child missing but rather the closeness with you. It can be cold and lonely in the bathroom, after all.

A Word From Verywell

Don't worry too much. You've probably heard it or read it a million times by now, but it's true: It's highly unlikely that your child will go to college in a diaper.

Try to take potty training in stride and work together with your child. Look at it as just one more learning opportunity and one more step of growth and independence in the life of this very special person. Treat your little one with the same patience and encouragement you'd want in the same situation, and don't forget to still have fun along the way.

1 Source
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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Bedwetting in children & teens: Nocturnal enuresis.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.