There’s one in every playgroup—the parent who announces that their precocious 2-year-old is already toilet trained…a sure sign they’re on the fast track to college scholarships and the Nobel Prize! But if your toddler’s only interest in the potty right now is as a place to hide your new iPhone, don’t worry. Your kiddo won't be in diapers forever. The best way to get there? Keeping your cool! In fact, if you’re too enthusiastic about potty-training before your little one is ready, your efforts can totally backfire, making your child insecure or defiant, setting themselves up for a long-term case of pebbly constipation. But if you keep calm, take the pressure off, and follow your child’s lead, potty-training can have minimal stress and maximum results! Here’s how to do it.

When’s the right time to potty-train?

Other than bragging rights, there’s really no reason to start pushing the potty before your child turns 2 years old. (The average age for starting to potty-train in America is between 2 and 3 years old.) Again, there’s no real rush! When you begin toilet training too early, it may take longer to finish the job. That said, by 3 years old, you can start to use reason and rewards with potty-training, which can be very helpful. For instance, say your kiddo loves the movie Toy Story, you can say something like: “Cowgirls like Jessie can’t wear diapers when they ride horses, so they go pee and poop on the potty. I can’t wait until you learn how, so I can buy you that red cowgirl hat!”

And no matter your child’s age, if there’s been a big change in your house recently, like a new baby, a new caregiver, or even a move from a crib to a toddler bed, it’s best to back off from the toilet training until things have settled down a bit. Bottom line: Instead of listening to Grandma, your friends, or social media—or following a made-up milestone checklist—take your child’s cues about when to start training.

What are some signs my child is ready for potty-training?

The chances that you tot will come out and say, “Hey, mom! I want to use the toilet” or “Can I wear big-kid underwear?” are slim to none…BUT some do express their potty interest that way. Most of the time, however, you’ll need to pay attention to potty-ready signs, like, your child…

  • Is willing and able sit still in one place for more than 10 seconds

  • Knows the words for poop and pee

  • Likes to imitate you

  • Enjoys cleaning up and organizing

  • Can remain dry for at least two hours during the day

  • Is dry after naps

  • Can help undress themselves

How do I start potty-training my toddler?

Once there’s an inkling of interest, ease your child into potty-training with these baby steps:

Step 1: De-emphasize the poop and pee part.

Make it so the bathroom is a fun place to hang out. Pile some favorite books next to the potty, and then every day around the time your child normally poops, announce that it’s time to visit the potty to read together! If your tot wants to sit on the throne in their pants or diaper, that’s fine at first…though eventually you should encourage them to go bottomless. Set a timer for one minute of sitting and reading time, increasing it a little bit each day.

Step 2: Reward your tot for sitting.

When Mr. Dinger goes off, hand over a sticker or an animal cracker as an incentive reward just for sitting nicely on the potty—even if nothing exciting happened while your toddler was on it.

Step 3: Play it cool when something does happen.

The first time you hear a tinkle or a plop, you may be tempted to cheer, throw a party, or alert the news media. Don’t! The trick is to play it cool. Yes, you read that correctly: Give your toddler big praise for sitting on the toilet but keep it low-key when they actually produces something. Why? Reacting too enthusiastically can make shy kids feel like they’re under the spotlight, anxious kids may worry about disappointing you next time, and defiant kids will quickly see how important these bodily functions are to you…and then refuse to do it when they’re mad! (What's your child's temperament?)

So, when poop happens, smile, and say in an understated voice, “You pooped! Let’s wipe up and flush, and then let’s see what happens to Elmo at the end of this book.” (Learn more alternatives to saying “good job” to your tot.)

Step 4: Use doll play.

Whether your little superstar is still at the “just sitting, nothing to see” stage or they’ve produced a couple of major pees or poops, encourage their progress with doll play. Have a doll sit on a little pretend bowel and let your child set the timer for the doll. Talk to the doll about how well they’re sitting. You can say something like, “Good job sitting on the potty. I wonder if you’ll make pee or some poop.” Do a little doll demo every day.

Step 5: Gossip about your tot’s success.

Usually gossiping is a not-nice behavior, but Happiest Toddler gossiping is different! This type of gossiping is a great tool to encourage good behavior—or to discourage unwanted actions. Use a loud whisper to share with Daddy, the cat, even a favorite stuffed toy, something your child did that made you happy. For potty training, for instance, you can avert your eyes from your child, cup your hand by your mouth, and whisper to the kitty just loud enough for your tot to hear: “Fluffy, did you know that Jacob sat on the toilet for two whole minutes today? I can’t believe what a big boy he is!” And if your child questions you, just say, “Oh, that was nothing, I was just chatting with Fluffy.

This strategy works well because kids are more likely to believe something they overhear than if it’s told directly to them. In fact, gossip makes your praise five times more effective! And, if your toddler overhears you say something positive about their potty training efforts, it can encourage them to replicate the behavior because they want to receive the praise again.

How long will potty-training take?

On average, potty training can take about 6 months. And like I noted earlier, starting earlier than 2, may make the whole process last longer. In the end, all kids are different and it’s important not to stress yourself—or your toddler—out! With this low-key Happiest Toddler method, you’ll avoid putting too much pressure on either your toddler or yourself—and I guarantee your little one will soon be wearing those big-kid underpants with pride. 

More potty-training help:

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.