The Real Poop on Toilet Training

Dear Mr. Dad: My son seems to have no interest in potty training. He’s almost 3 and many kids in his pre-school already use the potty. My wife says we shouldn’t push him, but I don’t want him to be the only one left in diapers. What’s the right age to start potty training and how can we I encourage my son?

A: Some children are completely out of diapers by age two, others can take years longer, so there’s nothing about your son’s age that automatically makes him “too old” for diapers. The bottom line, so to speak, is that your son will start when he’s ready. Pushing him may actually hinder the process.

Here are a few signs that typically indicate that a child is ready:

  • Awareness of when he needs to use the bathroom before rather than after
  • Curiosity about the toilet and bowel movements
  • Wanting to be like his parents and wear “big boy” underwear
  • Being able to pull down (and up!) his pants
  • Having a dry diaper for more than 2 hours during the day, after naps and in the morning
  • Sleeping in a bed that allows him to get out to use the potty

Once your son reaches these milestones, start taking him into the bathroom with you. Explain what’s happening and be upbeat about using the toilet. If he seems interested, encourage him to give it a shot. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to potty train, but here are a few ways you can encourage your son.

  • Get the right equipment. Adult-size toilets can be intimidating for some kids, so get a child-size seat (either stand-alone or one that fits on top of yours). Some potty seats even play music or change colors when a deposit is made. However, if your son is one of those kids who wants to use the big toilet, all you may need is a stool.
  • Encouragement. Making anything fun helps kids to learn. Sing a potty song while he’s on the toilet, or have a parade afterwards to celebrate. To take the fun up a notch, use some flushable “targets” (cheerios, colored paper, for example) that your son can aim for.
  • Rewards. Start with something small, like M&Ms or stickers, just for sitting on the potty and trying. After a while, switch to performance-based rewards. Once he’s into big boy underwear, make a chart and let him work towards bigger rewards for going longer stretches without an accident.
  • Don’t ask if he has to go. Most children will say, “no!” because they don’t want to stop playing. Instead, just take him to the bathroom at regular intervals—more often if you see he’s doing the pre-accident squirm.
  • Be positive. Accidents happen, and if you scold your son, you may end up scaring him and undoing any progress you’ve made. So smile and tell him it’s okay.
  • Watch the schedule. Some kids poop at the same time every morning. Not leaving the house until he’s gone—even if you’re a bit late for work—will really help.
  • Don’t use training pants. Because they feel like diapers, they can actually discourage kids from using the potty. Use them only for teaching your child to pull up and down his pants. Once he can do that, switch to underwear.

Finally, be patient. If these strategies don’t work, give it a break and try again in a month. There’s no magic age, and your son will get there when he’s ready.

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