Potty Training: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Intensive Method

Oh, Potty Training. You confounding little acquisition of ability, you. (HA!) People fear you. Parents dread you. Children are intrigued by you...and then complain about you. Moms despair that you'll ever be over and done with. You're quite the little season of life, aren't you?

Well, as I'm sure you already know by now if you're reading this...there SO MANY WAYS to potty train! It's obviously not a 'right-or-wrong' moral issue. It's just an issue of: your personality style,  what works for your family, and how quickly you'd like to get it over with (...and how much hair you're willing to pull out in the process!)

When I potty-trained our two children, I leaned heavily on one chapter in a parenting book. There were many things I appreciated about this book (and series of books), aa well as many things that I found I didn't agree with or didn't want to implement in our home. But potty-training was one (of many) areas where I was really helped by this series: On Becoming Babywise by Gary Ezzo. The book that specifically introduces potty-training for the first time is ToddlerWise and the chapter is Chapter 7: 'Potty Training Made Easy.' I believe they have a whole book on the subject, but I never read it. I found the information in the one chapter on potty-training to be sufficient. 

So as I said, there are a million ways to go about potty-training. If you want to categorize some of them, there's the laid back approach (let's learn over weeks and months...if you want to try the potty, you can, but not too much pressure). There's the somewhat-laid-back-and-somewhat-insisted-upon approach (I'll let you run around in panties for the summer and try to remind you to use the potty), and there's the we're-doing-this-and we're-doing-it-now approach. 

I personally chose the 'we're-doing-this-now' approach with both children. My first child responded better than my second did...my second did great, but just took a little bit longer to stop having accidents. My first daughter was mostly potty-trained in a week...completely potty-trained in two. My second daughter was about the same, but she'd have sporadic accidents for a few months afterwards. 

So, I know when I was potty-training my children, I didn't want to know a lot of 'Why's'.I just wanted to know HOW to do it. Just tell me what you're suggesting I do. Don't give me alot of theory. Give me the HOW.

So here it is. The HOW. (Or at least MY 'how'...it doesn't have to be YOUR 'how'). This is how I potty-trained:

  • You have to be prepared as the adult. For this method to work well, you have to be very, very, very prepared. By prepared I mean:
    • You must understand the sequence of what you'll be doing, AS WELL AS what you'll be emphasizing and not emphasizing. More on that later.
    • You need to have all the equipment out and ready. You'll need:
      • A Potty. (I chose a small child-sized one that was given to us).
      • Underwear. Preferably ones that your child will think are SUPERCOOL. And I'd get a bunch if I were you...because they're gonna get wet.
      • Treats. Yes, yes. I know all the rage now-a-days is to avoid rewarding with food. I agree. Mostly. But in this instance, I decided that getting that little bottom to figure out how to do 'peepee's' and 'poopies' on a potty was worth a time period of rewarding them with something that would be clearly 'desirable'. I decided to reward with food for a short time period...to deal with the consequences...and to walk through ending that routine when potty-training was over.
        • By treats, I mean a stash of something yummy. We used chocolate covered raisins and M&M's. 
        • The treats should be something small. Individual-sized things.
        • You can go for a healthier option if your kid would be motivated by it...like grapes or nuts or something like that.
      • Drinks. For my first daughter, this was no problem. She drinks ALOT during the day. My second daughter, though, could go all day without drinking. So I had to have something on hand that would tempt her more than usual...like juice.
      • A stuffed animal or a doll that your child can 'teach'.
    • You need to be sure that this is the method you're going to use. You can't really start this method and then decide you want to move to laid-back-approach, and still see quick results. You gotta steel yourself for the week or so ahead of you. It's not gonna be fun. But you'll come out of it being DONE.
  • You need to set aside AT LEAST a full week to work on this full-time. Don't plan to leave the house or have friends over. You need to dedicate yourself to potty-training for this whole week. 

OK. So here's how it all goes down:

  • You plan ahead for when you're going to start potty-training. You get all your supplies ready, and you lay them out somewhere for your child to SEE BUT NOT TOUCH. Lay out the panties and the treats and the drinks.
  • Tell your child "On this day (i.e. Wednesday), we're going to START POTTY-TRAINING! YAY! WOOHOO! You're going to learn to go peepee's on the potty. YAY! You're getting SO BIG! This is very exciting and very big...and we will start on Wednesday. All this stuff here is for Wednesday, when you start potty-training."
    • Make SURE you don't give them any of the treats beforehand. That pretty much ruins/undermines alot of your method if they get to have the 'special treats' on regular occasions beforehand.
  • Get YOUR MIND around the sequence and theory:
    • THIS EMPHASIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: You're primarily wanting to reward DRY AND CLEAN IN THE PANTIES...NOT PEEPEE ON POTTY. The goal isn't peepee. The goal is: 'keep yourself dry and clean BY going peepee's on the potty.'
    • So when you reward your child, you're first rewarding if they're Dry and Clean...not if they go on the potty. More on this below. You'll understand more as you read along.
  • So. On the big Start Day:
    • Get your child up. I had my girls eat breakfast in their diaper.
    • Then. Take them to the bathroom or wherever you set up your permanent potty station.
    • Put their new, cool underwear on them.
    • Tell them their job is to 'Keep their underwear Dry and Clean.' Tell them you'll be helping them check for dry and clean panties many times today. 
    • Then, put a pair of panties also on their stuffed animal or babydoll. You want them to watch the whole sequence as their doll/animal does it. This helps with the learning process. Ask the doll/animal if their panties are Dry and Clean. Have your child check (they can feel the dolls/animals panties to see if they're Dry and Clean). When your child says that they're Dry and Clean, 'give' the doll a treat. (Let your child eat it). Then, put the doll on the potty. Make a peepee sound (PSSSSS...) and pour a little bit of water into the potty. Take the doll off, congratulate her ("You did peepee's on the potty! You kept yourself Dry and Clean! That's great!") and give her ANOTHER treat (again, let your child eat it). Pull up the doll's panties.
      • If you want, you can go over this sequence again and have your child lead it. They can be the leader of the doll, asking it if it's Dry and Clean, putting it on the potty, administering rewards, and so on. Repitition :)
        • Honestly, I only used the doll/stuffed animal a few times before I didn't want to keep repeating it. So pretty I much only did this on the first morning of potty-training.
      • BEFORE BEFORE BEFORE you put them on the potty, ASK THEM if they are Dry and Clean.
      • Have them stick their hand in the front of their underwear and CHECK to see if they are dry. Remember: the goal is not peepee's on the potty. The goal is to stay Dry and Clean BY going peepees on the potty.
      • If they say, "Yes, I'm Dry and Clean," give them a treat. (Again, we used M&M's and chocolate-covered raisins).
      • Have them then sit on the potty. If they pee, GREAT, give them another treat. If they don't, no worries. I wouldn't really expect them to pee right away. They need time to figure it all out. Let them sit there for 2 minutes, and if no pee comes, get them up, pull up the underwear, and say, "We'll try again soon!" with a happy face. Do not give them another treat if they don't pee. But DO give them verbal praise either way (i.e. "You're doing so well. You're Dry and Clean. You're getting so big, wearing panties and sitting on the potty. We'll try again soon!")
        • DO NOT give them other special treats during the potty-training time period. That will totally undermine the leverage you've got with the 'You did it!' treats. So lay off of chips, popsicles, candy, and any other kind of treat while you're potty-training. Don't outright tell your child that you're not giving them extra treats- you don't want them to feel punished- but if they ask for other treats, just casually say, "No...not today. Maybe another day!" and stick to your guns!
      • After you get them up from the potty, give them a cup of yummy drink, like juice or water with fruit in it, or milk, or chocolate milk. Have them take at least a few sips. (Remember: drinking will make them have to pee...your goal today is for your child to have alot of chances to pee on the potty. The way to makes those chances happen is for them to drink alot.)
      • Take them to an area in your house where you have toys. Let them play, and get on the floor and play with them. Tell them, "Remember, you have BIG KID PANTIES on! No peepees in the panties. We go peepee's on the potty now. Tell me if you have to go peepee's. I'll take you to the potty." 
      • Play together for 15-20 minutes. NO LONGER.
      • After 15-20 minutes, take them to the bathroom. Whether they want to or not. Ask them, "Are you Dry and Clean?" Have them feel their underwear to see if they are dry or not. If they are, give them one treat. Put them on the potty. If they pee, give them another treat. If they don't, do not give a treat, but tell them, "Good job! We'll try the potty again soon!"
        • If they are not Dry and Clean, just tell them, "Whoops! Not Dry and Clean. Not treat this time. But we'll put a new pair of panties on you and we'll try again! Remember, to get the treat, you have to stay Dry and Clean by going peep's on the potty."
      • Give them another drink of yummy drink.
      • Don't get discouraged. The peepee's have to come out eventually...for my second child, it took pretty much ALL MORNING UNTIL LUNCH TIME for any pee to come out of her body. She doesn't like to drink very much, so it was torture getting her to drink enough to pee :)
      • Keep up this cycle EVERY 20 MINUTES...all day. That's why I said that you have to devote your life to potty-training if you go with this method. You have no space or time for other things, like grocery shoopping or playdates. Potty-training is what you're doing all day. 
      • If your child takes a nap, put a diaper on them for naptime and give them (and yourself!) a break. Take a deep breath and plop on the couch while they rest! Then when they get up, take them right away to the potty to try to pee. Put their underwear on right away. Start again. 
        • When I potty trained my children, I 'day-time potty-trained' them first. I had them still wear a diaper for nap and bedtime for a year to a year and a half after they were 'day-time potty-trained.' Then I 'night-time potty-trained' them. You can do it another way (there are so many other ways!!) but I have no advice for doing day-time and night-time potty-training at the same time:)

Ok. So What To Do if your child pees in their panties during the 15 minute playtime intervals (and not in the potty):

  • First of all, don't get discouraged! It will happen ALOT! It's OK! It's actually part of the process. 
  • When they have the accident, if they're not able to stop, simply say, "It's OK! It's OK! Remember, we're trying to stay Dry and Clean today. Remember you have panties on. We go peepee's in the potty now. No more diapers! We go peepee's in the potty. Let's try to go peepee's in the potty next time so you can get a treat! We can't have a treat this time because peepee's in the panties make you not Dry and Clean. But we will keep trying! It's OK!" And give them more drink to produce more pee.
  • If they're able to stop, I'd try to say, "Wait, wait, we go peepee's in the potty now!" And run them to the potty. They can get a treat if they do some of those peepee's on the potty, but not for being Dry and Clean, so they should only get ONE treat. Not two. 
    • NEVER EVER shame them for accidents. You can REMIND them where they're supposed to pee ("Remember, we go peepee's on the POTTY now. Not in panties. In the POTTY"). You can COACH them ("Let's try to go peepee in the potty next time! You'll get your two treats when you stayDry and Clean by going peepee in the potty"). But NEVER EVER shame them ("Yuck! Pee on the floor!" or "You're such a baby!" or "Your sister always does a good job going to the potty. Why can't you be like her?" or "Only babies pee on the floor. You're not a baby, are you?")
    • NEVER EVER discipline them for accidents (never spank, smack, time-out or isolate for accidents). 
    • ALWAYS encourage them to remember the goal (and their job) is to try to stay Dry and Clean by going on the potty.
  • Whenever they DO go on the potty, CELEBRATE IT! Give them the treat (not more than one, though), and say things like, "Yay! You did it! You stayed Dry and Clean in your panties by going peepee on the potty! Yay!" and spin them around in a circle or something celebratory. Make them feel proud of their accomplishment. It really IS an accomplishment!
  • I remember when I was potty-training my first child. There were like 15 pairs of rinsed-out panties drying on the side of the tub that first day. She kept peeing and peeing and peeing in her panties. But we kept trying. We'd just repeat the routine over and over. And she got it by the end of 2-3 days. This routine really does work, if you stick with it!

What to do when YOU get discouraged:

  • Take a deep breath. This method of potty-training is intensive. For me, I felt depressed, antsy, angry, stir-crazy, and many other negative emotions while being cooped up at home for the official potty-training week. It's OK! You can feel those things and not act on them.
  • Talk to your spouse or a support person. Don't act on your negative emotions during potty-training by verbally or physically lashing out at your child. Don't give up because you feel clastraphobic at home with such a rigid routine. And don't suppress your emotions by keeping them all inside and pretending they're not there. Tell someone how you feel. (Not in front of your child). And then KEEP GOING.
  • Keep up the routine. I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not relent and put a diaper back on your child (unless it's naptime or bedtime). This will just be confusing for your child and slow down the process. If you keep this routine going faithfully, your child will 'get it' in (at the most) a week. It might be a week from you-know-where, but at least it'll JUST BE A WEEK, and eventually it'll be done. If you put a diaper back on your child because you're tired, you'll be erasing all the hard work you've done all ready and starting not just at Square One, but at Square Negative One (because your child will now be confused and think, "Well, if I have enough accidents, I'll get my diaper back...")
  • Now, all that being said, if a crisis comes up in your home, if you or your child get throwing-up sick, or something of that nature, or if you (after talking to your support person many times) decide that potty-training in a few days or a week is just too intense for your family, then go ahead and out the diaper back on...but make sure you switch methods in your mind. Switch to the laid-back method of having them go when they are interested, or potty-training over a few months or a year. There is NOTHING WRONG with those methods. There is nothing moral about potty-training. There is no shame in switching methods. But you just have to be clear in your mind which method you are choosing to employ. This is the biggest difficulty I see in parents who are potty-training. They're not sure which method they're choosing...so they try to incorporate 'week-long potty-training' expectations for their child into 'year-long potty-training' methods and follow-through. That will just be frustrating for everyone involved!
  • Realize that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. What you are doing will work. It just takes ALOT of patience, follow-through, routine, and deep breaths. I potty trained my first daughter at 20 months (in order to have her not in diapers when her sister born), and my youngest at 27 months. It is possible, even if they're little. If they're having accidents, don't assume they're not ready. This method is parent-led, not child-led.
  • Take a break! Ask your spouse or your support person to stay at home during nap or when your child is asleep at night and GET OUT OF THE HOUSE! Go grab a coffee with some girlfriends. Grocery shop if that's relaxing to you. Take a walk. Go for a run. Take some time to read or journal. Just give yourself a break somehow, so that you can keep your sanity for the next day. 

After the first 2-3 (or so) days: A New Routine

  • After you've gone through the every-20-minutes-to-the-potty bootcamp of the first two or three days, you should start to see more successful potty trips. When you do, you can start to relax a little bit. You can add more time in between potty trips. You can allow the child more freedom in their playing times (not needing to be right next to you).
  • After a few days of lots of success at staying Dry and Clean, you can venture out of the house with your child in their underwear (NOT A DIAPER OR A PULL-UP!). Make sure you know where the potty is located. Plan for a SHORT excursion into The World Outside of Your House. Take the child to the bathrrom before you leave the house, when you get there, and before you leave to come home. Make sure you bring your treats for when the child is Dry and Clean!
  • After several days of short outings, you can slowly ease back into your regular life. 
  • Continue to TAKE your child to the potty. Lengthen the intervals in between potty breaks, but for a week or two, YOU be the one who insists that it's potty time and that they must try to pee. Don't assume they will just tell you when they have to go. Take them if they do tell you, but set intervals when you tell them it's time to try. 
    • After LOTS of days of YOU taking THEM to the potty (like two weeks or so), you can make the transition into them telling you when they have to go. I'd make this transition when I have almost 100% success on the potty for about a week or so. I'd tell the child many, many times during the day that they should tell me when they have to go potty and I'll take them. And I'd expect an increase in accidents for a time while they're getting the hang of realizing they have to go. I didn't make this transition with my second child for about 2 months because she just wasn't ready for that responsibility yet. 
  • There will be accidents. Anytime you lengthen the intervals between potty time, or ask them to tell you when they have to go, or start easing back into regular life, there will be an increase in accidents. It's OK. They're still figuring it all out. Try to handle the accidents with grace and gentle reminders that their job is to stay Dry and Clean by using the potty.
  • Take the reward treats with you. Stick a bag of treats in your purse when you go out, and make sure you're consistent with the treats.
  • Also take a spare pair of underwear (or two or three!) with you all the time. Expect that your child will have some accidents while in a store or at the playground. It's OK. 
  • Finally, when they've established a strong pattern of being able to tell you when they have to use the bathroom, after like 2-6 months of consistent potty-using, you can transition into sending them into the potty to use it by themselves. Some parents transition into this stage too early and without proper training, because they're just stinkin' tired of taking their child to the bathroom. I totally understand! It's exhausting to take them over and over. But if you wait until they've got a really good history of using the potty with you there, you're setting them up for success on their own. I'd suggest giving them explicit instructions about how to wipe themselves when they pee, how to wash their hands, etc. And I'd suggest having them call you to come and wipe them when they poop, until they've been using the potty for quite some time. Then you can teach them how to wipe their own bottom. But I'd suggest waiting on that for awhile so that they're not overwhelmed with the amount of new skills they have to learn. 

Other set-backs:

  • Sometimes it takes longer for a child to figure out how to poop. That's fine. I personally wouldn't put my child in a diaper to poop if they're having trouble 'getting it.' You'd be creating a whole different realm of new issues to deal with. I'd just watch for their 'I have to go poop' movements and mannerisms and take them to the potty as soon as you notice it. Kids are typically pretty obvious when they have to poop. They'll squat, go to a corner of the room, get a glazed look in their eyes, stare into the distance, grab their diaper area, get quiet, get shifty...my daughter will want me to hold her, put her down, hold her, put her down. She can't sit still. When your child starts doing things like that, they probably won't want to sit on the potty. But I would insist, and try to distract them while on the potty. I'd read them a book, have them watch part of a video, let them play games on my phone, anything to distract them so that they can spend some time waiting for the poop to come out. This might take several attempts. And your child might have more poop accidents than other children. And 'skid marks' in their underwear. But they'll eventually get the hang of it. 
  • Juice can give a child 'the runs.' Milk can constipate. If you're having either of these difficulties, switch to another beverage.
  • So. Lastly. The treats. I've been suggesting that you give your child CHOCOLATE every time they are dry, as well as every time they pee or poop. THAT'S ALOT OF CHOCOLATE! Especially if, in the beginning, they're going to the bathroom every 20 minutes!!!! So, you obviously can't sustain that amount of chocolate forever. First of all, I'd say, prepare for the inevitable fact that your child will be a little bit wired with that amount of treats in their system while you're potty-training. It's OK. It's just a season. They might take a little longer to fall asleep or might be extra whiny. It's OK. Second, I'd say, after they're very established on the potty, start to wean off the treats. Tell them things like, "We're going to try something new. If you stay Dry and Clean for the WHOLE DAY, I will give two treats at the end of the day." Then, "If you stay Dry and Clean for two days, I'll give you the two treats." And so on and so forth until you just stop the treats. You can use a chart to help them see their progress and success if you'd like. But I just had it in my head that, yes, we don't usually give our kids this much candy. But potty-training is for a season, and this is a very understandable way for my child to be motivated to use the potty. Treats 'speak their language.'

So there you have. Potty-training a la Howards. Take it or leave it. We hope it helps!