5 tips for potty training without the stress

We’ve collected stories and helpful tips for you from Unparenting families who managed to hit the target. The target being the potty, of course.

We’ve got one at home, too. Had it almost a year now. It’s a lovely pea-green with two little paws on the bottom. You know, to show the right way to sit on it. A perfectly oval, shiny, never-been-used potty.

My 18-month-old has developed a special relationship with the potty. He ignores it.

Well, not entirely. He knows what the green thing is called. And when I ask him, “Where do we put the pee-pee?” he points to the potty and answers with an air of importance, “THERE.” He even sat on it about three times when I suggested it. As if he wanted to lull me into a false sense of security: this’ll be easy, mama!

He sat there approximately 2.5 seconds. And then he was off in a flash to play with his new wind-up toy car.

What else could I expect from a child who never sat in my lap for more than 30 seconds at a time? My little one is just a force of nature.

“When you were his age, you were long since out of diapers, even overnight,” my mom told me once, in an attempt to encourage me in my potty-training endeavors.

“Okay, but how am I supposed to make him sit there? Strap him down with duct tape?”

I tried not to let it get to me, but I have to admit, her comment unsettled me.

Had we missed something?

I kept looking for ways to get him to sit on the potty. I looked at how other parents handled potty training. But each one told me something different.

“Let him run around naked at home. That’s the only way he’ll figure out how going pee-pee works,” said one mom.

“No, no, leave him dressed so he can see how unpleasant it is wearing wet clothes. Then he’ll be ready before you know it, just wait and see,” promised a second.

Well, that was helpful. And the “5 Steps Guaranteed to Get Any Child Out of Diapers in 3 Days” I found somewhere online didn’t exactly sit right with me, either. I’m not a big believer in these perfect step-by-step guides.

So my search continued … I talked to parents who had successfully gotten their children out of diapers. And this is what I came up with:

The 5 things every single successful potty training story has in common

I gathered them together and wrote them down for you. Five tips gathered from real stories of victory over diapers from Unparenting families. These families tackled potty training simply and in their own way.

Read how they did it. I hope potty training will be smooth sailing from here on out!

TIP 1: If you let the child determine the date of completion, you’ll save yourself a lot of stress.

“So I decided it was time to potty train,” I read in one online forum. This mom took her almost 2-year-old’s diapers off over the summer and they worked on potty training for days.

And the result? Pretty good. The little girl went pee-pee in the potty for a few weeks, and there was much rejoicing. But when the days turned colder and they went out somewhere, she almost ALWAYS ended up with wet panties. She never remembered to ask in time. So they wound up back at square one and the mom was discouraged. So much work down the drain …

Of course, some kids enjoy potty training. It “clicks” and they fall in love with the potty. But then you have cases where it becomes a chore for the parents and child both. And one with uncertain results at that. If you’ve already started potty training and it’s not going that well, or you feel like this method isn’t working for you, try leaving it up to your child.

You might end up saving yourself a lot of time and frayed nerves. When you give your child responsibility for their own bodily functions, sooner or later they’ll rock it on their own.

Practically overnight. And with no hard work on your part.

That’s exactly how it happened for Hana:

First daughter: Starting at 2 years old (because back then they said 2 was the best age to start), I started “gently” encouraging her to use the potty. A bit of coaxing, a bit of pressure, and a lot of angst about how to help her get out of diapers. Her speech really took off at about 2, so when she was about 2 and 5 months she said to me, “Mommy, when I want to go, I’ll go.” No arguing with that. I stopped trying, even though I was still plagued by doubt. About two months later, at 2 years 7 months, she went from diapers to fully potty trained (night and day) from one day to the next.

With my second daughter I never even tried any official potty training. I didn’t see the point. I just asked her a few times. At 2 years 5 months she still showed no interest in the potty. I left it up to her. Both grandmas were starting to ask questions … At 2 years 7 months, she was out of diapers (night and day) from one day to the next. She just said, “I no diaper,” and that was that. So much for mommy trying to accomplish something, eh?

• Hana

Zuzana had the same experience with her daughter Karla:

Yep, we had the same thing with Karla. We didn’t force the issue and she was out of diapers (night and day) from one day to the next at 2 1/2. No stress, no pressure.

• Zuzana

Another Hana had to wait quite a while for the right moment. Her son “got it” two months later than she had originally planned, but now he is out of diapers at night as well. And he wakes up on his own when he needs to go:

At 2 years 3 months: He sits on the potty after waking up with no complaints, but during the day it’s a different story and I always say I’m going to leave it up to him, but I end up pushing him anyway. :/ Because I know he can do it … and when he does go in the diaper, he wants to change right away.

Yesterday I told him that he could use the potty only whenever he himself felt like it. And we’d already had a few full days in underwear. :/ Then back to square one, then progress again, and so on. So I guess we’ll just leave it and see when he decides to switch to underwear.

Two months later came the breakthrough: In the end, I left it up to him and at 2 1/2 he decided to switch to underwear, a week later he was accident-free and two weeks later he asked to wear underwear at night, too. Now he’s been potty trained for six months, he goes without me needing to remind him, and he even wakes up in the night when he needs to go.

• Hana

TIP 2: Note the fine line between “sits on the potty” and “goes potty.”

My friend (unlike me) has a very chill baby. Her 18-month-old (same age as mine) is as good as gold. And she’s been sitting her on the potty since she was 9 months old.

They had a routine. Each morning and after lunch the little one did her business in the potty. And if her mom remembered at other times of the day, she put her on the potty again and sometimes the little one would pee in the potty again. Things were going great. Everybody, including me, would have bet our boots they’d have it beat in no time.

But! At around 18 months the little one decided to make up for lost time. Among other things, she lost all interest in the potty.

She hadn’t learned to go potty. She had just learned to sit on the potty. When Mommy wanted her to.

When she stopped being quite so compliant, the potty got kicked to the curb.

The same thing happened to this mom:

Amy stopped wanting to sit on the potty at about that same age. When I say “time to sit on the potty” and head toward the bathroom (which used to work), she starts screaming, crying, and generally freaking out. But before she was doing so well that I had thought she’d be totally diaper-free during the day by 19 months.

She’s been pooping in the potty since she was 13 months (we use baby signing, so she signs whenever she needs to go). Number one was coming along more slowly, but at about 16 months she started going in the potty about four times a day when I sat her on it, and later she would sometimes (but not always) tell me when she needed to go. Sometimes she’d even be playing in her room and I’d just see her heading down the hall to the bathroom.

Now, though, when she goes diaperless at home, she usually goes on the floor instead of asking to go on the potty … I’m discouraged because I feel like we’re moving backwards.

• Eli

Anna practiced elimination communication with her baby from day one, but experienced a similar disappointment. Responsibility played a role here, as well:

Between six weeks and six or seven months she almost always let me know by fussing or some other sign that she needed to go, she went pee or poop on cue, and could often go all day without a diaper.

But today (she’s also 11 months) it doesn’t work at all, only in the morning after she wakes up. We let it go. I kind of think I messed it up, because I took on too much responsibility for her. I would take her even without the signal, so she probably thought it didn’t matter whether she signaled or not. And we had more important things on the agenda.

I’m very much for being in the moment. Excessive expectations are just one small step away from total stress.

• Anna

Has your little one started boycotting the potty, too?

Take a minute to consider how they are developing in leaps and bounds right now. They’re learning to walk, saying their first words, craving new stimuli, and generally enjoying all the fascinating things going on around them. So Mom and Dad’s efforts just get put on the back burner for a while. Especially if doing their business in the potty is not so much “their business” as it is yours.

Even though you know very well that your little one could easily go pee-pee in the potty right now (dang it!), that little monkey actually hides to go pee on the ground and run off to play. It’s almost like they do it on purpose!

And all your explanations are just in one ear, out the other. So you have it on the tip of your tongue to say:

You were almost there, for goodness’ sake! Why are you backsliding now? What am I doing wrong?

Honestly? Probably nothing. You haven’t done anything wrong. Your child just doesn’t feel ready yet. They haven’t made the connection between their parents’ efforts and their own needs. It hasn’t clicked for them yet and they need time.

You can absolutely introduce the potty very early to get your child comfortable with it. Show them what it’s for. But make sure to control your expectations and not assume that early introduction will mean quick success. Then you won’t waste time worrying about missing some deadline and blaming yourself that it’s taking so long.

All children get it eventually. Every single one! (Do you know any healthy middle schoolers wearing diapers?) Surely even my wild child will manage it someday as masterfully as my friend’s 2-year-old.

He did it by imitating his big brother. He didn’t realize what his brother was actually doing at the toilet until he was almost 2:

Both my sons refused to potty train until they suddenly decided on their own to do it and then everything went smoothly - the older one on the potty, the younger one on the toilet using a child’s seat insert. Oh, and the younger one went through a phase at about 18 months where he would pretend to go pee standing up, imitating his brother, who leans forward when he pees … but the little one really had no idea what big brother was doing. It only dawned on him now at almost 2.

• Klara

TIP 3: Give them the chance to approach the potty in their own way. Even if their way looks a little weird.

No two kids are quite the same. Some kids skip the potty stage completely. They go straight for the toilet. Which usually takes the wind out of our (parents’) sails. We spent so much time getting them comfortable with the potty … and now they don’t need it!

None of my children wanted to sit on the potty. Making them sit there was about as pointless as trying to tame an angry octopus. In hindsight, it seems logical to me. Why should they sit on some plastic contraption when everyone else goes on the toilet? So eventually they just went straight for the toilet.

• Veronika

And that’s just it: children love to play copycat.

They learn by imitation.

Some like using the toilet, because that’s what they see an older sibling doing. And some like going on the floor, where they can see what’s happening to their body. Petra’s son learned in a fairly unusual way: by imitating a puppy.

He didn’t want to sit on the potty. His mom could see he preferred going on the floor. She wasn’t too excited about going around cleaning up puddles, so she made her son a potty pad on the floor just like the puppy’s. When the puppy learned to go outside, the little boy stopped needing the pad, too:

… Then I tried asking him if he still needed the pads, because we had just run out and I didn’t feel like buying more (the puppy is house trained now). He said no, he didn’t need them anymore. Great, so I pulled out the potty where he could see it and he actually started using it. The whole time he was running around at home naked (it was hot out). Now he tells me when he needs to go even if he’s dressed. And the best part is for the past week he’s woken up with a dry diaper (each morning and after his nap) … The whole process was totally natural and unforced. :) If I didn’t know about Unparenting, I probably would have caved to the pressure of people saying it’s not appropriate to pee on a pad on the floor, and potty training probably would have dragged on much longer. :) So thank you, Unparenting.

• Petra

That’s not how things are done. You’re setting yourself up to have an uncooperative child.

Petra trusted her son and resisted the pressure saying, “This isn’t how things are done.” And now they’re both happy.

TIP 4: Don’t make your child hate using the potty.

I’m not trying to be rude, but I have to ask. How would you feel if you spent a great day with your best friend, and in between talking, having fun, and enjoying a great meal, they kept asking you every 10 minutes, “Do you need to go pee-pee? Do you need to go pee-pee? Hey, are you sure you don’t need to go pee-pee?”

I know. We mean well. We just want to give them a gentle reminder. To avoid an unpleasant accident. After all, our kids don’t like walking around in wet pants, either.

But sometimes we might go overboard. And then our little ones tune out and ignore our well-intentioned questions. Or it starts getting on their nerves. Using the potty becomes an unpleasant, irritating chore.

And when that happens, it can take a while to work past the negative feelings associated with the potty.

I put so much pressure on my daughter that whenever we go anywhere, she has to use the bathroom. She sees the car, has to go to the bathroom. She was potty-trained at 2, but I always made her use the bathroom before we left to go anywhere, and she still feels that pressure today. She’s 6 now and it’s finally getting better. So I would advise patience. You’re going to need it.

• Marti

Unfortunately, “making” a child use the potty sometimes just causes more trouble and unnecessary trauma. So it really pays off to slow down and not to make using the bathroom the most important skill in the world.

And those constant reminders can trip you up in another way, too.

Children sometimes get used to their parents thinking about the potty - so they don’t have to.

“If I don’t remind her, she’ll forget,” their parents say. “He never remembers on his own.” Or, “He never even thinks about it.”

That’s right, they probably don’t think about it. If we keep on giving reminder after reminder, we send our child the message that we’ll think about it for them. Giving even more reminders usually won’t help. Instead, we need to stop.

TIP 5: Even a master potty user has an accident once in a while. It’s usually best to overlook these little slip-ups. 10 out of 10 kids will thank you for it.

“Nothing works by forcing it. We did elimination communication and only used diapers in winter. And it went in waves … First great, then total potty ignoring … My impression is sometimes they just don’t have time to go potty … so many fun and interesting things going on,” one mom wrote us.

Even if everything’s going great, the little one always says when they need to go, the grandmas are rejoicing, there can still come a day (or night) when things don’t go to plan. And you shake your head in despair: Why has this child gone through three sets of clothing already today? I thought we were past all of this!

An accident or even temporary return to diapers doesn’t have to mean anything at all.

Of course you’re surprised when you’re in the middle of telling a friend, “The little one’s been out of diapers for a month. He’s really got it now,” and thirty seconds later, that same little one runs up with wet pants. But he’s not doing it to you on purpose.

If your focus is always that this can never happen, peeing in their pants is wrong, then you’ll be tense all the time. And your child will sense that. This can make it take much longer to be accident-free.

Think back to your school days. Remember that feeling of dread before a test? It’s easy to slip up and make mistakes on the test when you’re under pressure.

But learning to use the potty isn’t a test. So don’t let people “test” you with questions like, “So are you out of diapers yet?” Give yourself and your child however long you need. You’re both doing your best, so no guilt trips.

Bonus to the 5 tips: First aid for when the potty’s got you seriously losing your cool

Maybe at this point the potty has become a nightmare looming over you both. You’ve been trying for so long and not getting anywhere. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. What now?

Breathe in. And then breathe out. Give yourself a reward for all that hard work - maybe put on your favorite movie or do something else you enjoy. And once your disappointment or anger over how things are going eases up, try these two steps:

STEP 1: Figure out what you’re afraid of.

The first thing is to ask yourself honestly: What are you most afraid of? Feel free to get a pen and paper and write all your worries out on paper.

Are you afraid that …

  • people will judge you?
  • you’ll have to face unpleasantly pointed questions? (“Such a big girl and still in diapers?”)
  • you’ve neglected or messed something up?
  • you’re a bad parent if you can’t manage this?
  • your child will never learn?

STEP 2: Talk to your child. Even if they can’t answer you yet.

Now tell your child everything you just worked out. What you’re afraid of. And why it is important for you that they learn to use the potty. Don’t say things like, “You’re a big girl now, after all.” Just calmly and honestly describe how you feel about the potty. Keep it simple, nothing too complicated.

And then ask how your child feels about the potty. Is there anything about using the potty that bothers or frustrates them? It could be as simple as, “What do you think? You might be pretty sick of the whole thing, too, right?” It’s totally fine if they can’t answer you yet.

The key is that when your child stops feeling pressure from you and starts feeling your genuine desire to work things out together and desire to understand them, the potty training atmosphere will undergo a major change.

And there’s a much bigger chance things will start sticking at last. If not right away, then soon. A month or two either way is the blink of an eye from the perspective of all the years of parenthood.

Leave it up to him? But he’s almost 3! Will he ever get out of diapers?

But when doubt is gnawing at you because surely your child is a bit old for diapers (such a big boy/girl, people keep saying), or they’re starting preschool soon and you don’t know if the teachers will be willing to change diapers there, then some nerves on your part are totally understandable.

But that is exactly the time you should ease up the pressure. Take two steps back. And you might find your child comes forward to meet you sooner than you expect.

Try this:

Forget for a minute about what all a child this age “should” know how to do. Leave the diaper on, or off, whatever your child prefers. Take a break, both of you just relax and enjoy yourselves, and forget about potty training for a few days. Completely.

Take a nice, restful “potty training vacation.” No talk about bodily functions or the bathroom. Just your favorite games and foods. Get some distance from the long struggle. And see what happens.

Plenty of parents have found, when they stop trying and give up the fight on potty training, a miracle suddenly drops in their lap …

The child got rid of the diapers on their own. Out of the blue.

I started potty training my son (26 months) about six weeks ago. My husband was off work for a few days so we both really hit it hard. We sat next to him, tried different sounds to get him to go in the potty, and made him sit there for a while because that’s what all the books say to do. After a while, he started resisting and when I let him get up, within a few minutes he’d go on the floor somewhere, anywhere but in the potty. It could be just a coincidence, but about two days after I read the blog post by Unparenting I sat him on the potty in the morning as usual, and when he started resisting, I “gave up” and backed off. And that’s when it happened. From one day to the next, it just clicked.

• Dora

Sometimes a bit of a change can help. Sometimes you have to work through a lot of obstacles and fear.

Veronika and her almost 3-year-old son finally made progress only after they managed to improve their communication. This is what happened next:

My son (almost 3) just came out of the bathroom in triumph, after marching himself in there singing, “I’m going pee-pee, I’m going pee-pee.” He even remembered to raise the seat and wash his hands. And this, from a child you could never get to use the potty or toilet … so this is a big win. (Week 3 of the Unparenting course.)

• Veronika

Do you like how Unparenting families conquered the potty in the end? Please take from them whatever you find helpful. May your story have a happy ending, too.

If you’d like to work things out with your child about other things, too, not just potty training, so that your child really hears you and looks for solutions with you …

Learn to talk with them, not past them, so they understand and cooperate with you.

This can even happen with babies.

The magic of Unparenting isn’t about giving you a step-by-step guide to teaching your child how to use the potty. Instead, it teaches you the underlying principles that will then help you know what to do in any situation. You’ll be able to apply these principles to brushing teeth, cleaning up their bedroom, meltdowns on the playground, or bedtime. If you’d like to know more, take a look at the Unparenting Course.