- Toddlers should typically start potty training anywhere from 18 months to 3 years of age.
- Some tips to potty training include making it fun and helping them get used to sitting on the toilet.
- The 3-day potty training method has its pros and cons and is more suitable for certain families.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
When your child is ready to potty train, they will exhibit some tell-tale signs: If your child can walk, sit on the toilet, understand basic directions, stay dry for two to three hours at a time, communicate to you that they need to go, and undress themselves, those are all solid signs that they’re ready to start potty training, says Arunima Agarwal, MD, a board-certified pediatrician with Morris Heights Health Center.
It’s also worth noting that a 2020 review found children who initiated potty training before 24 months of age were less likely to develop urinary tract problems.
How long the training process takes is highly dependent on your child’s cognitive and verbal skills when they start, but Agarwal says potty training can usually be completed in three to six months.
Although the fundamentals of potty training are the same for boys and girls, there are some minor differences to keep in mind. Below, experts share some tried-and-true tips for a successful potty training process for boys and girls.
How to potty train a boy
“Boys are more likely to be ready to potty train when they are physically able to handle the task,” says Mo Mulla, founder of Parental Questions. “As a result, parents of boys may need to be more hands-on with regards to coaching their sons through the training process.”
With that in mind, here’s some guidance specifically geared toward potty training boys.
1. Make it a game
A small 2015 study of middle school-aged students found that turning learning into a game through a program that offered points, badges, and rankings for correctly answered questions not only increased motivation in male subjects but also improved their performance.
For this reason, Mulla highly recommends turning potty training into a fun activity that entails beating their personal best. For example, you could try racing your child to the potty, or hiding potty-related items, like a child’s potty seat or potty-focused storybook, around the house for them to find before you explain what they’re for.
2. Let him pick out big-kid underwear
According to psychologist Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, children between the ages of 18 months and 3 years become very focused on developing their own sense of independence. That’s why at this stage, it’s a good idea to encourage that autonomy by allowing them to make some of their own decisions. For example, being able to choose what underwear they want can help them feel more confident and secure.
So, once your son has successfully been using the toilet for a couple of weeks, Mulla suggests involving him in the process of underwear shopping. Let him pick out fun colors and prints he’s excited about. This will serve as motivation to encourage him through the remainder of potty training.
3. Coach him through the transition to standing
While a boy can sit on the potty to go pee in the early stages of training, eventually, you’ll likely want to teach him how to stand and aim so he has the option.
According to Paul Patterson, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and cofounder of Pathfinder Health, it’s a good idea to wait until your child has learned to both pee and poo in the toilet consistently for a couple of weeks before attempting this.
He recommends helping your boy learn to aim while standing up by putting something in the toilet bowl, like a piece of cereal. Have your child stand close to the toilet, and instruct him to hold the far end of the penis, at the base, to help him control the aim of the urine.
How to potty train a girl
“With girls, emotional readiness precedes their physical ability,” says Mulla. “So, parents of girls may need to provide more emotional support and encouragement.”
Here are some tips to keep in mind while potty training your daughter:
1. Ease her in
The more comfortable your daughter is sitting on the potty, even when she doesn’t have to go to the bathroom, the less intimidated she’ll be to use it, says Mulla. Consider having her sit on a potty training seat while she’s watching TV or at other times throughout the day so she gets acclimated to the idea.
2. Teach essential hygiene
Urinary tract infections affect around 7.8% of girls and 1.7% of boys by the age of 7, according to a 2019 study. Girls have a higher risk of UTIs because their urethra is much shorter and situated very close to the anus, making it easier for bacteria to spread.
For this reason, Patterson says it’s very important to teach girls the proper wiping technique after pooping — from front to back — so they don’t accidentally move feces toward the urethra.
3. Choose easily removable clothing
“Make sure your daughter is wearing clothing that is easy for her to take off quickly while she’s potty training,” says Patterson.
Tight-fitting pants, leotards and bodysuits, rompers, and overalls, can all be time-consuming to strip down, which can lead to accidents that may discourage girls during the training process.
For example, you might reward them with stickers, privileges, or other toys or treats for successful potty trips.
Even just giving them a high five, a hug, or some applause when they use the potty correctly can go a long way in motivating them to keep trying.
Classroom studies in young children have also shown that nonverbal reinforcement, like a cheerful smile or thumbs up, can also be effective in improving motivation.
Three-day potty training
True to its name, this strategy aims to have a child fully potty trained in just three days by putting the rest of the family’s schedule on pause and focusing solely on training efforts. That means avoiding all other activities, including work.
Potty training in three days sounds great compared to six months but it’s important to note that there are no studies proving that this method works and not all experts endorse it.
“This method may work for some, but do not feel defeated if your child needs more time,” says Agarwal. “Personally, I do not recommend this method to patients because it can create a lot of stress and anxiety for the child and guardians.”
With all that in mind, here are some key components of the three-day method:
- Have your child only wear a T-shirt and underwear for the duration of the three-day training.
- Keep reminding your child to let you know when they need to use the bathroom.
- Once you set up the potty chair in the bathroom and explain the purpose to your child, let them know the idea is to keep their underwear dry — then, prompt them to check it frequently throughout the day, and give them positive reinforcement when it’s dry.
- Be prepared for accidents, and use them as an opportunity to remind your child they should let you know when they feel like they need to go.
- Encourage them to drink lots of fluids throughout the day, but stop giving them liquids two to three hours before bedtime to minimize the chances they wet the bed.
- Take them to the toilet before tucking them in, and if they aren’t able to go to the bathroom, read them a book or do other nighttime routine activities before trying again.
The advantage of this approach is obviously that it accelerates potty training. However, because this approach involves a lot of intensive coaching, it can be quite challenging for parents, says Mulla.
It also demands that you are able to fully focus on your child’s potty training for three full days, which may not be realistic for everyone. Lastly, the time limit puts some pressure on both children and parents, which may make it more difficult to succeed.
When to see a pediatrician
If your child hasn’t been able to complete potty training by age 3, Mulla recommends seeing a doctor.
There are a wide variety of reasons why your efforts may not be working, and a doctor can help you get to the root issue, conduct physical exams if necessary, and offer specific guidance on how to proceed.
One reason why potty training might not be working is if your child hasn’t developed the coordination, muscle control, or verbal skills required yet. Additionally, if your child has recently been through an emotional situation, like moving to a new house, or a death in the family, that can get in the way of potty training.
Although it’s a less common cause, sometimes anatomical issues can make it difficult for your child to complete potty training. Patterson notes that constipation can make it very challenging to succeed with potty training, but this is easy to remedy by increasing fiber in your child’s diet.
Very often, though, Patterson says it’s a behavioral issue driven by fear or a desire for control: Your child may simply feel too self-conscious or intimidated by the toilet, or may be exercising their autonomy by refusing to use the toilet. In this case, it’s usually best to back off on constant reminders or questions about going to the potty, tell your child that they’re a big girl or big boy and you’re going to let them take charge of using it, and then only reward successful potty trips with attention.
“Each child and family is unique and thus so must the approach be to potty training,” says Patterson.
Whichever method you choose to potty train your child, experts agree that it’s important to be generous with praise and avoid shaming your child for accidents.
If your efforts are not successful, consider reevaluating your child’s readiness — and if you believe your child does have the skills required, it may be time to consult your pediatrician.
Often the underlying problem is minor and can easily be addressed, according to Patterson.
“Potty training can be a frustrating and rewarding experience all at the same time,” he says. “Take some time to research the various programs and plan ahead to individualize a program that is tailored to the unique needs of your child. In doing so you can reduce much of the stress around potty training for both you and your child.”