Potty Training: Laying the Foundation

I’m the last person who should be offering advice on potty training, because, well… the truth is, I haven’t even gone through that particular parental rite of passage yet!

That’s OK, though, because the advice I have to offer isn’t about actual potty training, but about laying the foundation for potty training, something I have been doing for at least the past six months. Because we have steadily been laying the foundation for potty training, brick by brick, I am confident that when we do take the plunge and commit to the potty for real, we will be successful. Sooner or later.

Although I haven’t learned by experience yet, I’ve learned a lot the old fashioned way: reading books and articles, and talking to experienced moms to learn from them. In my conversations – through the printed word and face-to-face – with moms around the country and across the span of time, I’ve learned some interesting things about potty training, and have come to some  surprising conclusions.

The first thing I learned is that there is no one magic age for potty training. Historically, children in the United States were potty trained around the age of 18 months (that is, before the advent of Pampers). A popular current trend is to wait until children are around the age of 3. A few parents go to either extreme and try to potty train from birth, or alternately wait until the child is as much as 5 years of age.  The common consensus is that each child is ready at a different age and you have to watch for the signs of readiness (awareness of body functions, ability to control them, a desire to have a clean diaper, etc.).

This is probably not earth-shattering information for you. But wait, there’s more!

What no one comes out and says is that there are things moms can do to prepare their child for potty training readiness.

For some reason, this simple thought had not occurred to me until I began to realize that, generally speaking, the moms who had the most success at the earlier ages always said, “Oh, so-and-so just really took to the potty and potty training her was a breeze! I hardly had to do anything!” Then they keep talking, and come to find out, they actually did a lot. Perhaps the potty training itself truly was a breeze, but only because the groundwork had already been laid in advance.

Here’s what these moms did to prepare their children for potty training, and what I am doing to emulate them:

Talk about body functions from an early age. As soon as my son discovered and was fascinated by his nether regions, we began to talk about their name and function. For a while, he was confused and called his private parts his “pooper”. Not entirely accurate. So we had short conversations during almost every diaper change about how that was his “pee-er” and that poop came from his bottom, until that misconception was cleared up. After that we continued to talk about pee and poop whenever the subject came up – diaper changes, mommy’s visits to the ladies’ room while out shopping, when he was straining during bowel movements, etc.

Use cloth diapers. We used cloth diapers almost from the beginning, mostly in an effort to save money on diapering; but one of the attractive benefits of cloth diapers was that they seem to better prepare children for potty training. The evidence is mostly anecdotal, so don’t take this to the bank; but it seems that when wearing cloth diapers, toddlers are more easily able to feel when they’ve messed their diaper, which is an important step in potty training readiness.

Make the training potty readily available. And use it. This is the biggest tip I received from successful moms. Some of them even left the little potty in the kitchen (Eeewww. Just can’t do that, sorry.), available for the child to use, either when her interest was randomly piqued, or at a set time every day. Even if she never even actually pees or poops in the potty, this simple practice has multiple benefits:

  • It gets him used to the whole idea, which is really quite a foreign concept at this point! When potty training starts in earnest, he’ll be comfortable with physically sitting on the pot.
  • It gives her experience climbing on and off the potty, which was surprisingly quite a chore for my little one!
  • In the event that pee or poop actually emerges, it will give the toddler a chance to actually watch his body doing its job, and perhaps gain understanding about the whole point of sitting on the potty in the first place. Besides, it will give him a great sense of accomplishment and pride, especially if you make a big deal about it!

The point of this exercise is not to have any expectations, at least not until potty training begins in earnest. This is just preparation for the real deal; so whether she actually poops or pees or not is of no importance.

Work on physical readiness. In order to be completely potty trained, a child needs to be able to pull down his pants and underwear, sit on the toilet, wipe himself, flush the toilet, and pull his pants back up. Work on those physical tasks to prepare in advance. As soon as your child is capable, have him pull his pants up and down for diaper changes. If he does happen to pee or poop in the potty, give him a chance to wipe himself (Follow up to make sure the job is done!), and push the lever to flush the toilet.

Explain the expectations before you actually begin to expect them. We are *this* close to actually beginning the potty training experience, and just recently, I have been talking very specifically with my son about the expectations of where pee and poop should be deposited. Whenever he goes in his diaper, I ask him, “Where does pee (or poop, depending on what is in his diaper) go?” At first, he cheerfully and enthusiastically said, “Diaper!” I laughed and gently corrected him, “It is supposed to go in the potty!”. Now he’ll respond to the same question (with the same cheerfulness and enthusiasm) with “Potty!”. Does he understand? Perhaps not perfectly, not yet. But when the time comes, his understanding will be clearer because of his previous exposure to the concept.

The main point is this: You can’t out of the blue set a naked child on a potty and expect her from here on out to deposit her pee and poop there. If you do, you’ll be met with frustration, indignation, confusion, and inconsistency… from both parties. Maybe that will happen to me anyway, even with all my advanced preparation, but at least I will know that I have done everything I could to make this transition easier both for my son and myself.

When she’s not talking about bodily functions, Anne Simpson is blogging at Quick and Easy Cheap and Healthy about preparing healthy foods for her family without sacrificing time, effort or money. You can also find her at When Food is Dangerous, a blog about living with food allergies.


  1. 1

    This is a great article for me as we are not ready to potty train and I really have no idea how to prepare. I’ve been told to watch for “signs” but it’s helpful to give children the opportunity to learn about the whole process before they are even ready.

  2. 2

    We started pre-potty training when our son was 11 months old by getting him his own potty. We didn’t have to do much with him at all because he took right to it and started to use it at that point. I sheepishly admit that I only let him do it once per day max and then decided that he was too young (and put away the potty for several months). I never took credit for potty training him because he took to it so easily (before he was 2 years old), but looking back, I guess I did do a lot fo the tips mentioned in the article. Maybe that’s why he had such an easy time? We’ll see if it wrks with #2!

  3. 3

    This is very much what we have done. (and I’m guilty of saying my child really took to it when we’d been setting them up to succeed all along!) Great article!

  4. 4

    I love this article about potty training and the pic! It’s hilarious and your son is cute!

  5. 5
    shantel davis says:

    I like how this kind of breaks the steps down and gives overall info. This was a great article for me since my son will be 2 in a few months and want to start training more, Know I got some good info :) lol. THANKS!

  6. 6

    My daughter is 13 months, & since she was 11 months, we sit her on the potty a few times a day just to introduce her to the potty. She is actually doing surprisingly well. She is also cloth diapered, so maybe that’s why she’s understanding faster that she is wet. Thanks for all of the information!

  7. 7
    Tian Kinasih says:

    My daughter is 2 years old and we will start potty training soon! thank you for the helpful informations! :)

  8. 8
    Jodi Flaherty says:

    I actually was not ready to start training my 2.5 yr old son, but my hubby insisted! He trained in 1 wk! We motivated with Jelly beans and used them to practice our colors!

  9. 9
    Jessica Beard says:

    Thanks for the tips. My son is 18 months, so we need to start the foundation now. We are working on pulling down his pants and knowing what the potty is and how it works.

  10. 10
    jamie braun says:

    we are in the beginning stages of potty right now. thanks for the extra tips!

  11. 11

    I think all kids do it at their own pace. But if you start them out sitting on the potty early they will get used to it quicker. Sometimes they revert back at time. I think its harder for them getting to poop in the potty because it might be more scary to them. Good luck and thanks for all the great tips

  12. 12

    We are in the same boat. Our 17 month old uses the potty multiple times a day but we are just going with the flow since she is still so little! We are doing what you mentioned above so that makes me feel good :)

  13. 13
    Bianca Munoz says:

    So much great information here. Thank you! We just started PTing…harder than I imagined!

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