Stress-free potty learning: tips for an easy transition

Potty learning (or training) is so often talked about as a stressful, tearful time, with set-backs and accidents in public and resistance from little ones. Bribes are used, rugs are stained and parents are cooped up at home for days whilst they ‘train’ their children.

I’ll admit I was dreading it. I didn’t want to put pressure on Little Bu that could cause her to have a negative relationship with her bodily functions. And I REALLY didn’t fancy the idea of a week confined to the house running after a nappy-free Little Bu mopping up puddles (or more!). I didn’t feel prepared for it, and I didn’t see the urgency as she didn’t NEED to be dry yet.

So I put it off, feeling in my gut that the later I did it, the easier it should be. I had had pants in the house, and a potty in each bathroom for months just so she could get used to them, but I didn’t ask her to use them unless she showed any interest.

(All the kit we used, plus pants)

But then something unexpected happened. Over Christmas Little Bu started asking to wear pants instead of nappies, when we were in the house. It probably helped that they were pretty pants – a mixture of beautiful floral ones and Frozen themed ones (from H&M). She started letting us know when she needed the toilet, and we’d take her to the nearest potty. We would always show delight at her successful attempts but it was never a huge deal either way.

One afternoon, standing chatting with my mum in her kitchen (as we were visiting the UK for Christmas), I suddenly heard a squeal of “I’m doing it!” from behind me. Lo and behold, there was Little Bu, sitting using the potty she had brought through. She had pulled her pants down by herself and was so proud of her accomplishment.

From then on, Little Bu started wearing pants all day when we were in the house. Then a couple of weeks later she asked to start wearing them when we were out and about too. I took nappies with me just in case, and before I knew it, nappies were used only at night. All in all I think we’ve had about 4 or 5 accidents since Christmas.

(One of our first ventures out without nappies)

6 weeks on, and Little Bu wakes up dry and asks to use the potty first thing rather than using the nappy she was wearing all night. So I’m sure she’ll soon be asking to wear pants at bedtime too. But there’s no hurry – all in her time.

This approach has been such a revelation in our household – leave your little one to it and they will lead the way. I’m sure it won’t work for every single child, but it’s got to be worth the try, hasn’t it? Their little bodies are so incredible and instinctive in ways that we as adults have completely forgotten. Why not encourage and celebrate that, and trust in them to do things at a pace that suits their individual needs?


The Gentle Mama’s top tips for tear-free toilet learning:

1. Access

Have potties, training seats, step stools and pants available to them from 18 months or so. Offer for them to use them, but don’t expect anything other than exploration and play. It helps to choose pants that are fun for them – a theme that they happen to love. For us, it was Frozen, and blue floral pants as she happens to love the colour blue.

2. Books

Read a potty book with them so they understand it’s purpose and the process. We used a book called Princess Polly Potty (thanks for buying that, grandma!), which talked through the process and making it something fun.

3. Example

Let them see you use the bathroom (as if you’ll have a choice!!). I think it’s instinctive in mamas to talk through everything they’re doing with their little ones, to build their understanding and vocabulary. Use this when you go to the bathroom – talk through everything you’re doing so that they understand and want to copy. You’re likely to find them trying out the potty at the same time, if you keep it there beside the toilet. Giving them the vocabulary (or sign language) when they’re little will help allow them to communicate their needs with you when they’re ready.

4. Nappy-free Time

Give them plenty of nappy free time when you’re at home, from as young as you’re comfortable with. This helps them learn about the different sensations and signals of their body. Yes, there will be accidents, but that’s how they learn.

5. Stay calm

Always act calmly and reassuringly if they have an accident. They should never feel bad for it, ever. Shaming will just lead to negative associations with their bodily functions, and not only can this delay their progress, but it can also have ramifications later down the line.

6. Wait

Let them lead the way. When they’re ready, if they’re familiar with the process from the books, potty and pants they’ve seen at home, then let them have the opportunity to start on their own. Some children will be ready at 18 months, some at 3 years. Each body develops differently, and just like some will walk or talk earlier than others, some will be ready to use the potty earlier than others.

7. Take it slowly

Don’t throw out those nappies as soon as they start wearing pants in the home. Let them build up their confidence at home before you try being out and about (different stimuli can lead to forgetting they’re nappy free at first).

8. Encourage

Show your delight when they’re successful (especially when they’ve taken the initiative themselves). “I noticed how you worked hard to pull up your pants just then. Your hard work really paid off! You did it all by yourself.”

9. Don’t panic!

If there is a setback, don’t panic! It’s most likely that there’s something else going on in their life that is taking up their concentration (starting a new nursery? Transitioning to a big bed?). Again, let them take the lead until they feel confident enough to ask for pants again. By this point it’s likely they don’t like the feeling of a dirty nappy so hopefully it won’t be long!

Good luck! I’d love to hear how you get on, or if you did something similar, and what your tips are.

6 thoughts on “Stress-free potty learning: tips for an easy transition

  1. Can I just respectfully point out that your child basically handed you a freebie for potty training? Some kids, like yours, do potty train themselves and it’s fast and easy. Girls especially can be very careful to keep clean or are very excited about underwear. But some do need parental instruction and expectations or if left to their own devices, they do it much later which makes for a challenging wait for the adults in their lives. Some have starts and stops (this week I wear underwear, next week I poop all over the house). Some have fears. Some master poop on their own, but pee is a challenge for years. Some kids won’t use the potty, but also resist diapers or diaper changing. It’s really great your kid did this and it sounds really easy, but for many families it’s not.

    1. Hi Amma, I totally agree. I was very fortunate with my daughter. Not all children are the same, and this approach won’t work for all in the same way. It’s a very valid point.
      Yes, it might be inconvenient for the adults to wait longer than they ideally want, and to deal with a child who develops more slowly than the adult hopes (trialling pants one week, back to nappies the next for example). But what I’m suggesting is that it can make things a whole lot easier if you can let them go at their own pace rather than push them with a ‘training’ regimen. Plus, later potty learning reduces the chance of UTIs, bedwetting and other issues.
      For more info, I’ve just found this article by Janet Lansbury (a renowned parenting expert and supporter of attachment and gentle parenting) that again suggests children CAN do this by themselves, if you trust in them, facilitate and let them lead the way.
      Thanks for the feedback, Amma.

  2. I do agree that trust, respect and accepting the child’s pace go a long way and make for a strong connection with your child. Rewards and parent-set timelines do make it very stressful. However, I object to telling parents that if you only wait, one day you will find your kid happily straddling the toilet and you will only wipe a few accidents. Oh, and they will be done by 2, like Janet’s kids. Please, let’s be real. Potty training is a long process and toddlers are busy. I think it’s better to normalize the potty from an early age and then be patient as children acquire potty independence at their own pace which is a very, very messy process with a lot of frustration for parent and child.

    One of Janet’s books was one of the first parenting books I read. I like her basic principles, but I do think her neat little stories about how she solves common problems with a bit of respect set up parents for a lot of frustration – she convinced her 10 month old to sit still for a diaper change by explaining what she is doing and going slow; she calmed a stranger’s baby by saying “you seem upset”; her kid potty trained herself by 2.

    I also don’t appreciate how she, like so many parenting experts, try to scare parents into using their method by telling them of all the awful things that can happen if they don’t listen. Your kid will become massively constipated if you have them use the potty! Your kid will never sleep through the night if you don’t sleep train! No, thanks.

    1. I agree, Its certainly not a disaster if they’re simply not physically ready yet. It’s just a clear message from them to wait a little while! It’s a great sign that they’re listening to their bodies and we should do the same. Worst case? Poop on the floor! Poop can be cleaned up, but pushing them to do something before they’re physically ready can apparently have some real, long term effects.

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