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If you’re the parent of a child between about 2 and 4 years old, it’s more than likely that you’re thinking about toilet training. In fact, you’re probably not just thinking about it, you may be doing it, considering doing it or even obsessing over it. Once a few years of seemingly endless diaper changes have passed, parents are usually quite eager to move past the diapering part of parenthood.
You’ve probably heard a dozen and one ways to attempt toilet training, some of which sound doable, others that sound insane. Perhaps you think that your child will pick up very quickly no matter what you do. Or, perhaps your nightmares are filled with visions of your tot running around as a teenager still in diapers. Great news, with a little help from our friend science, there is a tried and true method to toilet train your toddler quickly (in about 2 to 4 days total) and in a way that keeps them happy and leaves you beaming with pride!
Let’s start with some basics:
- Plan for an uninterrupted period of 3 days (if you can get it), but 2 days can work. This should be a period of time when you are not pulled in different directions (e.g., checking work emails, taking calls, doing housework), and your toddler is out of school, daycare and all activities. You need to plan to be home with nowhere to go and fully focused on the task at hand. I know this part sounds difficult, but I promise it is imperative to success! I’ve worked with hundreds of families over the years to help toilet train their children, and finding an uninterrupted time and really sticking to it has, by far, been the most difficult for the families I’ve worked with. But those who find the time and commit to it are the ones who are most likely succeed. So, take a look at the calendar and choose a few possibilities. You can plan as far in advance that you need to. If you have other kids in the home, arrange for them to be out or to help with the process. If you have help (a partner, a grandparent, a good friend), ask for them to be present. They can either support the process directly or take care of household chores and the other logistics you won’t be able to attend to given your focus on toilet training.
- Start gathering items your child really likes. This can be anything: small trinkets, toys, food items. The key is that your child should really like them, and they should be able to be delivered on multiple occasions over the course of those days. For my son, it was M&Ms. Hands down: M&M’s! But this should be specific to your child. I’ve seen parents use fruit, special youtube videos, cell phones, bubbles, puzzle pieces, and Legos.
- Purchase underwear. Yep! You certainly can have your toddler help choose the design, etc., though this isn’t key to success. Some parents think that if a kid can get really excited about say, those spiderman underpants, then they won’t want to use diapers anymore. While motivation for snazzy underwear can help, it’s not the primary variable that will make your child successful. But stock up, because you are going to need A LOT of pairs. I recommend sizing up just slightly, so they are easy to pull on and off.
- Supply your house with liquids and liquid filled foods. Your tot will need to drink a lot of liquid because you’ll want them to practice many times over the course of those few days. Water is best, but you can add in other special liquids your child likes and you feel comfortable giving them – juices, lemonade. Avoid anything with caffeine and consider offering foods that are enjoyable that tend to be filled with water – watermelon, kiwi, grapes, celery, etc.
- Talk to your pediatrician before starting. Your pediatrician can confirm that there are no medical reasons why you can’t proceed or treat any conditions that do exist. In most cases, there are no reasons you can’t proceed with toilet training, but it never hurts to get the green light from a medical professional to be sure. When I talked to my pediatrician about the plan, she confirmed my son was physically fine to proceed and then replied “I have a 4-year-old son I can’t toilet train for the life of me, can you help us too??”
Feeling ready? Or at least kind of? Once you’ve got those days secured, medical clearance, and your supplies gathered, here is what to actually do:
- Upon waking up, immediately put your child in underwear. No diapers! And, you can leave the pants off. You’ll be running around inside the house all day and you’ll want your tot to be able to undress quickly for a toileting trip, and you’ll want to be able to see when your child starts to go.
- Start an immediate schedule of taking your child to the toilet, placing them on it and having brief breaks off the toilet. Start with very quick transitions – 10 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Use a timer here and be precise! We used a large visual timer so my son could see and I prefer these over cell phones, which can be distracting to both parents and kids.
- During the time on the toilet, you can play, engage, sing, read books, etc.
- If at any point they go in the toilet during that 10 minute interval, have a party!!! Give them a HIGHLY preferred item – ideally something they don’t’ get very often but that they really like. Examples include a special snack, access to electronics, a special toy. Give the item IMMEDIATELY upon them going to the bathroom and provide lots of clapping and praise.
- If the 10 minutes passes and your child doesn’t go, simply transition to the time off the toilet and then back on when the “off toilet time” passes.
- During the time off the toilet, engage with your child doing activities and normal interactions around the house. We got so much use out of the audwell oslo tower (and still do) using it so my son could do art activities and help cook during his time off the toilet. As the time off the toilet faded, we had time to more involved activities like this, which he loved!
- If your child starts to have an accident off the toilet, get them to the toilet as soon as possible to try and “catch” the accident. If they partially go in the toilet, consider that a success and provide the same fun activity/item as if they had gone independently. If you aren’t able to get them there in time, simply change them into clean underwear and continue on with the schedule.
- If your child independently goes to the toilet or asks to go, have a party! Provide lots of praise and highly preferred items – this is awesome!
- Allow your child to consume liquids and liquid filled foods throughout the day freely.
As your child is successful (for example, has two consecutive successes on the toilet, with no accidents), you can bump the time off the toilet up, and the time on the toilet down slowly, and systematically. Your schedule can vary, but it might look a little something like this:
- 10 minutes on/5 minutes off
- 10 minutes on/10 minutes off
- 5 minutes on/15 minute off
- 5 minutes on/25 minutes off
The goal will be to continue to stretch the schedule such that it looks like a normal day with bathroom trips scheduled in between (either initiated by your child, or on a schedule – for example, every few hours).
Okay, I know what you are thinking now – this sounds fairly straightforward – how in the heck does it work? Does it even work? The answer to this is that the procedure relies on repeated practice and positive reinforcement, which is what makes it effective. And yes, in nearly all cases, it will work. It takes a very focused commitment for a few days but is very effective.
A few additional notes:
- The schedule is important. No matter what, adhere to it. Most families break down because they struggle to maintain the quick on and off periods in the beginning and never fade successfully to the more normal schedule. Stick with it!!
- Ditch the diapers. Several research articles have demonstrated that not wearing diapers is a key component of success. Your child needs to feel the sensation of urine without the safety of a diaper in order to respond to it successfully. There is one exception to this and that is that you can continue to have diapers on during naps and at night. Training a child to sleep through the night without accidents is a different process, and for some kids will come naturally without specific focus, but for others you’ll need specific procedures. But for now, just focus on the waking hours.
- Bowel movements can usually be targeted at the same time, the only difference is that you won’t have as many opportunities to practice. Apply the same procedures to bowel movements as you do to urine.
- Get support! I found the online community at Peanut to be so incredibly helpful during toilet training my own son. Even though I technically knew what I was doing, this community of mamas was so incredibly helpful and it was nice to have a network to connect with!
- Get your running shoes on! You’ll be incredible active over the course of this two days. You’ll move with them on and off the toilet, race to get them to the toilet when they need to go and clean up a lot of accidents. BUT, it will be so much fun. Looking back, toilet training my son was one of the most enjoyable moments of that summer because I was focused solely on him. No distractions, no work, no school – just us, peeing and playing 😉
And remember – accidents will occur and in fact, they are helpful to shape your tot’s learning. Don’t interpret accidents as lack of success – they are part of the journey and the process.