How To Know When They’re Ready To Potty Train


Is your child ready to use the potty? Use the checklist below to measure your toddler’s progress toward readiness, and keep in mind that starting before your child is truly ready doesn’t mean you’ll finish sooner – it’s more likely that the process will just end up taking longer.


Don’t start too early; Before 12 months of age, children can’t control their bladder or bowel movements, and some toddlers who show many signs of readiness still are physically unable to control elimination.


There’s no magic age at which children are ready to start learning how to use the potty, but some develop the necessary physical and cognitive skills between 18 and 24 months of age. Many parents don’t start potty training until their children are 2 1/2 to 3 years old, when daytime bladder control has become more reliable. And some children aren’t even interested in potty training until they’re closer to 3, or even 4.


Also keep in mind that even children who can stay dry during the day may take longer to stay dry at night. In fact, you might want to think of daytime and nighttime dryness as two separate potty-training milestones.


Physical signs

  • Is coordinated enough to walk, and even run, steadily.
  • Urinates a fair amount at one time.
  • Has regular, well-formed bowel movements at relatively predictable times.
  • Has “dry” periods of at least two hours or during naps, which shows that his bladder muscles are developed enough to hold urine.

Behavioral signs

  • Can sit down quietly in one position for two to five minutes.
  • Can pull his pants up and down.
  • Dislikes the feeling of wearing a wet or dirty diaper.
  • Shows interest in others’ bathroom habits (wants to watch you go to the bathroom or wear underwear).
  • Gives a physical or verbal sign when he’s having a bowel movement such as grunting, squatting, or telling you.
  • Demonstrates a desire for independence.
  • Takes pride in his accomplishments.
  • Isn’t resistant to learning to use the toilet.
  • Is in a generally cooperative stage, not a negative or contrary one.

Cognitive signs

  • Understands the physical signals that mean he has to go and can tell you before it happens or even hold it until he has time to get to the potty.
  • Can follow simple instructions, such as “go get the toy.”
  • Understands the value of putting things where they belong.
  • Has words for urine and stool.

Training Boys vs Girls

Some experts believe that boys are in diapers a bit longer than girls because they’re generally more active and may be less likely to stop and take the time to use the potty.

There’s no point in trying to get a head start. When parents begin potty training too soon, the process is likely to just take longer. In other words, you’ll arrive at your destination at the same time, no matter when you start.

Once you’ve determined that your son or daughter is ready to start, focus on timing. Be sure your child’s routine is well established. Stress or big life changes may make successful toilet training difficult. If he’s just started preschool or has a new sibling, he may be less receptive to change or feel too overwhelmed to tackle this new challenge. Wait until he seems open to new ideas, so you can potty train successfully.

Let him watch and learn

Toddlers learn by imitation, and watching you use the bathroom is a natural first step. He may notice that Daddy uses the potty differently than Mommy does, which creates a great opportunity for you to explain the basic mechanics of how boys use the bathroom.

When talking about body parts, it’s important to be anatomically precise. Teaching him to call his penis a “pee-pee” when every other body part has a name that doesn’t sound as silly may imply that his genitals are embarrassing.

Buy the right equipment

When your child is sitting on the potty, it’s important for him to be able to lean slightly forward with his feet on the ground, especially when he’s having a bowel movement. Most experts advise buying a child-size potty, which your toddler can claim for his own and which will also feel more secure to him than sitting on a full-size toilet. (Many toddlers are afraid of falling into the toilet, and their anxiety can interfere with potty training.)

If you prefer to buy an adapter seat for your regular toilet, make sure it’s comfortable and attaches securely. You’ll also need to give your son a stool because he needs to be able to get on and off the potty easily any time he needs to go and to stabilize himself with his feet.

When buying a potty for your son, look for one without a urine guard (or a removable one). Although they may protect your bathroom from a little stray pee, more often they tend to bump into and scrape a boy’s penis when he sits down on the potty. This could make him to associate going to the bathroom with pain.

You may want to pick up a few picture books or videos for your son, which can make it easier for him to grasp all this new information. Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi, is a perennial favorite, as is Uh, Oh! Gotta Go! and Once Upon a Potty.


Let your child get used to the idea of using the potty. Start by letting him know that the potty is his very own. You can personalize it by writing his name on it or letting him decorate it with stickers. Then have him try sitting on it with his clothes on.

After he’s practiced this way for a week or so, suggest that he try it with his pants down. If he seems at all resistant, avoid the temptation to pressure him. That will only set up a power struggle that could derail the entire process.

If your child has a favorite doll or stuffed animal, use it for potty demonstrations. Most children enjoy watching their favorite toy go through the motions, and your child may learn more this way than from you telling him what to do.

Some parents even construct a makeshift toilet for the doll or stuffed animal. While your child is perched on his potty, his favorite toy can be sitting on one of its own.

Motivate with cool underwear

Get your son focused on the benefits of being potty trained by taking him on a special errand: buying underwear. Let him know that he gets to choose whatever kind he wants (animals or trains, briefs or boxers, whatever appeals).

Talk up the outing ahead of time so he gets excited about being old enough to use the potty and wear “real” underwear just like his dad’s or older brother’s. If he seems a little hesitant to put them on, see if he’ll wear them over his diaper. Once he gets used to them, he may insist on ditching the disposables.

Set up a training schedule

Getting your toddler out of diapers depends on your daily schedule and whether your son is in daycare or preschool. If he is, you’ll want to coordinate your strategy with his daycare provider or teacher.

You’ll have to decide whether to use the back-and-forth method of switching between diapers and underpants or the cold-turkey method of going to underwear full time. Disposable training pants are convenient, but many experts and parents find it’s best to transition right into underwear or old-fashioned cotton training pants, both of which allow your son to feel when he’s wet right away. That, of course, means you’ll be cleaning up some accidents.

You’ll have to decide what’s best for you and your son. His doctor may recommend one method or the other. For a while, continue using diapers or disposable pants at night and on long trips out and about. And your daycare provider or preschool teacher will have her own opinion on when to switch to underpants at school.

Teach him to sit first, then stand

Since bowel movements and urine often come at the same time, it makes sense to have your son sit for both poop and pee at first so he learns that both belong in the potty. Also, that way he won’t get distracted by the fun of spraying and learning to aim when you need him to concentrate on mastering the basic procedure.

Avoid letting him sit too long (15 minutes is sufficient) or get sidetracked by other activities. Watching TV or using other screens while sitting on the potty is often a major stumbling block for parents and children.

Once your son is comfortable going to the bathroom sitting down, he can try the standing position. (There’s no reason to rush this – he can continue to pee sitting down for as long as he likes.) This is where having a male role model is key.

Make sure your son can follow Dad, an uncle, or a good family friend into the bathroom to watch him pee standing up. When your son seems to get the idea, let him give it a try.

If he seems reluctant, try floating a few pieces of O-shaped cereal in the potty for target practice. Expect to clean up a few messes as your son perfects his aim. If you’re not squeamish about letting him pee in the yard, you can paint or tape a target on a tree.

Set aside some naked time

Nothing helps your toddler figure out when he needs to go like letting him spend some time bottomless. Put the potty in an accessible area while he plays, and encourage him to sit on it at regular intervals.

(Of course if your son is going to play naked, you’ll have to be prepared for the floor to get wet. Have your child play in an area that can take a little wetness or put plastic over the carpets.)

Watch for signs that he has to go (clutching himself or jumping up and down in place) and use these cues to suggest to him that it’s potty time. You can do this on several consecutive days, in the evenings when the family is all together, or just on weekends. The more time your child spends out of diapers, the faster he’ll learn.

Celebrate triumphs

Your son will undoubtedly have a few accidents, but eventually he will enjoy the accomplishment of getting something in the potty. Celebrate this moment with fanfare. Reinforce the idea that he’s reached a significant milestone by rewarding him with a “big kid” privilege such as watching a new video or a longer stay at the playground.

Try not to make a big deal out of every trip to the potty, or your child will start to feel nervous and self-conscious under the glare of all that attention.

If at first he doesn’t succeed, try, try again

As with any other skill, the more he uses the potty, the better he’ll be at it. But there are some things you can do to make it easier for him.

Dress your child in loose-fitting clothes that he can easily take off himself, or buy underpants a size too big.

If he still has trouble with potty training, don’t overreact or punish. Nothing can disrupt potty training faster than making a child feel bad for having an accident.

If you feel frustrated, remind yourself that scolding your child for wetting his pants might mean months of diapers ahead. Remember, potty training is not so different from learning how to ride a bike, and accidents are an inevitable part of the process. Even children who have used the toilet successfully for months occasionally have an accident when they are engrossed in an activity.

And if you don’t sense much progress or if you or your child are becoming frustrated, it’s perfectly fine to take a break from potty training and try again in a few weeks.

Raise the fun factor

If you approach potty training with a little panache, your child will be more likely to stay motivated.

Drip some blue food coloring into the potty. Your child will be amazed at how he can turn the water green. Put several of his favorite books in the magazine rack next to the toilet so he can look at them whenever he has to go. Or better yet, read to him if he’s going number two, and/or use toilet paper for target practice when he’s going number one.

If your child starts to lose interest but is well into potty training, you may want to consider offering rewards.

One popular method is to use stickers and a calendar to keep track of his successes. Every time he goes to the potty, he gets a sticker that he can paste onto the page. Watching the sticker bounty accumulate will keep him inspired.

If the stickers themselves aren’t enough of a thrill, you can offer an additional reward such as a treat or a toy when he earns enough stickers or stays dry for a certain number of days in a row. Or, if he is interested in wearing his big boy underwear, keep reminding him that he can wear it once he is able to go potty.

Move into night mode

Once your son stays dry all day, you can start formulating a game plan for nights. Wait until he’s reliably using the potty during the daytime, then start checking his diapers in the mornings and after naps to see if they’re dry. Many children start staying dry during their afternoon naps within six months of learning to use the potty.

Ditch the diapers

By the time your child’s ready to say goodbye to diapers altogether, he’s accomplished a lot.

Acknowledge this and reinforce your child’s pride in his achievement by letting him give away leftover diapers to a family with younger kids. 

About the Author

Becca Greenwald 

Health-conscientious (and tired) mama to two adorable little boys, writing from my own experiences. @beccababybrody

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