7 Tips Before You Start Potty Training
Updated: May 7, 2021
Spring and summertime are often the favorite seasons of the year for parents to finally take the big step toward toilet training their children. If you're tired of paying for diapers and not being able to spend too much time in the car or community because of accidents, or if you've already attempted it once or twice unsuccessfully, here are 7 tips to point you in the right direction.
1. Get everything prepared in advance
Regardless of which toilet training program you pick, there will most likely be a huge emphasis on providing positive reinforcement when your child initially starts using the toilet, and you don’t want to get caught literally empty-handed when it happens because you want to ensure that he understands that good things happen when he does go in the toilet.
Don't get caught empty-handed without any reinforcers!
Things that might make good reinforcers would be things that are rare, highly preferred, and/or edible. It basically needs to be at a higher level than typical reinforcers that you use. If it's something edible, it should be something that can be quickly consumed. A few Skittles would be more appropriate than an ice cream cone. Since the program will only last a few days, it's okay if the edible reinforcers are not as healthy as your child's typical snacks.
Here are some common reinforcers that parents often use:
Candy corn (this is what I learned on!)
Access to a favorite Youtube video
Access to a favorite iPad game
Small toys (Hot Wheels, action figures, etc.)
In addition to preparing reinforcers, you’ll also want to make sure that you have plenty of clean underwear and pants or shorts ready. And if it’s the type of program that has the child sitting on the toilet for extended periods of time, I sometimes have a dinner tray so that they can watch something on their iPad or play on it, as well as a chair or two for parents.
Who would've guessed that your wedding present from 1997 that's been collecting dust in your basement closet would come in handy again?
2. Pick one strategy then stick to it
When you mix and match things, like diets or exercise plans, it not only steers you away from the creator’s original intent but also makes it a lot harder to identify what is or isn’t working. We all know someone who tried to use "a little bit of this" from one popular diet with "a little bit of that" from another diet and ultimately ending up unsuccessful.
I’m biased toward one method in particular since I’ve done it with several kiddos. But some of the things that make that plan unique, like completely transitioning to underwear at the beginning, recording data on a sheet, etc. I’ve seen ignored by parents, and the results aren’t always optimal.
3. Be patient
Very rarely is toilet training done in one day. The average for the program I use is 3 days, so I typically recommend that parents use a long weekend to really focus on it. Right now Memorial Day is the next one, but Labor Day, Presidents Day, and basically all other extended weekends always are good. If you'd prefer to do it during the summer while your child is out of school, one parent might have to take off a Friday or Monday.
Toilet training programs can take longer if you don’t use an intensive program, but typically by the time parents come to me they are tired of buying diapers, school staff are tired of taking their child to the bathroom every 30 minutes, families want to be able to do things in the community without accidents, and so having to commit to 3 days isn’t too much to ask.
Time to decide if giving up a 3-day weekend is worth not paying for diapers (hint: it is!)
4. Rule out medical issues first
A lot of children, especially those with autism, have digestive issues like abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. And if your child is a picky eater that will make it even more difficult.
Obviously you don’t want to run an intensive toileting program if it is going to make the digestive issues worse, so your options are either treating the digestive issues first with your doctor and/or a dietitian and then running an intensive program, or just running a less intensive program.
5. Make sure that everyone is consistent
This might be the statement that I say the most to families because it extends to almost every program and behavior.
At home one parent might punish an accident while the other completely ignores it. Not only will that confuse your child, but it’ll also make the program less successful. And not to go too far off the deep end into ABA stuff, but the attention your child gets after an accident (even if it’s negative) could potentially be reinforcing. And the last thing you want to do is reinforce bathroom accidents.
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6. Make sure that things are consistent across all settings
If I say #5 the most to families, #6 is probably a close second. In your child's case, the other settings might be school, daycare, places in the community like parks or stores, or even Grandma's house.
Say your particular program calls for increasing the duration between bathroom visits by 15 minutes every day (assuming no accidents). You’ve successfully gone from an initial baseline of 15 minutes all the way to 45 minutes. But one of your child's aides at school was out sick for a few days, so when she comes back she keeps taking him every 15 minutes. You think everything is fine because you aren’t getting reports of any accidents at school, so the 45 minute duration keeps going up even though the staff aren’t implementing it.
The best way to avoid this type of situation is to have frequent and clear communication with those who will be with your child outside of your home. At the very beginning of the program, when progress is especially rapid, it might even require daily updates to the school or daycare staff.
7. Make sure everyone is on the same page
A lot of times the inconsistencies that I mentioned in #5 are because both parents maybe aren’t huge fans of a particular part of a toileting program.
A common one I see is that some programs call for a complete transition from pull-ups to underwear 24/7 from the beginning. Both parents might be on board during the daytime, but if one parent gets tired of being the only one having to clean up accidents in the morning that happened to occur overnight, they might want to use pull-ups instead while the child is sleeping. But the focus of that particular program might be removing all reinforcement from accidents, which a pull-up wouldn’t help with.
Some other variables in toilet training that you want to be on the same page with:
Are you comfortable having your child help clean up the accident when it occurs?
Who will communicate the plan and updates with school staff, babysitters, your in-laws who babysit every Tuesday, etc.?
How long are you comfortable having your child sit on the toilet until they void?
Would an intensive 3-day plan or less intensive long-term plan be a better fit for your family?
If you only have one bathroom in your house, how will you schedule things like showers if your child is on a schedule to sit every 15 minutes?
If there are other people in the house, like siblings, how involved will they be?
Who is responsible for data collection during the program?
Will you use your regular toilet or a separate potty seat?
I'm confident that if you're able to check all 7 of these items off, you'll be in great shape to have a successful toilet training program with your child. Most likely the books and resources you've already used for your child will also have some kind of toilet training component, otherwise feel free to contact us if you'd like individualized support.