How to Potty Train Before 2: It isn’t as hard as you think.

Changing a toddler’s diaper often requires two sets of hands and training in jiu-jitsu. Video by: Karolina Grabowska

Have you seen this viral TikTok floating around – a mom of 3 making promises of potty “training” your tot in 3 days? I’m not going to fully disagree with her, you can make great strides in potty “training” in three days, but what I’ve learned after three of my own kids and helping other kids in a daycare setting is this: potty “training” isn’t a weekend process. It’s a multi-step process that will span days/weeks/months and by going into it expecting it to be over in 3 days, you’re setting yourself and your kiddo up for a battle of the wills that will likely end in a lot of frustration, disappointment, and probably tears (theirs and yours).

That being said, it isn’t a lost cause. Little people are a lot more capable than we give them credit for, especially if we give them the space and support to meet the challenge. If you’re interested in how to potty “train” before they think pooping in their pants is the thing to do or they roundhouse kick you in the face, read on!

1. Set reasonable expectations.

To keep expectations in check for everyone in our home, I refer to this season as potty “learning” because we’re talking about kids – not dogs – and learning is an ongoing process. I’ve never known a kid who was completely “finished” within the span of a weekend, especially a young one. Sure, if you start this process with a 3.5 or 4-year-old, I suppose you could be finished in a weekend, but I think almost everyone can agree that they would prefer to stop changing and paying for diapers well before that age range. Expect that your kiddo will be in nighttime diapers for a while. Plan for accidents when you transition from bare booty to pants. Anticipate that there will be poop on your floor at least once. Maybe none of this happens, at which point you will be pleasantly surprised and feel like a total champ. Or maybe they all happen, and you’ve mentally prepared yourself for it and you can find space to shake your head and chuckle. Either way, being a reasonable human is the name of the game. One thing I will say is this: do not plan to start this process in the third trimester of pregnancy. It isn’t impossible, but a postpartum mama does not need the added frustration of a disgruntled toddler suddenly peeing on the floor because they’re mad about their new sibling. When you know better, you do better, and I’m telling you because I’ve lived it.

2. Start young.

Have you heard of Montessori? If you’re even a microscopic amount of crunchy, I’ll bet you have. The Montessori method is all about noticing a child’s interests and then providing them with appropriate outlets. I don’t follow any particular parenting method to the letter, but I do find a lot of their philosophies are great with the younger crowd, especially during the potty learning phase. Montessori places the typical potty learning phase around 15 months, but I’ve found it isn’t actionable until 18-20 months. Yes, you can start at 15 months, but you’re going to be using the “Oh Crap” method and nobody is going to be happy about that. At 18-20 months, they can basically learn this shit on their own.

A toddler builds a toilet paper tower. Photo by: Elina Fairytail

For potty learning, tots will often start wanting to sit on the potty or be around the toilet/bathroom. What I’ve noticed with most parents is a natural instinct to discourage this. I understand. Nobody wants pink eye or hand, foot, and mouth ripping through the house. That’s totally reasonable. The problem is it teaches that a bathroom is a dirty, scary place and we shouldn’t go in there or touch anything. Then, we turn around a few months or a year later and expect them to waltz in there and touch all. the. things once we‘ve decided it’s time to axe the diapers. What kind of madness is that? Instead of deterring them from being in the bathroom, use their interest to set the potty learning plan into motion. If they touch something, wash their hands. What kid doesn’t love water and bubbles? Think of it as an investment into their personal hygiene education that will pay dividends when they hit school age.

3. Give them the appropriate words and label their bodily functions.

Do you remember learning a foreign language in high school? Remember how it was SO MUCH EASIER to understand it than to speak it? Toddlers are like that. If you listen closely, most of the things they “babble” sound like other words and phrases used in the home. They are probably trying their best to mimic us, but still lack the muscle coordination and the required number of teeth to get all the words out in a coherent way. This is what makes them adorable. But they understand so much more than we give them credit for. This is why taking instruction for a two-step process is listed as a milestone before being able to use the same number of words in a sentence.

There are going to be times when your little one pees or poops on the floor. They do not always have a diaper on. It’s just facts. When they pee on the floor, or poop in the shower, label it. It’s important they SEE THE PEE. Now they have a visual to accompany the sensation. It’s important to make a big (positive) to-do about this whole thing.

Listen: I don’t care if you just had your Persian rug professionally cleaned. I equally do not care if they just dropped a smushy poop with red streaks from the beets you had on Sunday and it stinks worse than anything on this side of Mars. You put on your big girl (or boy) panties, get your feelings in order, and you say “Oh wow! You peed/pooped! So big!” And if everyone in the room is gagging, you can add something like “Wow, that is very fragrant. You must’ve had a lot of nutritious food to make all those interesting smells.” (For the record, this exact conversation has played out in my home on multiple occasions) Stick to the plan and pretty soon your diaper fund will pay for another cleaning and this whole phase will be behind you.

4. Normalize the bathroom experience.

A toddler plays in the sink. Photo by: Sasha Kim

If your tot doesn’t follow you into the bathroom, I’m not sure I can even relate to the type of parenting you’re doing, but now is a good time to leave the bathroom door open or invite them to accompany you. Unless your spouse is home because pooping with the door open has a certain ick factor I just can’t wrap my brain around. And my ick factor is pretty high. I’ve had all three of my kids at home. On my bed. These bathroom trips are great opportunities for conversations about “I’m going pee” because now they have that vocabulary in place and they correlate the pee on the floor to peeing in the bathroom.

An easy way to normalize the bathroom experience is by reading about it! Conversations revolving around general biology are sometimes uncomfortable for parents. Luckily, there are a plethora of toddler-friendly books to normalize this very normal (but private) experience. My kids are huge fans of Big Girls Use the Potty!, Potty, and Everyone Poops.

5. Get them a little potty and place it in a high-traffic location.

This is really important. Before having my own kids, I was determined that my kid would go straight to the regular toilet, with a little seat and stool. But here’s what I found: when working with a kid as young as 18 months, that seat is REALLY TALL, and the stools can be scary – there are no rails! The Montessori method says to give your kids the highest chance of success by providing them with a kid-sized version of the adult one. We use the baby potty by Baby Bjorn for this stage and back it right up to a wall. If you really want to keep the mess to a minimum, you can put puppy papers underneath the potty seat. You’ll have to figure out where the best location is in your home – but I can tell you with certainty that it is NOT in the bathroom at this age. Our floorplan is semi-open, so I keep our potty seat between the living room and the kitchen/dining area. This serves two purposes: it’s a visual reminder, and the potty is never far from being able to access.

6. Go bare butt.

At 18-20 months, toddlers DO NOT CARE about panties as a “reward” for learning to use the facilities. In fact, the cooler “reward” is probably sprinting through the house nudey-tudey. This is what is so cool about this age. The act of doing this themselves is reward enough. Furthermore, wearing panties/underwear is another step in the process and confuses the shit out of them. Literally. Having the air on their bumkin reminds them they have a job to do. Undergarments feel similar to diapers, and the confusion will decrease the chances of success and frustrate EVERYONE. And result in way more laundry than you already have to deal with. Remember, the goal is to set them up for success, not add to your to-do list.

7. Getting them to sit (and have success) for the first time.

Okay, this is huge. You’ve read everything there is to know. It seems simple. But how do you get them to SIT ON THE POTTY for the first time? My best advice is to wait until they start announcing their bodily functions as they are happening (i.e. “Pee” as they are peeing on the floor). Once they are announcing this for you, you can just scoop them up and have them sit on the potty til they’re all finished. Then throw a parade in their honor.

A toddler sits on the potty. Photo by: Samir

Alternatively, you can resort to bribery and have them just… try it out. Not my best parenting move, I admit, but I have totally doled out lollipops, encouraged a sit and read, and even turned to electronics for that first potty-sitting experience. Maybe you crack open a bag of M&M’s and just hand them one at a time. Whatever it is – you want it to be positive and awesome.

You may have to resort to bribery or scoop-and-go a few times before they have any success. That’s okay. Once they do have success, though, make a HUGE fuss about it. Do a dance. Make up a song. Get out the confetti. Just make sure to wait until they’re finished so you don’t startle them. After this first success and the accompanying parade, they will likely keep going back to the potty to rack up more successes (and subsequent parades). Don’t worry, you won’t have to parade forever.

8. Remind, but don’t push.

Sometimes tots do need a REMINDER. For example, they’ve had a diaper on all night or been out and about and now they’re rocking a naked booty. Usually, the reminder looks something like the kiddo says “pee” at which point you may scoop and carry them to the potty to finish up. It’s okay to ask “do you need to potty?” occasionally. If the kiddo says no, that’s it. They’ve spoken for their own body. They may actually need to go or not, but creating a pressure cooker around elimination is not a good idea. You really don’t want kids holding it for any reason, because that can contribute to issues way down the line (like 7-8-9-year-olds wetting the bed, etc.). One thing I do not recommend is setting a timer for every 30 minutes or similar madness. Nobody wants to be interrupted every 30 minutes and it takes the potty experience from awesome to awful in a hurry.

9. Pants first. Underwear last.

Eventually, your kiddo is going to be very consistent on their little potty. Right now I have one that runs over to her seat, sits, announces what she did, applauds herself, dumps the insert, and then replaces it. At that point, they’re getting close to transitioning to PANTS. Seriously, do not even get into the underwear yet. Yes, it’s cute, but it isn’t worth the hassle or confusion. I wouldn’t recommend even considering panties until they’re able to go on a short outing sans diaper AND they’re able to sit on a big potty with a toddler-friendly seat.

It will be over before you know it.

I haven’t worked with all the kids in the world. I’ve helped maybe 6 or 7 along their journey. I’ve managed to get three all the way through the process before the second birthday. Honestly, my youngest basically taught herself. I can’t take credit for it any more than I can take credit for how she created herself out of an egg and a sperm cell. Then and now, I just gave her the optimal environment to flourish.

Here’s what I can tell you: every toddler is different. My own three are polar opposites. There are three poles now. You’re welcome. All kidding aside: what’s worked for me still may not work for you, but my experience is that even with children who have personalities more different than night and day, these steps have gotten us out of the daytime diaper routine for each of my kids by the time they were 2. While every child is different, they generally just want to please their caregivers. If you’re there cheering them on, they’re going to try really hard and be happy to do it. So try to remember how to laugh before you were an adult and everything was so damn serious, and this whole phase will be over with before you know it.

Toddler jumping on the bed. Photo by: Yan Krukau
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