Lessons From The Potty Training Trenches

A couple of weeks ago we rode the potty training roller coaster with Clara. In the usual sense of the analogy, there were lots of ups, downs, and even a few loops. Thankfully, unlike a roller coaster, we didn’t return to our starting location. Nope, after about 3 to 4 days we successfully pulled into the big girl underwear station, and haven’t look back since. So yeah, Clara is fully potty trained (holla atcha big girl) and we’re EXTREMELY proud of her.

We hadn’t planned on blogging about it (we didn’t want to embarrass Clara by sharing a “poop-play-by-play”) but after a bunch of requests we realized we could just share general what-worked-for-us tips, without getting into the graphic stuff at all. And since we’ve already broken the seal on personal topics like breastfeeding, cloth diapering, and Clara’s birth story, it actually felt pretty natural. I even volunteered to take this one while my lady sits back and celebrates her 31st birthday (Burger did barf in our bed this morning to start the day off right). So without further ado…

Of course we should disclaimer this post with two things. First, every kid is different so what worked for us definitely won’t work for everyone else (heck, or even anyone else). And second, this is our first time at this rodeo so we are far from experts. But since we relied on the experience of our friends and family to guide Clara, hopefully our little musings about what worked for us may help you decide what you want to do (or don’t want to do) when you embark on your own potty training adventure.

Our first day of potty training with Clara was a complete bust because we didn’t give her opportunities to fail. Rather than take the diaper band-aid off completely, we first tried Pull-Up training pants. They act like diapers, but we thought they looked different enough to make her feel like she was entering a new “phase.” We made a big deal about her new “undies” (we never called them diapers or pull ups) and told her that we had to keep them dry and clean. We spent that entire first day alternating between 20 minutes on the potty and 20 minutes off, hoping something would happen. Well, what happened is that we went through an entire day without any progress. We were highly discouraged.

Sherry and I regrouped that night, got some input from other mom-friends and decided that the next day we’d go straight to real underwear. All cotton, no absorbent layer, and much thinner than the cloth diapers she was used to (and without any snaps). Basically, there was zero safety net for Clara. She was excited (we let her pick out two packs of them at Target) but we were admittedly a little anxious.

But that switch is what did the trick. She had two or three accidents in them, but she HATED it (it must be a lot more uncomfortable than wet cloth diapers or wet pull ups) and something started to click. Soon she was starting to run to the bathroom when she felt it coming. It still took us a few more accidents to actually make it in time, but I’m convinced that allowing her to make those mistakes and learn as she went is what taught her to be successful. Which is pretty much our method when it comes to DIY (you know we love trial and error).

Clara demonstrated all the signs that she was ready – interest in the potty, could pull off her own clothes, etc – and was three months away from being three. So I probably annoyed the heck out of Sherry during this process with my constant “I don’t think she’s ready” talk. I was convinced that she just didn’t understand the feeling of it coming yet. And with our only deadline being half of a year away (the start of her second year of preschool in September) there wasn’t exactly a rush.

I was very tempted to say “we can give up for now and try again later, right?” But I’m glad Sherry was committed to seeing this thing through because within 48 hours Clara was almost entirely potty trained – and I think returning to diapers would’ve been really confusing to her. It would’ve suggested that it’s fine to rely on them whenever she didn’t feel like being a big girl anymore; that giving up was an option.

Now, I should point out that potty training didn’t come out of the blue for us. There was definitely some casual prep. For example, since last summer we’ve been talking about it a lot so she’s familiar with the idea. We bought a potty seat (this one that we got at Target, which sits right on the hall toilet) and every so often she’d try sitting on it in a completely no pressure situation, just so that she got comfortable (and excited) to be up there. She had actually gone a few times already, but without much routine or regularity. So the groundwork was there, this was just about us finally putting our nose to the grindstone and fully transitioning her out of diapers.

Potty training takes a lot more patience than I anticipated. Sherry was doing her best to stay cheerful and make it fun, but I’m not going to lie… by hour four of being on high alert and sprinting towards the bathroom, my patience was wearing thin. And that’s when frustration crept in and suddenly every accident started to feel like the end of the world to me (which is probably why I kept saying “let’s just give up” to Sherry). But letting Clara see my exasperation wasn’t going to help. This was supposed to be a fun, positive experience about accomplishment, encouragement, and all that good stuff. So both Sherry and I got some major practice for putting on a happy face, even if inside we were tired, discouraged, and upset during some of those close-but-no-cigar moments.

I’ll admit, I think Sherry and I overcomplicated the process a bit – mainly in the area of making potty training fun for Clara. We’d heard so many tips like “give them a treat when they’re successful” and “get some books that they only get to read on the potty” and “buy some new toys that stay in the bathroom” and even “set a timer with a fun sound that means it’s time to go” and, well, we did all of them. On one hand, it worked. Clara was always happy to be in the bathroom. But looking back, we probably could’ve succeeded with just one or two. Thankfully she no longer requests a treat, and even stays dry over naps and through the night (which we hear is somewhat unusual – although we have no idea what might have contributed to that).

If I had to choose one thing that worked best during our 3-4 days of actual training, I’d say it was probably the “tiny toy reward pile.” We grabbed a bunch of cheap $1 items (from Target’s dollar spot) which Clara helped us pick out, and laid them all out on the counter in the bathroom so she could see them. She knew every time she was successful she got to pick one new little toy to play with – which definitely seemed to make it a fun challenge instead of an annoying one to her.

Sure it was a bit more expensive (and clutter-y) than a simple jelly bean or an M&M, but oddly enough food treats weren’t really motivating for Clara (I’m sure every kid is different about this though – we’ve heard that some kids flip for stickers, bubbles, and even band-aids). One good thing about the tiny toy reward pile was that it was finite looking (she watched it dwindle as she got better and better), so she doesn’t still expect a toy these days. But it was great for establishing motivation and keeping excitement up in those first few days.

This will sound weird, and I don’t know how many dads will outwardly admit this, but looking back on those few intense house-bound days that we spent in the potty training trenches feels kind of, I don’t know… special? Momentous? I’m not really sure how to describe it. Sure, it was frustrating (and sometimes hilarious) but now that it’s in the rear view mirror we can appreciate it as the milestone in Clara’s childhood that it was.

There’s just something so grown-up about hearing her yell “I did it all by myself!” from the bathroom. And knowing that we as a family accomplished it together (even with my initial “let’s not do this right now” reaction) makes me a proud poppa. So I hope my brain chooses to remember this process that way, even though it most definitely brought out the worst in me a few times while we were in the thick of it.

So there it is. A little rundown of what worked for us. What worked for you guys? Do you have any advice to other first-timers who might be gearing up for The Great Toilet Adventure?


  1. says

    It’s so generous of you guys to share such personal things! Kevin and I are no where near having any little ones ourselves, but reading about other’s esperiences really helps to take some of the mystery? fear? out of kiddos.

    PS. Congratulations!

  2. says

    My potty training trick that worked vey well for my sons was a drop of blue food color in the water. Then they would pee in it and it would magically turn it green. Eventually we just switched over to “make it yellow.”

    Of course, this only works for boys who are looking into the bowl. It was funny though, and if nothing else it helped us keep our sense of humor.


    Hooray for Clara!!!

  3. says

    Congrats! It’s a big milestone. And yay for being a diaper-free house! We have three boys and our oldest PT’d when he was only 2! I was shocked. Now I have a 2-year-old and an almost-4-year-old who aren’t PT’d. We are going to go for broke over Spring Break and see what happens! Thanks for the reminders about good tips. :)

  4. says

    way to go Clara! our daughter just turned 3 and waiting until she was a little to really get into potty training made the difference. she has been going off and on by herself since she was 18 months old, but i think that being able to interpret the feeling of needing to go and express herself is a lot easier know that she’s older.

    we also went straight to the toilet instead of using a separate potty, which made her feel like a “big girl”. we use this (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000VY1WPC/ref=oh_details_o03_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1) as a ladder in her bathroom and this 2 in 1 toilet seat in the hall bathroom (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00596IFY8/ref=oh_details_o06_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1).

    we haven’t taken the overnight plunge yet. do y’all have a cut-off time for liquids in the evening?

    • says

      We actually didn’t although Clara has always been a much bigger eater than drinker (her cousin totally drinks her calories, but Clara has always eaten them and just sipped water and milk throughout the day) so I think it really depends on eating/drinking habits and all that good stuff!


  5. Katie says

    Congratulations!! Even though I’ve been through potty training 5 times, I was amazed at how much each time was different. My oldest was the easiest; like one accident and then he was good, even at naps and overnight. Completely opposite from his brother who still couldn’t stay dry at night until he was 7. I love the idea of the tiny treasure pile that was visible. We did candy, but it took a while to ween off of that, and it probably would have been better if it had been visible and this is the last lollipop; that means you did it”
    I’m always amazed at how freeing it is when they’re done with diapers. However the first few trips out of the house can still get a little scary. But I assume you’ve done that already.
    Happy Birthday Sherry!!

  6. Shondra says

    We have a 3.5 year old boy and we potty trained him around 2.5. We did it a little too early because it took 6 months to have him fully potty trained. One thing to remember is that they go through phases where they’re potty trained and then all of the sudden they’re having 2 or 3 accidents a day for a few days for no obvious reason. Just keep with your normal routine, don’t make a big deal out of the accidents and it’ll return to normal in a few days. Good job Clara!

  7. says

    While I don’t have any little ones (or any on the way), I enjoyed this run-down. I’m learning from your parenting posts and filing them away for the future. It helps that your graphics are fun! That first photo is great with Clara rocking the pout on the potty. Haha. Diva-status!

  8. says

    I’m in the midst of training my three year old twins, and I feel you! We went with a rewards (stickers and M&Ms), and the girls are definitely getting the hang of it. D got it quickly–getting super excited about undies and going by herself, and she’s only had one accident in the last four days. L took a little longer, preferring her pull up to undies. But it’s definitely memorable and been easier than I thought it would be!

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