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Am I a bad parent if my child is not potty trained by the age of 3?

This is a question asked by many parents and some parents just do not know when or how to start the process of potty training.

First things first…

If you start potty training before your child is biologically and emotionally ready, you're both going to become frustrated and upset.

So how do you know if they are ready? Have you seen these signs in your child:

  • He can walk or run steadily.
  • She has regular bowl movements at predictable times of the day.
  • He has periods of "dry" diapers of at least two hours or more.
  • She know the difference between "wet" and "dry".
  • He can pull his pants up and down.
  • She dislikes the feeling of a wet or dirty diaper.
  • Shows an interest in others going to the bathroom.
  • Shows signs of independence.
  • Can follow simple instructions.
  • Understands the physical signs that mean she has to go and can tell you before it happens.

If your child has shown most of these signs they may be ready to start the process of potty training.

Introducing the Bathroom

It never hurts to introduce the notion of using the bathroom at an early age. Your child can start to get used to sitting on the potty before she's ready to be trained. It may make it easier when she is ready. You can also read your child books about potty training with a familiar character your child likes.

Buying the Potty

After your child shows signs of being ready, it is time to buy the right potty. You can purchase either a potty that sits on the floor or a potty seat that goes on top of the adult toilet. If you choose a potty seat make sure you have a step stool for your child to use. HINT: It is easier for people to empty their bowels and bladders completely when their feet are pressing down on the floor.  

Timing is Everything!

Do not start potty training during transitional or stressful times. For example, if you are moving, taking a vacation, going through a divorce or bringing a new baby into the home you may want to postpone until the transitional time is over. Children learn best when they are in their regular routine and environment. Remember, children need access to a potty 24/7 so make sure they can independently get to the potty chair. Are they out of the crib and into a bed? Can they reach the potty if they need it?  

Time to Teach…

Choose times during the day to take your child to the potty, even if they say they don't have to go! Maybe every two hours, include first thing in the morning and before you leave the house and certainly before naps and bedtime. By doing this, you start having certain times of the day that become a ritual and using the potty becomes a habit. Teach them to remove their pants and then their underwear and sit on the toilet for a few minutes. Finally, even if they do not actually go potty, have them flush and wash their hands. This is a great way to teach them about proper hygiene as well.

Positive Potty Reinforcement

When your child uses the potty successfully offer praise. Positive reinforcement is always good but don't go crazy with rewards. Small incentives are fine, but some children may feel worse when they don't succeed and receive the reward. You know the personality of your child and what is best for them.

Patience is Key

Remember, accidents are part of the process. Some children still have accidents through age 5 or 6, especially during the night. Never punish your child for wetting or soiling his pants. He is learning and punishment may delay the process. Don't forget patience with potty training is a must!

Lisa Poppe

The UNL Learning Child Team

Lisa Poppe is an Extension Educator for "The Learning Child" team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Poppe has a Bachelor's Degree from UNL in Early Childhood Education and a Master’s Degree from UNL in Family & Consumer Science. She focuses on child development and the family through her work for "The Learning Child" team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Learn more about Lisa and the rest of The Learning Child Team at child.u ...

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