When (and how) should you start potty training? Experts say there's 'no one method' to potty train, but patience is key

Cute toddler boy, potty training, playing with his teddy bear on potty
Experts say the most important thing for parents to remember while potty training is to be patient with their child. (Photo: Getty Creative) (tatyana_tomsickova via Getty Images)

Although no two children are exactly alike, the messiest part of any parenting journey may be the same: potty training.

When it comes to how (and when) to teach babies and toddlers how to pee and poop on the toilet instead of in a diaper, parents often ask how long potty training should take, what age a child should be able to use the toilet by and how to specifically potty train a girl or a boy.

Alexandra Fung is a parenting expert and co-founder of Upparent, a site designed to gather parenting advice and recommendations from an online community of moms and dads. As mom to a 14-year-old daughter and three sons who range in age from 2 to 12, she's also no stranger to the woes of potty training.

Fung says as she relaxed her toilet training methods more with each child, the process became surprisingly easier.

"With my older two kids, I vividly remember potty training as being the most challenging pull-my-hair-out-frustrating parenting experience ever," the Orange County, Calif. mom says. "When the time approached to start potty training my third, I feared the worst. And yet, as with many other parenting experiences the third and fourth time around, I found that a more relaxed and less regimented approach made my life so much easier and still ended up with our child potty-trained in about the same amount of time."

Fung shares the key to potty training success in her family: waiting for each child to be ready and interested in using the toilet, then offering them opportunities to begin using the bathroom on their own.

How to potty train

Michelle Swaney is a potty training expert and chief executive officer of The Potty School, an online potty training resource were Swaney and her team help families with their potty training struggles. Swaney says The Potty School works with families with kids from age 0 to 9, "from diapers to flush," helping different types of families and their children find success in going to the bathroom.

Swaney's potty training plans are highly adaptable to each family and are based not only on the children being potty trained, but on the adults potty training them as well.

"We don't recommend a particular method," Swaney tells Yahoo Life. "For some a regular potty time works, for others transitional times work better. The suggestions absolutely differ based not only on the child but the responsible adult as well."

For example, Swaney says some parents prefer methods that use extrinsic motivators: physical rewards given for potty training success. Others prefer intrinsic rewards, preferring their children respond to praise or feel proud of their achievement over giving treats in exchange for using the potty. Both styles can yield a positive result.

Swaney shares some best practices that can help parents and their child get started on the road to toilet triumph, including her number one piece of advice to all families: "Normalize the potty" by allowing a child to become familiar with it on their own terms.

"For the most part we do recommend starting with a concentrated and attentive effort," Swaney explains, adding that kids have the most success when parents leave them, "naked from the waist down" for the first few days of potty training.

When it comes to making sure your home is stocked with the right equipment for the job, Swaney suggests either a child-sized potty chair or a potty seat attachment that goes on the regular toilet, making the seat comfortable for tiny bottoms.

In addition, the California mom recommends parents do some research, enlisting the help of books and online potty training resources to develop a personalized plan that makes sense for their family.

And a support person can be a big help. Parents should consider asking an outside party — an elder in the family, a neighbor or a grandparent, for example — to support their potty training effort early on, when things can feel stressful. If needed, experts who specialize in potty training can be outsourced, similar to enlisting the help of a doula or sleep training consultant.

When to Potty Train

Pierrette Mimi Poinsett is a pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best whose experience with children has helped the Petaluma, Calif. doctor develop a list of trusted signs for when it's time to transition from diapers to the commode.

"Most children are ready to start potty training between 18 and 24 months of age," Poinsett says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says at around 18 months old, toddlers are physically ready to potty train: Their digestive systems and bladders have developed enough by this age that they should be able to delay urination or bowel movements long enough to get to a potty. It's around their second birthday, however, when a child is most likely to be cognitively ready for potty training. The AAP also reminds parents to watch for the motor skills required to use the potty: If a toddler can't get on and off the potty or remove their clothing, they may not be ready to attempt potty training.

Poinsett says a child also may be ready to start potty training if they can understand basic instructions and "potty language," including having an understanding of the toilet itself.

A more relaxed and less regimented approach made my life so much easier and still ended up with our child potty-trained in about the same amount of time."Alexandra Fung

Other good indicators that a child is ready are having a dry diaper for an extended period of time and waking up dry from a nap. When a toddler can pull down a diaper, disposable training pants or underwear, Poinsett says it also may be a good time to begin potty training.

Poinsett adds that if a child hides to pee or poop, stoops in a downward position while going to the bathroom or can tell parents verbally or by gesturing that they are peeing or pooping, it's time to pull out the potty seat.

How to potty train boys

Robert Puharich, a father of two young children from Canada, says while his 3 year old has mostly wrapped up his potty training experience, his 2 year old is just starting.

Having potty trained children back-to-back, Puharich offers some advice,

"Parents should start potty training early," he says. "Not long after their child can walk, they should consider starting. I waited too long and now [my 3-year-old] sometimes chooses not to do it because he knows the convenience of a diaper."

Puharich shares that it's helped to "start putting [his] child on the potty every half hour."

"It's not easy but they get used to it," he says. "Eventually they understand that something needs to come out."

Puharich also notes that out of all the children potty training in his extended family, the boys have struggled more with their journey to use the toilet.

According to Poinsett, there may be a reason why.

"Boys achieve developmental milestones slower than girls," she says. "There is about a three-month difference in attaining milestones. This includes the skills necessary to learn how to potty train, such as communication about the need to go potty and the physical development necessary to carry out peeing and pooping in the toilet."

No matter the child, when it comes to potty training, Poinsett says only one thing remains consistent.

"There is no one method to potty train," she says. "Each child is different. The key thing to remember is to be patient."

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