Back to Basics with Potty Training

January 7th, 2013

by Katrina Brooke

Let me remind you what we are asking of a small child when we ask her to use the potty. It’s so easy to forget just how big a job it is at this age to feel a bowel movement coming on; hold on to it; go to where we tell her to go; and give up her b.m. forever—never to see it again. As strange as it may sound to an adult, from a young child’s perspective each b.m. is part of her own body.

We are asking her to accept our way of understanding bowel movements and what it means to grow up. Using the potty is a major demand. A young child needs to feel that it is her own accomplishment—not ours—to become like those around her.

Here are the steps I suggest:
  1. Let her pick out a potty that she can call her own. She can put it on the floor next to the “grown-up potty.” Invite her to sit on hers when you sit on yours. When she does, read to her and make it a fun, relaxed time (no racing after her or pressuring her to perform). Don’t take off her diaper when she first tries out the potty. It’s too cold. Let her sit there with it on until she says she’s ready. “Someday you’ll use your little potty like Mommy and Daddy use theirs.”
  2. After she learns to sit on her potty and gets used to the routine, help her take off her diaper, but still don’t chase or pressure. After each b.m., take her dirty diaper to the big potty. Empty it “where Mommy and Daddy do theirs,” but don’t flush until she’s lost interest. “Someday you’ll want to sit here and do your b.m. like we do. Now, you can use your little pot when you’re ready.”
  3. Let her imitate you, even washing her hands afterward. She will gradually get interested in the process because she wants so much to be just like you.
  4. When she’s interested enough, maybe weeks or months away, offer to take off her diaper and underwear and to put her potty in her playroom or in the yard “so you can go when you want to.” If she wets or soils on the floor, put her back in diapers. “Maybe later when you want to be like Mommy and Daddy.”
  5. When she gets the idea and wants to go, don’t go overboard. Calmly say, “You’re just like everyone around you. I’m proud of you.” Don’t be in a hurry. Let her lead you.
  6. When she really gets the idea of imitating everyone around her and wants to go by herself, let her wear training pants to “pull up and down when you want to go.” Don’t be in a hurry for this step. As you can see, this is leading up to her own feeling of success, not just performing for you. In fact, you may have to pull back now and apologize for trying to get her to go when you put her on the potty. “It’s your deal, not ours.” Even too much oohing and ahhing takes away from her success as her own achievement. She will be so proud of herself when she can finally do it herself!
(For more information, see Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way, by Brazelton and Sparrow [da Capo 2004].)

bNS_thumbnail.jpg© Copyright 2012. All rights reserved by Joshua Sparrow MD and T. Berry Brazelton MD.
This material may not be copied, published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.
Photo credit: Insieme/Fulvia Farassino

Questions for Families Today can be submitted through this online form. Questions of general interest may be answered in this column, which may be posted on a Families Today web area or collected in book form. Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow regret that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

(Dr. T. Berry Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives for families. Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is director of Special Initiatives at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the center at

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