Sick of buying expensive diapers or pull-ups?
Struggling to hold a wiggly child in place while you wipe a messy bum (without getting poop all over you and everything else)?
Our toddler was 100% potty trained by 20 months old, and in this post, I’m going to tell you exactly how we did it.
Even if your toddler is already older than that, I still think these tips can help you!
Along with the post, I’ll include a printable cheat-sheet of my top tips that you can snag, along with a potty training sticker chart perfect for older toddlers.
The Steps We Took to Potty Train Our Toddler By 20 Months Old
When I tell you that we potty trained our daughter by 20 months, I’m in no way trying to infer that every child should be potty trained by that age.
I do not think anyone is a bad parent simply because their child stays in diapers past two or even three years old.
I also don’t claim that following the same steps will work the same way for you. Every child is different, and I’ll never claim to have the “right” way of doing anything.
This is simply the route we took with our child, and we found it really beneficial, as a way to empower her and demonstrate respect toward her.
Elimination Communication (EC)
We actually started introducing the potty very early on… when our daughter was 3 months old.
If you haven’t heard of elimination communication before, in a nutshell, it’s watching for your baby’s cues that they need to potty and then offering a toilet when possible.
Some people are hard-core and do this full time. Others take a softer, more part-time approach.
We did this so loosely that true “ECers” might actually be offended that I even lump myself in with them.
From 3 months on, whenever we changed her diapers, we would also offer a chance to sit on a little plastic potty (with assistance, of course), and if she went, she went, and if she didn’t, she didn’t. No praise or pressure.
If I felt like it and was paying attention, I’d also periodically offer the potty if her diaper was still dry, or if I could very clearly see she was about to poop.
As simple as this approach was, by six months, she would actually hold her potty for short periods (especially if we were out and about) and use a public toilet if I held her over it.
It was incredible!!
In addition to gently introducing the toilet, we cloth diapered her between 3 and 9 months old.
That helped her to connect the urge to go with the act of going and the sensation of a messy diaper.
Regular diapers are so dang effective that even after a baby pees gallons, they still feel dry, so cloth diapers are a good tool for potty learning with a baby or young toddler.
Sign Language/Hand Signals
As soon as our daughter was able to start learning and using rudimentary baby sign language, we taught her to sign for “potty.”
We felt like the correct sign for “toilet” was a little bit too difficult for a baby, so we modified it to be a closed fist.
It worked! She picked it up very quickly used it throughout her pre-verbal months and even after. When she noticed she had to go, she would urgently wave around a clenched fist in the air and make noise to get our attention.
We tried a package or two of pull ups just to see what we thought, but we did not find them helpful.
For one thing, they’re more expensive than diapers. For another, she was still young enough that she wasn’t quite pulling pants up and down on her own.
It was easier to stick with diapers for the time being, and we eventually transitioned straight from diapers into underwear.
Phased in Undies
Around probably 16 months, we started letting her wear panties around our home part-time.
Usually just one pair in the morning until she had her first accident so that she could experience mess, then we’d clean up and go back to diapers.
I feel like we really could have skipped or at least shortened this phase.
I should also note that from very early on, even before she was a year old, she almost exclusively pooped in the potty. She did not like sitting in poop, and of course, poop signals are much easier to read, which made it much easier to help her to a potty in time. So, when we did start using undies, I was not worried about poop messes.
Went Cold Turkey on the Diapers
Finally, I got tired of the hybrid part-time undie approach.
I was also tired of paying for diapers.
I knew she was capable and that she would not be negatively impacted by it (as some children genuinely are), so one day when she was 17/18 months, with no forethought or planning, I said, “That’s it, no more diapers.”
We went to the store that morning, got an extra package of little girl’s underwear, and that was that. We packed up the extra diapers for the next baby, and she began exclusively wearing her underwear. Including at nighttime (and by the way, she had NO nighttime accidents).
We probably could have taken this step sooner, but our apartment was quite cold during the winter/spring and we really needed to wait for warm weather so that she could run around in just the undies all day until she was fully potty trained.
I won’t lie to you and say she magically became potty trained within 3 days of this final step.
It was a couple of weeks of cleaning puddles off of the floor.
Our issue wasn’t that she couldn’t hold it, or didn’t know how to use the potty– it was that she had decided peeing in the floor was fun, and we had to retrain that with some gentle discipline.
However, over the next few weeks, the accidents became fewer and fewer until they stopped (as long as I remembered to pause her day and take her potty every hour or two).
Interestingly, she only had accidents during the day, and never overnight or while we were out of the house.
Anyway, it was a long process for us! We didn’t use any set methods or approaches. We just taught her what the potty was, and how to use it, and once she had the logistics down, the final step was eliminating the diapers.
Wherever we go, people are always blown away that a child so young uses the potty, but in my mind, we haven’t done anything special. We’ve just done her the courtesy of offering her an alternative to soiling herself.
Potty Training Supplies
As far as supplies go, this list is very basic. You really only need a toilet, underwear, and something to clean up messes.
We liked having a child-sized potty on hand as an option, but she preferred the “big” potty, so now we keep the little one in the car (which is SO helpful).
You also don’t need a reward system in my opinion, but you can absolutely try one if that’s what you want.
P.S. One thing we DIDN’T buy was a miniature seat to go on the adult toilet. She was perfectly able to balance on the seat without falling in, so we didn’t feel it was necessary.
A child-sized potty
We found a child-sized potty particularly helpful during the first year or so while we were introducing the toilet with elimination communication.
We have one of that, and I will probably get a second one when our next baby comes along so that one can remain in the car.
It’s not essential, but it is really nifty.
It’s easy to move from room to room with you so that when your toddler is in the early stages of realizing they need to go but not being able to hold it long yet, it’s readily available.
It enables your child to take the lead, rather than waiting for you to lift them up onto the big potty.
It’s also a good visual reminder as you move around the house to keep pottying at the front of everyone’s mind.
If your toddler ends up preferring the grown-up toilet to the little potty, you can always keep it in your car for emergencies.
Step stool to reach the big potty/sink
Even if you have a little potty, it’s good to keep a stool on hand to empower your child with as much independence and autonomy as possible.
The more control you give a toddler, the easier it is to teach a new skill or habit.
Enabling a toddler to potty and wash hands independently sets the act apart from diaper changes, where they primarily rely on you to clean them up at your convenience.
If they still have to rely on you almost 100% to use the potty, they might not see an advantage.
You have a couple of options when it comes to toddler underwear.
One is to get run-of-the-mill typical children’s underwear.
(images are clickable and will take you to Amazon)
GIRLS’ TRAINING PANTS
These will NOT save you from a full-on accident like disposable pull-ups would.
The advantage to these is if your toddler starts to have an accident but catches themselves. The absorbency is a little more forgiving than normal, thinner undies so the pee doesn’t run down their legs (and into their socks and shoes) as easily, and their pants might even stay dry.
The drawback is that they are considerably more expensive.
We have tried both, and I don’t consider them necessary.
In fact, I think it actually helps to have the thinner undies so that an accident (or “miss”) can be more fully experienced.
There’s no harm in having some of both if you want to experiment, but whatever you choose to do, I recommend having A LOT. (Just remember how much money you’re going to save by getting out of diapers sooner).
We have probably close to 20 pairs and still ran out sometimes.
You’re going to want to set out some designated “pee towels.”
(If you have a lot of carpet in your house, you may want to confine undie-time to a specific area like the kitchen or backyard.)
Your toddler is going to have a lot of accidents in the beginning. Probably far more “misses” than hits.
Just know and accept this up front and try not to be frustrated when it happens.
Calmly get out the pee-pee towel and clean up the mess, even encouraging your toddler to help if you want.
Optional: Books about going potty
My toddler loves books, and she likes to emulate what she sees (or reads about) others doing.
Having books about a topic can help you bring in some outside authority– then it’s not just mom or dad saying to do something.
One that we really liked was actually not even specifically about the potty. It’s called “Sleepy Time” and it’s about a young child’s nighttime routine. Rather than making a big deal about using the potty, it’s just depicted as a natural part of the bedtime routine. You might prefer something more overt, but I personally liked the subtlety of showing that it’s just part of normal life for a “big kid.”
Before buying books, you can always check your local library! (Although, if you’re going to keep them in your bathroom to let your child look at on the potty, you should probably purchase a couple of your own.)
Optional: Sticker chart (or other reward)
We did try a sticker chart (and I’ve made one for you that you can download for free!), but at the time we were potty training, my toddler wasn’t quite old enough to fully appreciate it. I wouldn’t say it made a difference one way or the other.
Some resources view reward systems negatively, and to a certain extent, I can appreciate the perspective– you want to place the emphasis on learning over performance– but I also fully respect that different things work for different families.
If you want to test out a reward system with a small treat or sticker (or anything else), do whatever you’re comfortable with!
Tips for Potty Training a Toddler Early
These tips are written from more of a potty learning perspective than what you might think of as more typical potty “training.” I.e. a system on a specific timeline that promises specific results.
These may work well for older children, but if you’re starting this process early in the game, I would highly highly advise you to stay away from those types of training.
So while I’m writing from a potty learning approach, for simplicity’s sake, I’m still going to call it potty training. Just wanted to clarify that quickly.
Take it slowly
Before even introducing the underwear at all, I highly recommend just introducing the potty at diaper changes.
We started doing this at 3 months old, but if your child is already toddler-aged, it’s never too early or late to start!
This takes the pressure off your child to perform, and instead very gently introduces the concept that toilets are for pottying!
As your child gets the idea that there’s an alternative to diapers, she may even take the lead on signaling you to use the potty, and trying to hold it.
Personally, I would say wait until that point to try introducing undies. Rushing the process can have very negative consequences for young children, and besides causing potty training to take longer, and have long term impacts–even trauma, sadly.
Once your child has a solid understanding of the toilet and it’s function and has taken an interest in using it and attempts to use the toilet rather than their diaper with some frequency, then you could start gently introducing underwear.
Initially, you may want to start with just a couple of hours at a time supervised. Even less, if that’s what you’re comfortable with/have the time for.
Obviously, this depends upon the age of your child. If you have an older toddler (around 2 or above), you could potentially speed up this stage, but it’s definitely safer to start with the slower approach. Again, you don’t want to trigger a regression.
Let them go naked a bit
An important component of potty learning is experiencing the natural process of going potty.
- Feeling the urge
- Releasing their bladder (or alternatively, pooping)
- Seeing and feeling the result
Diapers and pull-ups block this third part, the result (that for you, yes, means a mess to clean up).
They will learn a lot faster if you embrace the full process and allow the messes.
Now, the optimal way to experience the full process is not even to have undies in the way.
Have you ever met a toddler that doesn’t love to run naked? Have some supervised naked time once in a while to help them learn the process more fully!
Make it special
You have a great opportunity here to really make this experience special!
Even the youngest toddler can appreciate growth and accomplishment, so make sure to focus on the positives during this transition.
When you’re ready to introduce underwear, why not make a big deal about it? Take them on a special trip to the store and let them pick out their own (with your guidance).
Be prepared for messes
You have to know messes are going to happen. Lots of messes.
If you are frequently frustrated with your child over accidents (even if you’re pretty sure it wasn’t accidental), they will pick up on your tension and take longer to potty train. It will not be fun for them anymore.
Remind yourself that it’s all part of the process and it won’t last forever.
I had to work hard to keep my own emotions in check because I knew my toddler was making the messes on purpose. Besides just peeing in the floor, she’d splash her puddles as vigorously as she could before while I was rushing to clean them up. Good news, Mom Friend: Eventually, she stopped.
Be gentle and patient
This is similar to the last point, but not limited to mess-making.
Don’t put pressure on your child to perform.
Make this process about learning, not achieving certain results.
It’s a skill you don’t need to force, no more than teaching a child to walk or speak. Children LOVE to learn and grow, and over time, they will pick up whatever is modeled for them.
Set timers on your phone
Set a timer to go off about every 30 minutes. Maybe an hour if you’re a daredevil.
When the timer goes off, it’s potty time, even if your child hasn’t said they need to go yet.
Chances are, they’re holding it and don’t want to stop playing.
Keeping a little potty on hand in the room with you will be a good visual reminder, but it’s still good to keep track of time.
As you notice the patterns in your child’s needs, you can adjust your timers accordingly.
Set clear boundaries and expectations
Even though we’re approaching this through potty learning, there is nothing wrong with making clear your expectations and setting boundaries around the process.
In fact, your toddler needs it.
You don’t have to let naked anarchy ensue, where your toddler runs diaper-free around the clock and you end up with mystery puddles in random corners and poop smeared up and down your walls.
It’s okay to discipline
While I recommend using discipline very sparingly during this process, it may become necessary.
Like I’ve mentioned, my toddler was splashing in her puddles after having accidents. While I could forgive the accident, I made it clear that creating a bigger mess was not acceptable behavior.
You want to be patient with them, but you also don’t have to let everything fly (literally).
Don’t be afraid to take outings
I was initially very nervous about taking my young toddler out diaper-free, but nevertheless, we had to go places.
And it turns out, it was actually VERY helpful to the process!
She was much more in-tune with her needs while out and about, and was more likely to signal and use the bathroom.
In fact, during the potty training process, she never had any accidents out and about.
Just be sure to offer the bathroom before leaving home, and before and after leaving a store, and of course, right when you arrive home.
Also helps to keep a little potty handy in the car!
(Don’t get upset with them over accidents in public! You don’t want them to be terrified of leaving home in undies!)
Always pack backup clothes (for both of you)
This is true even after your child is “potty trained.”
Accidents still happen!
I always keep spare undies and clothes in my purse for my daughter, but it does not hurt to keep a change of clothes around for yourself (at least in the car).
When you see an impending accident and you snatch your child up to run to the bathroom, you’re very likely to get peed on as well.
If you can go straight home, no big deal, but if you have lots to do that day, you may really want some backup clothes!
(Don’t get upset with them over accidents in public! You don’t want them to be terrified of leaving home in undies!)
Pros and Cons of Having a Potty Trained Toddler
While there are absolutely tons of benefits to having a potty trained toddler, there are some drawbacks, too.
While I don’t want to talk you out of early potty training/learning (because I think it’s great), there are a few things you should be aware of just to be prepared.
- You save so much money on diapers.
- No more figuring out how to change a diaper in a dirty public restroom with no changing table.
- Empowers your child, and promotes independence.
- The clothing size they’re in will fit longer with no bulky diaper underneat!
- Accidents happen even in public.
- Can be less convenient because when they have to go, they have to go! You can’t just change the dirty diaper when you get around to it.
- Might make things more difficult if you use daycare, especially while accidents are still more frequent.
Now I want to hear from you!
Are you thinking of potty training/potty learning early? Which part (if any) are you most nervous about?
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