Transitions: Potty Training in 3 Days

by Meghan

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Every Tuesday, we post tips to make family life easier, covering an array of topics from the kitchen, to parenting, to managing your household.  Over the next few weeks our tips will focus on childhood transitions, and how to make them as seamlessly as possible.  We started with our best tips for getting rid of the pacifier.  Then, we talked about saying goodbye to the bottle.  Last week, we covered making the transition to the big kid bed.  And this week, the most daunting transition I have faced with Big M yet… potty training!

Potty Training

And yes, that’s Big M’s first pee pee in the potty.  Trust me, when they finally do it, you’ll be as proud, if not prouder, than they are, and you will take a picture to to show Dad, Grandma, all your fellow toddler moms, and maybe even the FedEx delivery man.

If at first you don’t succeed…

You know all those posts you read about how people tried the 3-day challenge and PRESTO! their kid went from using a diaper the morning of Day 1 to peeing in the potty with no accidents by the end of Day 3?  Yeah, that wasn’t us… the 3-day method DID work for us eventually.  But I think I would have found it helpful, and not put both Big M and myself through as much stress and frustration, if I knew others had failed before me and when to put the diaper back on and try again later.

We attempted potty training several times.  The first time was at 18 months.  Young, I know.  But my mom kept going on and on about how I was potty trained by 18 months.  (What she left out until later was that my Grandmother, who had 8 children, was the one who actually did the training!  I can’t tell you how many times I wished she was still alive as we went through this transition to get her insights.)  Big M loved to hang out with me in the bathroom (and being pregnant, I was in there a lot!).  And since I was pregnant with Lil’ M, I kept telling myself, how great would it be to only have one kid in diapers.  So, I ordered lots of books about using the potty, downloaded Elmo’s Potty Timing on the iPad, got two Baby Bjorn potties (one for upstairs and one for downstairs), and some training pants.

She loved reading the books, she had been waking up dry from naps, demonstrating she could hold her urine for hours at a time, and so, I picked a date to start.  I put the potty in the living room, let her run around in nothing but a shirt, and… she peed all over the floor.  As soon as I picked her up to sit on the potty, she froze.  Only to stand up, and finish peeing all over the floor again.  This happened repeatedly for 3 hours that morning.  I was never so relieved to put a diaper on her when I had to go to my OB appointment.  When I told my OB about my morning, she laughed and said even if it was successful, she would likely regress when the baby came.  That was all I needed to hear to call a cease-fire to my first attempt.

Our second attempt happened late last winter.  We had started looking at preschools, all of which require your 3 year old to be potty trained, for the Fall.  I was feeling the pressure intensely.  Since our first attempt, we had kept reading all the books, and watched multiple re-runs of Daniel Tiger’s Potty episode.  I was breastfeeding a now 7 month old Lil’ M, but we had all settled into a comfortable routine, and so, again, I picked a date to start.  Again, I let her run around in nothing but a shirt, and put the potty in the living room.  The first day, we had a few accidents, which would usually occur the second I sat down to nurse the baby, and I would sit and watch helplessly as she peed all over the floor.  The second day, there were fewer accidents – she had learned to control when, and where, she peed.

By the third day, she absolutely refused to sit on the potty.  She had reached camel status – literally not peeing for half the day.  She would run around the potty in circles screaming, holding herself, and eventually pee on the floor, followed by hysterical crying.  I even ordered a potty watch – you set a time interval, and whenever it goes off, it’s time to use the potty.  She loved the watch; still stubbornly refused to pee.  My stubborn streak was as strong as hers, and I persevered for the rest of the week, before finally throwing in the towel when we’d both been reduced to tears that weekend.

Fast forward 2-3 months to April.  We had dropped all formal attempts at potty training.  Big M still liked to read the books, and loved to watch Daniel Tiger’s Potty episode and sing the song, “If you have to go potty, STOP! and go right away!”.  And then, one day, during nap time, she started taking off all her clothes, diaper included, and peeing in her crib.  She would do it in the middle of the night too, and I would find her soaked in the morning.

My cousin had just launched her own cloth diaper brand, Viva La Cloth, and so I reached out to her to see if 1) they were harder to remove and 2) could they be an effective transition to potty training.  I bought a few to try.  She could still take them off, but she was starting to tell me she was wet and wanted to take it off.  At nap time, I started putting the cloth diapers on backwards to make them harder for her to remove.  And at night, I started putting her in onesie pajamas backwards so she couldn’t take them off.

PGPB Guru Tip: If your child is removing their clothes, diaper at night, try onesie pajamas backwards (with the zipper in the back), to save your sanity and your laundry loads!

Potty Training Readiness

I now view her stripping and peeing on the floor or in her crib as her screaming, neon-sign that she was finally ready for potty training.  But given our prior failures, I wanted to get it right this time – I didn’t want us to both get frustrated or give up yet again.  So I really did some serious research, and everything kept pointing me back to the same source: Lora Jensen’s 3 Day Potty Training e-book.  I read the whole thing in one night, and planned out our start date.

PGPB Guru Guide to Potty Training

So now that you know all about my failures, here’s my short guide to help you benefit from my mistakes, what worked for us from the Potty Training e-book, what we skipped, and how pooping on the potty took MONTHS! to happen after she was well trained otherwise.


I highly recommend having the mini-potty around from the age they are old enough to walk into the bathroom with you.  Talk about how this is a potty they will use.  Lil’ M was a baby, and then toddler, as Big M was being potty trained, and she is obsessed with the potty.  She loves to read all the books, and LOVES to sit on the potty.  Having it around for a long time makes it less scary, less foreign when it actually comes time for them to use it.  We are fans of the BABYBJORN Potty Chair.  It comes in an array of colors, though we went with white.  It is easy to clean, comfortable for them to sit in and stable.  You want their feet to be able to rest comfortably on the floor so they don’t feel like they are going to fall off, and so they have leverage when they eventually do #2 in the potty.  We also have one of those toilet seats with the flip down toddler seat built-in.  Big M at well over 3 still prefers the Potty Chair, even though she will use full size toilets outside of the house.  Let them sit in it, fully-clothed, whenever they are interested, and test it out sans clothes before bath time.
I also encourage talking about using the potty.  Every time I change Lil’ M’s diaper now, I talk about how when she is ready, she can go pee pee in the potty like a big girl.  While we used to cringe and leave the room when Big M was doing her business in her diaper, with Lil’ M, I outright ask her – are you making poopies in your diaper?  Putting words to the sensations they feel while having bowel movements will make potty training so much easier down the road.

Also, when she does poop in her diaper, I take her with me to flush it.  We use cloth, so this is part of the process – but did you know you are also supposed to flush poop out of disposable diapers?  Check the label on the package – you aren’t supposed to put poop in landfills, even if that’s where the diaper is going.  Check out this policy statement from the American Public Health Organization for all the reasons why solid waste belongs in sewers, not landfills.  And whether you buy into the environmental and health reasons or not, your nursery will smell better and you will help your toddler begin to make the connection between waste and the potty.

At 12-18 months, get some potty books that you read together along with all your other books.  Our personal favs?  Karen Katz’s A Potty for Me! and My Big Girl Undies and Leslie Patricelli’s Potty.

I also found the iPad app, Potty Time with Elmo, to be a favorite for Big M.  You can set it to read the story on its own, it sings songs along the way and at the end has a using the potty checklist.

Last, but not least, watch the Daniel Tiger episode: Prince Wednesday Goes to the Potty / Daniel Goes to the Potty.  It’s from Season 2, and you can stream it for free on Amazon Instant Video or purchase the episode for $2.99.  Amazon Instant Video, and Amazon Mom, are free with an annual Amazon Prime membership.

Are they ready?

To me, this was the hardest item to discern in the potty training checklist.  I think part of why it was so hard, especially with my first child, is that you aren’t entirely sure what “ready” looks like until you have the benefit of hindsight.  There are many signs of readiness – from physical to mental and behavioral.  Physical signs include:

  • Coordinated enough to sit on and stand up from potty
  • Urinates large, consolidated quantities at a time
  • Has regular bowel movements at predictable time (i.e., every day after breakfast)
  • Stays dry for extended periods (2+ hours) of time, wakes up dry from naps.  This shows bladder muscles are developed enough to hold urine

In my experience, physical readiness signs may be present LONG before the mental and behavioral signs.  Being physically ready is not enough.  Mental and behavioral signs include:

  • Disliking feeling of a wet or dirty diaper
  • Ability to communicate (verbal or non-verbal) the need to use the bathroom
  • Interest and lack of resistance in using the potty

The last point is key – in our failed attempts, I had decided it was time to start potty training, and by my own sheer stubbornness, persisted when I shouldn’t have.  Toddlers have three primary areas over which they can exert some control: what they eat, whether or not they sleep, and when they go to the bathroom.  Big M was resistant, despite being physically capable, and as soon as she figured out she could control it, using the potty became a battle.  It shouldn’t be.  If the accidents don’t diminish over the first day or two, if they become resistant in any way, stop and wait.  Don’t make both you and them suffer.

Are you ready?  Build Your Arsenal!

You also need to be mentally prepared, as well as physically prepared, to commit to potty training.  There WILL be accidents.  It is part of the learning process.  If they are ready, the most accidents will happen in the first day, and dramatically taper off, and be all but gone by the end of day 3.  Since Big M was successfully trained, I can count the number of accidents she’s had over the last 7 months on one hand.  Pick a room you can be in during those first few days that accidents can easily be cleaned up in – roll up the expensive rug, or choose a room with hard floors.

I highly recommend using Bi-O-Kleen Bac-Out Stain and Odor Eliminator  for easy clean-up.  It uses live enzymes and lime peel extract to neutralize natural stains and odors. And it is completely safe to use around children and pets.  You can get it from Amazon online, or I often find it on sale at my local Whole Foods.

I also recommend a wet bag. I like the ones from Planet Wise, and they come in tons of different prints. I already had one I used for soiled cloth diapers, and it made cleaning up from accidents a breeze. I just added the soiled laundry to the wet bag until I was ready to wash, instead of doing tons of small loads of laundry. These are great for gym clothes, swimsuits in the summer, wet towels, you name it!  I wouldn’t recommend leaving it to sit for more than 24-48 hours, but it beats doing 3-4 loads of laundry in a day due to accidents.

For travel, I also suggest portable potty you can keep in the back of your car, and a piddle pad for the car seat. The portable potty has saved us so many times – at playgrounds, when we have just walked out of the mall, at local town fairs where the only other option is a port-o-potty.  The liners that are designed to use with it are great – they have an insert that absorbs the urine, and then you can tie it up and throw it out.  Big M has only ever had an accident in the car once – that was all it took to figure out it was uncomfortable sitting in wet clothes in a wet seat.  But the piddle pad made clean up so easy – I just lifted it out and threw it in the wash with her wet clothes and hung it to dry.  And her car seat stayed completely dry.  I still leave it in her seat “just in case!”

3-Day Training Session

Once I realized she was ready, and I was fully ready, I did two key things.

Talk about It

I know, I know… I sound like a broken record – but remember toddlers comprehend far more than they can verbalize.  Just like I talked about moving into the big girl bed, and getting rid of the pacifier, we talked about how at the end of the week, we weren’t going to use diapers during the day anymore.  Lora Jensen’s e-book recommends potty training day and night at the same time.  I wasn’t ready for that – so I focused just on day training first.

Take Them Shopping for Big Kid Undies

Next, as a form of celebration for this big, special occasion, I took her to Target to pick out her very own big girl undies.  Let them pick their favorite character(s), and talk about how special they are and how they have to be kept dry.  She picked out Elmo and Disney Princess undies.  She was so excited to wear them.

Begin the 3-Day Training Session

I suggest starting on a weekend, when you have extra help, especially if you have other children.  Make sure you have 3 days you can really dedicate to being home all day and predominantly focused on potty training.  Leave your potty set up in your bathroom.  Let your toddler wear their big kid undies and a t-shirt.  If it is cold, you can put them in legwarmers, or turn up the heat for a a few days.  You want them to wear at least undies, as many kids left to go bare-bottomed, will revert to peeing in their undies when you put them on.

You are not going to ask them if they have to go every 15 minutes, or make them go sit on the potty based on a clock or a timer.  You watch them for signs they have to go – this can be wiggling, holding themselves, or actually starting to have an accident.  It is super important, especially on this first day, to watch them like a hawk so you can catch any accidents.  When you observe these signs, calmly suggest that you think they might feel better if they used the potty.  Do not force them to go to the bathroom or sit on the potty.

If they start having an accident, pick them up and carry them to the bathroom.  Calmly state, “Pee pee goes in the potty.”  Never say it is “Okay to have an accident.”  Just say, “Accidents happen; we can clean it up.  But pee pee goes in the potty.”  When I described this methodology to my husband, he said it sounded a lot like how you train a dog!  You are teaching them not to go based on a timer, but to recognize that certain body sensations indicate that it is time to use the potty.

Encourage them to drink lots of fluids – you can offer saltier snacks, like pretzels or goldfish crackers, to entice them to drink more water.  Usually after the second or third accident, they will start to get it.  On the morning of Day 1, we had 2-3 small accidents.  By the afternoon, there was one big one – she had learned to hold and consolidate it.  On Day 2, she had one accident, and on Day 3, she had none.  If the accidents don’t seem to be diminishing, if they aren’t upset by having an accident, they likely are not ready.  Put the diapers back on, and wait a month or two until they show more signs of readiness.

When they are successful in telling you they have to go, or even making anything in the potty, make a huge deal about it.  You don’t have to offer rewards, but you can – M&Ms, a sticker chart, or small trinkets can work well.  I found calling to tell EVERYONE about it worked best.  We called Daddy at work; we called Grandma and MerMer; we called Auntie Tori.  She was ecstatic to declare to them all that she had “Pee peed in the potty!”  We also went out to celebrate at the end of Day 3 for NO accidents – we took a walk to the local deli for a Popsicle!


Nap Time and Bed Time

As I mentioned, we focused on day training first.  By nap time, we both needed a break – I would encourage her to use the potty before she laid down, and using the potty became part of our bed time routine as well, but then I put her in cloth diapers for naps and cloth diapers with backwards onesie pjs at bed time because she was still stripping.  I told her the cloth diapers were special sleeping pants.  However, during the 3 day training and thereafter, this led to her always pooping at nap time, but more on that later.

Leaving the House

During the 3 days, I would encourage staying at home.  You can go play in the backyard, but do not put the child in diapers or pull ups to go out and run errands.  It sends mixed messages and confuses them.  After the 3 days,  when we would go out, I put her in undies with a cloth diaper over them for about two weeks.  I always asked her to use the potty before we left.  She never had an accident, so then we started going out just in undies.  She had an accident once in the car, as I mentioned above, and she never did it again.

Pooping in the Potty

Many children are fearful of pooping in the potty.  While this may be the easiest accident to “catch,” they have spent months standing and pooping in their diaper.  Sitting is a different experience.  I’ve read that some kids think that part of their body is falling off or out.  Big M had been potty trained for months, and every day, like clockwork, she would wait until I put her in a diaper for nap time to poop.  I would put her on the potty with the iPad before, to encourage her to poop on the potty, but she wasn’t having it.  I took her with me to flush her poop in the potty every time, tried showing her my own bowel movements in the potty, tried catching her in the act.

Finally, one day, we were at Target, and as we often do at Target, were cruising through the Dollar Aisle and she spotted a set of Frozen bracelets – there were 4-5 bangle bracelets and a ring.  I bought them and hung them over the towel bar above her potty.  I told her, if she put her poop in the potty, she could have one of the bracelets… but if she pooped in her diaper at nap time, she had to give it back to me.

It took about two weeks for her to earn, and keep, all the bracelets and the ring, but it worked.  Every day, before nap time, I sat her on the potty with the iPad until she pooped.  It usually only took 5-10 minutes.  And every time she did it, we called all our family to declare our success again! This provided quite the entertainment at my husband’s office, where calls are recorded and he often picks us up on speaker phone.  Once she consistently pooped on the potty, we went to undies at nap time too.  This is also when we transitioned to a big girl bed, which allowed her to be able to knock on the door if she needed to use the potty.

Night Training

I didn’t ‘formally’ night train Big M.  She has super sensitive skin, and even just the few accidents she had during the day when we changed her wet clothes immediately would leave her skin irritated.  At the recommendation of our pediatrician, I waited until she consistently woke up dry for two weeks.  For several months leading up to that, we had already cut off all liquids after dinner.  She had outgrown the cloth diapers, so we were  back in overnight disposable diapers.

When she woke up dry for two weeks, I told her when all the diapers were gone, she was going to wear big girl undies at night too.  The night of the last diaper, she told me, “Tomorrow night, I wear undies!”  And she did.  Since wearing undies at night at the start of December, she’s had 3 accidents.  She wakes up occasionally and calls out that she has to go, but we couldn’t be more proud of her.

Third Time’s the Charm!

This was by far the most difficult transition and challenging parenting task I have encountered with Big M yet… A big part of that is my own fault, for letting my hard head lock horns with her, instead of waiting until she was ready.  I learned so much, and have incorporated pre-training with Lil’ M already.  At almost 18 months old, she is showing signs of physical readiness, but few mental or behavioral ones.

She likes to sit on the potty in all her clothes, and read the potty books, but if I ask her if she has a dirty diaper, she still tells me “No!” and often makes me chase her down to change it.  We are moving soon too, so I don’t plan to try to potty train her until we are well settled, and more importantly, she is ready!  Big changes in routine  or environment (new baby, move, change of schools, etc.) can cause set backs, and trust me, you don’t want to go through it twice!

We hope these tips can help you as you train your toddler, and spare you much of our suffering.  If you already have, what worked best for you?  What will you do differently with your second child? If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all the posts in our Early Childhood Transitions series.

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