Potty training: Phases 1 through 4

By April Wallace, nwaMotherlode contributing writer

Disclaimer: This is not a how-to article because I frankly don’t know what I’m doing. What I’m trying is mostly best guesses guided by gut feelings.

For normal people, poop, pee and other bathroom habits aren’t a normal topic of dinner discussion. But for the Wallace household, this is our whole life right now.

That’s right, we’re potty training. Send tips. Send help. Send alcohol — for us, not the babies.

A year ago I started reading a little about a certain potty-training philosophy that claims babies are easier to potty train around 18 months, right before their speech really takes off. And though I’m sure some are capable of being potty-trained early, there’s a big difference between potential and reality.

So we purchased a beautiful slate gray Baby Bjorn training potty that we knew would match our household style, mentioned our intention to a few close friends and family and immediately got tons of apprehension. Since the people I love and respect the most all said the same thing, I listened closely.

“That’s super early for boys,” they all said. “He’ll revert back when the new baby arrives” was a constant refrain.

I didn’t want to have to start over after such a short stint. And realistically, I knew that starting just a month before our new baby would arrive was not the best tactic anyway. I just didn’t know when or how we should begin. Hence, the feedback gave me my first starting place: Let’s not overwhelm our toddler with two life-changing things at once.

Phase One: Let’s Get Comfortable

Once our newborn Elliott was the ripe old age of 1 month, I started having Henry (then 20 months) sit on the potty with all his clothes on. At the time, he was excited to have something new to do and probably enjoyed the individual attention that was now harder to come by.

He seemed to be handling it great, so I moved on. I had him sit on the potty with only his diaper on. After only a few times of doing that, one day he got scared. I’m not sure if it was the act of taking his pants off, or if he was scared of the potty itself, but the streak was over.

I abided by the advice to not push him or force anything in the early stages.

So I took the spring to allow us all to adjust to our new family dynamic and then tried again in the summer.

My only goal? Get Henry comfortable with the potty again. As long as he was on or near it without being scared, I viewed that as a win. And we’ve personally chosen to celebrate every single win, no matter how big or small.

By August (26 months), he seemed secure with it, confidently sitting on the potty and enjoying all the praise we gave him for it.

I tried again. This time sitting on the potty with only his diaper on didn’t elicit the same traumatic reaction, so we had something new to practice.

Finally! I felt like we had officially begun potty training.

Phase Two: Dipping Our Toes In

We still received the “It’s too soon” comments from family, but we weren’t pressuring him. Henry showed all the signs of readiness:

He was interested in the potty.

He could pull his pants down himself.

And he had been able to tell us for a good long while when he was wet and when he wasn’t.

Plus, we weren’t expecting a full transformation anytime soon, so I felt justified in our slow but sure steps.

I had only one rule for our new phase: we stay positive whenever he does anything with the potty. Did he sit on it with all his clothes? Great. How about sitting on it with just his diaper on? Wonderful. Did he try to pee but couldn’t manage it this time? No problem. Did he come to sit on the potty after filling his diaper? Fabulous, high five my little man. Did he manage to get pee out but it landed on every surface but the potty? It’s white noise to me because hey, he’s making connections! Pee is arriving in the bathroom one way or another. It will get in the toilet one day.

Reading together with each visit is the only activity that kept/keeps him busy while helping him to relax enough to go. In our house, his initial favorites were P Is for Potty, Potty Time Songs and Elmo’s Potty Book (First Look and Find), all Sesame Street books.

Soon Henry was successfully using the potty regularly 4-5 times a day and trying to use it more often than that. Cue the overjoyed noises, insert the praise hands emoji. It’s happening, it’s working!

Then on the day that we were all waiting for, the first time that Henry pooped in the potty, I broke my one rule. I knew I should be excited that he did it, but it was overshadowed by the horror of my baby crawling over to the training potty and picking up the turd while I was trying to get Henry cleaned up.

I guess we were overdue for something like this. What would potty-training be without a little lot of chaos?

Phase Three: Rewards

Once Henry grew accustomed to the whole process, we hit a wall. I saw his interest decline. My curious toddler had moved on mentally to the next challenge. Potty? His attitude seemed to say, Been there, done that. I’ve peed on it before, what else can you do?

I turned to the age old parental tradition of bribing incentivizing. I grabbed sweets and screen time, the two things I make sure are extremely limited for Henry, and used them as prizes.

He loved watching Cocomelon’s potty song on YouTube, and to my delight it almost always inspired a trip to the potty afterward. We started stocking up on Fruit Snacks and promised him the vitamin-infused treat as a reward for each trip to the potty — all he had to do was try to go and he’d get the closest thing to candy he’s ever seen.

My new self-prescribed rule for this phase? Never say no to a toddler who asks to go to the bathroom or says he needs to potty. Has this wreaked havoc on our schedules? Some days, absolutely. But I think overall it’s done more good than harm.

Sure, he often asks to go potty the very moment we’re about to step out of the house. Yes, he’s made an appeal after having been put to bed, which I’m sure is just the first of many. And if we’re out and about and even within a couple miles of the house, he’ll say, I gotta go now! But I take him because I’d rather work with that positivity than spend longer trying to get that positivity back.

We’re a few months in now with all this, and we keep Henry in Pull-ups if we’re going to be home for a good stretch. But some days he specifically asks for diapers and I do my best to put him in one without question so he can feel safe and secure and heard, which I hope will give him the confidence to move into the next stage as a big boy when he’s ready to.

Phase Four: To Infinity and Beyond

These days we finally have a good potty schedule, solid times of the day where Henry and I both know he’s expected to give it a try pretty much no matter what. We have good days where he seems to use it well each time and we have bad days when we’re too busy for me to encourage and remind him, so he doesn’t use it so much.

I try not to be hard on us for that because, as my tribe reminds me, he’s still months out from the average fully potty-trained age for boys. But it’s sometimes hard to be patient when I know that he understands it so much more than ever and has had a decent amount of practice.

I see the need to make it fresh for him, so I’ve got some supplies in my tool chest. I plan to put blue food coloring in the potty to let him watch it turn green when he pees on it. I’ll start a sticker chart for him to watch his successes fill up and reward him with a toy when we reach the end.

But I suspect this sort of thing will only go so far anymore. I think it’s time. We’ve hyped it up long enough. Today my husband and I drove to Target and stood there amused as Henry selected not one but three packs of big boy underpants that he is ecstatic to wear.

You’re darn right we were suckers for that enthusiasm and promptly paid for all three packages.

Now if you’ll pass me the carpet cleaner and a Swiffer, I’ve got a big boy in training to wait on here and I’m so excited, nervous and most of all proud of him.

April Wallace is a stepmom to one smart, funny teenager, mama to two beautiful and curious baby boys and wife to a very kind and generous man. She spent the past decade as a news reporter, sometimes lifestyle writer, and recently left her job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be with her babies while they’re still babies. When she gets a few minutes to herself, April loves to run local trails and read fiction.