Potty Training for Beginners: The 101 Guide


I am not a potty training expert by any means. But thankfully I have a bustling community of moms behind me with the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Facebook Group, and working with them (and learning from my own potty training mistakes), I’ve come up with a simple beginners guide to start you and your little one on the road to diaper freedom with as little stress as possible, so keep reading!

When is it Time to Start Potty Training?

I get a lot of questions about when it’s time to potty train. Often it’s with a heavy heart by a parent who isn’t quite ready to see their kiddo leave the cloth diapers we love so much behind. But whether we’re ready or not, kids have some tell-tale signs of readiness you can look for.

I’ll outline them here, but first please note that the following information is going to concentrate on children who are not challenged by physical or emotional hindrances, those children need extra time and attention, and while I am more than happy to help, you may need advice outside of my realm of experience.

Potty Training Readiness Signs to Look For

Often, the first sigh your kiddo is ready to start potty training is when you notice dryness in their diapers over periods of time.

Whether they wake up from naptime abnormally dry, or you go to make a regular diaper change and the diaper is still not wet at all, or the like; these noticable changes are a good indication of progressing muscle and bladder control. These signs also show some communication between physical control and the neurological process that says “hold this in” rather than “let it out in tiny spurts”.

Typically, this starts at around a year to 18 months of age, but in general there seems to be a noticable trend for boys take longer for this to happen. In other words, it wouldn’t be unusual to notice your daughter’s early training signs before your son’s.

With that said, you truly can start “potty training” well before this; I’ll refer to this as Early Potty Training.

When and How to Start Early Potty Training

When to Start Early Potty Training

Early potty training starts long before they are ready.

Beginning as early as when they’re old enough to walk and start following you everywhere, let them in the bathroom with you when you have to go (after all they’re trying to follow you in there anyway and by this point it certainly isn’t the oddest thing you have done as a parent, ha ha).

This is your opportunity to make the potty a safe, happy thing. “Oh look, mommy/daddy goes pee pee, yeah!” They will see the bathroom as a cheerful place, a place to celebrate what you are doing. It really sets the mood for later.

In addition, before they are talking they’ll hear the words you’ll use later, “pee pee” and “poo poo” helping it make sense when it is their turn.

What Time of Day to Start Early Potty Training

So, they see you going, the’re intrigued, they want to do it. Let them, even if it’s too soon. You are going to have thousands of “dry runs” before the real deal starts.

But once they start in earnest, when is good time to actually put them on the potty? Before bath time for one; plop them on the potty while getting their bath ready.

Another great time is first thing in the morning. Even if that diaper is full and you know they went all night, make it a part of your morning ritual.

Even if they just sit there for a second and smile, you are training. Training isn’t the results, it is the process, so make it fun and take a deep breath.

How to Start Early Potty Training

The how is actually the easy part, just sit them down and see if they are ready! When they’re sitting on the same place they see you go, and see what is supposed to happen, if they are ready they will start to follow suit.

When to Start “Real” Potty Training

What if they don’t like sitting or show no interest in being with you when it goes on? Don’t worry, I promise if your baby is not ready, it would be more productive to run into a brick wall then to try and push it with your child. All you will run into is resistance, and making it a chore rather than something new and exciting (I’ve sooo been here and it sucks)!

Some of you are saying “Yeah, but she is three, shouldn’t she be interested?” I think our generation is much more gentle with training then generations before. I know it isn’t unusual to hear older folks remember their parents hanging soiled bed sheets out for neighbors to see, or being punished for accidents. Yikes!

Shame was frequently part of the process, and happily I think that is truly a thing of the past. So, don’t worry when your mother or mother in law asks “Is she still in diapers?”, I can assure you she won’t be 16 and wearing super jumbo extra large Charlie Bananas, just relax, and go with it. Make it happy, make it cheerful, and celebrate the little steps in the journey.

Once your little one can follow verbal cues (like “take the toilet paper”) and show some bladder control cues (such as staying dry for an hour or two during the day) you can then start to plan the start of “real” potty training.

Don’t Forget to Get Yourself Ready for Potty Training

When your kiddo is ready for real potty training, don’t forget to make sure you’re ready too!

Make sure to start when you yourself are ready to focus and have some extra time at home. If you are a stay at home parent, don’t make commitments for a few days and stay home to be close to the potty. If you are a working parent, take a few days off or choose a three day weekend and stay home.

Try not to leave the house much. Don’t try to potty train your child during a major holiday when you have family or guests around. You’ll be taking your child to the potty very often and you will want minimal distractions.

8 Tips for Starting the Real Potty Training

If the time is right, here are some of my hard-learned tips that can save your sanity during the potty training stage:

  1. Have all the things you’ll need, and get them out the night before. I cover potty training pants and accessories in more detail below, but make sure you have your training pants, potty, and any books or videos you’re going to be using gathered up and ready to go, because it’s going to be a flurry of activity that first day.
  2. Have a “ mess kit” readily available.  At the end of my potty training journey, I had basket of disinfectant wipes, prefolds for “puddles” (because believe it or not, prefolds absorb really fast, so you can quickly throw a prefold on the puddle and clean it up right after you do the potty things) and a potty at the ready in a few key rooms. This was in addition to the potty seat in the bathroom proper. If I had done this earlier, it would have saved a lot of frustration trying to clean puddles the dog walked through while I was wisking away my daughter to the bathroom.
  3. Have lots of cloth training pants or training underwear ready. I was not expecting to need so many when I first started. I think I bought a pack of six or so and that was a few hours at the start. Granted, my daughter probibly wasn’t ready when I started, but even after it started clicking I was going through many a day and did not want to wash daily.
  4. Turn up the thermostat if you decide to go “bare bum.” During the colder months make the house just a few degrees warmer if you’re doing the bare bum method. You can also buy baby leggings so it is easier for your child to sit on the potty while keeping their legs warm.
  5. Make things waterproof around the house. The best purchase I ever made was a waterproof mattress cover for my daughters bed.
    If I was potty training over again I would take the advice I recently heard from another mom and buy a second to put over a recliner or a specific spot on the couch where kiddo can sit. Then, you can just just throw the mattress cover in the washing machine instead of having to shampoo the couch all the time! Or if you’re like me you just get frustrated and end up buying leather couches; but the mattress cover is much cheaper!
  6. Make things waterproof in the car. I remember putting my daughter in the car seat was a scary thought because I did not want to deal with cleaning a car seat and taking it on and off (because I’ve done that too!) every time my daughter had an accident.
    In the end, I used some puppy pee pads that I just cut a strap hole in, but if I had to do it again I would get a proper seat saver.
  7. Carry extra clothes and wetbags everywhere; and keep an extra in the car! Accidents will happen and you’ll forget your extra outfit so keep wetbags with extra outfits everywhere, especially in the car.
  8. Get a portable potty for the car. At some point your kiddo will really want to use the bathroom but they won’t be able to hold it until the next pit stop. Usually this happens when you’re 10 minutes from anywhere. Keep an extra potty seat and some paper towel in the car with a plastic bag over the cup. Then you can pull over, let them go, throw some paper towel into the cup to soak things up, then tie off the plastic bag to toss in the garbage later on. This will also be handy at the park.

Potty Training Accessories

There are a ton of potty training accessories out there, but all you really need is some cloth trainers, which I’ll help you with here, and a potty seat (or two or three).

Cool potty seats are fun, potties with their favorite characters are a plus, but really anything will do. It’s also good to have a toilet potty seat so that they can get used to using the big potty. If you get one with handles you can put a command hook on the side of your toilet and hang it out of the way when company comes over.

Cloth Training Pants

Now let’s discuss “trainers” and their purpose. We’ve already talked about cues and when to start introducing the concept of using the toilet for your babies and toddlers. Many of my friends who know my history with cloth diapers and training pants ask me, “She is three and tells me after she has peed, what trainer can I get to motivate her to get to the toilet?”.

Most reusable trainers you’ll find are intended for children who are right on the cusp of training and just need a wetness cue to stop the stream and finish in the toilet, or for those times when they are trained and you are going to be in the car or plane for several hours and don’t want to miss those first drops on a full bladder.

If your child needs the absorbency of a diaper, I don’t recommend buying trainers, yet.

Some kiddos train right from diapers to underwear. Trainers don’t usually help children to train (though it may help with thier intrest), and as they’re as expensive as diapers, so make sure you’re ready for them before you buy.

The trick I usually tell moms to see if trainers will help, is to put regular underwear on underneath the diaper or another natural fiber item that will convey the wetness (a cotton cloth wipe, hemp insert, bamboo insert) so when the child wets he/she will feel it (this is assuming you normally use a stay dry diaper with fleece lining).

If they pee right through it and are not motivated to finish in the toilet, they’re not ready for trainers and just need more time.

If you’re using natural fibers already, like cotton prefolds or fitteds, and your child is not bothered by the wetness or weight of the diaper, they’re probably not ready to train.

You can always try a couple of trainers to see before investing in several. See how the child reacts and then go from there.

Nighttime Potty Training

If your child has been day trained for a few months and still has nighttime wetting, don’t worry, this is completely normal.

In order to nighttime potty train your child’s body needs to:

  • Wake itself up from deep sleep in response to a wetness cue, and/or
  • Have enough bladder control to last all night.

This is not something the typical two-year-old’s body can do. It really is not unusual to see children who are 4, 5, 6 and even older to need help at night. My own daughter was about 6 and a half before the night wetting stopped. But the important thing to know is it will stop, when their body is ready.

Several parents swear by the following tricks, but note that they definately won’t work for everyone:

  • Taking them to the potty before you go to bed will help, for some of our children. So if kiddo goes to bed at 7 PM but you stay up until 11PM, take them to potty at 10:55 PM to empty their baldder. You’ll want to do this even after they “trained” to ensure you won’t wake up to surprise wet sheets.
  • Cut off the liquids a few hours before bed. I am not a fan of withholding fluids to encourage nighttime training. It’s usually just dehydration that’s saving you and possibly delaying real body signals from developing.

If none of these work, don’t worry. Once you have ruled out any medical conditions that need attention, it is just a matter of those cues and enough bladder control to last all night. There’s not real “training” part of it to sweat.

Nighttime Training Pants

As I mentioned, it really is common to see children who up to seven years old to need help at night. If this is you, bedwetting pants will likely be your best bet as regular cloth diapers won’t fit most kids after about 3 or 4 years of age.

My absolute favorite bedwetting pant is the Mother East Bedwetting pants, which you can read my review of here.

Conclusion

Potty training is always bittersweet for cloth diaper parents because it means the end of cloth diapers.  

But being out of diapers and transitioning to undies is not so bad because you still get to shop for cute training pants and underwear good luck and enjoy this new stage in your child’s life.

So when you’re ready, enjoy this milestone and try to remember that they won’t be wearing bedwetting pants in college.

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