Toilet Training a Three Year Old

as seen in Brooklyn Family Magazine and on

Dear Sharon,

We have a 3 1/2 year old and are having some difficulty getting him to toilet train. Do you have any words of wisdom?

Dear Parents,

Strong willed 3 year olds can make toilet training challenging. Here are some strategies that can help.

Before tackling toilet training it is important to sort out when children (and their parents) are ready for toilet training. Even when a child is a little older than usual there may be underlying factors that need to be taken into consideration. If a child is having a hard time at school, getting used to a recent move, adjusting to the birth of a new sibling, working through complex developmental delays or handling other challenges then it might make sense to wait for an easier time to begin training. It is often wise to delay things if parents are overwhelmed or busy as well.

When you are ready to tackle training, find a relatively pressure free time to focus on the project. (Probably at least a week). Pick a period when it is possible that all adults involved can stay focused on the “mission” and able to avoid distractions – social occasions, work pressures, extended family obligations, etc.

It can also help to involve children in the planning process. Encouraging them to help decorate a potty chair, select training pants, or talk through other details can help them feel part of the project rather than the subject of someone else’s plan.

Concrete rewards can increase the chances of success as well. Parent and child can create a rewards chart together and choose the prize for completing the goal. If there have already been a series of failed attempts at toilet training it can help to offer small rewards for each accomplishment along the way rather than just working towards a “super duper” prize when “accidents” are over. (Three and a half year olds who have avoided training for a while often need a “super duper” reward/motivator to lower their resistance.)

Before starting many parents agree on a “plan of action” with their partner. As every child has their own unique personality the specifics of plans may greatly vary. I know of families who have have found it useful to have their child go pantless through this period while others have visited the bathroom every 30 minutes. Moms and dads should sort through an approach that could work for their little one. Probably the most important part of any plan is an agreement to support each other to stay calm and clear throughout the process. Although difficult, parents who can stick to their plan and stay calm in the face of their child’s mistakes and/or upset usually are more effective.

It can also help to tell a child ahead of time that the end of diapers is coming. When explaining their ideas if moms and dads can use a confident, calm and succinct tone the child is more likely to believe that change is on the way. Of course children often complain if given advance warning but having a chance to “get ready” and let off steam beforehand can help the actual process go well.

Toilet training is much harder to do when everyone involved is tense or upset. It can be useful to get some especially exciting games or toys to play with during the process. The family can play together, take a break for toilet time and then resume playing until the next break is needed.

Parents often inform their child’s school of their efforts so that teachers can encourage and reinforce their efforts. An “all hands on deck” approach can make a bigger impact.

Even if this is not the best time for your son to finish toilet training I guarantee that he will eventually get the hang of it, probably much sooner than it feels to you right now.