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Potty Training

Getting Your Toddler Ready for Potty Training

by Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP
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There's one in every playgroup -- the mom who announces that her precocious two-year-old is already toilet-trained, a sure sign he's on the fast track to college scholarships and the Nobel Prize. But if your toddler's only interest in the potty right now is as a place to hide your new iPhone, don't worry. He'll get there eventually. In fact, if you're too enthusiastic about potty training before your little one is ready, your efforts can totally backfire, making him insecure or defiant and setting him up for a long-term case of pebbly constipation. But if you play it cool, take the pressure off, and follow his lead, potty-training can have minimal stress and maximum fun for both of you.

When is the right time? Other than bragging rights, there's no reason to start pushing the potty before your child turns two -- until then, his only interest in poop may be sticking his hand in his diaper and squishing it. And though you may dream of the day when you no longer have to change stinky diapers, a quick diaper change is actually a whole lot easier than frantically trying to locate a restroom in the middle of a crowded mall and then cleaning up the inevitable mess when you don't find it in time.

So instead of listening to Grandma or your friends, take your child's cues about when to start training.

Here are four signs your tot is ready: He's willing to sit still in one place for more than ten seconds; he knows the words for "poop" and "pee"; he likes to imitate you; he's starting to like cleaning up and organizing things. If none of that happens until your child turns three, that's okay, too. In fact, by that age, you can start to use reason and rewards: "Cowgirls like Jessie can't wear diapers when they ride horses, so they go pee and poop on the potty. I can't wait until you learn how, so I can buy you that red cowgirl hat!" (A caveat: If there's been a big change in your house recently, like a new baby, a new caregiver, or even a move from a crib to a toddler bed, it's best to back off from the toilet training until things have settled down a bit.) Once there's an inkling of interest, ease your child into potty training with these baby steps:

STEP 1: DE-EMPHASIZE THE POOP AND PEE PART.
At first, the bathroom should just be a fun place to hang out. Pile some favorite books next to the potty, and then every day around the time your child normally poops, announce that it's time to visit the potty to read together! If she wants to sit on the throne in her pants or diaper, that's fine at first, though eventually you should encourage her to go bottomless. Set a timer for one minute of sitting/reading time, increasing it a little bit each day.

STEP 2: REWARD HER JUST FOR SITTING THERE.
When Mr. Dinger goes off, hand over a sticker or an animal cracker as an incentive reward just for sitting nicely on the potty-even if nothing exciting happened while she was on it.

STEP 3: PLAY IT COOL WHEN SOMETHING DOES HAPPEN.
The first time you hear a tinkle or a plop, you may be tempted to cheer, throw a party, or alert the news media. But the trick is to play it cool. Yes, you read that correctly: Give your toddler big praise for sitting on the toilet, but keep it low-key when he actually produces something. Why? Because reacting too enthusiastically can make shy kids will feel like they're under the spotlight; anxious kids may worry about disappointing you next time; and defiant kids will quickly see how important these bodily functions are to you and then refuse to do them when they're mad!

So, when poop happens, just, smile and say, "Good job, you pooped! Let's wipe up and flush, and then let's see what happens to Elmo at the end of this book."

STEP 4: GOSSIP ABOUT HIS SUCCESS.
Whether your little superstar is still at the "just sitting, nothing to see here" stage or he's produced a couple of major pees or poops, encourage his progress by gossiping to Daddy, the cat, even a favorite stuffed toy. Cup your hand by your mouth, don't look at your child and whisper just loud enough for him to hear: "Fluffy, did you hear that Jacob sat on the toilet for two whole minutes today? I can't believe what a big boy he is!" When he "catches" you talking, just say, "Oh, that was nothing, I was just chatting with Fluffy.

With this low-key Happiest Toddler method, you'll avoid putting too much pressure on either your toddler or yourself, and I guarantee your little one will soon be wearing those big-kid underpants with pride.  
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Meet Our Expert
Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP
Assistant Professor, Pediatrics USC School of Medicine
Dr. Harvey Karp is a pediatrician and child development specialist. He is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine, and was in private practice for over 25 years.

Dr. Karp's critically acclaimed books and DVDs, The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block, have made him America's most-read pediatrician. His baby work offers a solution to the 3,000-year old mystery "What is colic?" and helps parents calm crying babies in minutes to boost nighttime sleep. His unique approach to toddler care allows parents to reduce tantrums and help 8 month old to 5 year old children become more patient and cooperative…in just days.

The Happiest Baby educator program has trained thousands of instructors to teach Dr. Karp's effective baby calming and sleep techniques. This approach is used to promote parenting, reduce postpartum depression and breastfeeding failure, prevent child abuse, and promote safe sleep in hospitals, clinics, public health departments and military bases across the country and around the world.

Dr. Karp's work has frequently been featured in the national press, such as the New York Times, USA Today, People Magazine, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, The View, Larry King Live, CNN, BBC, and others. He is also an outspoken advocate for our children's right to a healthy and safe environment, and the importance of breastfeeding.

Dr. Karp lives in Los Angeles with his wife Nina. Their grown daughter, Lexi, lives in New York.

You can find out more on Dr. Karp's website.
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