When my toddler was 27 months old, we decided it was time to try potty training. We talked about it, we read books about it and we had him watch everyone in the family pee. Then one morning, we rolled up the rugs, gave him unlimited chocolate milk and plunked him down on the potty.
“Peeee!” he yelled triumphantly—while nothing came out. “Now toilet paper! I did it!”
Over the next few hours, the scene repeated itself over and over, with those fake pees followed by real ones in the corner. I was flummoxed; it had never occurred to me that he might not know how to pee! But it’s actually a common problem, says Jamie Glowacki, the author of Oh Crap! Potty Training. “Kids have all the components of potty training figured out, but they just don’t get how to do it yet,” she says.
The confusion most often occurs in kids who are just starting to potty train. When those who have been potty trained for a while refuse to go, it can be a sign of a different issue, like a urinary tract infection. (UTIs are common and can be serious, so parents should get their kids checked out by the doctor.) For newbies, it’s more likely that peeing on purpose is confusing or scary. The good news is that once they do it a few times, they remember the feeling and get over the fear of release—and you shouldn’t have to worry about it again. Here are six tips to get them to that point.
1. Make them comfortable
Start by making sure you have the right setup. Many kids are scared of a big white toilet—they’re worried they’ll fall in or fall off, says Janice Heard, a community paediatrician in Calgary. That makes them tense up, which makes it hard to pee. “It’s not uncommon for kids to be terrified of the toilet,” she says. “You really need to have a nice footstool where they can feel stable, or a little potty.”
2. Try, try again
Take the fear out of sitting on the potty by doing it all the time—Glowacki recommends having your kid sit and try every hour. The important thing, she says, is to stay committed and give lots of second (and third and fourth) chances. “If you think about when they learned to walk, we held their hand and supported them when they fell. With potty training, parents freak out if their kid has an accident or it doesn’t work right away,” she says.
3. Blow out the candles
Try having your toddler blow bubbles with a straw in a cup of milk or pretend to blow out candles while on the potty. You could even make it a party by having special potty-only toys, like a pinwheel or New Year’s Eve–style noise makers. Blowing out air helps because it naturally pulls the belly button toward the core, which puts pressure on the bladder to make pee come out.
4. Bust out the dad jokes
If moms know anything, it’s that laughing makes you pee. Try to get your kid relaxed and giggling by making a goofy face or telling a funny story. You might even try tickling them. “If you can get your kid laughing, it really works,” says Glowacki. That’s because every laugh puts a hit of pressure on the bladder, encouraging leaks.
5. Turn on the tap
If all else fails, try water. That’s what Kyla Hingwing, a Vancouver mom, did with her little boy when he had trouble peeing. She ran the water in the sink next to him, and poured warm water over his crotch. Within a month, he learned how to do it without those cues.
6. Give it time
If you feel like it’s really not clicking for your kid, you might be toilet training too early, says Heard. “The most common issue for kids not wanting to release is that they’re just not quite ready, physiologically,” she says. Most children will have a “false start” for potty training, where they show interest but don’t turn out to be ready after all, she says. If that’s your situation, “take a break for a few weeks and try again.”
That’s what we decided to do with my toddler, after a day of tears and peeing everywhere but the potty. He just didn’t seem ready. We put him back in diapers and rolled the rugs back out. Now, we’re steeling ourselves to try again next month.