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How to Set Up Your Potty Training Toddler for Success With Underwear

Potty training is a big milestone, and most parents fall into the eager-beaver category of excitement for getting their toddlers out of those diapers and into some big kid underwear.

Here’s the problem. The underwear can trip things up if you don’t know how to set up your toddler for success. Keep in mind that soft cotton underwear is actually a barrier between your toddler getting their pee in the toilet. So what’s the key to success when it comes to the early weeks after potty training your toddler?

Get the Timing Right

If you’ve read Jamie Glowacki’s best-selling book, Oh Crap Potty Training, then you probably know what I’m going to say about the timing of the underwear . . . wait, wait, wait to add it! Most parents get that wrong and it’s a big reason why you then see a lot of accidents. The day that you decide to start potty training is not the day you want to add in the underwear. There’s a muscle memory to wearing a snug-fitting diaper, and the snug feeling of underwear actually mimics that feeling.

That’s why underwear can be a trigger for accidents in the early days of potty training. If you go straight from diapers to underwear, there’s no chance for your toddler to lose that muscle memory of wearing the diapers—and remember, that’s something your toddler has done since day one as a baby.

That’s why we recommend starting your child bottomless (that adorable bare bum makes it easier to catch pees and poops) and then moving to pants commando (no underwear, no snug feeling with just the loose pants). And then when you’re rolling with your toddler using the potty, a couple weeks into the process, that’s when you add in the underwear.

Encourage Independence in Your Toddler

Another common issue we hear is the child who’s potty trained, but not doing ANYTHING to get those pants and undies down. Mom is pretty much doing everything (except the actual peeing!).

So how do you help a toddler who’s stuck in the zone of mom’s got this and is not self-initiating to get his or her pants and underwear down in time to pee? First thing you want to do is try to activate your child’s autonomy, in things beyond using the potty. One great place to do that is encouraging your toddler to start dressing himself or herself without you doing everything. You may not want to give your toddler free reign to choose everything. Instead, what you can do is set out two outfits for your toddler to choose from.

What about the actual act of getting dressed and undressed?

When your toddler has to pee, there’s often just a matter of seconds to get to the potty, and get those pants and undies down in a flash. But, when you’re simply getting dressed in the morning or getting undressed for bath in the evening, there’s not that rush rush rush vibe happening.

So that’s an ideal time to practice how you pull up your underwear and pants and how you *push* them down. Yes, I said *push down your pants*. Jamie (the author of Oh Crap Potty Training) realized a wise inconsistency in our lingo. We tend to say *pull your pants down*, but really, when you think about it, you’re pushing your pants down.

And toddlers have a literal brain, so details do matter. We find it helps to change that lingo so you’re directing your toddler to *push* his pants and underwear down.

Here’s another way to set up your toddler for success with getting dressed and undressed. Split up the jobs when your toddler is getting dressed in the morning. This helps especially if your kiddo isn’t taking on the whole process—start by splitting up the jobs. You verbalize who’s doing what, with you taking on some jobs and you passing some jobs onto your toddler.

So it would go like this, “I’ll put your shirt on. You can do your underwear. I’ll do socks. You can do pants.” And what happens is it starts to get your toddler’s brain rolling, and over time, your kiddo will want to take on your jobs. You want to be mindful of how much you’re doing for your toddler. The best way to learn is practice, practice, practice. So an easy way to get your toddler to master getting his or her underwear and pants down fast is to have some no-pressure practice time built into their day.

Use Reminders that Spark Self-Initiation

You can also help your toddler to self-initiate going potty by changing your language for potty reminders. Once the skill is learned and your toddler knows that feeling of I Have to Go Pee, you’re still going to need to remind your toddler to go pee at routine times. But the way that you prompt can help set up your toddler for better success.

Here’s a way to prompt your child to pee that focuses on activating that independence. I can see you need to pee. You walk to the potty. I’ll help you with pants and underwear. You flush, and I’ll wipe. You get on the step stool, and I’ll help with the soap to wash hands. So what’s happening in the prompt above? Again, you’re splitting up the jobs with your toddler in going pee in the potty.

By dividing up the tasks — and saying who’s doing what — you remind your toddler of the steps and also get their toddler brain thinking that they want to start taking on your jobs. Keep these tips in mind as you get back out in the world with your newly potty trained toddler, who will be feeling oh-so-big being out and about without the pull-ups.


Illustrations: Citrus and Mint Designs

By Jen L'Italien: Jen is a Maine-based mama to two kiddos and a certified Oh Crap Potty Training expert who offers potty training support through her business, Oh Crap Potty Training From ME To You. Jen helps parents around the country and all over the world with potty training their toddlers. She also has an e-course Potty Training Solutions, which shares the common issues that trips up most parents in the early days of potty training, with real solutions for how to get unstuck.