How to Potty Train Gradually

Potty training doesn’t happen in a matter of days or weeks. Gradual potty training can be a more relaxed and effective method for your child.

gradual potty trainingThe three-day potty training method doesn’t work for every child. Parents still give it a try, especially with how well it seems to work for everyone else. But those three days can come and go with children still in diapers.

Potty training, like many milestones, makes us wonder whether our kids will ever get it. But, like my kids’ pediatrician told us, you won’t see kindergarteners in diapers. Your child will learn how to use the potty at some point.

Still, that doesn’t make it easier when you expect him to be potty trained in three days and he isn’t.

While I potty trained my eldest in three days, I didn’t do the same with my twins. In fact, I don’t think I ever “started” potty training them. The learning process was such a slow approach I knew I had to share it with other parents who wanted something similar.

How to practice gradual potty training

With gradual potty training, the “start” and “end” dates are a blur. You won’t have an official potty training weekend, nor feel like your child has mastered it 100% by a certain time.

Instead, gradual potty training starts in little steps with loose expectations. You’ll do things like let him sit on the potty fully-clothed and read potty training books. And you’ll feel less stressed as you follow his lead, rather than forcing him into a set schedule.

That said, you can still work potty training into your routine so he takes to using the potty over time. Here’s how:

1. Give your child an opportunity to wear undies

Seems simple, right? Your child will better understand how to use the potty when he doesn’t have the crutch of his diapers. Soiled undies allow him to feel the sensations of his bowel movements and accidents more so than diapers.

Put him in undies and explain he can pee in the potty, not his undies. Show examples of older siblings doing the same, and that he can try it himself. He’ll also start getting excited about using undies, knowing that one day he’ll get to wear these all the time.

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2. Get the right gear

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Potty training doesn’t need fancy equipment, but you do need the items that work for your child. Come equipped with items to make potty training easier for everyone.

Start with a floor potty like this one. It can be a mess to clean, but much easier for him to sit and stand on his own.

Down the line, you can get a potty that goes over a regular toilet seat like this one. He won’t be able to sit on it as easily and it might feel daunting to him. But it’s much easier to clean and transitions well to a regular toilet.

Potty chairs will also need a bathroom step or stool so he can climb on and off. The step will also allow him to reach the faucet to wash his hands.

Once you’ve got these essentials, you’ll want to stock your diaper bag with:

  • Underwear
  • Change of clothes
  • Plastic bag (to put trash or soiled clothes in)
  • Diapers or pull ups
  • Diaper wipes
  • Sanitizer wipes (keep these handy in your bathroom as well)
  • Hand sanitizer

3. Use the potty at regular times

At many preschools, teachers will set aside a time to use the potty. Kids will line up at regular times of the day, whether they asked to use the potty or not. This makes it much easier on teachers who have several students to care for, but it’s also a useful practice even at home.

For instance, take your child to the potty right after waking up, then try again before bath time and pajamas. Encourage her to sit on the potty before you leave the house.

You’ll then notice patterns and find those optimal times to take her to the potty. Maybe she tends to poop a few minutes after breakfast so consistently that you can expect her to poop nearly every morning.

4. Look for cues

Remember when your child was a baby and you looked for sleep cues? Though hit or miss, they helped you decide when he was sleepy or not.

Cues also work with gradual potty training.

Look for signs that show she needs to use the potty. Maybe that’s running to the corner for privacy when she feels the urge to poop. Or her face looks anxious as she tiptoes back to her room, or when she’s hopping around doing your typical pee-pee dance.

These cues reveal opportunities to take her to the potty. The added benefit? They also encourage your child to be more aware of these cues and sensations and show her what she can do when they happen.

5. Don’t use rewards

I’m one of those few parents who actually doesn’t use rewards during potty training.

Encourage your child yes, but don’t use toys, stickers, treats, or other privileges to get him to use the potty. Rewards don’t work in the long run, lose their fizzle, establish bad habits, and rely on external reasons than internal ones.

Instead, celebrate every effort and progress, no matter how small. He’ll see that using the potty is a challenge he can overcome, and that every step forward is a sign of success.

He’ll also feel proud of his accomplishments and use that feeling as his internal motivation to keep going—not the stickers hanging on the wall.

Learn why rewards don’t always work.

6. Praise your child for effort and progress

Done correctly, praise encourages your child to continue the behaviors, choices and habits you’d like him to continue. And while clear reasons to praise him include peeing and pooping in the potty, you’ll also want to praise him for other, less obvious achievements.

Let’s say he told you he had to pee. You both ran to the potty, except not fast enough: he ended up peeing all over his undies instead.

Your first reaction might be to lecture or feel disappointed that he didn’t pee in the potty. But here’s the thing: he told you he had to pee.

Praise him for telling you! After all, he not only noticed the sensation, but decided to seek your help. Isn’t that an accomplishment in itself? Even if all these actions resulted in a potty accident, praise him for:

How to Get Toddler to Tell You When They Need to Potty

7. Expect accidents

Your child will have accidents—you won’t be able to avoid it. You might find a heavy puddle of pee on the couch. He might poop at the park, forcing you to change him in the van and throw his soiled clothes away. He might even have an accident right after you asked him if he needs to use the potty.

The examples above? They’ve all happened with my kids.

Get comfortable with accidents. Don’t think of them as failures on either your or your child’s part. They’re inevitable and happens to the brightest kids and most organized moms.

Expecting accidents reminds you not give him grief when they happen. You’re also more likely to suggest wearing undies when you’re not afraid of potential accidents.

Get more tips on handling potty training accidents.

Potty Trained Toddler Having Accidents on Purpose

8. Wait if your child is hesitant

If at any time your child feels upset about the process, postpone it for a week.

Potty training should not feel like punishment. He might feel anxious or cautious, but he should also look forward to it. If at any time he cries or you feel like you’re forcing him, stop potty training and wait. After a week, then try again.

And most important…

When to Stop Potty Training and Wait

9. Set aside your expectations and frustrations

This isn’t about you. Deadlines or expectations of when your child should be potty trained add to the pressure. Instead, accept his timeline.

Feeling stressed can lead to a power struggle between you two. And when that happens, he’ll feel less inclined to use the potty when he knows it’s such a hot topic. The thing holding him back wouldn’t even be his own developmental stages—it’d be how potty training has become a contested issue.

Instead, relax. Distance yourself from potty training and don’t take it personally. It’s not something to argue about—the more carefree and encouraging you can be, the more inclined he’ll be to give it a shot.


I’ve potty trained both ways: over the weekend and over several months. The result? All three kids learned to use the potty.

You’re not doomed because your 3 ½ year old still isn’t potty trained. Even the three-day potty system still includes accidents down the line. But with gradual potty training, you base the process on his timeline, not yours.

Give him plenty of opportunities to wear undies, and come equipped with the right gear to make potty training easier. Look for cues to take him to the potty, and do so at regular times of the day. Don’t use rewards, and instead praise him for effort and progress.

Expect accidents to happen, and should he get upset, hold off for a week before trying again. And lastly, set aside any pressure to potty train within a given time frame. You don’t have to follow a quick path to potty training if it doesn’t feel comfortable or it doesn’t work for you.

He will learn how to use the potty, even if it takes a little longer. You won’t be packing diapers in his kindergarten bag, after all.

3 ½ Year Old Not Potty Trained

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  1. Thank you for this article. I tried the 3 day method with my daughter (who was “ready” according to all the articles and books I read) but after three days we were both left frustrated and my daughter was no closer to being potty trained!! I think this method will work much better for her (and me!). Thank you!!!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      You’re welcome, Laura, I’m glad the article resonated with you! Every child is different, and unfortunately you hear a lot more about quick potty training than gradual. I like both, but it’s also important that what works for one doesn’t work for the other. I hope you have better success this way! ~Nina

  2. Thank you so much for this. My son is now 2 years old and i started what seems to be a long term process of potty training. it’s very hard to listen to everyone’s opinion on this, because of the popularity of the quick and fast method. When it comes to children the fast modern life doesn’t work…

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I know what you mean, Karen. There’s definitely a pressure, with any milestone, for kids to meet it at a certain time frame that sometimes we rush kids before they’re ready. I do admit the three-day method worked for our eldest, but our twins took to a much more gradual approach.

  3. This is such good advice. I am currently taking a very relaxed approach with my 23-month-old. It is so encouraging to see her getting more aware of needing to use the potty each week.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Awesome, Sharla! It’s definitely refreshing to be able to go at the pace your child needs.

  4. Nina Marie says:

    I’m having the toughest time with our three year old daughter. I can’t tell if she just doesn’t get it or refuses to. She knows how to use the potty and uses it several times a day, but we’re still having 2 to 5 “accidents ” a day for two weeks now. There’s no bribe that’s worth it to her to be consistent. It’s constantly a battle of wills. I feels like she will be that kid in diapers at graduation.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Rest assured Nina, she won’t be in diapers at graduation 🙂 In fact, my kids’ pediatrician reassured us not to worry about potty training, and that kids don’t enter kindergarten in diapers. Meaning, it’ll all work out eventually, even if it doesn’t seem like it right now.

      I would actually try to not bribe or reward her with things, as those fizzle out after a while, and she’ll only feel motivated by external sources rather than her own internal sense of joy and pride. Follow her lead, and try not to make a big deal about it (even though I know how frustrating it is to deal with accidents!). I find that letting it go, and showing that it doesn’t affect you, keeps the peace and makes her less resistant (and you more patient) in the process.

  5. When you were gradually training them, did they use diapers or undies off and on? Like I assume you didn’t say no to diapers altogether at once so how did you do that balance? When they were out Of the house did you use diapers? My son can go pee occasionally in the potty but can’t tell me when he needs to go and also doesn’t use a big potty. I can’t decide whether to still use diapers when we’re out or not for sleeping.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      In the beginning, yes we did use diapers on and off, especially as I was just introducing the potty and the concept of undies. Once they were a bit more ready to go cold turkey though, then we eliminated them for the most part.

      I think it’s fine to use diapers on and off as you’re gradually introducing the potty, then use undies as an enticement to ditch diapers when you feel like he’s ready. That said, if it looks like he’s using diapers as a crutch—where you know he can use the potty but won’t because he knows he’ll get a diaper—then that would be a good sign to ditch diapers completely.

      As far as nighttime diapers, our pediatrician actually told us that you can’t really potty train for at night, and that that will come in its own time, usually much, much later than being potty trained during the day. The best sign to know that they can ditch diapers at night is if he can go 5 straight days staying dry at night. But again, this is something he can’t control, so don’t feel bad if he still needs diapers. Our pediatrician even said that at the extreme, kids up to 8yo can still need nighttime pull ups and that that would still be “normal range.” One of our twins was still wetting the bed, so we got a “pee alarm” to wake him up if he started to wet himself. But again, all this nighttime stuff comes much later than daytime potty training 🙂

  6. Thank you for this article. May son is already 3 1/2 and still not potty trained. I think I do this gradual training you are writing about. He wears underwear during the day over the weekend (because weekdays he goes to daycare and I go to work), knows the concept of doing it in the toilet/his potty chair BUT still will not tell me if he needs to go! If I do bring him to the toilet and ask him to pee, he will (if he needs to). But he still never tells me until AFTER he has wet himself or pooped in his undies. I am hesitant to share this with other parents because I feel we are already late in the game and other kids his age are already potty trained 🙁 I find solace in the fact that there are no kindergarteners in nappies. I just hope my child is not the exception to that LOL! Again, thank you for this.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I’m glad the article was helpful, Tina!