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Potty Training and Is My Toddler Ready?

Potty Training Wars: Boot Camp Rebellion

By Amalah

Hi Amy-

Thanks for your previous help with our crazy sleep issues. We put a gate up at the door and after 3 nights of her crying, the issues have essentially resolved. She still takes time to fall asleep, and will still cry a bit- but frankly- I’ll take it.

We now move onto potty training. We tried training her once around 20-months old because the mom and nanny were saying it’s time. She wasn’t ready (as I suspected) and started crying every time we put her on the potty. So I let it go.

She started preschool this September. All of a sudden- she began to show signs of interest. She was asking to go about half the time, and keeping herself dry half the time. Even had some naps of dryness. And when she did go in her potty- she would tell me right after. So I put her in pull ups until I could tackle the 3 day boot camp. (FYI- she’s now 2.5yo).

So here we are. Day 3 and it’s a disaster. We’ve tried variations of naked, undies, leggings, and undies and leggings- and she does not care at all when she’s wet. We make a huge deal when she does go on the potty and she gets chocolate chips. I try to take her every 30-40 min and she fights me and goes nuts. Even bribery doesn’t work. And sure enough- she’ll have 3/4 accidents in a row in a matter of minutes after we try to make her go.  We have her clean up her mess and take her wet laundry to the washing machine.

So what am I doing wrong? What am I missing? Do I keep at it? Is she just not ready? Is she a kid that will decide all on her own when she’s totally done?

I’m very discouraged and very lost. And have no idea what I’m doing. (And my family is zero supportive help.).


I think what we have here is an unfortunate case of 20/20 hindsight: Boot camp wasn’t the right approach for this kid, and possibly putting her in pull-ups for an “interim” period between initial readiness and a super hard-line approach kind of muddied the waters a bit.

Boot camp is NOT for every kid. It’s one approach of many. I typically see it as a good one for older, stubborn kids who are ready to train…but refusing to take any initiative on their own to make it happen, or for whom the more gradual approaches just aren’t finalizing the deal.

That was not your daughter. Sounds like she was in the process of training herself — asking to go, using the potty independently, etc. You probably should have just let that process continue on its own rather than kinda…putting a pin in it until later with the pull-ups. The pull-ups introduced her to a non-diaper option that wasn’t underwear and the potty and thus…oh, why should she continue working on the potty to get out of diapers like her preschool friends.

(However, since I remember your previous letter about your daughter’s night terrors and that you guys have gone through a move and a new baby and all kinds of crazy life changes, I hate to say “oh you SHOULD have done such-and-such instead,” because I understand that might not have been realistically possible at the time.)

It’s also possible she still remembers the premature attempt at 20 months and is just always going to fight being physically “put” on the potty or “told” when go because that ended up being a negative experience for her.

Since she was taking control of the potty training situation and making her own choices, at her own pace, you suddenly trying to take the “control” away from her with a military-like approach, timers, cleaning up, etc. didn’t go over too well. I’m guessing “strong-willed” is an adjective you’ve used about her before, or heard from others. She’s rebelling because the potty was supposed to be HER choice, because SHE decided it was something she was interested in. (Probably mostly due to her peers at school, who do, at least, remain a motivation for her.)

Most potty training experts would probably tell you to keep going, not to stop, eventually she’ll get it. Me? I’m not an expert. But I do know when something is a complete and utter disaster, sometimes you have to throw in the towel for everybody’s sanity.

You sent this email quite recently and I deliberately decided to answer it ASAP since you’re still in boot camp failure hell: I would personally stop. I would put her back in diapers. NOT pull-ups. Diapers. The thing she was wearing when she began to show initial interest. And then I would BACK OFF.

I do think she’s a kid who will decide when she’s ready. And she was super close to ready, so next time (and there WILL be a next time, I promise!!) she starts showing interest, just go with it. Real casually and gradually. Take her to the potty and praise her, praise her dry diaper at naps, maybe save the chocolate chips for when she goes completely independently. It’s her thing! And you’re cool with it, but not super overly invested in it.

The main drawback with the child-led approach is that it can be difficult to know when you can really and truly make the switch from diapers to underwear. Start with underwear at home at first and expect some accidents, then let her venture out in underwear once she’s getting through most days at home okay. (Also talk with her teachers about what their expectations are about sending her in underwear. I bet an accident at school will be MUCH more motivating that all the low-stakes ones she’s been having at home over the past three days….)

So it’s kind of a bummer, I know. Please don’t beat yourself up about any of it…potty training sucks and it can be really hard to know how best to to go about it. Stop the boot camp, put her back in diapers. If she protests and asks for pull-ups, use that desire to your own advantage. “Nope, pull-ups are for girls who at least try to use the potty. When you’re ready to try using your potty again, we can say bye-bye to the diapers.”

Depending on how entrenched she is in her rebellion against the boot camp, she might not even care about the diapers. At first. She might just continue with zero progress for awhile. Because for HER, it’s not about being physically ready, she needs to be mentally ready. And ready to do it HERSELF, thank you very much.

Published November 16, 2015. Last updated March 13, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Jodie

    November 16, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    THIS!  This was my middle daughter.  The 3 day boot camp had both of us in tears.  I gave it up and decided I’d try again.  Fast forward a few months when I was 8 months pregnant and damnit it was going to happen.  I kid you not, she held her pee for 18 hours.  18 HOURS! (we were begging her to let go long, long before thise.)  Clearly she had bodily control and knew when she needed to go.  But, R needs to decide which hill to die on.

    Anyway, after that the potty would sit in our living room and every so often I’d let her run around naked and say pee if you have to.  Which she did all by herself when she had a broken arm and I had a newborn with Dad traveling 4 days a week.  She was just ready.

    And then she very nearly never had an accident (accept for timing her poops for naptime or bedtime for six months.)  

    All this is to say, +1 to Amy on stopping the bootcamp and letting her get some control back.

  • alana

    November 16, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    I had the same experience with my daughter.  At 2.5 years, she was showing lots of interest, asking to go on the potty all the time, so we did the boot camp approach one Saturday.  Epic. Fail.  So I gave up, after one day since it was obvious she wasn’t into it and frankly, I was in no rush to get rid of the diapers anyway.  At exactly 3 years, she (completely on her own and quite out of the blue) decided she wanted to use the potty consistently. After a weekend of boot camp, she was mostly trained, except for naps/nighttime and the occasional accident.  After a couple of weeks, she was 99% accident-free.  Just let her lead – she’ll get there on her own.  FWIW, rewarding mine with jelly beans had zero impact, but using magnets/stickers was strangely successful.  Good luck! 

  • IrishCream

    November 16, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Totally agree with Amy’s approach, and wanted to add some reassurance that you haven’t scarred her for life. Back off, let it be something that she controls, and sometime in the next year, it will happen. Maybe when she’s six months older, the time will be right to push a bit harder–nothing forceful, maybe just some chocolate-related incentives–or maybe it won’t be and you’ll let it go a bit longer. One way or the other, she’ll end up potty-trained before kindergarten, I promise! Almost all of the families I know, including my own, had some false starts with potty-training. It’s not usually a nice linear process!

  • Renee

    November 16, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    I have found my older daughter (now 3) is very much a ‘ready when SHE is ready’ kind of girl.  I tried with the potty training too early (around 2.25?) and it was not happening.

    She was learning at preschool and we had transitioned to pull-ups.

    Then one day around 2.5 she said ‘Mommy I want to wear undies!’  And I kid you not we have had maybe 3 accidents in 6 months.  I just told her that if she wanted to be a big girl that wore undies, she had to stay dry and go on the potty all the time.

  • S

    November 16, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    This was my son. He trained at 2 years 11 months not before that. She may also have trouble with body signals. He was poop trained first as it gave him more lead time to get to the potty. He still ignores body signals and he is six. My two year old was the complete opposite, boot camp worked for her. They were totally different traing. Do what Amy says, diaper back on. peer influence kicks in. My daughter was sold when her best friend wore princess underwear and thought it was cool. hang in there. So been there. Keep the motto they don’t go to kindergarten in pull ups, everyone gets there.

  • Margarita

    November 16, 2015 at 7:08 pm

    thank you thank thank you all so much!!!!  This was so good to hear, and made me feel less of a failure.  Definitely made me feel more calm and at peace about the whole thing.  And reminded me that I really need to keep my kid’s personality in mind (aka she was never a kid you could even sleep train..she did it on her own time). 

    But now here’s the wrench in all this.  She did great in school all day! They did have to take her quiet often since she never asked herself….but she went.  And only had one accident.  So what now?  Keep at the training…..or back to diapers? 

    • MR

      November 16, 2015 at 7:15 pm

      Keep at it as long as she is happy. I’d also highly suggest you ask the teachers HOW they are getting her to go, and do what they are doing, since her issue appears to be at your house rather than at school. Also, do you have a stool that is tall enough she can get on and off by herself and has a railing so she doesn’t feel like she is going to fall? Because my youngest did exactly what yours did and was doing great at school, and not so at home. But at school, they have the little potty. She can just walk in and sit. At home, even with the step stool we had, she felt like she would fall off and when she was sitting, her feet weren’t flat on the stool. My husband built her her own special little stool with two steps so she could keep her feet flat on the top step when sitting, and a handle that came back far enough she could hold it as she was moving into the sitting position so she didn’t feel like she would fall. Problem solved. Stubborn children. lol Just remember, this stubbornness will be an AMAZING asset when she is a teenager, as she will have no problem saying no to peer pressure. So, it is a good thing in the long run. 🙂

    • Myriam

      November 17, 2015 at 9:14 am

      If she doesn’t want to go at home, then let her be in diapers at home. I really don’t think it’ll confuse her or anything like this…

    • Jodie

      November 17, 2015 at 9:39 am

      I’d keep praising the ever loving hell out of her for her amazing work at school and then just calmly and casually ask at home, but seriously make no fuss whatsoever if she decides not to go and stay in diapers.  Keep the ball firmly in her court!

  • MR

    November 16, 2015 at 7:16 pm

    By how, I meant, what words do they use? Do they take her by the hand? etc.

  • Autumn

    November 17, 2015 at 12:02 am

    We tried boot camp when my oldest was 2.5.  We had pee everywhere but the potty I think for 2 days, and we were all frustrated. I think wet cotton underwear feels pretty   So we called it off.  If she asked to sit on the potty, great, if not no big deal.

    Right around her third birthday (when she started visiting the preschool room where almost everyone was potty trained) peer awareness did the trick.  Made the day care bill easier to swallow when it solved that problem for us.  She was in underwear at school first before home, so we told her she could have underwear at home if she went potty and didn’t have accidents because of not going when mommy/daddy said it was time to go.  It only took once or twice of refusing to go and me getting out a cloth diaper (we still used a disposable at night till 3 1/2) for her to get serious.  

    So in short, follow her lead.  And get an extra pair of shoes for school.  And when she’s finally reliably trained, treat yourself to professional carpet cleaning 

  • Gabbi

    November 17, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    The 3 day method I know of that results in a lot of success doesn’t sound like what you tried. It’s all positive, lots of fluids, but focuses on staying dry more than going on the potty. Check every 20-30 minutes for being dry and reward that (also offer frequent potty breaks and reward success, but no more than you reward staying dry). The real goal of potty training is staying dry, not going on the potty 45 times a day.

  • Cheryl S.

    November 18, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    My advice? STOP. Just STOP. Put her back in diapers and don’t even bring it up.  My daughter decided that if we were going to force her to go on the potty, she was just not going to go. At all. Ever.  Hello UTI.  When she was diagnosed my doc gave me the advice I just gave you. Put her back in diapers and don’t worry about it.

    FYI — on the morning of her 3rd birthday, she woke up and asked to wear her big girl panties.  I let her. She may have had 2 accidents total.  Done.  She was already starting to train herself.  Just put her back in diapers and she’ll do it again, on her timeline.

    And as my mom always told me — No one goes to college in diapers!