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Potty Training In Cloth Diapers

Potty Training In Cloth Diapers

By Amalah


I tried searching the archives for an answer to this question and didn’t see anything. My son is incredibly stubborn (I have no idea where he would get such a trait!) very bright, and is just starting to work on potty training. He is very much into being independent and helping dress/undress himself.

My question is how do you potty train with cloth diapers? He can’t undo the snaps by himself, but the point of buying the cloth was that I didn’t have to spend the money on disposables/Pull Ups. I’ve read some reviews of cloth training pants, but don’t really wanna invest in money in them if he’s just going to decide one day that he’s done with cloth diapers and will use the potty. (That would be my luck)

He asked for big boy underwear at the store the other day, so we bought them even though he is nowhere near being ready for them yet. Do I keep him in the diapers and help him with the snapping? What about when he decides he wants to “Do it MYSELF!!!? Help!

Okay, here’s what WE did, when we potty trained a cloth diaper wearer. AND it’s pretty much exactly what we did when we potty trained a disposable diaper wearer. Your mileage may vary.

We went cold turkey to big boy underwear during the day. Yes. I approached potty training boot camp style: Pick a stretch of days (two or three should do it) when you don’t have to leave the house (or your toddler doesn’t, so you can enlist the help of a favorite relative/babysitter to take over a shift). Wake up, put kid in underwear and no pants for easier pulling down. Have them sit on the potty every 20 minutes or so. During those non-potty-sitting 20 minutes, repeatedly ask them if they have dry pants. Have them feel said pants before they answer, and if they are dry, make a BIIIIIIIG silly deal over it. Yaaaay dry pants! Let’s do the dry pants dance! If they succeed in going while sitting on the potty, give them a reward (M&M, sticker, whatever). If they have an accident, don’t get mad, but say something like “oh nooooo, wet pants! That’s so sad!” Have them take their underwear to the hamper/diaper pail and help clean up the mess with a towel. Put on new dry pants. Rinse, repeat, all day.

Day one, you will definitely have a slew of accidents, but it’s to be expected. I just don’t think you can expect a kid to magically potty train himself while wearing diapers. Some toddlers will, of course, just announce one day that they’re done with diapers but in my personal experience (and that of my close friends and allll my nephews) that is some other species of child that I am not fortunate enough to birth. (I also had no interest in diapering a three-year-old or older. Two years has always been my breaking point of THIS IS HAPPENING BECAUSE I SAID SO.) (Not to mention being pregnant with the next one, and a fierce determination that I would only have one child in full-time diapers at a time.)

But for real: The habit of just GOING in a diaper is too strong for a lot of kids to simply overcome on their own. Plus there’s the lack of any immediate consequence. Pulling a diaper off after the fact and commenting on wetness/poop that could have happened a half hour before for all you know is probably not gonna really register with him.

During our boot camp days (which I admit I managed to schedule during the warm-weather months, so we could spend as much time running around pantsless in the backyard and avoid peeing on furniture and such), we would skip naps in order to keep the stretch of underwear-only time going as long as possible. By day two we usually saw signs that things were clicking, then day three sometimes saw an uptick in resistance. This is when I would bring in a favorite babysitter, so I could get a break. And the boys would usually try a little harder to impress a non-parent figure, weirdly enough. But thankfully BOTH of my boys kind of got it that Mommy was Not Messing Around With This and by day four (ish) we witnessed the glorious unprompted “I HAFTA GO PEE!” declaration followed by a dash to the toilet.

(Short trips outside the house resumed on day three or four, though it usually took them a LOT longer to feel comfortable using a public potty. We carted around a Bjorn seat adapter for awhile like lunatics, and of course extra clothes and underwear justincase.)

The book I read about potty training (Toilet Training in Less Than A Day) was pretty adamant about making the cold-turkey switch to underwear completely permanent from the get-go, as in no more diapers/pull-ups at naps or bedtime either, because it’s a setback. Since our potty training period was never “less than a day” in the first place, I kinda tossed this aspect of the plan aside and let them wear diapers at nap and bedtime even after they were mostly trained, then eliminated them once they were either 1) staying dry consistently or 2) coming out of the room unprompted to use the toilet. The bed is where my personal ability to deal with accidents ends, so I treated that as a longer-term, secondary phase of training and I HAVE NO REGRETS ABOUT THIS.

Once my cloth-diapered toddler started coming out of his room and struggling to get the diaper off by himself, I just started snapping it much looser than usual, so he could pull it down. Not perfect for the times when he didn’t come out because it could potentially leak, but the mess was still much smaller than if he wasn’t wearing the diaper at all. (And at least poop would usually stay pretty contained, despite the loose fit.) You’ll definitely want a good protective mattress pad, and I also put one of the smaller waterproof crib/Pack-n-Play pads on top of the sheets, just in case.

Using the cold turkey method during the day and the loose-fit-on-the-diaper-trick-at-night, we avoided training pants altogether with Ezra, disposable or cloth. (We did buy some “lightly lined” training underwear by Gerber, however. But a kid won’t really know the difference.) When he had a little new-sibling-related regression this past summer, I put him back in his old cloth diapers at nap and bedtime…but snapped them up tight, so he couldn’t get them off himself. This TOTALLY worked in a bit of a reverse-psychology sort of way, because he would try to use the potty by himself enough times that he’d get mad and frustrated and holler for help. At which point I could take the diaper off for him and gently remind him that yes, diapers are for babies and he wasn’t a baby, didn’t he want his big-boy pants back, etc.

Your son really sounds ready for training. He can dress and undress himself! He asked for big boy pants! Yay! Put ’em on him and let him figure it out from there. Trust me, he isn’t going to get LESS stubborn with time, so there’s no time like the present. Yes, the accidents will suuuuuuuck at first and nobody likes being holed up all weekend while mopping them up, but if your kid is ready, he WILL get it. (I tried training Ezra early — like 18/19 months early — and oh, it was SO OBVIOUS that he was not at all ready like I’d hoped. I threw in the towel and tried again later and it was like night and day.) And yes, it can definitely be unnerving to take a shakily-trained kid out in public in underwear, but I can also promise you that he won’t be the first kid to have an accident in the middle of a Target aisle.

(Given our personal history, he’ll be AT LEAST the third. Ugh.)


Photo credit: Thinkstock

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

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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  • Whozat

    November 18, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    That’s more or less what we did (minus the bootcamp, more laid back), but FYI, there are some pull-up cloth trainers, and in particular, bumGenius has one that’s just been released (available now for pre-orders, shipping by early December) that’s a pull-up, with side snaps for an “escape hatch” for poops. It’s a shell that comes with five snap-in liners, that you can change out when wet, without changing the whole shell. I had all intentions of moving my daughter from a panties / diapers combination to panties / trainers when they were available, but we ended up ditching the diapers sooner than I expected, even at night. (Altho she still doesn’t tell us when she has to go, so I don’t really consider her “potty trained” yet.)

  • karen

    November 18, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Wow! I’m going to put aluminum foil over my head because OP stole my thought! My daughter is just over 2 and in cloth diapers and I’m asking the SAME question though we have #2 due in Feb so maybe this is a waste of time. FWIW, I ordered two of the new Kissaluvs Trainers and thought those would be great but they were too diaper-like so I returned them. Daycare will only potty train in pullups so I broke down and bought a box of disposables since I couldn’t find a good cloth option. For a cloth diaper user it’s like nails on a chalkboard to buy any diaper but, meh, I’m over it. I also found several of the Imse Vimse semi-waterproof underwear on Craigslist and this is what we will use for the accident-prone transition phase. They will leak a tad around the legs but are like underwear otherwise. Once I came to grips with the fact that my daughter is not a magical potty trainer (like my friend’s daughter is), it because easier to stomach the additional purchases as Part Of Life With A Kid. Good luck!

  • Elizabeth_k

    November 18, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    We just potty trained our two-year old, and our three and a half year old potty trained just exactly at his second birthday like his sister. Both were in cloth, for both we just — took off the cloth. It was pretty much exactly like Amalah said. 

    The negative? We can’t figure out naps and nighttimes. I mean both still SOAK their diapers during both, and we keep encouraging and waiting and encouraging and waiting for them to keep them dry, but … no. And my third baby is due next week. So, four diapers a day (two at naps, two at bedtime) plus newborn is okay, but we’d WAY prefer only newborn diapers. 

    But changing the sheets multiple times per night? No, thank you. 

    Anyway — sounds like YOUR child is totally ready! Sorry to ramble on and on about my children. 

  • JCF

    November 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    Yes, we also did the cold-turkey method with our cloth diapered kids. It did take a few days for them to really get the hang of it (and my daughter really needed a couple of weeks, but she got it).

    @Elizabeth_k–we also just took off diapers at naps and nighttime (our kids were both 2.5 when they trained), and after a few days of accidents and changing sheets, they stopped wetting the bed. I was shocked. I only did it because my sister told me to (she has older kids), but I totally didn’t think it would work. My daughter NEVER wets her bed, and my son does maybe once every two weeks (he’s 4 now). I don’t mind changing the sheets occasionally, in exchange for no diapers, period. Give it a try–you might be pleasantly surprised! Oh, we limit drinks after dinner. They can have sips of water if they’re thirsty, but no full sippy cups after dinner. And they MUST pee before bed.

    I have also seen the new Cotton Babies pull-up style trainers. I bought a couple of Imse Vimse trainers when we first started, but once we decided to go cold turkey, they never really got any use. They seem nice though!

  • Megan

    November 18, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    I used that same book and it was A DAY. We went to a party with a bounce house the next day and there were no accidents. At night we went without anything for a while,but she jsut couldn’t hold it in all night, so we’ve used a pull up OVER underpants for a about 4 of months and she’s been dry for about 2 so we will drop the pullups when we run out. I could have done it if it was just her, but I was getting up with a newborn and sick of changing sheets.

  • Julie

    November 19, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Very timely – I have a 2.5 year old, and we’ve been talking up the planned transition to big boy underwear after we get back from the Thanksgiving travel. So I’m glad to see all the tips!

  • Olivia

    November 21, 2011 at 8:14 am

    This is good timing for me. My daughter is 2.5, in cloth and we are going to go boot camp over Christmas break. We tried about 5 months ago, but she wasn’t ready. First day was full of accidents, second day she just held it all day until about 7 pm when she asked for a diaper, same thing the third day. But, we’ve got a baby on the way so I’ve been telling her she needs to give her diapers to the new baby, and she has daycare friends using the toilet so I’ve been pushing the peer pressure. Fortunately, she’s been dry overnight and during naps since she was 18 months so hopefully we won’t have nighttime accidents.

  • OP

    November 21, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Thanks for the suggestions. He asked to wear the big boy underwear for the first time before Amalah answered my question, so we did one day of them. He did ok. We are now hunkered down for the 3 days of boot camp. My next question is do I take him every 20 minutes for all 3 days?

  • Wallydraigle

    November 21, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    We used Potty Training in Less Than a Day, too, and she WAS daytime trained within a day. I was amazed. She had a weird phobia about going number two, which have only resolved in the last week (NO effort on our part, aside from completely chilling about it and not breathing a WORD or pressuring her in any way). But she had zero accidents from day one back in July until a couple of weeks ago when we spent two weeks away from home in a somewhat stressful environment. And even then she only had two in that entire span. Potty Training in Less Than a Day is possible, but I do think the book is a bit ambitious about HOW potty trained the child will be. She’s only just staying dry during naptimes. She naps in our room, so I’m not even a little bit okay with her peeing in bed. 😛

    It’s a really great book, and I now recommend it to everyone, if you can get past the scattered organization and somewhat outdated attitudes (I’m a stay-at-home mom with very traditional views, and it even grated on me a bit).

  • Sid

    November 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    This is perfect. I’m printing this post off and bookmarking it. My daughter is 27 months and we’ve sort of been casually working on potty training for a while. On the advice of my in-laws, we were going to wait for warmer weather anyway before going all-out on the training (we’re in Canada, winter = snowsuits = pain-in-the-butt for potty training) so your approach sounds perfect.