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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 [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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