Prev Next
Potty Training and Is My Toddler Ready?

Roadbumps in the Potty Training Process

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I love love LOVE your advice. I have read through and gotten several tips on your sleeping and potty training ones specifically and I just have to tell you how much I appreciate your balance on all things, how you don’t advocate a one solution fits all approach and how you are very straight forward and honest with the pros and cons of many different approaches.

I’m writing because I have a just turned three year old daughter who has a speech delay and some light sensory processing issues. Nothing super big, but I do find it leads to her being more wary of unknown things than the average toddler, including the potty. And the speech delay is being addressed, so she is able to talk quite a bit nowadays, including being able to tell me when she needs to go potty. She also has a fierce independent streak.

I wasn’t too worried about the potty training because she was just getting to the age where I hear a lot of people attempt it, and she isn’t quite ready for preschool yet, so we were going to wait a bit to enroll her in that (I am currently at home with her). But then she started pooping, pulling her poop out of her diaper and presenting it to me or piling it somewhere. And I decided that if she is going to do that, it’s time to potty train. I read all your back columns, bought chocolate and sticker incentives, bought the (ridiculously priced at $10) Elmo Potty dvd (she responds really well to visual learning), and we geared up.

First we started with letting her play the iPad on the potty because she didn’t even want to sit on it. That soon turned into asking to go potty to sit on there forever with the iPad and insisting that she still needed to go when I told her it was time to give the iPad up. Then I tried bribing her with chocolate chips for sitting on the toilet, and that turned into hopping up there every three seconds to get a chocolate chip, but not actually using the toilet. So I left her bottomless, and went about my day, and I found she actually ran in and used the bathroom all on her own when she needed to. We then stepped up to putting big girl underwear on, but she pees in those. She goes through several pairs a day, she will try to go to the bathroom and less than five minutes later pee in her underwear.

So my question to you is: what can we do to transition her to using the bathroom even with underwear on? Is that just something she will eventually get? Is that where I need to start setting a timer again (we did that with no underwear, but every time the timer went off she would tell me she doesn’t need to go and since she did actually go use the bathroom when she needed to, we stopped with the timer)?

Also what do I do about going out in public? I did read that a lot of people say to just put them in underwear and if they wet it either bring one change or no changes and go home and they will learn. But the other kicker to our situation is that we have to drive to another town about an hour and fifteen minutes away twice a week for speech therapy. So it’s hard to do the all or nothing approach. Also, she does seem discouraged when she pees her pants, and she is definitely a perfectionist child and will quit a task if she thinks it’s too hard and she can’t master it. So I want to encourage her with a lot of successes, not failure.

Hopefully that wasn’t too jumbled. Thanks again for all your great advice and your column and blog (they were so so amazing to read when sorting through all the speech delay/is it or isn’t it this problem fears and confusion).

Over the Schtuff Piles

Potty training (much like sleep) is not always a perfectly linear process. And that makes it extra hard sometimes to gauge whether your child is ready to move along to the next step or needs more time cementing a still-emerging skill. In my experience, if moving a child along to the next step is met with a sharp reversal of previous progress (that doesn’t correct itself within a day or two), this is a sign that they are not ready to move to that next step. Immediately hit the big ol’ UNDO button in the sky and revert them back to exactly how things were when things were working.

In your daughter’s case, for whatever reason, she’s not yet ready to make the jump from naked-bottom training to underwear. For some kids this is simply a timing problem — they have accidents because they’re not leaving time to pull clothing down or need more practice with it. Since you mentioned sensory issues, it’s also possible that your daughter’s brain hasn’t yet rewired the “feeling” of wearing a diaper, so the sensation of fabric against her butt cancels out whatever urgency/potty prompt the feeling of nakedness gives her. Whatever the reason, I’m 99.99% certain that the solution is just “Give Her More Time.” She’ll get it. She’s just not there yet, so step back to the point in the process where she was consistently successful…and stay there a bit longer.

Since a timer was ineffective before, there’s no reason to go back to it. Go back to bottomless. Reward her ONLY for actually peeing/pooping in the potty and not for sitting.  (Unless that skill suddenly regresses, but since she’s gaming the bribery system I’d try to hold firm on that one.) Have her practice pulling underwear up and down (make up a silly song or game about it), but don’t pressure her to wear them around the house just yet. Try again after about a solid week of no accidents. Maybe have her try a baggy pair of elastic-waist shorts or pajama bottoms instead — something super easy to get on and off that doesn’t mimic the tight feeling of a diaper.

As for the question of when potty training progress is ready to extend outside to the real world…well, this is so different for every kid. We certainly had our share of embarrassing, out-in-public accidents and I think most parents do need to eventually just bite the bullet and be ready for that possibility. You make them pee before they leave the house, prompt and remind them regularly, offer them chances to “try” and hope that public restrooms don’t completely freak them out. (And pack extra clothes and maybe a small potty seat in the car trunk.) But certain situations — long car rides, air travel, etc. — can require exceptions for kids who aren’t 100% rock-solid trained. We would usually offer pull-ups or training pants in these cases, but not every kid will need that. (Or accept that, if being in big kid pants is a big source of pride.)

But for now I’d hold off on stressing about that transition and focus on getting back the progress your daughter regressed on. She needs to, you know, be able to use the potty while wearing clothing first before I’d worry about whether she can make it through a grocery store run without peeing in the produce aisle.

One last thing that stood out to me, though — something that might also need to be addressed before attempting a long car ride sans absorbent pants: Will your daughter ask for help or tell you when she needs to go, or did all her successes involve her running to the potty completely independently? That’s certainly NOT a bad thing, by the way, but might be a small insight into her particular path to potty training. That “fierce independent streak” is at play here for sure, but when she’s out in public or in the car she needs to use her words or signs and communicate with you, rather than handling her business all on her own. Really hammer home that sometimes, it’s okay to ask for help! It’s absolutely a GOOD THING to TELL Mommy that you feel like you have to go! Mommy can help you pull your underwear up and down if it’s hard for you right now, and Mommy can absolutely help you find a potty out in a store or the library, or pull the car over if you have to go during a long drive. Help her work through her frustrations of not being able to do it “all by herself” and you might be able to inch her along in the process a bit sooner rather than later.


Dear readers, as you have noticed by now, with the new website, we have a new commenting system. You can leave a comment without having to register. Just sign in as a “guest.”  We love and appreciate your insights!

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.

icon icon
chat bubble icon


  • My son was the SAME WAY – underwear on and he’d pee every time. Naked and he was completely successful. My guess was always that he just i nterpreted the sensation of something close to his body as being similar to a diaper or something (and I’ve talked to LOTS of parents whose kiddos were the same. So maybe the sensory thing plays a part . . . . or maybe it’s just something that some kiddos take a little bit to figure out). For around the house my son liked wearing footie pajamas with no underwear on (so that kept him kind of clothed for when people came over, but wasn’t tight against his body like underwear was). You could also try, like Amalah mentioned, loose shorts or pants with nothing on underneath. I’m also wondering if a long skirt might be appropriate for certain situations (not the playground probably, but just walking to the mailbox or playing in the house?). When we had to leave the house we put him back in Pull-ups, and when we got home he went back to being naked again. Going back and forth between diapers and not wasn’t confusing for him like it is for some kiddos, he was 3 and understood what was going on. The good news for us was that all of a sudden one day we put him in underwear and he kept being successful, and once that happened he transitioned to car rides and outings and using public restrooms with 0 problems or accidents. It was like his body was KIND OF SORT OF MOSTLY READY for a long time . . . . and then once he got it, he got it 100% without any buildup to the event. (My daughter, on the other hand, was “potty trained” but regularly peed herself at school and on outings for probably 6-9 months. So I honestly kind of preferred the scenario where at least I understood what situations would lead to accidents! But in her case we just traveled everywhere with some changes of clothes and a wet bag for messes and it was sometimes embarrassing when her clothes were suddenly wet, but there were fewer puddles on the grocery store floor than I’d imaged there would be). So anyhow, in my experience, this is just a TOTALLY normal variation of how some kids train and given some more time it’ll work itself out!

  • A.L

    You could possibly try skipping underwear (for now) and putting shorts/pants on her directly. I did this with my daughter because she had the same problem. She was great going to the potty if she was naked, but struggled with the underwear thing and I assumed it was because she couldn’t sense the difference between underwear and diapers. But loose fitting shorts or pants don’t give that same sung sensation, so she went commando for probably 2 months before we started putting underwear on her and it worked really well. I think she just needed a little extra time to get over that one little piece. Maybe that’s something to try?
    I also have to say that I think Amy is on to something with the independence thing. It does sound like she is just a little too stubborn to ask for help. Working on that piece of it may really be the key here.

  • MR

    Yes, this a pretty normal issue for kids once they figure it out from going naked. Loose fitting pants/shorts with no underwear seems to help them get to that next step. As for your car trips, we had to do some too when my kiddos were still in that potty training step. For one, I was able to tell her that she needed to wear a pull up in the car, but that if it was dry when we got there, she’d get a reward. For another, she absolutely didn’t want to wear a pull up, so she didn’t. With both kids, we brought the potty in the car and told them they needed to tell me with enough notice to pull over and get them out of their seat so they could get on the potty. The one who didn’t wear a pull up had an accident once – about an hour into a 4 hour trip (we stop along the way, but my point is, we had a lot of the drive left.) We stopped at a bathroom, I changed her and her clothes, and because I didn’t have anything else, I got her raincoat out, put it on the seat, and had her sit on that, so she stayed dry even though her seat was wet. Then I cleaned it when we got to our destination. You can get those waterproof pads for cribs and things, and keep those in there (or even have her sit on one all the time in her seat if want to try avoiding the seat). Honestly, the jacket worked really well. It is just one of those super thin jackets, so it was easy to fit in around the buckles and stuff. The waterproof pads sometimes get bulky when you have to move them around the leg buckle, and that might be an issue if she is sensitive to irritants.

  • A.H.

    When you are ready for it…When we were potty training our oldest and had to venture out to the store or somewhere, we would put underwear on with a pull up over that. That way, if she peed in her pants, she would still get the feeling of the wet underwear on her skin but the diaper would absorb any mess before it got in her car seat or aisle 3 of the grocery store. So she still realized she had an accident but it wasn’t made ok, not noticeable, or comfortable by the absorption of the diaper.

    She also had some fear of the bathrooms with automatic flushes because they would flush when she was sitting there or while she was right in front of it pulling up her pants. I don’t know if that will bother your daughter with the sensory issues or not. We started keeping post-its in her bag that we could put over the sensor until she was done and ready for the flush. Even as an adult, I don’t like when they flush when I am sitting there!

    • bookworm81

      Upvoting for the Post-it trick which every parent should know.

  • bookworm81

    My oldest (diagnosed with SPD) had exactly the same problem switching to underpants. It never even occurred to be that it could be related to his SPD but that makes so much sense! We did eventually try the loose sweatpants based on other suggestions and that worked pretty quickly.

    When you get to the step of going out in public I’m going to pass on the suggestion my son’s special educator made of underwear with a padded crotch and an old fashioned nylon diaper cover over it (they used to call them plastic pants). It lets them feel the wetness so they know they went but protects their clothes and the environment from getting wet (you do still bring a change of underwear and a cover so you can change them if they have an accident). I think it took about 2 weeks of that for him to be mostly dry at school and a few more weeks before we switched to regular underwear and no cover at school.

    • They have GREAT cloth diapering options these days, so if the OP is interested in these ideas, you can look into cloth training pants, or else a “pull-up” style diaper cover (that’s what they’re called these days and there are a few brands that make them. I never thought of using them for this purpose, but we used Bummis ones overnight for a while and they were excellent! But that’s a really great idea!).

      • bookworm81

        We cloth diaper so we tried that first. I wound up spending over $100 trying different potty training pants and nothing worked because he treated them exactly like diapers (including pooping in them which they are not designed to handle). The Gerber training pants ($8 a three pack at Target) and Dappi nylon pants ($17/6 on Amazon) were a lot cheaper and actually worked.

  • Meg Murry-ish

    Another option for the long car ride is to introduce a few pairs of “car underpants” that are either pull-ups or cloth diapers or plastic pants, and explain that she should try to keep them dry, but they are there just in case so her car seat doesn’t get wet. We have friends that were able to introduce “bedtime underpants” this way for a kid that was day trained but just wasn’t ready of night training but refused diapers.

    Another idea is to switch the reward from just *using* the potty to *telling* a grown-up and then using the potty. Probably something you want to talk to the speech therapist about to make sure you aren’t introducing another problem (or maybe you’d determine that using the “toilet” hand sign would be better)? but that might help with some of the independence of insisting she do it herself that won’t work when you are in the car or public.

    For learning to stay dry, you could also focus on keeping dry pants rather than using the potty. Put her whatever works (just underwear, loose elastic shorts, whatever) and ask frequently “Kiddo, do you have dry pants?” and if she does, make a huge deal about how awesome she is. If she does wet them, just address it matter of fact “Oh, wet pants are no fun, let’s go change you” and move on.

  • Kgbee

    My 4.5 year old has had the same dry-naked-wet-undies thing. Each regression that he’s had, we have gone back to the “naked butt at home” system for a while just to help him (a) have success controlling his bladder, and (b) reset his ability to feel when he needs to pee. It helps every time!