I Tried 3-Day Potty Training—Here’s the Messy Truth

I always say that I successfully used the three-day potty training method with my son, but looking back it was more like the two year stop-and-go method.

When he turned 2, I realized it was time to start thinking about potty training my kid. So I checked out the one potty training book on the shelf at my local library and started reading. I’d never heard of Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Right, but I liked the no frills approach that seemed to emphasize a laid back vibe without bribes. I was in.

According to the book, between 20 to 30 months of age is the ideal “window of opportunity” for potty training. Although author Jamie Glowacki says your child can certainly learn before or after that, she argues this is the timeframe when it’ll be easiest for your child to painlessly pick up the skill. I began to panic: Time was running out.

So I carved out three days to dedicate to the process (I freelance and work from home, which allowed me the flexibility to commit to a long weekend). I should note that I’ve since learned that Oh Crap! is not, according to its practitioners, a true three-day potty training method—they actually try to distance themselves from it. But, just like other three-day methods, it requires a foundational three days that sets the stage for potty training success. In my book they’re all fairly similar.

Basically, you set aside three days in which you vow to stay at home and focused on nothing but potty training. Day one starts with a simple explanation to the child that you’re done with diapers and will use the potty from here on out. Then you take off their pants and diapers and get comfortable with the idea that you will be cleaning up some (okay, a lot of) pee throughout the day. You’re supposed to put your phone away, get rid of all distractions and watch your child like a hawk so you can learn their “got to go” signs. As soon as they start to pee, you lift them up and put them on the potty. Easy, right?

I’ll be honest: I was not looking forward to this. For one, we had a rental apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting. For another—no distractions or looking at my phone all day? That seemed like the biggest challenge of all.

But, as it turned out, it wasn’t so bad. There was definitely pee on the floor. Lots of it. (I was prepared with my carpet spray. Pro tip: Get one targeted to pet owners, since those are designed to get rid of urine stains and smells.) But I learned my son’s cues pretty quickly, and by the end of that first day he was peeing mostly on the toilet.

The real unexpected benefit, however, came with the forced digital detox. I hadn’t realized just how tethered to my phone I’d become, just how distracted a parent I was. It felt good to be truly present for my son the entire day, specifically tasked with watching him and discovering his tells, playing to make our time indoors bearable. I vowed to try to be less glued to my phone and be attentive to my son more. (Whether or not that lasted could be the subject of a whole other essay.)

On day two, your child spends the morning without pants once again, and then, if I remember correctly, at some point can switch to pants but no undies. Day three is more of the same.

You’re supposed to stay indoors at home the entire three days. But neither of us could stand it; we had to get out. On day two as soon as he peed on the potty we put pants on and went out for a walk around the block. On day three we went farther afield: to the library. I brought a potty seat to put on the toilet and an extra change of pants. There were a lot of false runs to the bathroom, and an accident that soaked his shoes and socks. But overall, we did pretty good. He even pooped on the potty. By the end of the three days, my son was letting me know when he had to go to the bathroom. We’d done it!

Or had we? I’d be lying if I said it ended there. The truth is, we had a long road ahead of us still.

While I knew my son’s signs well and could quickly shuttle him to a bathroom in time, he had more than a few accidents in his car seat, and preschool was, to be frank, a disaster. At that point he only went to school a few days a week for a few hours at a time, and there was so much going on that he didn’t give himself enough time to get to a toilet. Of course, his teachers couldn’t watch him as closely as I had when it was just us. Every single day, when I picked him up from preschool they handed me a plastic bag filled with his wet clothes.

After a few weeks of this, my son’s teachers made it clear they weren’t thrilled. So, though it’s a big Oh Crap! no-no, I started sending him to school in diapers again. His teachers were thankful.

Then there was the regression to deal with.

A month or two after my son’s successful three-day potty training weekend, my in-laws took him to a museum. When it came time to use the bathroom, he proudly sat on the big public toilet—and was completely taken by surprise when the auto-flush kicked in while he was still sitting there. To say he was upset is an understatement. For months after that, public bathrooms were totally off the table, and even at home we were met with resistance.

Rather than force the issue, I said it was no big deal and let him back in diapers for a month or two. Once some time had passed, my son was able to seamlessly transition back to undies and I was glad I hadn’t pressured him. To this day (he’s almost 5), he’s still hyper-aware of whether a public bathroom has an automatic flush. I’ve learned I can cover it with my hand or a Post-it to prevent it from flushing while he’s on the toilet.

Then there was the issue of sleep. Oh Crap! says to say goodbye to diapers even for naps and overnight so as not to confuse your child. Though I agreed with a lot of what the book said, that just didn’t fly with me. So we kept a diaper on for nap and nighttime. We were able to transition away from the nap diaper pretty quickly with almost no accidents. But nights were a whole other story.

My son was two months shy of his third birthday when his little brother joined our family. A few months after that, he declared he was done with overnight diapers. I figured, why not give it a try? He’d been daytime potty trained for about a year, and if the impetus was coming from him, I might as well roll with it. As the months progressed, I was woken up multiple times a night, nearly every night, by both the newborn and my older son wetting the bed. Exhausting as it was, I stuck with it, convinced that eventually he’d catch on and worried that going back to overnight diapers would be confusing. But after a very hazy, sleep-deprived six months, I let him know that it wasn’t a judgment, but that his body just wasn’t ready to go all night without peeing. So back to overnight diapers it was. It was such a relief. I was one tired mama.

Around his fourth birthday my son was waking up dry more days than not, and we were finally able to successfully switch to underwear at night. Now at almost 5, he’s reached the magical milestone of waking up when he has to pee in the night, going to the bathroom himself and putting himself back to bed. I never thought the day would come.

My younger son just turned 2 and has been interested in the potty for about six months now—anything his big brother does, he wants to do. But I’ve been in no rush to potty train. With two kids, who has time to watch his every move and clean up excrement from the floor? For a while he was successfully using his little toilet, poop and all, and I joked that he was potty training himself. At the moment he’s resistant to using it, and I’m not going to push. If he wants to keep wearing diapers right now, that’s fine with me.

Published June 2019

PHOTO: Ani Dimi

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