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How to Motivate a Child to Use the Potty

Parents rejoice at the notion of kids becoming potty-trained. After all, it means not having to carry around a bulky diaper bag, not having to change those messy diapers and not having to spend money on diapering supplies. Kids, however, don't usually share the same excitement about toilet training. They may require some extra motivation before they'll agree to trade in their diapers for big-kid underwear.

Make Sure Your Child Is Ready

The best motivation in the world won't work if your child isn't physically and cognitively ready to use the toilet. "Your child should show interest in potty training before you present the concept," says Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, Calif., and the author of "The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child." According to Walfish, kids are physically ready for potty training when they can stay dry for at least two hours at a time, can get onto the potty independently, and can tolerate sitting still for one or two minutes. A child is cognitively ready when he can communicate his need to use the bathroom and can follow the steps necessary to use the toilet.

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Address Your Child's Fears

If your child is afraid that he'll be flushed down the toilet or that there's a monster inside the tank, address that first before moving on to potty-training motivation. Parents should talk to kids about their fears, recommends Karen Stephens, director of the Illinois State University Child Care Center, in her Parenting Exchange column, “Potty Shy: Flush Out Your Child's Fears.” Sometimes simple solutions, such as leaving the door open or explaining why flushing makes a loud noise, can reassure kids that they are safe to use the toilet. Reading books about toileting can be a great way to relieve a child's fears and renew his interest in potty training.

Practice Using the Potty

Equip the bathroom with motivational tools. Involve your child in picking out his own potty chair to stir up some excitement about using it. MayoClinic.com recommends allowing your child to sit on the potty chair, either with or without his diaper on, just to get him used to sitting on it. Give him books to look at and small toys to play with while sitting on the potty to encourage him to test it out. Avoid forcing a child to use the toilet, as your efforts will be counterproductive.

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Purchase Big-Kid Underwear

Kids can be very motivated to get rid of their diapers once they get to pick out "big-kid underwear." Take your child shopping to pick out underwear that showcases his favorite characters. When he's able to show some success with using the toilet, let him trade in his diaper or pull-up for some big-kid underwear during the daytime. Use training pants at night and during nap time. According to MayoClinic.com, it can take months or even years for kids to master nighttime toilet training.

Offer Some Encouragement

Not all experts agree about whether or not toilet-training efforts should be rewarded. Walfish advises against using toys or stickers to motivate kids: "If your child gets the idea that you are too invested in them becoming toilet trained, they will use it against you." However, medical care, education and advice nonprofit the Mayo Clinic encourages parents to use sticker charts or rewards, such as a trip to the park. Whether or not you decide to use tangible rewards, praise is still important. Provide kids with genuine encouragement to cheer them on as they practice.

Respond to Accidents Calmly

Toilet training takes time, and your child will have some accidents along the way. Be patient and avoid criticizing your child. When kids do have accidents, have them participate in the cleanup, in a non-shaming manner. "Sometimes, this motivates kids to speed up the potty training process," says Walfish. "Who wants to clean up when it's much easier to bypass that step and sit on the toilet?"

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