Toddler sitting on a potty in the bathroom. Text overlay - How to (and why!) potty train without pull-ups.
BABIES & TODDLERS

Do Pull-Ups Hinder Potty Training?

Do you HAVE to use to use pull-ups to potty train your toddler?

A big fat hell to the NO!

In fact, I recommend you don’t – unless you ABSOLUTELY have to.

Because of my two popular posts about the best non-toxic disposable diapers and best natural baby wipes that have been helping parents choose safer diapers and wipes for their babies for years now, readers often reach out to me, asking if I have any suggestions for pull-ups that are made with the same standards. And while there certainly ARE safer brands to choose from (you can find them here), I want to shout out from the rooftops to PLEASE FIRST RECONSIDER IF YOU EVEN *WANT* TO USE PULL-UPS!?

Why?

  • Pull-ups are NOT necessary in potty training. (Obviously. People HAVE potty trained without pull-ups, and not in ancient times either.)
  • Pull-ups can prolong potty training!

I mean, if you insist on potty training with pull-ups, cool, but if you want your toddler to have bladder control as soon as possible, it might be best to stay away from pull-ups, that’s all I’m saying.

What makes ME the “potty training expert?” Nothing, really. I’m just a mom who has potty trained her kids without ever using a single pull-up, a mom with a strong opinion about pull-ups, so do read on if you want to know about the benefits of potty training without pull-ups.

When it comes to potty training kids with developmental difficulties, perhaps pull-ups might be the right solution, but most toddlers can be potty trained without using pull-ups, and often at a much faster rate!

Though all kids are different, as a reference point – it took us about a week to have our kids potty trained during the day.

When I talk about “pull-ups” I’m referring to *any and all* disposable training pants in potty training which have an elastic waist and can be pulled up/down, unlike disposable diapers which fasten at the sides. “Pull-Ups,” a widely adapted name for all slip-on diapers are actually a Huggies brand of training pants. Pampers markets their training paints as “Easy Ups,” and other diaper brands simply stick with “disposable training pants” or something similar. 

The truth behind pull-ups

The first pull-up diaper ever that was made by Huggies in 1989 had little to do with wanting to help parents with the potty training stage. The concept of a pull-up diaper was actually a brilliant marketing move to normalize extended diaper wearing which would generate higher profits for the company. In the 1980s it has become common to delay potty training based on the recommendations of a few parenting experts, and Huggies simply jumped at the opportunity and created a unique diaper for “bigger kids.”

Just for fun, do you know what the stats for toilet training were before the invention of a pull-up?

 In 1961, 90% of children were potty trained by age 2 1/2; by 1997, only 22% were. [Source]

Do pull-ups hinder potty training?

I certainly think they could.

  • First of all, pull-ups can be confusing to a toddler.

A pull-up is a diaper in disguise. It’s made like a diaper, it feels like a diaper, the only difference is that it has an elastic waistband which lets the diaper slide on/off like actual underwear. A pull-up may seem like a big deal to a toddler at first, especially if they sense an unusually high level of excitement about this change coming from the parents, but in the end it feels just the same to pee or poop into as it did in the old diaper.

It comes down to basic science: dry pants feel nice, wet pants do not. Wet pants should gently tell a child – Whoopsies, something happened that now makes me feel uncomfortable, how do I fix it to feel good again and what to do differently so it doesn’t happen again? Pull-ups prevent your child from having this simple action-reaction chain of thoughts.

  • Kids can become just as dependent on pull-ups as they were on diapers.

Pull-ups absorb as readily as traditional diapers do, so there is no immediate feeling of wetness against the skin when a child pees. They are not made to hold as much waste as diapers, but any standard pull-up will absorb enough liquids to keep a child relatively dry and comfortable for quite a while. When a toddler pees and can barely feel it, especially when deeply submerged in play at which point kids often blank out on most other things, where is the motivation to not go in a pull-up the next time and use the potty instead?

On the other hand, when ordinary underwear is soaked and urine drips down the pants, a toddler will typically prefer to be changed right away and that motivates them to work harder at preventing that from happening again. The natural consequence of peeing the pants and getting wet immediately thereafter helps kids connect the dots.

Signs of potty training readiness

It’s important to remember that every child is different. Some kids show signs of readiness to potty train very early, and for others it doesn’t happen until much later on. On average, toddlers start showing signs they are ready for potty training around the ages 18-24 months. Boys are known to often take a slower approach to potty training.

What to look for:

  • interest in watching you use the bathroom
  • pulling at their diaper when wet or dirty
  • staying dry for longer periods of time during the day
  • waking up dry from a nap
  • having a dry diaper in the morning after waking up and then peeing immediately
  • hiding when peeing or pooping in a diaper/pull-up
  • letting you know they’ve just gone or are about to go

Potty training without pull-ups

A few tips that can make potty training without pull-ups easier:

— Have conversations with your toddler about using the potty.

Our kids have always tagged along with me into the bathroom (yay motherhood LOL), so they had a basic idea about what happens on the toilet. When they seemed interested we had actual discussions about what the toilet is for and how it works. Sometimes kids can totally put you on the spot, but the idea is to normalize toilet training, so have them pound you with anatomy questions and laugh or blush it off later.

Toddler sitting on the potty. Text overlay - The single best tip to potty train your toddler faster.

— Introduce the potty – and let them get comfortable with it.

(This step is not necessary, but I feel like it helped us in the long run because our kids learned to use the potty (even if only occasionally) at their own pace and without any pressure, so if you feel so inclined, do give it a try.) Months before we officially started potty training we introduced the potty though in a non-big-deal-kind-of-way at first. We kept the potty in the bathroom where the kids could explore it on their own, and we let them use it whenever they showed interest. We made it a big deal each time they actually peed in the potty when “trying it out.” (Which they did do many, many times.)

— Stock up on underwear/pants/shorts.

Have plenty of extras! I made sure I stocked my kids’ dresser with plenty of underwear and pants/shorts (depending on the season) before we started potty training so that we would make it between washings no problem. I made a big deal about all the cool new “big girl” underwear in the dresser. Little kids’ underwear is so stinking cute it’s hard NOT to be obsessed about it!

— Embrace that messes will happen.

Accidents are part of the potty training process, so try to stay chill about pee and poop becoming a daily part of your routine for the next few days and possibly weeks. Not fun to deal with, but repeat with me – IT’S ONLY TEMPORARY, IT WILL PASS.

My kids had plenty of accidents the first few days. However, I noted several times they would also pee in the potty on their own and without assistance during the week of potty training when I was busy doing something else. The frequency of accidents gradually lowered as the days went by. Then there was that one day I legit found a turd on the floor and a fully dressed child happily playing and questioned my ability to wean my child off diapers.

— Clear your calendar.

Plan on staying at home as much as possible for the first week of potty training. That way you can focus on potty training and be consistent. It’s much easier to deal with any messes at home than when you’re out and about, and minimizing distractions helps the potty training toddler, too.

— Day #1 of potty training!

Set a date based on your child’s readiness level to potty train, or just slide into it one day – do what you feel is right.

The day we started with potty training was a random day each time that just felt right when I noticed that my girls’ diapers were staying dry for longer periods of time. There was no countdown or a prior announcement. I just told my kids excitedly one morning that they are big girls now, and because big girls don’t need diapers during the day anymore, we were going to try and focus on using just the potty. Big girls underwear! Woohoo! (God help me.)

— Keep the potty in a convenient, easy-to-reach place.

To make potty training as smooth as possible for both you and your kiddo, keep the potty close by to minimize accidents. Put the potty in the family room, kitchen, or play room if that will help with timing. Your toddler should be able to access the potty easily and use it without restraints.

— Ask if they need to go – ALL. THE. TIME.

Have your toddler sit on the potty the first thing they wake up. Then, ask if they need to go – OFTEN. If they are acting strange and you suspect they might be about to go, rush them to the potty ASAP.

Each time my kids peed in the potty I praised them and made it a HUGE deal. We did not use any sort of rewards (sweets, stickers, etc.) because I didn’t want to have to wean my kids off of those rewards later on and wanted to put the focus more on lots of praises for the accomplishment of staying dry and feeling comfortable rather than having them use the potty just for the rewards. That is personal preference, and you might feel differently about rewards in potty training. When they had an accident I reminded them each time that it’s important to use the potty to keep us dry, and that when we pee in our clothes it becomes uncomfortable.

— Stay committed and consistent.

Stick with “no more diapers during the day” from now on, even in situations where it would be easier to just slip a diaper on. Going back and forth on diapers gives the child mixed messages and complicates potty training.

When we finally ventured out, I embraced that accidents would happen and packed extra clothes, wipes, and plastic bags. Except for that ONE time when I brought none of those things for a quick trip to the store and my toddler ended up with a diarrhea bout right at the checkout. Motherhood is the world’s toughest hazing, they say – ain’t that the truth!

— Don’t shame.

Try to remain positive and encouraging in the process and avoid punishing or shaming your child for any accidents they might have. The worst thing you can do is make your kid feel horrible about something they really, truly had no control over. They’ll get it when they’re ready, and it will be EPIC, mama!

— Pooping in the potty

My kids did NOT like pooping in the potty at first. Several times my older kiddo went to her room and secretly put a diaper on just so she could poop. The first week both of my kids were more likely to poop their pants than go sit on the potty when they had to go. But a few times they actually did poop in the potty, too. They just didn’t seem to prefer that.

There is definitely something about the sensation of pooping in the potty because I know most kids struggle with that during potty training. (In our case this resolved within less than a month.)

Potty training tips that will make your life easier:

  • Have multiple potties dispersed around the house, and keep at least one potty at each level of your house. Try a few different designs, some kids show a strong preference for one over another.
  • Keep one potty in your car, too. I kept an extra potty in the back of my SUV for God knows how long, probably for close to two years (my kids were fully potty trained shortly after turning 2, so they were still pretty little when they were out of diapers). This saved me from having extra loads of laundry many times when they just needed to go right there and then and we were in the parking lot of a random place and probably wouldn’t have made it on time. Plus some public restrooms are just super gross. If possible I always tried to park in an inconspicuous spot with a quick and easy option to dump a peed-in potty.
  • (There was only one time the car potty was pooped in, luckily my kids had a strong preference for pooping at home. I always had extra plastic bags in my car, so I just put the whole potty in one of them that one time and dealt with it after we got home.)
  • To keep the car seat dry, line it with a disposable changing pad and keep a few extras in the car. I can attest that cleaning a peed-in car seat was a noteworthy punishment to my naivety.
  • Limit all outings to shorter periods of time for a while to take some stress off of you.

Nighttime potty training can take a bit longer

For successful nighttime potty training, your child’s bladder must be large enough to hold the urine produced throughout the night, or their brain must be mature enough to awaken the child with the urge to go. Kids who are deep sleepers will naturally have a harder time waking up from their sleep when their bladder is full.

For many kids, nighttime potty training takes a bit longer.

Here is some consideration for whether your child is ready for nighttime potty training or is not quite there yet:

  • If your child consistently wakes up with a wet diaper/pull-up in the morning, it may be best not to change anything in the nighttime routine just yet and give it a little more time. Your child may just not be developmentally ready to stay dry overnight, and that’s OK.
  • On the other hand, if your child has had several nights with a dry diaper, it may be worth a shot to try and go without. Since achieving nighttime dryness requires connecting the brain with the bladder, the natural consequence of getting their pajamas and bed wet after an accident will help strengthen that connection.

According to the stats, poor nighttime bladder control in early childhood is quite common – about 40% of 3-year-olds and 20% of 5-year-olds are unable to stay dry throughout the night. [source: 1, 2]

However, one thing to keep in mind is that if your child ALWAYS feels dry at night due to proactive use of diapers or pull-ups, they may slip into a bit of mental laziness (even if they’re completely accident-free during the day!) and may not be motivated to use the potty at night as needed. Think about it – what exactly is the motive for wanting to stay dry at night – when you are already dry?

Tips for night-time potty training:

  • Emphasize to your child they need to wake you up if they feel like going potty at night and need help, or if they wet themselves.
  • Use leak-proof pads to keep the mattress dry in the case of accidents. To simplify sheet changes during the night, make the bed/crib with several layers of sheets and waterproofing underneath. That way if your child has an accident you can just remove one layer and underneath there will be another one ready.
  • Limit fluids shortly before bedtime and during the night (but make up for it during the day to prevent constipation).
  • Consistency is important. Try to avoid going back and forth on diapers/no diapers at night. Give it some time, it may take a few weeks of bedwetting to accomplish staying dry at night on a consistent basis.
  • Have a night light illuminate the way to the potty so your child can get to it on their own at night if they feel like it (you’d be surprised how many times our kids used the potty at night by themselves without waking us).
  • It helps to wake your child up once per night (such as when you go to bed yourself) and have them try to go potty at that time.

Also, one thing I want to mention is that bedwetting runs in families. If you or your spouse have been a bed wetter yourselves, your child may be, too. Don’t hesitate to tell your child so he/she feels understood if they are potty trained during the day but are having a hard time staying dry at night.

Cloth training pants vs. disposable pull-ups

Cloth training pants which is basically your standard cotton underwear with an extra absorbent layer for accidents can also sabotage potty training efforts in the same way pull-ups can. Many times kids are just too preoccupied with playing that they may not be bothered with a slight feeling of dampness cloth training pants may leave behind if it’s not a large amount of urine, and when they finally feel uncomfortable it may be too late to connect being wet with peeing.

Related: Best Non-Toxic Pull-Up Diapers for Potty Training

Final words:

  • Accept that quitting diapers cold-turkey will get messy. (But it’s only short-term!)
  • Don’t force you child into potty training if he/she doesn’t seem ready. If you start too early, it may ultimately take longer to potty train your child.
  • If you start with potty training and it’s clearly not working out and both you and your child are becoming increasingly frustrated, perhaps it is much too early. Take a step back and try again in a few weeks.
  • Don’t punish your child for potty training accidents. It is NOT their fault they do not yet have full control over their bodily functions.
  • Celebrate each and every success – playing at the park without an accident, waking up dry from a nap, a dry bed in the morning, and especially using the potty in the middle of the night – that’s a major, MAJOR accomplishment!
  • Reduce fluids before naps and bedtime.
  • It tends to be more difficult to potty train boys vs. girls.
  • For obvious reasons, potty training in the warm summer months when you can be outside a lot is much easier.

Keep in mind that every child is different. Don’t worry if you feel like your toddler isn’t making the same amount of progress other kids are. Potty training with or without pull-ups is a highly individual experience and can be an entirely different ballgame even among siblings. Indeed, potty training our two girls was nothing alike! Our firstborn is a VERY strong-willed child (I should write a book about raising a strong-willed child, but so far I only have enough material for a sobbing prologue with “Please send help!?”) and that showed even when she was a baby – she KNEW exactly when she had to go from about 14 months onward but would. not. use. the. potty. when it was “expected” of her. She would only go on “her” terms.

From my experience, cloth diapering speeds up potty training because kids are aware of the discomfort as they wet themselves from an early age unless you are always using a stay-dry liner. So if you are using cloth diapers you may have a head start in potty training, but don’t despair if you are using disposable diapers because MANY kids learn using the potty very quickly even if they’ve grown up with disposable diapers.

The decision over whether to use or skip pull-ups altogether in potty training will depend on your personal situation (are you able to stay home several days in a row and focus exclusively on potty training or does your child attend daycare and you work FT outside of the home?), your child’s age, readiness level, your ability to manage accidents, and also their personality.

Obviously I think that routine use of pull-ups is not necessary in many cases and can prolong potty training. What do you think? Do pull-ups hinder potty training? What is your experience?

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