5 Tips for Potty Training a Special Needs Child

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I have a confession to make… I was absolutely terrified to start potty training my first child.

Even though I started babysitting when I was thirteen, helped in Sunday School and in the nursery at my church, and was a nanny for over ten years, I still struggled with how to even start potty training my son with special needs.

Now, I have two special needs kids and both are almost fully potty-trained, but it required A LOT of outside help from doctors and therapists. I wanted to give special needs families some tips on how to make the transition to potty training so I asked Kristin from Little Mama Jama to write a guest post about it. Here are her tips!

5 Tips for Potty Training a Special Needs Child

How to Start Potty Training Your Special Needs Child

Potty training easily makes the list of least favorite parenting milestones! Before we potty trained our first child, I experienced months of anxiety. Is he ready? Will he have meltdowns about using the potty? Should I purchase a steam cleaner for the carpet?

Potty training required a lot of patience on our part, but it was worth it! We found these five things helped us navigate the process of potty training our special needs children:

1. Let Your Child Take the Lead.
We tried to potty train our son when he was two years old. He figured out how to control it and turned it into a game. The bottom line: he wasn’t ready.

We tabled the idea until he was excited about the process. Your child will often tell you – verbally or non-verbally – when he is ready. Involve your child by allowing them to pick out underwear or select a potty seat.

2. Patience.
As with every aspect of special needs parenting, we need to approach potty training with patience. There will be messes to clean up. There will be setbacks and frustrations.

Consistency, which is always critical for our children, is also the key to potty training. If we remain patient and consistent, the rewards are big. Our kids will learn at their own pace.

3. Ease the Transitions.
Transitions can be extremely challenging for our children. Providing verbal and visual cues will help your child with what is to come. Use timers, picture schedules, social stories and/or verbal warnings to prepare them for using the bathroom. Sing his favorite song or read her favorite book while they sit on the potty to help them cope with the change.

4. Use Rewards.
Every time our children kept their underwear dry, we praised them and allowed them to place their sticker of choice on a potty chart. Stickers may not interest your child, but use something that motivates them.

Our children were rewarded after bowel movements on the toilet with one wrapped gift (approximately $1 in value) to celebrate their achievement. Positive reinforcement is important!

5. Incorporate Something They Enjoy.
We sang our son’s favorite song each time he washed his hands. It was difficult for him to lather the soap by rubbing his hands together, but we worked on the mechanics of hand washing while making it an enjoyable activity. Incorporate your child’s interests into the potty training process to make it a positive, fun activity.

Potty training a special needs child can be a daunting process. With consistency, patience and a reinforcing, positive approach, we can make it a better experience for the whole family.

Were you nervous about starting potty training for the first time? What tips and tricks did you use in potty training your special needs child? 

Kristin Novotny

Kristin Novotny is the lifestyle blogger behind Little Mama Jama, which focuses on special needs parenting, DIY, and recipes. She lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with her husband and her two children with autism. When she’s not reaching for her next cup of coffee, you’ll find her planning her next DIY project.

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  1. Potty training has been my worst parenting experience. Not to scare you…lol Some people have really easy potty trainers. Actually hearing that your son is noticing at 19 months makes me think it will be easier for you than it was for me. My two older boys didn’t really do that until later. It was so frustrating for me because while I do still believe kids do it when they are ready, it can be frustrating if that isn’t when other kids are figuring out the potty.

    My plan for baby #3 is to introduce the potty around 18-19 months. I plan to get him one of the little ones, put it in the bathroom and just take him to it to see how he reacts. Then I plan to go from there. It might take a while for him too but I am hoping by talking about the potty early, it might help. I am not going to stress myself out about it though.

    Oh and if it helps I did get Daniel potty trained while my husband was deployed. He started off sitting down to pee. I think that is okay to do if you have a hard time showing him how to do it standing up. Then when Daddy comes home he can show him that way to do it.

    1. AHHH you did scare me! LOL Seriously though, I keep hearing that from more and more moms… Thanks so much for the tips. I need to get one of those little potties from him to “practice” with. Glad it worked out for you during the deployment, I figure we only have a few months left so I might as well wait until daddy gets home!

  2. Even though my husband was home I had to teach my son for potty training too. I was home all day and he was at work so I just went for it. And we started him by sitting down, not standing. He was too short to reach some potties by standing and it kept the mess to a minimum. He just switched to standing at a little over 3 yrs old and it worked fine. And my biggest piece of advice, DON’T RUSH IT! I found that with my first two I kept trying to start them before they were ready. They get interested well before they can really grasp all of the concepts. 19 months was too early for all of my kids. 2 years was even pushing it a little But hey that’s just my opinion.you know your kids and your family needs better than anyone else. Trust those mommy instincts. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for the tips and tricks Kristi! I think you are right. I might introduce it, but I’m not going to push it. Maybe that will give me more time to figure out how I’m going to do this. haha!

  3. I am right there with you. I am super nervous about potty training. Thankfully, Emberlynn is only 14.5mos so we’re not there yet. We probably won’t even try before her second birthday.
    If I were in your shoes I would wait. I’ve heard that starting during a big change in life (and I would count a deployment as a big change) is not normally recommended. We won’t even be trying til Emberylynn’s second birthday but hubby may be deploying this fall so we may wait even longer. I’m in absolutely no rush. I’d rather wait til Emberlynn is showing all signs of being ready.

    1. Yup, those are all good points. I am thinking you are right! 🙂 Adam will be two in June, Jon will have been home for a little while after that, so maybe sometime after that will work for us.

  4. I’m wanting to ease Millie into it soon, because she is also showing signs, but I’m nervous too! Obviously, everyone figures it out, but it’s more intimidating than I thought it would be!

  5. You know, I just realized I’ve been a blog-stalker lately; not leaving little comments and things, simply reading your posts then moving on with my day. However, this particular post I thought I’d share that I’ve been wanting to blog about Isaac’s potty training journey (which I’m sure could be of some help to you). So, I’ll see about getting that written up and posted soon and I’ll let you know when it’s up so you can read my thoughts and experiences in this particular journey.

    1. haha oh really? I would love to see your post and read about how you guys are doing it! I miss chatting with you, it’s been awhile! 🙂

  6. Whenever they seem ready, it’s usually time to let them try… or at least take a step towards what they are reaching for. The sitting/standing thing shouldn’t be a big issue- many boys start off sitting until they are more mature. You can do it- just trust yourself and your little guy.

  7. For my oldest I started at 15 months it didn’t go as well as planned I tried everything even paying the little guy every time he went. That lasted a week then I finally said out with diapers/pull ups (except nap/bed time or not home) yes its messy but eventually he got the idea. When he got it down at home we moved to short trips out the house then nap/bed by three he was fully trained. My youngest is 2 and a half we started on a Friday by Monday he was in underwear all day at home. He has had success going out in underwear but more hiccups than success so I’m going to hold off on long trips. They got really excited to pick out their own underwear.

    1. Wow Emmy, good to know! Thanks for sharing. My son is two and half now and I am planning on starting soon. With his special needs and such he just wasn’t ready before this. Sounds like you got it down as well!

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