Q&A: potty-training problems with a 3-year-old

Teresa writes:

"Our 3-yr-old daughter is still not potty trained. I know that it's 99% due to me. I'm a SAHM with a 17-mo-old daughter as well. We have one bathroom - upstairs, a dog I don't feel comfortable leaving alone with either child of course, and did I mention our one bathroom is the size of a phone booth?

We were doing SO well with the potty charts, stickers and small rewards for each accomplishment. I think the only thing we've not done is just wear the cotton panties all day - and go with it every hour and a half or so.

I know what we need to do, but my concern and question is - since we are halfway there, and the excitement of the stickers and such has worn off now, are we doomed? Is she STILL 'trainable' or are we looking at a reallly hard struggle for the finalization of this?

Am I alone in the absolute dread of the messes, accidents, extra laundry, clean-ups all while rangling a crawler soon to be walker and crazy pets, stairs and a room with a capacity of 1???

I know I'm a slacker here. I know I am awful and she should have been trained a LONG time ago....we had some health issues with our youngest a while back and that also took focus.  She is so aware and sometimes will tell me when she needs to go but with no real consistancy.

She thinks that if she goes once, that's it...and then it's time for the BIG reward she wants which is to paint her toenails pink.

I feel SO inept with this issue - like I have fumbled it so much already that she will be in first grade with a diaper on.

Her consistancy is off and so is ours....so is there any tip or idea that will help us? Or are we a lost cause?

I know I will be thrown out of the Mother's Club of Amercia for this. I feel like I've missed my window and have ruined everything.

All of her friends are now trained. I feel like I've just held her back now. ANY help and support on this will be so appreciated."

Take a deep breath. You are not a shitty mother, you have not ruined her life, and in 2 years you will not even remember how awful this period felt. Once she's potty-trained it'll be a done deal and you can move on to other things.

I'm going to suggest something totally radical (as opposed to, like, totally awesome) and ask if you've considered training your 17-month-old at the same time. Obviously the 17-month-old isn't going to pick it up right away, but if the concern is trying to keep the younger kid from messing with toilets and horning in on the 3-year-old's potty action, you can mitigate the problem somewhat by having the 17-month-old use the potty occasionally, too. And who knows? The younger child could be one of those kids who trains by 2 just to be like her older sister. A mother can always dream.

While you think about that, I'll suggest getting one (or two or three, depending on how big your house is) potties and putting them in places that are easy to get to for your daughter. Definitely put one or two on the first floor. The goal at this point is to get her to pee and poop in a designated, toiletesque spot every time. Once she's got the hang of that, she can start going in the bathroom only. By that point all you'll have to do is the wiping, so it won't take as long and the dog and younger child won't present as much of an issue.

For younger potty learners I usually suggest a one-piece potty with no lid since it's easier for them to get to and sit on. But since your daughter is older and you're trying to manage a dog and a toddler, I'd definitely suggest the seat potties with lids that you can close. Your daughter may enjoy helping you by emptying the potty into the toilet.

Beyond that, I'd just declare it a diaper-free zone. She's going to be either pantsfree or in underpants all the time (minus nights, unless you're doing nighttime training at the same time). In the general lore of potty training, it's easier for the child to learn with no pants on, so you might want to take off her pants when she wakes up and leave them off all day long while you're at home until she goes reliably in the potty. Then move on to underpants at home, too.

You are going to have some messes to clean up, unless you really take advantage of the summer weather by staying outside most of the time and letting your daughters go pantless outside. They can pee in the grass if they can't make it to the potty (another advantage of a potty: you can bring it outside with you for training al fresco). You could also just keep your daughter in a non-carpeted area of your house while she's pantless and potty training. Wiping up spills on wood or tile or linoleum is a non-issue compared to dealing with pee-soaked carpets. Once she's ready to wear underpants you could also add another layer of protection for your floors by getting the cotton training pants with the extra layers at the crotch. The underpants will get wet, but they'll soak up the pee that would go on the floor or her outer clothes.

It seems to me that, especially with an "older" child, you're already mostly there if your kid wants to be potty-trained. So if your daughter wants to be A Big Girl In Underpants, the process is halfway complete, and all that's left are the logistics. If you feel like she's losing steam, see if you can arrange some playdates with potty-trained friends to harness the awesome power of peer pressure. Or renew her interest in the painted toenails with a big challenge by making sure she understands exactly what the terms of the reward are.

Other ideas I have no experience with whatsoever but which could easily work as well as or better than anything I've suggested:

1. There's a book about potty-training in one day using a doll, a ton of fluids, and a bunch of rewards. It's 30 years old and is controversial (all the Amazon reviews seem to be either 5 stars--"We should have used this method starting at birth!!"-- or 1 star--"This will give your child a nervous tic and years of emotional problems!!"), but if you have the kind of child who likes definite rules and rituals, it seems like it might be just the thing to catch their fancy. I wouldn't try it with a kid who really didn't want to use the potty, though, or a kid who chafed at a lot of structure or was having any stress or changes going on in his or her life. Read the reviews and use at your own risk, but I have two friends who used the method with their very rules-oriented kids and felt it was both effective and respectful.

2. See if you can get your mother or MIL to potty-train your daughter. I am not joking. There are so many kids who will do anything their grandparents ask them to, and you and your partner both learned how to use the toilet from these women, so it could be a recipe for success that would take the pressure off you (leaving you with "only" the 17-month-old and the dog) until your daughter has the hang of it. If you have a nearby well-loved relative with a proven track record of successful potty-training, see if you can at least enlist that person's help for moral support, if they won't agree to run Grandma's Potty Camp for a few days.

But whatever you do, stop beating yourself up about this. We can only do what we can do at any given time. When the first window of opportunity was there you had other, more important things going on. That's the only difference between you and someone who hopped on that first window of interest because there wasn't anything else demanding their attention. There are no extra points on the SAT for potty-training early.

Anyone else want to chime in with advice for a 3-year-old potty learner, or even just "confess" that your child isn't out of diapers yet? Or tell me why working on training a 3-year-old and a 17-month-old at the same time won't work?