Using Rewards While Potty Training

Filed under: Potty Training


Shortly after my younger daughter turned two, we went to the store and let her pick out the prettiest baby doll there. Then we set it on top of her dresser and told her that as soon as she was ready to go night-night without her pacifier, it was all hers. That doll sat there, ignored, for another year. It's not that my daughter wouldn't try, but she just wasn't ready to let go of her pacifier, her most beloved lovey.

We learned an important lesson then about rewards. Treats, prizes, and stickers can be an incentive for kids to work a little harder, but only if they're developmentally and emotionally ready to try something in the first place. That's a good way to think about treats when it comes to potty training. If your tot is showing signs of readiness and is interested in potty training, then rewards might just be the thing that gets the job done. But a child who's too young or resisting might just need more time, not more prodding.

If you've decided to reward potty training, here are some things to think about:
  • Make rewards immediate. Toddlers are rarely interested in rewards they have to wait days or even hours for.
  • Wait for success. Toddlers can't keep promises, so if you reward them on the condition they'll stay dry all day, you'll both probably be disappointed.
  • Make rewards interesting, something they don't see, eat, or use every day.
  • Take baby steps. Conservative toddlers might need a treat just to sit on the potty. After a day or two, require something more.
Stickers, small toys, trips to the playground...these all qualify as pretty neutral rewards, but once we start talking about using M&Ms or other sweet treats to motivate kids, it's a whole different conversation. Some parents and health experts worry that when we reward good behavior with food, we're setting kids up for food problems down the road. The idea is that small children will associate sweets with feeling good, and that they'll turn to them later whenever they need a pick-me-up.

The mothers at Momversation addressed the issue of food as reward last November, most of them agreeing that food as a reward isn't a great idea, but also that parents have to do what gets them through the day. But as the commenters on that conversation and Jenn C. of New Jersey Moms Blog discovered, using food as a potty training reward has two drawbacks: 1) Kids who "get it" suddenly start using the potty every 15 minutes, looking for their treat, and 2) Moms start eating way more sweets than the normally would -- just because it's there.

At the end of the day, only you can know what reward is right for your child. So in addition to sweet treats or favorite cookies and crackers, here are some non-food reward ideas:
  • Stickers: Beloved characters, especially, might win toddlers over.
  • Treasure box: Fill it with inexpensive toys.
  • Sticker charts can be used to work up to a bigger prize, but make sure to reinforce them with a small, immediate reward too.
  • A special video or computer time
  • Play money that they can spend at the store
Did you or do you plan to use treats while potty training? Do you think they helped your kids ultimately become successful?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.