Let me first start this post by saying that I have absolutely no authority over potty-training rules, and I have no scientific evidence to back what I'm saying here. But I do have two potty-trained toddlers, and I have lots of friends with toddlers, some of whom have asked my advice, plus I have a 3rd child coming up in need of potty-training. So, if nothing else, I type this to refresh my own memory!
I consider a child potty-trained when they can wear panties/underwear in public. But how do we get to that point? Here are the phases as I have seen them.
Phase one--Are they ready?
During this phase, your diaper wearing baby will start to let you know when they need a new diaper. They may insist on being clean at all times, and they may even go to a private place in the house to hide while they use the bathroom in their diaper. Oh yes, my friend, they are ready to be potty-trained!
Phase two--Panties in the house
Pick a week or two when you can spend almost every waking hour at home. I know, I know it sounds impossible, but it's really not. This is to give your little darling as much panty/underwear time as possible. Stock up on all your favorite floor cleaners; you'll need them the first couple of days especially. On the first morning, if they wake up dry, have them sit on the potty to use the bathroom. It may take a while, and they may refuse to sit as long as it takes. If they do not use the bathroom in the potty, put their panties on them and retry every 10-15 minutes until they either use the bathroom in their panties or the potty. Either way they'll feel the sensation. For the next few days, focus on the potty. You know from changing their diaper regularly about how long they go between tee-tees so about 10 minutes before it would be time for a diaper change, have them sit on the potty. If they are truly potty-training ready, it won't take them long to figure out the feeling before the pottying, and they'll be getting to the potty in time with few accidents. It's important to remember that during this phase they are learning to know when to use the potty, but they may still not know how to hold it until they can get to the potty so accidents will still occur. When you do have to go out in public during this phase, strap on the diaper or a pull-up and hit the road. (Trips to town are the only time I suggest pull-ups!) If they tell you they need to use the bathroom while you're out, pull in to the first convenient store, bank, grocery store, friend's house, whatever and let them go.
Phase three--Panties in public
This phase comes on gradually. You'll be hopping along in the latter stages of phase one, where they're making it to the potty almost every time, but you're still not sure about car trips because you can't always guarantee that you'll be able to stop so they're still in their diapers or pull-ups, and then it will happen. You'll be driving to Wal-Mart; they'll tell you they need to use the bathroom. You'll say, "Oh honey, there's nowhere for Mama to stop. It's okay. Go ahead and use the bathroom in your pull-up." You'll cycle this conversation over and over again until you reach your destination, and there you'll realize that they haven't used their pull-up. You'll run in to the store, hold them over the cleanest toilet, and they'll let it flow. They've held it! Wow! They're such big kids! A few more times like this, and you'll get brave enough to pack an extra outfit and let them ride to town in panties! Eventually you'll forget the extra outfit because you never use it, and wall-lah they're potty-trained!
Keep in mind that during this phase they may still have night-time accidents and may still need overnight pull-ups or diapers.
Phase four: Panties at night
This is the long awaited phase, where you can stop buying diapers and pull-ups altogether. They're wearing panties, or underwear, at home all the time, you never even consider not letting them wear panties or underwear in public, but those night times still make you nervous. They still wake up wet every now and then, so you don't want to risk them wetting the bed. Eventually, though, you'll realize that it's been a long time since they've woken up wet. You may have even made it through an entire package of pull-ups, and you'll think, "Good grief, what a waste of money!" If you're like us, you'll buy one more package, for just in case, but you'll go ahead and let them wear panties while they sleep. You'll freak out if they ask for a drink before bed, and you'll make them use the bathroom and really empty that bladder before they go to sleep. And in the morning, they'll wake up dry! And the next morning, they'll wake up dry, and the next morning they'll wake up dry! Whew! The potty training is done!
Keep in mind that children get to these phases at different ages and will spend different amounts of time in each phase. For example, our son was potty-trained at 22 months, but now at four years old, he still sleeps in a pull-up. Our daughter was potty trained at 18 months, and now at 2 1/2, she sleeps in panties and never has an accident. My now 18 month daughter is in phase one. We're not convinced that she's ready for phase two just yet.
Don't try to push them to or through the phases. You'll only frustrate yourself. Go with the flow, poor pun intended! Happy pottying!