Over the summer, we took about 10 days to drive to San Francisco, up the coast into Oregon, and back to Colorado through Idaho and Wyoming. We were in the midst of potty training, and it was some form of hell (this was a trip of necessity, not for fun). But we did what we had to do. Here’s what we learned from our experience trying to potty train while road tripping:

First, you can do it.

Get a plastic bag, put it down on the car seat, put a towel over it, and put your kid in without underwear on. Bring lots of extra pants, like every pair that they own. DO NOT put a diaper or pull up on your kid unless it’s time to sleep. It’s a psychological thing and underwear feels similar enough that it’ll cause the same problem. There will be accidents (and some non-accidents). Don’t sweat it. Don’t get angry. Just remind them that they should tell you they need to go potty.

Also, bring extra wipes. A car seat poo is not fun or easy to clean when your kid isn’t wearing underwear. Well, not that it’s ever fun to clean.

Second, stop often.

Ask your kid if they need to go about every hour or so. If they say no, ask if they went potty in their pants. Then tell them that you’re going to check, and do it. If it’s been three hours since they last went potty, stop somewhere and make them go. Yeah, it’ll add time to your trip, but they’ll get the hint pretty quick.

It is so very important that you stop when your kid tells you they need to go, even if they just went. It establishes trust and it’ll make your kid understand that you will listen to them. Sometimes this means crossing four lanes of bumper to bumper traffic to get to the closest exit, but you need to do it. If you think this is a terrible idea because you think your kid is going to abuse it, see the section on rewards.

Third, bring a potty.

We use this one by OXO that has legs that fold in to travel flat, down to make a stand-alone potty, and out to make a kid seat on a grown up potty. You can use any plastic bag that doesn’t have holes to catch the stuff.  We just ordered a box of 1000 off Amazon for about $10 and it was totally worth it. We keep in in a bag under the seat of the car. 

Having a potty on hand isn’t that important for pee, especially if you have a boy. However, unless you’re willing to teach your kid that it’s okay to squat to poo on the side of the road, you probably need one. If you’re traveling through the middle of nowhere or your kid doesn’t hold it very well, it will be well used. That said, we almost never use it anymore now that he’s fully potty trained.

Oh, and don’t be like the woman who let their kid go in the middle of an airplane aisle. Even if it’s for no other reason than avoiding the scrutiny she’s going through. On one hand, if your kid has to go and the bathroom isn’t an option, they have to go. But on the other hand, if the road is busy, there are buildings near, or the weather isn’t great, you can always put your kid’s potty on the seat of the car so they have some privacy. Or at the very least, hold a blanket or a towel up around them.

Fourth, rewards!

Positive reinforcement is a very powerful tool for small children. It’s way more effective than negative reinforcement. I am a full supporter of bribing your child to do things. Or even just cause-and-effect bargaining (if you do this thing I want you to do, I’ll do that thing you want me to do). But when you’re in the car, the easiest thing to do is find a rewards system that works for your kid and stick to it. Here’s what worked for us:

  • Going pee in the potty when we told him it was time = a small sticker.
  • Telling us he needed to go potty and actually going = candy.
  • Going poop in the potty = candy.
  • He didn’t get anything for telling us he needed to go but didn’t actually go. We didn’t want to encourage fibbing to get a reward, even though it meant he was less likely to tell us he needed to go potty until it was an emergency.

Have Patience

It will take a lot, especially if you’re going on a very long trip. The good news is, once your kid is in a routine, they’ll stick to it. I can honestly say that our CA road trip was what really established potty training in our son. We had tried, and failed, to potty train him before. However, between being very bored through parts of the trip and having the time to really focus on establishing good habits (for all of us), we came home and he was fully potty trained within a month.

Instead of seeing your mid-potty-training travels as a hurdle or reason not to go, see them as an opportunity. For more reasons your kid shouldn’t be a barrier to long car rides, see the full post on how to road trip with a toddler.

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