Toilet training

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Can you hold on for a minute? Becoming toilet-trained is one of those big ticks of physical and mental development we expect for our toddlers, along with crawling, walking and talking. It’s a common conversation topic, often to the complete horror of any childless people finding themselves surrounded by parents.

There can be a certain amount of one-upmanship in whose child is the first to be in knickers or who’s dry through the night. However, early toilet training is not a sign of intelligence or a precursor to future success. It feels like a big deal at the time, but it can be good to remind yourself that, with the exception of people with disability or illness, children and adults don’t wear nappies. It is going to happen eventually.

Left to their own devices, the average age for children who are independently toilet-trained is between two and three, though in New Zealand we often expect them to start at two. Some children will not be physically or emotionally ready until four, so if your child doesn’t look like they are ready, relax and wait. A recent study found no matter what the method, the best time is between 24 and 32 months of age for long-term success.

How can you tell your child is ready?

Being ready for toilet training is a combination of being both physically and mentally ready. If there is a lot of change or anxiety in your home environment, this will affect your child’s ability to retain control of his bladder and bowels. The last thing a stressed-out child needs is more pressure to learn a new, and quite tricky skill. So focus on having a relaxed and happy feel in your home first. If your child has discovered the wonders of the word ‘no’, then it is also a good idea to put off training until they are a little more agreeable.

If that is all good, keep an eye out for these signs of readiness –

  • Has a dry nappy for anywhere from two to four hours at a time, as this shows he is able to store urine until his bladder is full. If there is a particular pattern to his wet and soiled nappies through the day, this can also indicate control.
  • Starts to tell you they are about to, or have just done a wee or poo
  • Doesn’t like having a dirty nappy
  • Wants to watch other family members go to the toilet or talks about using it themselves
  • Is able to pull down their pants and then pull them up again, able to climb, walk and sit

Pick your moment!

It might be tempting to get the potty out before the birth of a new baby so there is one less lot of nappies to change but in most cases, this is not a successful time. Changes in your childcare, or within the household – you going back to work, or if your child is unwell, all prevent training from going smoothly. If your child is halfway through training or newly-trained and a big change occurs, expect there to be some regression. Take it lightly and wait for things to settle down before you restart.

Bribes and rewards

Let’s be honest – nappies are pretty easy for kids. They get to have you cleaning them up, they can keep playing as long as they want and it’s all about you and the work that you are doing. Toilet training on the other hand involves them doing quite a bit of work, and it’s not that clean for them. It’s not a glamorous part of their development!

Rewards can work to encourage them to use a toilet – especially if everything was going well and then things slow down. Start with the aim of getting through a whole day without accidents, then move to several days, then a week. A sticker chart with a larger reward at the end helps both you and your child keep it a priority. Get them to select the reward. This increases the chances of them being more motivated to work towards it.

If you set up a sticker chart and after a few days it’s got more spaces than stickers, then your child is probably not quite ready for this stage. All reward systems are meant to be encouraging, so if it’s raising your stress levels to use one, dump it and do without.

Not all over the floor!

Accidents are to be expected, especially if you have a child that gets involved in their play. Set up regular times your child is expected to go to the toilet such as before leaving the house, before mealtimes and rest times.

If there is an accident, stay calm and get your child cleaned up, then ask them to help clean up the mess they’ve made. This helps them become more aware of the cause and effect of accidents, and if they are having them just because they were having too much fun to go, they are more likely to pop off to the toilet instead. Get to know the signs your child displays when they need to go. Common ones are holding onto genitals, or rocking, or jiggling their bottom as they sit.

Children can often have a large gap between day and night dryness. Focus on getting your child dry during the day before tackling the night time.

Do you really need a potty?

The benefit of waiting until they are actually ready often means it’s a simpler transition and you can go straight from nappies to knickers in a matter of days, bypassing the potty and going straight to toilet use. It may be a better idea to invest in a step-stool your child can use to climb up onto a toilet. Some children become attached to using a potty, and reluctant to move to a toilet, meaning you are effectively training them twice.

The adage ‘start as you mean to go on’ works well with toilet training. Set up the routines, the patterns and behaviours you expect right from the start, keeping it as straightforward as possible. This includes using toilet paper, real toilets, and including the hand-washing at the end.

Former Family Coach, Andrea Stringer shares some tips


About Author

Rachel Klaver

Rachel Klaver loves writing about how people learn and interact the way they do. Along with her business offering marketing services to small to medium businesses, Rachel works with parents and teachers of children under five, around the areas of creativity, behaviour and leadership. She's a mother of three children, two dogs and a cat, all of whom she raises with her unflappable and incredibly patient partner.

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