Toilet training

There is a lot of age variation in toddler readiness for toilet training, as every child is different and will learn at his/her own pace. Toilet training methods and techniques also vary between households and there is no perfect method, other than the one that best suits you and your child. Kiddies often love moving on from nappies and for some little ones, it heralds joining the ranks of the ‘big kids’. So, have some fun with your little one during this time of change and development.

 

There is no set age for when toilet training should start; the best time to begin training is when your child is showing readiness signs. Many children start to show signs of readiness between 18 to 24 months of age, but some may not be ready until 30 months or even later and this is not cause for concern.

Starting before 18 months of age is not advised generally, as children before this time have limited control over their bladder or bowel and so cannot recognise the urge to go to the toilet. Premature toilet training may even lead to more accidents and this could make the training a negative experience.

Readiness for toilet training means physical, mental and emotional readiness. When your toddler is showing some of the signs listed below, take heed as it’s probably time to start thinking about training.  A child who is ready for toilet training is more likely to get through the process smoothly and faster compared with a child who is not ready.

Some physical signs of readiness include that your child

  • Can move around independently and can get themselves to the toilet or potty
  • Can pull up and down their pants with minimal assistance
  • Has regular, formed and predictable bowel motions
  • Has a nappy that is drier for longer periods (e.g. two-three hours) or is dry after naps. This shows they are able to store urine in their bladder
  • Can recognise the feeling that they need to go to the toilet (e.g. by using facial expressions, holding onto themselves or making noises).

Some mental signs of readiness include that your child

  • Can follow simple instructions and understands what you are saying
  • Can communicate and ‘predict’ when they need to go
  • Can sit in one position for a few minutes

Some emotional signs of readiness include that your child

  • Shows interest in watching others go to the toilet
  • Complains if their nappy is dirty or expresses a dislike of wearing them
  • Is becoming more independent when completing tasks
  • Begins to imitate your behaviour or the behaviour of others
  • Shows a desire to please you and others

If you have any concerns that your child is not developing ‘age-appropriate‘ self-toileting skills during his/her toilet training time, be sure to discuss this with your child’s maternal and child health nurse or GP.

The time it takes to toilet train a child varies. Some children may get the hang of it quickly, but others may need your patience and support. The average time taken for achievement of daytime toilet training falls between three to six months but for a child who is really ready, training may only take a few days.

Most children achieve control of their bowels and bladder by three to four years of age. However, even after your child achieves daytime dryness, it may take months or years before they can achieve the same success during the night. Most children are able to stay dry at night after five years.

Added to this, your child might have not have mastered the art of wiping their bottom and getting themselves properly cleaned until after the age of five years.

  • Take the time to make sure your child understands what is happening before you start
  • It is often easier if your little one has an established daily routine, so that using the toilet or potty can be slotted into your normal routine
  • Introduce, explain and familiarise your little one with the toilet or potty and encourage your child to sit on the toilet or potty before you begin to teach them
  • Allow your child to watch you or others using the toilet; this could be a good time to start explaining a few things
  • Choose the words you will use to describe body parts, urine, and bowel motions. As others will hear these words, you might wish to choose words that will not be offensive. You might also consider avoiding negative words like “dirty”, “naughty” or “stinky” as they can make your child feel ashamed and embarrassed
  • Decide if you’re going to use a reward system while training, which can provide positive encouragement to keep your child motivated. For example, place a star or a tick on a chart each time your child has a successful outcome, with successes adding up to a reward like a special outing, stickers or some new underwear

When it comes to using either a toilet or a potty, the choice is up to you (and perhaps your toddler) and some parents decide to use both. Involving your child in as many decisions as possible will help them participate.

Using a toilet during the training can be useful because it means that your child will not have to do anymore transitioning (as they learn right from the beginning) and there’s minimal cleaning required.

If your toddler is going to use the toilet, you’ll need a smaller seat (training seat) that can be attached to the existing toilet seat and sits firmly, so your little one will feel secure and not be afraid of falling into the toilet. As it may initially be hard for your child to reach the toilet seat, you will also need a sturdy platform at the toilet base (e.g. footstool) so they can climb up and down easily. Training seats attached to little ‘ladders’ could also be purchased at baby supply stores and can be useful as both the steps and seat are attached.

Some children find potties less daunting than a toilet. They are also transportable and convenient as you can put them somewhere they can be seen clearly and accessed easily. However, a child who uses a potty exclusively may become afraid to use a toilet, which can make going out difficult. So you may need to take it out with you if your child is not used to using a toilet. This is why some parents encourage their child to use a combination of both.

If you decide to buy a potty make sure it is sturdy, easy to clean and above all comfortable for your little one. It’s also

a good idea to put a towel underneath the potty to minimise the mess. It will help if the potty is in a place chosen by your child and is then kept in a consistent spot so your little one can find it easily.

 

  • ClothingDress your toddler in clothing that is easy to put on and take off (e.g. trousers with elastic waistbands) as well as easy to wash. Try to avoid belts, long dresses, full body suits, overalls or tight clothing during this time
  • Training pantsAfter your child has had a few weeks getting used to the toilet or potty, ‘pull-ups’ or ‘training pants’ can be introduced. These are a bit like nappies but are less absorbent; they have to be pulled up and down like underwear and remain useful for holding accidental mess. In general, cloth training pants are less absorbent than disposable ‘pull ups’ but they will feel less like a nappy. Disposables might be handier when going out; the choice is yours
  • Cleaning gearIt may also be useful to have a cleaning kit on hand to help clean up accidents quickly and with minimum fuss. This kit could include a bucket, sponge, spray bottle containing water and a chemical free detergent and paper towel
  • Out and aboutOh and there’s no reason to be home bound when your little one is toilet training. When you do venture out, even if it’s for a short time, you might want to pack a few things just in case you need to do a quick change, including some wipes/tissues, ‘pull ups’, a change of clothes including some undies/pants, a towel for the car, absorbent change mats and a plastic bag for any soiled items
  • Choose a start day when your child has already shown some readiness signs, perhaps a day that coincides with you both being at home and when you have the time and patience to give your full attention to your little one’s needs
  • Watch for signs that show your child needs to go to the toilet and guide them to the toilet or potty. Eventually they will be able to know and get there themselves
  • Gradually stop using nappies. For instance, for a few hours per day, and then increase the time as your child’s confidence increases
  • At regular intervals throughout the day (e.g. first thing in the morning, after meals, before naps and bed), ask your child if they need to go to the toilet. Gentle reminders are enough. If they refuse, don’t force them
  • Keep your child seated on the toilet/potty for a few minutes at a time as it will take time for them to learn how to relax the muscles that control the bowel and bladder. If your toddler won’t sit still or relax while on the toilet or potty, try reading a short story or singing a song to help them settle (i.e. distract them a little). If your child has sat still for a minute or so and they want to get up, don’t force them to stay there. Let them get off and try for a bit longer the next time
  • If you have a son, it is better for him to begin urinating while sitting down as he may be reluctant to sit when it is time for number ‘twos’. He can switch to standing later on, when you can then show him how to angle his penis toward the bottom of the bowl. To help him control his aim, it may be helpful to float a flushable object (e.g. piece of toilet paper, cereal) in the toilet for him to aim. Your son may best learn the correct way by watching a male role model he is comfortable with. Teach him to place the seat back down after each use
  • You’ll need to wipe your child’s bottom at first. When your child is comfortable using the toilet or potty, the next step is to encourage them to wipe themselves
  • Help your child flush the toilet and wash their hands. If your toddler is afraid of being flushed down by the toilet, reassure them that they cannot fit down such a small hole. For these children, let them learn to flush with you and then eventually by themselves or a potty may be better in this case

Take your child to the toilet or potty until they can use it themselves, or at least be on hand and check them regularly, rather than letting them go alone. Some boys may not yet have balance and may fall forward when standing to go to the toilet. If this is an issue with your son, place some padding (e.g. cot mattress) in front of the toilet so if he does fall, he will not be hurt.

Keep household cleaners, deodorants, toiletries and medications out of reach.

Most toddlers do not have the skills to wipe their bottom properly, so you will need to do this with them until they can get it right. Be sure you teach your child how to wipe correctly including how much toilet paper is enough (approximately four-five pieces). Girls should wipe thoroughly from front to back to prevent bringing germs from the rectum to the vagina. Boys should shake their penis after urinating to get rid of any drops.

Teach your child from the very beginning how to wash their hands thoroughly with warm water and soap, even if they haven’t done anything. It’s an important habit because any contact with the toilet or potty can spread germs.

Your little one may have mastered toileting and then appear to go backwards. Don’t get discouraged – this is perfectly normal.  Setbacks and accidents might be trigged by life events or changes in routine, such as a new baby brother or sister, moving houses or an illness.  Setbacks can also occur if toilet training starts too soon or your child feels overwhelmed by pressure from you.

If your little one gets upset because of an accident, reassure them that it doesn’t matter and there is no need to worry. Asking them gentle questions about what has happened is enough acknowledgement to restore their feeling of security.

If your child is resisting toileting or isn’t getting the hang of within a few weeks, take a break and try again in a few months.

Tips to help avoid accidents

  • Go at the pace of your child
  • Pay attention to your child when they tell you they need to go to the toilet. Little ones cannot hold on for very long
  • Remind your little one frequently that they might need to go toilet. It is common for children to get caught up in what they are doing and not realise they need to go. If they don’t want to go, then that is fine
  • Be sure a toilet or potty can be accessed easily

 

When your child has mastered toilet training during the day, work towards being dry at night. There is a difference between staying dry during the day and night time dryness. During the day, your child will have control of their bladder, but at night the bladder is out of their conscious control. Children will become dry at night when their body develops and matures and becomes better at storing urine overnight or they learn to wake up on their own and go to the toilet. For this reason, night time dryness is difficult to achieve through the same process as daytime training.

When will night dryness be achieved?

Night time dryness can vary from child to child. Some children can become dry at night within a few weeks or months of being trained during the day but it can take longer for others. It’s not usual for children to be between three and five years old before they achieve night time dryness. Some may continue to have accidents between six and nine. A good indicator of achieving night time dryness is an increase in the number of mornings your little one wakes up dry.

What are the signs of readiness for night time training?

  • Your child is generally dry in the morning or becomes wet just before they wake up (here, their nappy will be soaked and their urine will be warm)
  • You child attempts to go to the toilet during the night or calls out for your help
  • Your child can manage to get out of bed and can remove their pyjamas

If your child wakes up continually with a wet nappy in the morning, then they’re not ready to stop wearing nappies during the night. Your child will just wet the bed if you remove the nappies when they’re not ready.

How do we begin night time training?

  • Chat with your child about night time toileting and ask them if they would like to try sleeping without a nappy.  If they agree, explain what is going to happen and choose a night to begin
  • Work out a plan for going to the toilet at night – talk about whether they will they go by themselves, use a potty in their bedroom or call out for help
  • Place a waterproof mattress protector on their mattress
  • Allow your child to practise pulling their pyjama pants up and down
  • Make finding the toilet at night easy and safe for your child. Perhaps a light in the hallway for vision (e.g. nightlight). In addition, leave your child’s bedroom door open for easy access
  • Make going to the toilet a part of your little one’s bedtime routine. Encourage your toddler to go to the toilet before they go to bed and as soon as they get up in the morning
  • Casually remind your child to get up in the night if they need to go to the toilet and reassure them that you will always be there to help them. If your child wakes up for any reason during the night, ask them if they want to go to the toilet before tucking them back into bed
  • Have clean sheets and another pair of pyjamas ready if needed so you do not need to race around in the middle of the night
  • Incentives are unlikely to help your child to become dry at night, because unlike daytime control, children have very little bladder control while sleeping. Kiddies might even feel like they have somehow failed if they do not achieve the desired reward/goal
  • If your child is scared of the dark, your child may want to go with you, so prepare to be woken up for a while. If your child still feels that going to the toilet at night is too daunting, a potty in their bedroom may also help

Things to avoid with night time toilet training

  • Restricting fluids either in the day or the evening
  • Embarrassing or punishing your child in anyway (e.g. make them wash the soiled bed linen)
  • Waking your child during the night to go to the toilet. This will not teach your child to recognise when they have a full bladder and allow them to wake themselves

 Problems staying dry at night

Sometimes children continue to wet the bed for other reasons. If problems with bedwetting continue, you and your child may need some help. Discuss these issues with your maternal and child health nurse, GP or paediatrician

  • ConsistencyDuring toilet training, convey the same messages to your child all the time. This will set clear boundaries for your child to follow and will help make the process easier for them
  • Encouragement Continue to build confidence and always praise your child’s achievements (e.g. hugs or applauds). This will tell them they are doing a good job but try not to go overboard. Your child needs your guidance and it’s important they feel supported. When mistakes happen, treat it lightly and still commend them for trying. Punishment is likely to increase any stress or fear around the issue, which in turn can make things worse
  • PatienceJust like learning anything new, toilet training may take some time. Remember that setbacks and accidents will happen
  • PerseveranceIf your child is becoming resistant, it may be time to take a short break. This will give your child time to recover and settle down. As long as try again at another stage, then this is not surrendering
  • Positivity Children will pick up on your verbal and non-verbal cues, so try to convey positive messages. If your little feels tension or stress from you, this may make them unhappy or anxious about going to the toilet and make it harder for them progress

Childcare centres

Most childcare centres or care providers will follow the routine you prefer for toilet training.Some childcare centres may require your child to be toilet trained for enrolment due to the staff and facilities available. Don’t see this as a threat but perhaps think of it as an incentive for your little one to cooperate in the toilet training process.

 

Fluid reduction

When your little one is being toilet trained, there is no reason to restrict the amount of fluid he/she drinks throughout the day or in the evening. Good fluid intake (e.g. water and milk) will keep your little one hydrated and prevent constipation.

Health problems

By the time your toddler starts toilet training, you will be well aware of his/her bowel motions and urine output (i.e. their stool appearance and frequency). However, keep an eye out for possible problems, including:

  • Pain when going to the toilet
  • Dry and solid stools that are hard to pass
  • Frequent, watery bowel motions (i.e. diarrhoea)
  • Blood or mucous in the bowel motions
  • Scanty and yellow urine
  • Blood in urine

If you feel there might be a problem, it is best to discuss these concerns with your child’s maternal and child health nurse, GP or paediatrician.

For more advice and information:

Back to Helpful references
Back to top