Learning to use the toilet is a big step for toddlers and it can be difficult for some. Some children just seem to train themselves when they are ready, but many need some help from their parents.
Parents see potty training as an important milestone for their children and often become very concerned if it doesn’t all go smoothly.
When will my child be ready?
Most children are not ready to learn to control their poo and wee (bowels and bladder) until they are two years old and some not until they are three.
Some boys are later than girls. Control over poo may happen before or after control over the wee.
To be ready to use the toilet or potty, a child needs to be able to:
~know when he has to do wee or poo before he does it,
~hold on for a short time so that he can get to the potty or the toilet.
~The first sign that this will be happening soon maybe that he tells you when he is doing wee or poo or when he has just done it.
When he gets praise for telling you, he will soon be ready to move on to the next step of telling you before he does it.
Other signs of readiness are:
- Taking an interest in others using the toilet
- Pulling at wet and dirty nappies
- Telling you that his nappy is wet
- Telling you that he doesn’t want to wear nappies anymore.
Be prepared to wait until your child is ready. Most toilet training problems can be avoided if you don’t start too early.
Don’t try and set a date by which you want your child to be toilet trained, eg. before the new baby arrives. It works best if there is no pressure and your toilet trains your child at the pace he can manage.
Getting ready to potty train
Teach your child the words needed for potty training, such as wet, dry, wee, poo, it’s coming. Choose words that you are comfortable with.
Choose either a potty or a special toilet seat.
A potty can be moved around the house but you may need to take it out with you if your child is not used to using a toilet.
If you choose to use a special toilet seat, a step or footstool is necessary (a couple of bricks are cheap and easy to step up on), so that your child can get up to the toilet by herself, and can feel safe and relaxed there.
She needs to be able to relax to be able to let the wee or poo out.
If your child will be using the potty, make sure that she can get to it by herself all the time (door open, light on at night), and that it is set up for her all the time that it is not being used by someone else.
There will not be time to set it up when she has to go NOW.
Make sure that the potty area is safe. Keep household cleaners, deodorants, and toiletries out of reach.
If you feel comfortable about it, let your child go with you to the toilet and talk about what you are doing.
Make sure your child is wearing clothing that is easy to get on and off, and easy to wash, such as trainer pants.
In the warm weather potty training is often easier because there are fewer clothes to remove quickly when “wee is coming”. You might like to let your child go without pants or nappies for some of the time.
If you are alert to your child’s signals, you can be ready to guide her to the potty or toilet in time.
Starting Potty training
If you think your child might be ready to start training, choose a time when you can give him your full attention. It is better to wait for a few days or even a couple of weeks until you have time, rather than try to rush it.
It is best not to start toilet training at a time when your child is adjusting to other changes, eg. when there is a new baby in the family or he is starting childcare.
Some toddlers can be introduced to potty training by getting comfortable with the potty first, eg. leaving the potty where he can see and touch it, or letting teddy sit on the potty ‘to do a wee’.
You might start by noticing when your child is doing a poo in his nappy and tell him, “I think you’re doing a poo”.
Watch for signs that he is about to do a wee or poo (such as expressions on his face or stopping very still for a moment) and guide him to the potty or toilet.
You might say something like “Let’s see if there’s a wee coming”. Eventually, he will be able to know and get there himself.
If your child tells you before he does a wee or poo, thank him for telling you and take him to the toilet or potty straight away.
Toddlers cannot ‘hold on’ for more than a few seconds.
If he doesn’t get there in time at first, give him praise for whatever he has managed, eg. pulling down his pants, trying to get to the toilet, or sitting on the toilet.
Make sure he sees that the praise is for learning a new skill, not something he has to do to please you. For example, you might say, “You did that well” rather than “You are a good boy for Daddy”.
Children should not be made to sit on a potty or toilet for long periods. This feels like a punishment to the child and does not help toilet training.
Some toddlers are afraid of being flushed down the toilet. For these children, a potty may be better.
If you use the toilet, you may need to flush it when they are out of the room.
Later they may be happy to try flushing the toilet after you have used it, and then be ready to have a go after they have used it.
Teach girls to wipe themselves from the front towards the back to keep poo away from the vagina.
Teach boys to shake their penis after a wee to get rid of any drops. Some parents have found it helpful in the early stages of toilet training to float a ping pong ball in the toilet for little boys to aim at.
Most toddlers don’t have the skills to wipe their bottom properly, so you will need to do this with them until they can get it right.
Teach boys and girls to always wash their hands after using the toilet or potty.
Be positive and praise small successes. Learning to use the potty is a new skill and can be tricky at times.
Potty training troubles
Remember that a toddler is not able to ‘hold on’ to a wee that is ready to come out.
Children are often busy with what they are doing, so they don’t always notice that their wee or poo is coming until it starts to come out, or it is too late to run to the toilet. They will have lots of ‘accidents’ while they are still learning.
Learning to control bowels and bladder can be a big task for your toddler and sometimes there are problems:
- Starting too soon can cause problems. It can be difficult for some parents to wait until their child is ready because of pressure from others or hopes that she will be ready by a certain time (eg. when she turns 2 or before you go on holiday).
- If the child feels pressured by her parents, learning is hampered. She may become afraid of making a mess, and it will be hard for her to get it right. Potty training works best when there is no pressure for either the parent or the child.
- Children and parents getting into a battle over potty training don’t help. Parents cannot ‘make’ a child let go of wee or poo, and little children don’t know how to do it if they are upset and tense.
- Any stress in your child’s life, such as a new baby or starting childcare can set her back. Temporary loss of control is common when children are unwell or stressed.
- It is common for toddlers to relax and ‘let go’ as soon as they stand to walk away from the potty. She may not be fully ready for toilet training if this is happening a lot.
If you find that you are getting angry, even feeling like she is not trying, leave it for a while and try again in a few weeks when things are less tense. Punishment does not help with toilet training.
Hiding when doing a poo
Quite a lot of children start hiding in strange places when doing a poo, while they are being toilet trained.
Some research has suggested that more than 50% of children do this at least a few times. They may do poo behind the sofa, inside a cupboard, outside in the garden, or anywhere that they feel safe.
It is not known why they do this (they certainly cannot explain it). They also stop doing it, probably without parents having to do anything much to stop it other than encouraging them to do a poo in the toilet.
Check that he still has easy access to the potty or toilet and that he still has the footstool and special toilet seat in place if using the toilet. It is possible that he needs the potty to be in a more private place.
Punishing toddlers for doing a poo in the wrong place will not help.
Spreading poo around
Doing poo feels good, and parents show a lot of interest in poo while toddlers are being toilet trained, so it is very normal for toddlers to be interested in their poo.
Most normal toddlers get some poo on their hands and spread it around at least a couple of times.
This is unpleasant to deal with, but toddlers are not trying to upset their parents or caregivers. Punishment does not help, but you do not have to pretend to be happy about it either.
There are germs (viruses and bacteria) in poo, but hot water and normal household cleaners are usually enough to clean cots, walls, and other furniture.
Sometimes, usually due to constipation, a small tear (or fissure) can occur at the anus (where the poo comes out).
This can cause pain when a child does poo. He might try to hold on and not be willing or able to let the poo come out.
Some children become very distressed when the poo is coming out.
A warm bath can help relax the muscles (be ready to pick him out of the bath quickly, and ready with praise for letting the poo out even if some go into the bathwater).
Have a look at our topic Constipation for ideas to soften his poo. You may need to see your doctor if the problem is ongoing.
Sometimes a child who has been dry during the day starts to have many wet pants again. This might be a sign of a health problem (such as a urine infection) or some big change in her life.
If it lasts more than a couple of days, or if she seems unwell, have her checked by your doctor.
Any child who still has some wet pants by the age of 4 years (or even 6 months earlier) needs to be checked by a doctor.
He may be having urine infections or have some abnormality of the bladder or other parts of the urinary system.
What parents can do
It is important for your child to feel she has your support in learning to use the toilet or potty. If it is not working she needs at least a few weeks with all the pressure off.
If you have a new baby, your toddler will see you happily changing the baby’s nappies, while inside she is wanting some babying herself.
If she asks to wear a nappy or have a bottle again for a while, let her. Once she feels that she is still special to you she will be able to go forward again.
The first step towards a new beginning is to tell your toddler whenever and wherever she does her poo, that poo is good, and doing a poo is good for her.
This will help her to feel free to tell you when she is doing it, or when she is ready to.
If she is relaxed about it you could take her to the toilet or potty at a time when she usually does poo (such as soon after a meal), or soon after asleep if she wakes up dry.
The first praise needs to be just for sitting there for a short time, or for pulling up her pants or whatever she can manage.
Children learn new tasks in small steps and each step can be praised.
Don’t wait until they can do the whole task properly before praising her.
It is not helpful to make toddlers wash their pants or sheets. This usually makes them feel bad and may make things worse. (Sometimes a counselor will suggest this as part of a program to help older children with bedwetting problems, but it is not appropriate for younger children.)
Many children go on wetting the bed long after they are dry during the day. Don’t worry about bedwetting if your child is under five or so, but if bedwetting continues after this, or your child has been dry and starts wetting again, check with the doctor to make sure there is no medical problem.
Also, check if one child is bedwetting much later than others in the family. Over 10% of children in the younger primary school years still wet their beds and most will grow out of it naturally.
Sometimes children continue to wet the bed for other reasons. See our topic Bedwetting for more information.
- Start potty training when your child shows he is ready.
- Give praise for small steps – don’t wait for the success of being toilet trained.
- Go at your child’s pace, and don’t expect too much.
- If there are any setbacks, stop for a few weeks and then start again.
- Don’t get into battles over potty training. It needs to be your child’s achievement that he can be proud of.
- Punishment has no place in toilet training.