Toilet training is a big milestone for children but can also be a nerve-wracking time for parents. Understanding the process is important and so is recognizing when it might be beneficial to reach out for professional help.
Look for the Signs
It can vary, but children typically begin toilet training between 18-24 months and are toilet trained by 24-36 months. Your child may be ready if he or she:
- Shows interest by wanting to sit on the toilet or being curious when others use the bathroom.
- Stays dry for long periods of time.
- Announces the need to urinate or have a bowel movement.
- Has the motor skills to sit on the toilet and remove appropriate articles of clothing.
Where to Begin
Children are masters at detecting when their parents are worried. Feeling overwhelmed or pressured about toilet training may make it harder for children to transition out of diapers. On the other hand, being confident and encouraging can lower stress and promote positive toileting skills. Here are some tips to ease the process and equip you with skills of how to respond to training setbacks.
- Point out the positives. Rather than focusing on what is done incorrectly, notice and praise your child for each toilet step that they have mastered. This can include simply sitting on a toilet or having a bowel movement in a diaper while seated on the toilet. Children love their parents’ attention, so the more positive the response, the higher the motivation.
- Give them choices. This does not mean that children get free reign to run the potty show. However, finding small ways to include them gives them a sense of empowerment. For example:
- If you are shopping for a child potty allow your child to choose from a couple of options.
- If you are developing a reward system, give them a choice between two small rewards.
Support those feet. If your child is using an adult-sized toilet, give them a footstool for support, especially when they are trying to have a bowel movement. A squatting position may prevent constipation and help with emptying bowels.
Schedule toilet sits. Having children sit on the toilet gives them more opportunities.
- For bowel movements, schedule toilet sits in the morning, before bed, and about 10-20 minutes after a meal. If your child is always having a bowel movement at certain times and rarely having them during other sits, you can change times.
- If your child shows signs of needing to use the toilet (e.g., crossing their legs, crouching, going into a corner, holding their bladder), quickly prompt them to sit on the toilet.
- Refrain from telling your child to pee or poop in the toilet, as they can then argue that they do not have to go. Instead, prompt them to sit on the toilet.
- Instead of asking your child to sit (“Can you sit on the potty?”), prompt them to sit (“It’s time to sit on the potty”).
- Sitting on the toilet too briefly may not give your child enough time to go. If they sit too long, your child may feel that they are spending all day in the bathroom. We recommend 3-5 minute sits, as this gives children enough time to sense urgency, but is not so long that it makes sitting something they want to avoid.
Rewarding positive toileting. While praise and high-fives may be enough to encourage some children to toilet train, others may require more tangible rewards. Just as you expect that paycheck in return for completing your job, toilet training is hard work, so it is okay to reward children for their efforts. Reward plans can be very useful if done consistently. Consider giving your child a small immediate reward for completing a toilet sit, urinating or having a bowel movement in the toilet. This can include extra screen time, a story or book before bedtime or a sticker.
Encourage toilet sits, not staying accident free. Although it may seem logical to urge your child to remain dry, this can make them more likely to withhold urine or stool, which can lead to health complications. Instead, encourage them to sit on and use the toilet, even if this means that they have more accidents initially. Similarly, resist shaming or punishing your child for having accidents. This not only delays training, but may make them more likely to hide accidents or dirty underwear from you.
Children’s readiness to fully master toilet training varies and many children occasionally have accidents after being trained. However, you may want to contact your doctor if you notice your child doing any of the following:
- Going more than two days without having a bowel movement, having bowel movements that are very hard or complaining of having painful stools.
- Leaking watery stool throughout the day.
- Having urine or stool accidents repeatedly after previously being toilet trained.
- Hiding their dirty underwear around the house or intentionally smearing feces on the walls.
- Resisting attempts to toilet train for either urine or stool past the age of 48 months.
For more information on toilet training, listen to our PediaCast.