Potty training: is your child ready?

By Michelle Fisher · 7 February, 2018

When should I begin potty training?

Learning to control their own bowel and bladder is one of the biggest steps that your child will take in becoming independent. Helping them to make the transition, from being in nappies to confidently using the toilet by themselves, is a huge and exciting milestone for you both. However, potty training can be one of the most stressful things for both parent and child if the child isn’t physiologically and emotionally ready to take this big step. Potty training often fails, is far more fraught than it needs to be and can be an upsetting experience if we begin before the child is ready. In this blog I aim to help you recognise the signs that your child is ready to start potty training so that they have the best chance of success and the journey is as smooth as possible for you both.

There are so many methods to help your child learn to use the potty and it’s important that you choose one that you think will suit both you and your child. But before you even begin to think about embarking on potty training it’s vital that your child is ready developmentally. Parents can sometimes feel under pressure to get their toddler out of nappies and potty trained for a number of reasons. This may be due to a nursery placement that won’t accept a child until they are out of nappies, social pressure making us believe that there is a certain age that children should be out of nappies by, friends’ children of a similar age are out of nappies or a belief from the parent that early potty training is a predictor of intelligence and success (this is definitely not the case). Every family situation is different and understandably we sometimes feel the need to begin potty training sooner rather than later. However, parents should be guided by their child’s developmental stage, physiologically and emotionally, rather than any outside pressures. If you want the best chance of having a successful outcome take the lead from your child. Begin when they are showing the readiness signs, go at their pace, be patient, expect accidents (try your best to deal with these calmly and without reprimanding your child or showing frustration) and be prepared for it to take some time before your child has complete control. Starting training too soon can undermine your child’s confidence and make learning to use the potty very tough for both of you.

Unfortunately there is no definitive answer as to what the right age is for a child to begin potty training because every child is different. On average children are around two to three and a half years old when they begin potty training but there are often children who start later than this. Being dry during the day usually occurs earlier than being dry at night. This is because it takes until a child is at least three years old for the body to develop the hormone called ADH which helps reduce the need to urinate during the night, aiding uninterrupted sleep. If you feel there may be a medical reason that your child is having difficulty with potty training please consult your GP or health visitor.

Pre-readiness signs and moving towards potty training readiness

Your child will show signs that they are developmentally ready for potty training . First let’s look at the pre-readiness signs. These are signs that your child is moving towards being ready to begin potty training but they are not quite there yet:

  • Your child shows an interest in using the potty or toilet. They may start asking you questions about using the potty and follow you to the bathroom and ask you about what you are doing when you use the toilet.
  • They recognise the feeling that they have done a wee or a poo in their nappy and may talk about this or indicate that they want you to change their nappy.
  • He or she can remember and follow two step directions e.g. “go and get your teddy and bring it to me”. Potty training requires your child to be able to remember a lot of steps……notice when they need to go, go to the potty, pull down their underwear, sit on the potty. For this reason, if they are beginning to be able to follow two step directions, they are heading in the right direction developmentally to be able to follow the steps needed to use the potty.
  • Children need to be able to use the word ‘no’ appropriately. This means they are using ‘no’ because they really don’t want to do something rather than saying ‘no’ just because they are experimenting with how it feels to be oppositional, assertive or with the reactions they get from using the word. If they are not using ‘no’ appropriately potty training will be confusing and a real struggle.
  • Another great thing to look out for, that shows your child is working towards being ready for potty training, is that they have an understanding that things have a place e.g. books go on the shelf, toys go in the box. This doesn’t mean that they will always put things back where they go when they have finished using them, but it does mean that they are beginning to have an understanding of the concept that things have a place and that there are routines and processes in life.
  • Your child is imitating behaviour in play, like baking cakes in a pretend oven.
  • An important pre-readiness sign is that your child is going for longer stretches of staying dry. His nappy may be dry now after one to two hours. This is because as your child grows their bladder has a larger capacity and can go for longer stretches before needing to be emptied.
  • Your child can label their body parts and functions e.g. noses are for smelling, ears are for hearing, fingers are for touching. This will help with they’re understanding when you explain the process of using the potty.

How to encourage an interest in potty training

If your child is around the average age for potty training and is showing some of the pre-readiness signs then it’s a good time to start building their interest and understanding about using the potty. This will help them move towards being ready for potty training. Here are some things you can do to help them:

  • Model and explain the process of using the toilet. If you are comfortable with your child being in the bathroom with you explain what you are doing when you go to the toilet and why you are doing it. “My body is telling me that I need to go for a pee, so I’m going to the bathroom and I’m going to take down my underwear and sit on the toilet”. Help your child to understand why our bodies need to go to the toilet and where pee and poo come from. If they understand the process they are more likely to feel relaxed about the whole thing. Your child will learn by listening to your explanation and observing what you do.
  • Read books about using the potty. Here are some great examples:
  • If your child is showing some of the readiness signs below, introduce a potty into the house. Optimally we should aim to do this one to two weeks before beginning potty training but no more than a month. This will ensure that your child gets used to talking about the potty and sitting on it, but doesn’t get so used to it that they lose interest in the new object before beginning potty training.
  • Have belief in your child that they can succeed and talk to them about the confidence you have in their abilities.
  • Feed your child foods that are high in fibre in order to avoid constipation and pain when passing poo. Fear of pain when going to the toilet is one of biggest reasons children withhold poo. This fear can cause anxiety and when we are anxious our bodies tense up making it even more difficult to go to the toilet. This can become a vicious circle and definitely won’t help make potty training easy.

Be prepared to do these things for months, when a child is showing pre-readiness signs it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be ready within days or weeks to start potty training. Be patient and let them develop at their own pace.

Signs your child is ready for potty training

After showing the pre-readiness signs for some time your child will eventually move on to showing signs that they are ready for potty training. They will be at least two years old (remember some children will be three or even four) and will be displaying some of the following:

  • Your child recognises the feeling that they need to do a wee or a poo before they have done it. They are talking about it, “I need to do a wee/poo!” or showing physical signs like crossing legs, fidgeting, hopping from foot to foot, passing lots of wind or holding their tummy.
  • They are able to communicate verbally with you about some simple body sensations, for example, “I’m hot” or “I’m hungry”.
  • You are noticing them using imaginative play around using the potty, “Teddy did a wee on the potty”
  • They are managing to dress and undress themselves. This doesn’t have to be mastering the art of tiny buttons and zips, just the ability to pull elasticated trousers on and off and dress themselves fairly successfully in easy to manage clothing.
  • Three to four step directions are becoming easy for your child to follow, “go into your bedroom, find your shoes, bring them to the front door and put them on”.
  • Your child’s nappy is staying dry for two to three hours at a time. After taking a nap their nappy is very often dry and for night time training they are mostly dry when they wake in the morning. This indicates increased bladder capacity.
  • They have a good awareness of how and why people use the toilet/potty and how the whole process works.
  • Concentration levels have increased and they are more independent in play, meaning your child is able to entertain themselves for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. Bare in mind that this really does vary depending on a child’s temperament but roughly fifteen minutes of being able to entertain themselves is a good sign. Using the potty takes a lot of concentration!
  • Your child should have been steady on their feet and walking for enough time that they are no longer absorbed in their new skill and the excitement of it. This will mean they are able to sit still for long enough before they want to get up and try out their new ability to walk again. It should also mean they are able to focus on what they are trying to do on the potty and what they are feeling rather than on other things!

If your child is showing two or three of the readiness signs above and is an appropriate age for potty training then you might want to begin. You should find now that you have a very high chance of straightforward and successful potty training.

When not to start potty training

Potty training requires a lot of focus and attention on your child. There are often times in our busy lives that we could say there is too much going on to devote the amount of time needed, but it is important that we don’t put off the potty training for too long if our child is ready. However, there are certain life events when devoting the necessary time and attention to ensure a smooth transition would be extremely difficult. We should avoid beginning the training at the following times if possible:

  • A new baby is imminent or has just arrived, i.e. a few weeks before or after the birth.
  • A major change has just occured in your child’s life and they have not adjusted well i.e. starting nursery school or moving house. If they have adjusted well there is no need to wait.
  • Your child is ill. Wait until they are back to feeling fit and well before you begin.
  • Your childcare provider has told you that they will not accept children who are in nappies. This is a tough one but try not to start potty training under pressure if your child is not ready. When choosing a childcare provider choose one that accepts children who are in nappies if at all possible so that you and your child can start when the time is right for both of you.

And when you decide to start potty training…..

Remember that children can feel nervous about going to the toilet on the potty because it is a new experience for them. Sometimes children can feel quite emotional about seeing something they have produced being flushed down the toilet, and children that are learning to sit on the toilet can worry about falling down and being flushed away themselves. So it is up to us to remain calm, patient and positive, our responses and reactions matter. Take it slowly and go at their pace, use potty training aids to help your child feel confident, take away any pressure by letting them be in charge of what they do and when they do it, play down any mistakes and when giving praise make it more effective by using descriptive praise ensuring this is used for their efforts not just their successes.

I hope you find this information useful and your potty training goes as smoothly as possible. If you have any questions about the transition from nappy to potty or any other parenting matters please get in touch we would love to hear from you.