Toilet training is a major milestone in every toddler’s life, marking a big step for both child and parent alike.
Unlike other milestones, like sitting, crawling, and walking, toilet training takes a bit more work on the parents’ part to ensure success.
It can be a tricky task to navigate, especially for first-time parents, but with preparation and the right mindset, you and your child can move through this phase quicker than you think.
When is the Right Time to Start Toilet Training?
Most children are ready to start toilet training anywhere between 18 and 24 months, though some may not be ready until they are closer to 3 years old.
There are some studies that support the theory that children who start training earlier than 18 months may not be fully trained until they are closer to 4 years old (1), whereas children who don’t start until closer to 2 years are done by the age of 3.
That being said, knowing when to start potty training shouldn’t be solely based on age.
Some children may be ready sooner than others, and in some cases, children may be opposed to training altogether and may need more time and/or coaxing.
Instead, you should be looking for signs of readiness rather than waiting for a certain age.
These include the ability to stay dry for extended periods of time, the recognition of when they have to go or have soiled themselves, and an overall interest in using the toilet.
We will go into these in more detail shortly.
Girls tend to be ready to potty train a little earlier than boys, but the readiness signs for both boys and girls are the same.
Younger siblings also have a tendency to potty train earlier since they look up to their siblings and want to keep up with what they are doing.
It is very important that you don’t try to initiate toilet training when there are other transitions and/or stresses happening.
These may include moving to a new home, the arrival of a new sibling, or starting preschool.
How Long Will it Take?
There are several toilet training plans that advertise success within 3 days, and while these plans are a great way to solidify the basics, you can’t realistically expect your child to master using the toilet within that amount of time in most cases.
On average, children will take about 3 months to truly get the hang of using the toilet, and the majority of the time, girls learn a bit faster than boys since they just sit for everything.
It’s best not to put a solid time limit on toilet training; there are a lot of factors that will determine a child’s success.
These include the extent of the parents’ involvement, the use of diapers and underwear, individual development, and a child’s personality or temperament.
Preparing for Toilet Training
As we mentioned briefly before, it is crucial that the timing of potty training is right for your child. Don’t merely focus on the age of your child, but instead, watch for the following signs of readiness:
- Do they stay dry for at least 2 hours at a time or through the duration of their naps?
- Can they dress themselves, particularly taking their pants off and pulling them up?
- Are they interested in the potty or wearing underwear?
- Do they try to copy the toileting behavior of a parent or older sibling?
- Can they understand and follow basic directions?
- Do they show signs that they have to go, or do they want to be changed right after they soil their diaper?
When your child starts showing most of these signs and they are somewhere between 18 months and 3 years of age, they are likely ready to start toilet training.
When toilet training, you need to work to create a positive learning environment for your child. This means putting practices into place that support and encourage their success.
Expect to have accidents as your child is learning, and be prepared to handle them accordingly. Try to curb your anger and avoid punishment.
Work on finding the right balance between praise and teaching so your child feels encouraged when they do well without feeling down when they do have accidents. Use your child’s accidents as gentle learning opportunities.
What you need
To find success with toilet training, you need to have the proper supplies and equipment prepared and on hand. Here is your toolkit that will get you through:
- Training toilet
- Training seat
- Nightime pull-ups
- Waterproof mattress cover
First – and most important – you need a training toilet.
This could be a standalone, miniature toilet that you empty into the bigger one or a training seat that goes directly on top of the big toilet seat.
It is probably a smart idea to get both, starting with the mini toilet and keeping it in a place that is easy to access when your child needs to use it; starting out with a seat on the big toilet can be quite scary for little ones.
Eventually, you want them to get used to using the big toilet once they’ve gotten the basics down, so having a toddler seat on hand will be helpful.
You will also want to get your child excited about toilet training by letting them pick their own “big kid” underwear, perhaps with the favorite color and/or beloved characters.
Be sure you stock up on training pants or pull-ups for naps and bedtime.
They’re thinner than diapers, so your child will feel the wetness easier, knowing when they have gone and need to be changed.
In case of an accident, putting a waterproof mattress cover on your child’s bed will help prevent permanent messes and stains that are a pain to clean.
Finally, if you decide you will use a reward system (which we will talk about more later), you will want to stock up on what you need.
This may include stickers, snacks, books, or anything else you may want to use.
Toilet training not only requires commitment from the child, but it takes a lot of work and preparation for the parent as well.
It can be an emotional time as you realize your child is growing up as well as a trying time when you will need to have a lot of patience.
When preparing to toilet train your child, you need to set time aside to commit to consistency and follow through, especially in the early stages.
You don’t want to find yourself with a busy schedule or needing to leave the house in the middle of your training schedule for the day.
You want to make sure that anyone who will play a part in toilet training your child is on the same page.
It is important that you all follow the same routine, using the same training method and schedule.
When preparing your child, you not only need to talk with them about what will be happening, but you also need to think about how you will dress them on a regular basis.
You may want to ditch the onesies and go with clothes that are easy to put on and take off when it is time to go.
3 Proven Toilet Training Methods
1. The Child-Oriented or Brazelton Approach
This is probably the most common form of toilet training (2). It doesn’t come with a time limit that your child should be working within.
Instead, it relies on you watching for your child’s signs of readiness without pushing your child to use the toilet if they are feeling resistant.
Once you start to see the signs of readiness, you can begin to go through the following steps:
- Your child meets their potty, sitting on it fully clothed to get comfortable with it and work through any fears or apprehension they may have. This will usually happen around 18 months or so.
- Your child sits on the toilet without their pants, diaper, or underwear and is praised for their compliance. You don’t want to make them sit for too long since that can begin to cause a bit too much pressure for them.
- Place your child on the toilet after they soil their diaper, emptying the contents of their diaper into the toilet as an example of where they should be going.
- Let your child go without a diaper, underwear, or pants for short periods of time, encouraging them to use the toilet independently.
It is recommended that you don’t move to the next step until you have consistent success with your current one.
It is also best that you discontinue toilet training for a month or two if you come across any resistance from your child along the way.
2. The 3-Day Method
This method of toilet training isn’t successful for everyone, but it is worth a try if your child is fairly compliant and seems very eager to learn.
Plan to take a long weekend, perhaps Friday through Sunday, and set that time aside to stay home and focus 100% on toilet training for that period of time.
When your child wakes up, change them out of their overnight diaper right away and let them spend the first part of their day with nothing on their bottom half.
You can place their potty in the living room or a place that is easy for them to access on their own.
Pay close attention throughout the day for cues that they need to go, asking them about every 20 minutes or so. When you have success, be sure to pack on the praise.
Day 2 & 3
These days are pretty much the same as day 1, just continuing to put everything into practice.
Some parents may try to venture out on day 3 if they have had plenty of successes or if you have a short activity planned.
If you do decide to go out, be sure to bring their potty and some extra clothes in case of an accident.
It is highly unlikely that your child will be completely potty trained by the end of day 3, especially at nap or bedtime.
What you can expect, if you find success with this method, is that your child will have the basics down, which will help the rest of their toilet training journey.
3. Letting Your Child Train Themselves
The last method some parents may choose to use is simply letting go of their control and letting the child lead.
You just wait until your child expresses interest in using the toilet before you introduce the idea of training.
They may have more success if they are self-motivated.
The nice thing about this method is that there is no pressure on you to make it happen. On the other hand, it can be difficult waiting for your child to be ready on their own.
This method typically works better for children who have older siblings or role models.
Common Potty Training Problems
Training during Times of Stress or Transition
One big issue parents can run into while toilet training is starting during a time of transition or stress.
- Moving to a new home
- Changing childcare arrangements or starting preschool
- Transitioning from crib to bed
- The arrival of a new sibling
- A parent returning to work
- Illness or other family crisis
Toilet training that overlaps with one of these life events can cause major setbacks.
Even if you had already started toilet training before one of these things happened, you can still run into a regression in your progress if they’re not completely toilet trained yet.
Forcing Your Child to Sit on the Toilet
When you start toilet training, you are more than likely going to start your child on a schedule, having them sit every 30 minutes or so.
This method works great for a compliant child, but it can really cause issues if you are having to force them to sit.
Forcing your child to sit when they are unwilling can not only cause stress for the both of your, but it can also create fear and apprehension in your child.
You want toilet training to be a positive thing, so you should work on reassuring rather than just forcing them to sit on schedule.
Scolding for Accidents
It can be very frustrating when your child is doing so well, making it to the toilet in time for several times in a row, only to have a regression or just become lazy because they are busy playing.
However, until they are fully trained, you should avoid scolding them for accidents.
They may reject the toilet altogether if they don’t get enough positive reinforcement for all of the hard work they are putting in. You can expect accidents for a while; they are still learning.
Should I use Rewards?
The subject of rewards for toilet training is a tricky one. For the short term, it is a great idea, but if it isn’t handled the right way, it could cause you issues in the long run.
You don’t need to completely throw out the idea of rewards; you simply need to adjust your system to your child’s personality, making adjustments as you move through the process of toilet training.
For most children, rewards can be helpful in the early stages.
You want to keep them small, like stickers on a chart as a visual form of praise or even small treats/snacks like M&Ms or Goldfish crackers whenever they pee.
Because going poop on the toilet can be a bigger task for most children, you may choose to try a slightly bigger reward, like an inexpensive book or a special outing.
You can even put a reward in place for when your child goes a certain number of days without an accident.
The potential problem with rewards comes when your child relies on them beyond the mere encouragement to use the toilet.
They may have a regression if they stop getting their rewards or they may start expecting them for other things they do, like finishing their dinner or brushing their teeth.
It can also cause negativity in some children if they associate not getting a reward with doing a poor job.
They could become discouraged when they have an accident and don’t get to put another sticker on their chart.
The way you handle rewards with your child will completely depend on their personality.
If you can establish that there are only a certain number of rewards for toilet training, like 5 successful times going poop on the toilet, a single month chart for stickers, or a week without accidents, you may choose to use rewards to kickstart your child’s training.
No matter what, though, praise is better than anything.
Your child wants to make you proud, and if they see you are excited about toilet training and their successes, they are more likely to be receptive and successful.
Understandably, the biggest hurdle when toilet training is nap and nighttime training.
Even after you have accomplished some form of consistency during the daytime, your child may still have trouble controlling their bladder while they are sleeping.
In fact, they may still have accidents on occasion up until they are 5 to 7 years old.
You need to be prepared for accidents because they will happen. You may want to invest in a waterproof mattress pad to reduce mess and stains on the mattress.
When your child does have a nighttime accident, be sure you stay calm. They are still learning and need to know that they have done nothing wrong.
You can do a couple of things to help limit nighttime accidents. First, try to limit fluid intake at least an hour before bed.
Then, have your child use the toilet right before they get into bed to reduce the risk of accidents during the night.
Schedule Potty Breaks
Start with a pretty strict schedule, taking regular breaks throughout the day to have your child sit on the toilet.
They may have a hard time at first knowing when they have to go, so you will need to have them sit frequently so they know what it feels like to go on the toilet instead of their diaper.
Start with taking breaks every 20 minutes and increasing time between as they start to get the hang of it.
Create a Sense of Urgency
When your child looks like or says they need to go, you need to create a sense of urgency, having them run to the toilet.
This isn’t just to ensure they make it on time; it’s also to help them learn that when they feel like they need to go, nothing else should be more important in the moment.
As your child gets a little older, they will find themselves getting busy with playtime and will not want to take a break to use the bathroom, even if they feel like they have to go.
Creating a sense of urgency from the beginning can help avoid accidents in the future.
Hygiene may seem like a given when using the toilet, but it really is something you should focus on teaching your child.
They need to understand that using the toilet and what comes out of them is very dirty. They also need to know the proper way to clean themselves up after they finish.
Teach proper hand washing techniques, helping them to scrub their hands and learn by example.
You will also need to teach them proper wiping techniques, especially if your child is female. Once they understand the way to wipe, you can start allowing them to wipe themselves when they pee.
However, they may not be able to start wiping after they poop until they are between 4 and 6 years old.
One really great tip for toilet training is to ditch the diaper altogether during the early stages. Letting your child go bare-bottomed can help you avoid excess laundry when accidents happen.
It can also create an even greater sense of urgency since your child will know there is no barrier that will catch their fluids.
Toilet training may not be easy for everyone, but you can rest assured that every child will take to it at some point.
Just be sure to practice patience and positivity with your child as they navigate through this new phase.
Don’t be afraid to try a couple of different methods along the way, and don’t tie yourself down to a certain time frame to have it mastered.
You can always take a break and come back to it when your child seems more open and receptive to learning.