There is no single best time to start potty training. Many parents or caregivers find it is best to begin when their toddlers show signs of readiness. These may include asking to have diapers changed, staying dry for longer periods, and showing interest in using the potty on their own.
Potty training is a crucial milestone in a child’s development. It marks the beginning of their independence.
It involves a child learning to recognize the urge to pee or poop and their parents or caregivers teaching them how to use a potty or toilet appropriately.
This article discusses when a child may be ready and signs to look for. It also explores how to start, ways to prepare, when to consider delaying it, and when to seek help.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
While there is no prescribed time to initiate toilet training, many parents and caregivers wait until their child turns 2 years old before toilet training.
Children younger than 18 months still have little control over their bowel and bladder. Most children develop the skills they need for toilet training and show signs of readiness by 18–30 months, and become toilet trained by the time they reach 3–4 years old. However, children may develop at different paces despite these averages.
Beginning too early may cause frustration and put undue stress on the child. It may also lead to more accidents.
A parent or caregiver can consult a child doctor (pediatrician) or specialist to discuss their child’s development.
Below are signs parents or caregivers can look for that may indicate a child’s readiness to start toilet training:
- walking to the toilet or potty
- understanding and following simple instructions
- wanting to do things independently and showing interest in using the potty on their own
- showing interest in transitioning to “big kid” underwear
- copying parents’ or other children’s toileting behavior and bathroom habits
- disliking the feeling of a wet or dirty diaper
- staying dry for long periods (up to 2 hours at a time or during naps)
- saying when they need to pee or poop
- asking to have diapers changed
- sitting in the potty long enough to pee or poop and getting off the potty on their own
- removing diapers, training pants, or underwear
- connecting the urge to pee or poop with using the potty
Research also suggests young girls may show signs of readiness before young boys (24–26 months compared with 29 months, respectively).
Once parents or caregivers feel that a child is ready, they can gradually introduce toilet training by placing the nappy in the bathroom and changing them there. They can tell them that they have a wet or dirty nappy to help them associate peeing and pooping in the bathroom.
Reading books about it and occasionally talking about peeing and pooping can also help the child become more aware of the concept and comfortable with it.
Parents and caregivers can also begin to get their children involved in the process. This involvement can include asking them to get clean nappies, having them pull their clothes or diapers, and asking them to wash their hands after changing.
There are certain things to consider to help a child prepare to use a potty.
Parents or caregivers can ensure the equipment is ready for when a child is ready, make training a routine, use reinforcements, and encourage correct hygiene. Here are some recommendations:
Ready the equipment
Introduce the potty and its use by placing it in the bathroom or wherever they spend most of their time. Making a child sit on their potty with their clothes on during play can be a good starting point.
Parents and caregivers who want to stop using diapers immediately can also introduce training pants or underwear along with the potty. If they want to train their children on the toilet, a step stool is necessary. Some potty seats come with built-in steps.
Choose the words to use
Parents and caregivers should establish the words they will call the child’s body wastes and consistently use them. Straightforward terms such as “pee” or “poop” are ideal.
They should avoid negative words such as “stinky” and “yucky” so that a child does not develop a negative association with using a potty.
It is best to begin when there are no major life events, changes, or disruptions in the family or everyday routine. These include having a new baby, moving homes, or going on holiday.
It may be a good idea to begin potty training on a day when a child’s parents or caregivers have no plans to leave the house. Summer can be ideal, as the child can move around without diapers or clothing.
Make it part of their routine
Ask the child to sit on their potty in the morning, before or after meals, and right after naps. Having this routine can help a child learn the rhythm. If a child regularly goes to the toilet at the same time each day, leave their nappy off and suggest that they go in the potty.
Alternatively, they can set an alarm clock every 2 hours and ask the child to sit on their potty to help prevent accidents.
Children love to please their parents or caregivers and are highly motivated by praise and applause. Reward successful behaviors and every little step of toilet training, including their attempts.
Parents or caregivers who do not make a fuss when there is an accident will ensure the child is not anxious or worried for the next time.
Encourage correct hygiene
Washing hands, wiping, and flushing should be introduced from the first day of potty training, regardless of whether the child was successful in peeing or pooping.
Parents should teach their children, especially girls, to wipe from front to back to help prevent germs from spreading. They can continue wiping their child’s bottom until they learn how to do it themselves.
Boys should shake their penis after peeing to get rid of any drops. Making boys sit when peeing or using a target to aim at can help avoid mess.
Stop using diapers
Once the child can consistently remain dry in the day, parents may switch to underwear or training pants through the day and only use diapers at night.
Parents and caregivers may learn that progress in daytime potty training does not apply at nighttime for all children.
Nighttime control typically comes much later and may not occur until 5 years old.
Ask children to use the potty before they go to sleep and ensure it is close by if they need to pee in the night. In case of accidents, a waterproof sheet can protect a child’s mattress. As with daytime potty training, it is important to praise a child for both successes and attempts.
The main sign that a child is ready for nighttime potty training is a dry nappy for a few mornings in a row.
Potty training can be stressful for children. Take a break if it does not seem to be working. More importantly, new or different situations or setbacks can be extremely stressful to children and lead to regression. It may be better to delay toilet training in the following situations:
- travel or vacation
- transitioning to a new bed
- moving to a new house
- death in the family
- new baby in the house
- a family member leaving the house
- new day care or school
Parents and caregivers may consider seeking the guidance of a doctor when their child seems ready but is having difficulties with potty training.
The American Academy of Family Physicians stated that children under 5 years old who cannot achieve daytime control might have underlying health problems. These may include infection, urinary tract anatomic abnormality, bladder dysfunction, or a metabolic disorder.
Signs of underlying problems may include:
- infrequent peeing
- straining when peeing or pooping
- lack of bowel movement for days (constipation)
- intermittent stream of pee or urinary hesitancy
- blood in urine or underwear
People can consult a doctor or pediatrician to discuss any concerns.
Most children are toilet trained by the time they reach 4–5 years old, and some as early as 3 years old.
Accidents are common, even for toilet-trained children. Regressions can also occur when faced with stressful situations. However, a parent or caregiver can always return to earlier training steps to help a child.
The key to successful toilet training lies in the child’s readiness. As with other skills a child will soon gain, potty training requires developmental readiness.
Providing encouragement and ensuring a child is ready can help a child feel comfortable going to the toilet and using a potty and toilet.