There isn’t a specific age when you should start potty training your child, as every child is different. What we do know though, is that children aged between two and three are physically mature enough to be able to start the process.
You know your child better than anyone else, and you’ll know when they are ready. Don’t be influenced by what other people say or what their children are doing. You need to feel comfortable that it’s the right time for you and your child.
If you start toilet training, and your child is adamant that they don’t want to use the potty, just leave it for a while and try again a few weeks later. It’s important that potty training is a positive experience.
Are you prepared to:
- Be flexible? You’ll need to have time and energy to work through the process with your child
- Be positive? Children need lots of praise when learning to use the potty, even if it feels like slow progress at first
- Be consistent? Everyone involved in looking after your child, such as other family members, child minders or nursery staff needs to follow the same plan
- Be realistic? Potty training doesn’t happen overnight and there will be accidents
- Be organised? You’ll need plenty of spare clothes to hand so you can quickly change your child when an accident happens
How to tell if they’re ready
The following are all good signs that your child is physically and emotionally ready to be toilet trained:
- They go for one and a half to two hours between wet nappies
- They wriggle about or hold themselves when they need a wee or poo
- They’re excited about the idea of wearing ‘big boy/girl pants’ and using the potty
- They try to remove a wet or dirty nappy
- They are aware of when they need to do a wee or a poo and tell you so
- They are increasingly independent at getting undressed
- They are able to understand and follow instructions
How to introduce the idea of potty training
Talk to your child about potty training and involve them from the start. For example, you might like to go together to buy pants, a potty, a child’s toilet seat and a step (they’ll need the step to give them stability when sitting on the toilet – it’s more difficult to poo if your feet aren’t flat on the floor).
Agree with them where you’ll keep the potty so they always know where it is. The best option is to store it in the bathroom or toilet so they keep hold of the idea that these rooms are where we all go to wee/poo. You may also want to read some potty training stories together (ask your local library for recommendations) or watch one of these short video clips:
Decide on a day when you’re going to start and stick to it – be consistent from the start. It’s a good idea to put your child straight into pants. That way, they’ll get to experience what it’s like to be wet and start to recognise the feeling that goes before as the sensation of needing to wee.
Encourage your child to sit on the potty shortly after they’ve had a drink. It doesn’t have to be for long – a minute or so is fine. Encourage them to do this every couple of hours, and if they ask for the potty in between, even better! If your child tends to poo at the same times of the day, encourage them to sit on the potty at this time. As they’re getting used to being out of nappies, you’ll need to remember to give your child frequent gentle reminders to sit on the potty or toilet.
Boys should start off by sitting down on the potty too. It will help them to feel comfortable enough to poo as well if they need to. Make sure girls wipe from front to back. This skill may take time to develop so encourage them to take their time. Give your child lots of praise, not just for weeing and pooing, but also for remembering to flush the toilet, wash their hands and getting themselves dressed. Stickers are great as an instant reward.
There will be plenty of accidents at first, so stay calm, clean up the mess and move on. Even when you think you’ve ‘cracked it’, there may still be the occasional accident – children get absorbed in their play so can either forget about using the potty altogether, or not get there in time. Again, keep calm and continue to praise them when they do remember. To make using the potty fun, keep a special bag of wipe-clean toys near the potty or toilet. Change the toys from time to time to keep their interest.
Children should be encouraged to drink between six and eight cups of water-based drinks a day. Avoid fizzy drinks or those with caffeine – they’ll make your child wee more often. Don’t cut down the number of drinks your child has when you’re potty training – they need to stay hydrated.
Make sure your child is pooing regularly – at least four times a week. Their poo should be soft and easy to pass, not hard or like ‘rabbit droppings’. If their poo is runny or smells very bad, talk to your health visitor or GP as it could be a sign that they’re constipated.
Don’t forget to watch our our guide to toilet training video which offers lots of useful advice and information.
Common potty training challenges
- They lose interest – try to find other ways of praising them, perhaps introducing some different stickers or a different reward system.
- They refuse to use the potty or toilet – if your child runs away and won’t sit down, stay calm and positive. Try to make the time they’re sitting on the potty or toilet a special time for just the two of you when you sing, play or read a book together. It may mean your child isn’t ready, so take the pressure off by going back to nappies and trying again in a few weeks’ time.
- Going out and about – be prepared by making sure you know where there are nearby toilets. At the beginning, children can’t wait. Try using a ‘pull-up nappy’ outside their pants. That way they’ll still feel wet but you’ll avoid the puddles on the floor! You may want to take a potty with you for emergencies (or though you’ll have to think about where to empty it!) You can buy fold-out potties that you fill with lined bags which absorb the wee. If you’re going on a long journey, make sure you have regular toilet stops
- They refuse to poo on the potty – some children don’t feel comfortable or safe to poo on the potty at the beginning. Don’t worry about this, it’s more important that they do poo when they need to, so if they need to do that in a nappy, that’s OK. Continue with toilet training and encourage them to tell you when they need a poo so you can put a nappy back on. Keep a stash of these near the toilet. If you see them wiggling about, try to get them to sit on the potty before putting the nappy on. You may want to try sitting them on the toilet with their nappy on, then undo it while they’re still sitting there, letting the poo fall into the toilet. Clean them, then encourage them to flush the toilet and wash their hands. After a couple of weeks progress to trying without the nappy. If you continue to have problems, talk to your health visitor.
Children with special needs
You can follow exactly the same training process when potty training a child with special needs, although you will have to anticipate certain challenges.
Your child may not be able to tell you when they need the potty, so try to spot the signs that show they need to go, for example wiggling about, holding themselves or going quiet. Knowing your child’s routine is important as it will help you to plan their toileting. Make sure your child’s comfortable and able to sit safely on a toilet or potty. Your occupational therapist will be able to advise you about special seats or specialised equipment.