When and how to start potty training

When and how to start potty training

There are probably as many theories about the best way to potty train your child as there are parents who have trained their child. What works a treat for one child may have absolutely no effect whatsoever on another, and in most cases, the key to success is simply starting at the right time.


We can give you some basic pointers on potty training but if you want to explore all the different methods, entire books have been written on the subject.

There are three stages to toilet training: bladder, bowel and night control. You may be lucky and have a child who masters all three in one go, but it is likely to be bladder control which can be mastered first, followed by bowel movements and, last of all, being dry through the night. Being dry at night can occur much later, with some children of 5 or more still wetting the bed occasionally.

At what age should I start potty training?

In days gone by, when babies were in bulky terry nappies that felt uncomfortable the moment they got wet, it is not surprising that children were often potty trained by the time they were one year old. Today’s highly absorbent nappies have removed this motivating factor to a certain extent, but there will still come a time when your child starts to feel uncomfortable in a full or dirty nappy. This is the time to start potty training.

From 18 months old onwards, children start to be able to sense when they need to go to the toilet, although they often don’t get much advance warning. This tends to improve by the age of 2, which is when the majority of parents start trying to potty train their child.

How to start

The potty or the toilet?

While many parents start their children on the potty, you may decide to opt for training your child to use the toilet from the word go. If your child will be using the big toilet, then you will need to invest in a special toilet seat and probably a little step, unless your toilet is particularly low.

The advantages of the potty are that it is portable and can be kept close at hand, which means that your success rate is likely to be higher than if you have to make regular dashes to the toilet. It’s also a special new piece of kit for your child – let them come with you to the shop to help choose their first potty, and they are more likely to be keen to use it. The advantage of using the toilet from the outset, of course, is that you won’t have to make that transition later on from the potty, which can put some children off. Many parents try getting their children to use both.

Whether you decide to go for the toilet or potty option, getting your child feeling comfortable sitting on it is the first step. To make things easier, you may want to remove their bottom half of clothing and let them run around in just a top. Many parents start potty training in the warmer months of the year – it also means that your children will probably be outside a lot more and that any accidents that do occur will be outside rather than in.

Underwear or training pants?

You can go the whole hog and invest in some nice “grown-up” pants for your child straight away, which will be an enormous incentive to them to succeed at potty training. However, you will inevitably have accidents to start out with and may decide to go for training pants. These are halfway between nappies and pants, with an absorbent panel to soak up leaks and give children the practice they need in getting underwear on and off. As an alternative to training pants (which can be expensive) it may be cheaper to buy some cheap ‘grown up’ pants, which are available now from most supermarkets at a reasonable price. These will not be a bulky as training pants and will help your child to feel ‘grown-up’. If they do get soiled, you can just throw them away,especially if they are cheap pants, rather than having to wash them repeatedly. Remember to take a spare pair of clothes with you in your changing bag in case of little accidents.

Starting to potty train

  1. If you can persuade your child to sit on the potty or toilet for a reasonable amount of time, they are likely to do something before too long, especially if it is after a meal. The problem can often be getting them to sit on the potty or toilet for long enough, so try reading them a story or playing a game to pass the time – all children love being the centre of attention, and having mum or dad’s rapt attention as they sit on their “throne” will go a long way.
  2. If your child doesn’t perform and is starting to get fidgety and bored, don’t insist on him sitting there indefinitely. Let him get up and play, but remind him of where the potty is in case he needs it. If you are moving from room to room, remember to bring it with you.
  3. Watch out for tell-tale signs that he needs to go to the toilet – fidgeting, walking strangely etc. Ask him if he needs to go, and even if he says “no”, encourage him to try again.
  4. Reward success, but make it clear that this isn’t just a “one off” – they now have to do this every time they need to go to the toilet. Some parents make up toileting star charts, where five successful performances in a row, for example, merits a treat.
  5. If your child doesn’t make it to the potty or toilet in time, but nearly got there or had trouble getting clothes off, reward this as significant progress in the early stages of potty training.
  6. Remember accidents are going to happen, and don’t get too stressed or depressed if things aren’t working. The more stressed you are, and the more pressure you put on your child to perform, the less likely you are to succeed in training them. Potty training may seem to go on for ever, but in reality it’s a very short period in the great scheme of your child’s development.
  7. Some children are scared they might fall down the toilet, get flushed away or that something will bite their bottom (an older sibling may be responsible for this one). A potty may be best for a child who fears the toilet at first, then when he is confident he can try the ‘big’ toilet as a treat.
  8. It may be easier to potty-train in the summer when toddlers are wearing less clothes to struggle on and off with.

Washing hands

Try getting your toddler into the habit of washing their hands after going to the toilet from an early stage. Even if you are wiping their bottom for them at the beginning of toilet training, get them to wash their hands alongside you.

Not ready?

If your child is having more accidents than successes, you may be tempted to abandon potty training for a month or so and going back to nappies. This is always a difficult call to make – you may feel that you are so “nearly there” that going back to nappies will undo the work you have done. However, if you and your child are finding the process stressful, and you find that you are not making much real progress, it may be that your child isn’t yet ready, and that another month or so will make all the difference.

Night training

Once your child is having several dry nappies in a row, try switching to training pants at night. Make sure that he empties his bladder right before bedtime and try and avoid giving a drink of water or milk after this. Don’t give up hope if you have a few wet nights, but if it continues, again, he may not be ready. Try again in a month’s time, especially if you start to see dry nappies again in the morning.

Regressing in toilet training

It can happen that a child who has appeared to be fully potty-trained suddenly starts to have accidents again. This is sometimes due to a urinary tract infection, which will usually produce symptoms of pain while urinating, and should be checked out immediately by your doctor. Other causes can be stress-related (separation of parents, moving to a new house, the arrival of a new baby etc), and in some cases it may simply be an attempt to gain attention, and should be dealt with gently but firmly. Express your disappointment, and reinforce how pleased you were with them before when they weren’t having accidents. A little extra encouragement and attention when they do perform will certainly help, but avoid extravagant displays of praise. Getting back to where they were before should not merit the same rewards as achieving something new.


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