Toddler potty training:
How to get your child ready
© 2006 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved
Laying the groundwork for toddler potty training
Western countries today, most pediatricians recommend a child-oriented
approach to toilet training. Children set the pace. Parents delay
training until children demonstrate certain skills, abilities and
The goal of this approach is to avoid pressuring
children before they are physically and psychologically ready. For
“early bloomers,” this may lead to toddler potty training. For others,
it might mean starting long after age 2.
“child-oriented” doesn’t have to mean “wait and see.” If you wait for
your child to demonstrate a spontaneous interest in toilet training, you
may end up waiting a long time.
It seems likely that you can
speed up the process, and make toilet training less stressful, by
actively preparing your toddler. Whether you favor toddler toilet
training or a somewhat later start, you can help your child get ready.
Support for this idea comes from a wide range of child development research.
Children are natural imitators. They love to emulate
their parents’ behaviors. They learn new skills through play—including
pretend play (Bock and Johnson 2004; Pellegrini and Bjorkland 2004). And
when parents participate, pretend play becomes more complex and lasts
longer (Fiese 1990).
We also know that children become more cooperative
and socially adept when their parents use inductive discipline—that is,
when parents explain why they want their children to behave in certain
ways (Krevans and Gibbs 1996).
Put these points together, and we have a plan for teaching toilet readiness skills:
Teach by example
From brushing your teeth to putting on your socks, you model many
motor skills for your toddler. Toilet training should be no different.
your toddler observe family members using the bathroom as part of
everyday life. Demonstrate the whole bathroom “script,” from having a
“potty feeling” to removing clothing, using the toilet, flushing,
dressing, and washing hands.
Take the opportunity to explain what
you are doing—-for instance, what happens when you flush the toilet,
and why it’s important to wash your hands. If your child shows interest,
she can participate, too. For example, William and Martha Sears
suggests you invite her to help you flush the toilet (Sears et al 2002).
Take advantage of everyday opportunities to explain how and why we eliminate
you notice your toddler is about to void, call his attention to his
body’s signals. Give them a name (e.g., “potty feeling,”) and explain
that everyone experiences these sensations. Explain that everyone—all
people and all animals—eliminate waste. If you have pets, discuss how they
“go the bathroom.” Like people, most pets have to follow certain rules.
What are they? Encourage your toddler to tell you whenever he eliminates, and explain why it’s important to change his diaper as soon as it
gets soiled (“If you wear a poopy diaper, your bottom will get itchy
To reinforce your explanations, try these books:
- Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi (Kane/Miller publishing, 1993)
- Where's the Poop? by Julie Marks and Susan Kathleen Hartung (Harper Festival 2004)
before you plan to start toilet training, give your toddler a potty
chair and explain how it’s used. Let him sit on it fully clothed and
investigate it during play. Initiate pretend play about using the potty
with dolls or action figures. You might act out the bathroom “script,”
or use pretend play to deal with sources of potential anxiety. For
instance, your doll might have an accident and require reassurance
(“Sometimes it’s hard to get to the potty in time. That’s okay. We’ll
help you clean up.”)
Other important ways to prepare
Many toddlers are reluctant to give up diapers, so it's helpful to portray underwear-wearing as a special privilege—something to
look forward to. It's also a good idea to give kids opportunities to practice pulling their pants up and down -- before they start using a potty.
Get kids accustomed to feeling clean and dry
Schmidt recommends that you get your child accustomed to wearing only
clean, dry diapers. You can do this by teaching your child to ask for
changes whenever she is wet or soiled, and by making diaper changes
pleasant (Schmidt 2004).
Watch your language
Schmidt also thinks parents should avoid sending negative messages about feces. In theory, kids may hide or
refuse to use the toilet if they get the idea that defecation is bad
(Taubman et al 2003). For this reason, Schmidt
advises against referring to feces as “dirty or yucky” (Schmidt 2004).
But it’s unclear if this is actually helpful.
In a recent study, parents
who took this approach were no less likely to have children who held
back stools, hid, or refused to use the potty. The only apparent benefit
was that children who did refuse to the use potty passed through this
phase more quickly if their parents avoided references to dirtiness
(Taubman et al 2003).
Most toddlers prefer starchy diets and eat little fiber. This puts
them at risk for developing constipation, which leads to longer, more
difficult potty sessions and, possibly, pain (Blum et al 2004). If your child appears
constipated, delay toddler toilet training. Discuss dietary changes with
your pediatrician, and make sure your child is drinking enough fluids.
Soft, easy-to-pass stools will make toddler potty training easier.
For more information about toddler potty training, see my article on
toilet training techniques.
References: Preparing for toddler potty training
Blum NJ, Taubman B, and Nemeth N. 2003. Relationship between age at
initiation of toilet training and duration of training: A prospective
study. Pediatrics, 111: 810-814.
Bock J and Johnson SE. 2004. Subsistence ecology and play among the Okavango Delta peoples of Botswana. Human Nature, 15: 63-81.
BH. 1990. Playful relationships: A contextual analysis of
mother-toddler interaction and symbolic play. Child Development, 61:
Krevans J and Gibbs JC. 1996. Parents’ use of inductive
discipline: relations to children’s empathy and prosocial behavior.
Child Development, 67: 3263-77.
Meltzoff A. 1996. The human infant
as imitative generalist: A 20-year progress report on infant imitation
with implications for comparative psychology. In: CM Heyes and BG Galef,
Jr. (eds). Social learning: The roots of culture (pp.347-370). San
Diego: Academic Press.
Pellegrini AD and Bjorkland DF. 2004. The ontogeny and phylogeny of children’s object and fantasy play. Human Nature, 15: 23-43.
Sears W, Sears M and Watts Kelly C. 2002. You can go to the potty. Boston, MA Little, Brown and Company.
A. 1987 A longitudinal study of maternal involvement and symbolic play
during the toddler period. Child development, 58:367-375
Schmidt BA. 2004. Toilet training: Getting it right the first time. Contemporary Pediatrics, 21: 105-119.
Taubman B. 1997. Toilet training and toileting refusal for stool only: A prospective study. Pediatrics, 99: 54-58.
B, Blum NJ, and Nemeth N. 2003. Stool toileting refusal: A prospective
intervention targeting parental behavior. Archives of Pediatrics and
Adolescent Medicine, 157: 1193-2003.
Content of "Toddler potty training" last modified 2006