A parent's guide to signs of toilet training readiness: Do you really need to wait?
© 2006 - 2014, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
The concept of "toilet training readiness" was pioneered by
pediatricians like Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton (Brazelton et
Spock and Brazelton argued that some children are
pushed into training before they are ready. As a remedy, these
practitioners proposed a child-oriented approach to potty training.
to this idea, children, not parents, should lead the way. Today, the
child-oriented approach is very popular, and many authors have suggested
their own signs of toilet training readiness.
Do you really need to wait for these signs? No. As I argue below, your decision to wait should depend on your goals and expectations. Moreover, many of the signs concern learned behavior. So you don't have to play a passive waiting game. You can take active steps to teach your child what he or she needs to know.
But what exactly do the toilet training experts want you to look for?
When to start potty training: A sampler of toilet training readiness signs
Most experts recommend that you should wait until your child is
- healthy (no diarrhea or constipation, for example)
- relaxed (not stressed by new life changes, like a move)
- cooperative (not going through a rebellious phase)
After that, opinions vary.
The American Academy of Pediatrics
The American Academy of Pediatrics (2006) has published a checklist
of signs to help you determine when to start potty training. Here is an
- Your child stays dry at least 2 hours at a time during the day or is dry after naps.
- Bowel movements become regular and predictable.
- Facial expressions, posture, or words reveal that your child is about to urinate or have a bowel movement.
- Your child can follow simple instructions.
- Your child can walk to and from the bathroom and help undress.
- Your child seems uncomfortable with soiled diapers and wants to be changed.
- Your child asks to use the toilet or potty chair.
- Your child asks to wear "grown-up underwear."
Peter Gorski, M.D., Massachusetts Caring For Children Foundation
A somewhat different list of signs is offered by Peter Gorski (1999),
director of the Massachusetts Caring for Children Foundation. In an
article for the medical journal Pediatrics, he proposes these signs:
- Your child can imitate your behavior
- Your child can put things where they belong
- Your child can demonstrate independence by saying “no."
- Your child can express interest in toilet training (e.g., following you to the bathroom)
- Your child can walk and is ready to sit down
- Your child can indicate first when he is “going" (urinating or defecating) and then when he needs to “go."
- Your child is able to pull clothes up and down (on and off)
Other sources suggest more signs of toilet training readiness, such as
- A reduced sense of excitement about walking (i.e., this skill is now “old hat") (Brazelton and Sparrow 2004)
- A desire to control bladder and bowel functions (Canadian Pediatric Society 2000),
- A desire to do things for him or herself (O’Connell 2000, p. 162).
When to start potty training: Should you wait for the signs?
If you’ve skimmed these checklists, you probably noticed several key points.
First, these signs of readiness presuppose that you want to
train for complete potty training independence.
If you’re going to ask
your child to walk to the bathroom, then clearly you need to wait until
he can walk. But if you’re interested in the more modest goals of infant
potty training, you don't need to rely on these signs to decide when to
start potty training. Most of these “readiness" signs don’t apply to
Second, the lists vary considerably.
Depending on which expert you consult, your child may or may not be ready. In a recent study reviewing all the published signs of toilet training readiness, researchers concluded there was no good consensus, and that parents might begin toilet training at very different times depending on which signs they relied upon (Kaerts et al 2012).
Third, and most importantly, many of these signs
concern learned behaviors.
They can be encouraged or taught by parents.
And they probably should be. If parents wait passively for children to
learn how to undress themselves, or to show curiosity about the toilet,
they may wait for a long time.
In a recent study of American children,
aged 15-40 months, most toilet-related skills were not mastered until
after 22 months, and the median age for attaining some skills—like
telling a parent before having a bowel movement—was over 31 months
(Schum et al 2002).
That’s a very long time if you consider that
“median" means that half the kids took even longer.
are no specific studies published on the subject, it seems likely that
parents can speed things up by teaching readiness skills. Barton
Schmidt, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado, says
that one of the most common mistakes parents make is doing nothing to
prepare until the week they start training (Schmidt 2004).
For more information about the timing of toilet training, see this evidence-based review.
Also, check out the American Academy of Pediatrics website for a full discussion of their
signs of toilet training readiness.
References: Toilet training readiness
American Academy of Pediatrics. 2006. Toilet training readiness American Academy of Pediatrics website. (visited November 24, 2006).
Brazelton TB and Sparrow JD. 2004. Toilet training the Brazelton way. Cambridge, MA: deCapo Press.
TB, Christophersen ER, Frauman AC, Gorski PA, Poole JM, Stadtler AC,
Wright CL. 1999. Instruction, timeliness, and medical influences
affecting toilet training. Pediatrics, 103: 1353-1358.
Pediatric Society. 2000. Toilet learning: Anticipatory guidances with a
child-oriented approach. Paediatrics and Child Heath, 5: 333-5.
Gorski PA. 1999. Toilet training guidelines: Parents—the role of parents in toilet training. Pediatrics, 103: 362-363.
Kaerts N, Van Hal G, Vermandel A, and Wyndaele JJ. 2012. Readiness signs used to define the proper moment to start toilet training: a review of the literature. Neurourol Urodyn. 31(4):437-40.
O’Connell, D. 2000. As they grow: Your two-year-old. New York: St Martins.
Schmidt BA. 2004. Toilet training: Getting it right the first time. Contemporary Pediatrics, 21: 105-119.
TR, Kolb TM, McAuliffe TL, Simms, MD, Underhill, RL and Lewis M. 2002.
Sequential acquisition of toilet-training skills: A descriptive study of
gender and age differences in normal children. Pediatrics 109: 48-54.
Content of "Signs of toilet training readiness" last updated 2/14