Toddler potty training:

How to get your child ready

© 2006 Gwen Dewar, all rights reserved

Laying the groundwork for toddler potty training

In 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 interests.

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.

But “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.

Let 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

If 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 and sore…”)

To reinforce your explanations, try these books: By Taro Gomi - Everyone Poops (1st Edition) (8.2.1993) by Taro Gomi (Kane/Miller publishing, 1993), and Where's the Poop? by Julie Marks and Susan Kathleen Hartung (Harper Festival, 2004)


Weeks 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

Introduce underwear

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

Pediatrician Barton 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).

Prevent constipation

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.

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

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.

Fiese BH. 1990. Playful relationships: A contextual analysis of mother-toddler interaction and symbolic play. Child Development, 61: 1648-1656

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.

Slade, 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.

Taubman 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