Deciding if Your Child Is Ready
Even though you learned to use the toilet years ago, the idea of teaching your children to do the same is something that many parents find quite daunting. Despite the fact that you have little to no control over your children’s bladder and bowel movements, you persist in helping your children progress out of diapers.
Here are just some of the reasons you may have for wanting your children to learn to use the toilet:
You may want to eliminate the cost of diapers or needing your kids to be trained for a particular preschool program or to go in a public pool.
You may be tired of changing diapers or, if you have a little one on the way, concerned about having two in diapers.
You may feel that the quality of your parenting is judged by your children’s success in the bathroom.
Additionally, you may worry about your children’s development or social implications with age mates if yours is the last in their class to still wear diapers.
Perhaps, privacy is an issue as you believe your children are old enough that they should be caring for their own bodies.
Toilet Learning vs. Toilet Training
We use the phrase “toilet learning,” rather than “toilet training.” “Training” implies that you have the ability to teach your children – and that the success or failure falls on you.
The term “learning” acknowledges your child’s part in the process and also takes into account that it usually occurs over time, not all at once.
Yes, for some children toilet learning can happen overnight, but for most it takes a while until they are fully prepared and able to use the toilet 100% of the time.
The history of toilet training
This may not match your image or the stories that you heard about your own toileting success. In the past, children were trained to use the toilet at a much younger age.
Research reported in Academy of Family Physicians states, “In the United States, the average age at which training begins has increased over the past four decades from earlier than 18 months of age to between 21 and 36 months of age, and that only 40 to 60 percent of children complete toilet training by 36 months of age.”
Why the shift? Is there an evolutionary component to our bladder and bowel control? Unlikely. The answer revolves around certain inventions and cultural changes.
In days of yore, many people did not have washers and dryers. Dirty diapers had to be washed by hand and in the winter or rainy weather, strung across the house to dry. As a result, parents were quite motivated to teach their children to use the toilet.
In addition, this process can be time intensive. In these olden days, children were taken to sit on the toilet on a schedule – one which the parent followed closely. To do so, a parent needed to have a toilet readily available – not something most working parents or busy-on-the go- stay-at-home parents have on hand. If you go antiquing, you may even find one of those old high chairs with a potty seat built in.
Times have changed. In the past, parents were quite motivated and often they were the ones to be trained. With the availability of disposable diapers, children today use the toilet later because parents can wait until their children are ready to assume responsibility.
What is involved in toilet learning?
And what a responsibility it is! As an adult, you may talk about “going to the bathroom” as though it were one easy step. In reality there are many steps involved, including:
Knowing that you need to go
Finding the bathroom
Opening the door
Turning on a light
Pulling down pants (maybe undo buttons/snaps)
Getting onto the toilet
Getting the toilet paper (and not taking too much)
Doing a good job wiping
Flushing – this can be a scary step for many kids
Thoroughly washing hands
You may think of even more steps. It is a lot that children have to do to “go to the bathroom.” With this in mind, it is not surprising that many kids are reluctant to take on this responsibility.
Factors to Determine Readiness
Part of the trick to successful toilet learning is judging when your child is up for the task. Consider the following four issues:
1. Maturity Level
Maturity level is the combination of ability and motivation.
Your child may seem to have the ability to control her bodily functions, but does not want to do so. This is not so unreasonable in light of all the steps just mentioned above that kids need to go through to use the bathroom.
Conversely, your child may be quite motivated, particularly if friends or classmates are using the potty, but he just can’t seem to get the hang of it.
Until both pieces come together, your child is not fully ready to use the toilet. To further complicate matters, you can consider how able and how motivated a child is in a four different areas of growth:
- Does your child have the ability to manipulate all of the buttons, seats, lights…?
- Does he have the ability to recognize the signs that he needs to go and to hold off until he is in the appropriate place? There is a neurological piece that comes into play for the bladder to send signals to the brain. It all takes time to develop.
- Is your child ready to handle the responsibility?
- Can she handle having an accident? Will she get overly upset?
- Is she willing and able to tell you when she has an accident and to help clean up?
- Does he understand all the things involved?
- Is he able to communicate his needs to you?
- Is she willing to stop her play to go and use the facilities?
Ideally, all of these pieces will be in place before children try to learn to use the toilet. Often this is not the case because they have greater ability or greater motivation. Having this awareness is helpful to you because you can use it to see what type of assistance your children need.
If they lack ability, you may need to be nearby lending a helping hand or keeping a schedule. If they lack internal motivation, they will need your on-going encouragement.
Sometimes you have reasons for wanting your children out of diapers. That’s ok – it just will take more time and support from you to help them over the hurdles if they are not fully ready to make the transition to the toilet.
2. Situational Factors
You may want to think about the circumstances surrounding your timing.
Did you just move or have a major change in your household? Because such adjustments can throw children off balance, this may not be an ideal time to add the additional stress of worrying about toileting.
Is there a new baby in the house? Many children seem to regress a bit with the addition of a new sibling – they aren’t quite ready to give up the attention and still want to be babied.
Some, however, do relish the idea of being the big brother or sister, basking in all of the glory and responsibilities associated with it. In this case, you may find that your child wants to be out of diapers to distinguish himself from the baby.
So if your children express an interest, try to foster it (with a new baby you may be spending more time at home anyway). However, if your children seem reluctant, this is not usually the most productive time to introduce toileting or any new skill.
In addition, some children find it easier to use the toilet than others because of their temperaments, which are inborn traits that describe many aspects of their personality. For example,
a child who has a high activity level may have trouble sitting still on the potty.
One who has a high sensory threshold may not notice that he is wet.
One whose biological clock is irregular may not need to go at predictable times, such as upon waking or after eating.
A child who focuses intently on what she is doing may have a more difficult time stopping an activity she is engaged in to go to the bathroom.
It does not mean that these children will not master toileting. It means that for them it may be a greater challenge and they may need more support from you to help them sit still, to recognize that they need to go, to notice that they are wet, and to break away from what they are doing.
4. Developmental Stages
Also, it is important to note that children go through periods of development where their behavior is smoother and other periods when their behavior is quite rough, similar to the ups-and-downs of a roller coaster.
When your children are in a rough patch, known as disequilibrium, everything is more difficult – getting dressed, getting in and out of the car, eating meals, making transitions from one activity to another, and cleaning up toys.
Younger children typically cycle in and out of these periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium every six months with the half-years typically encompassing the difficult behaviors.
Not surprisingly, during periods of disequilibrium, when everything is so stressful, it is not usually advisable to add yet another area that is primed for a power struggle – toileting, particularly since this is an area where you ultimately do not have any control.
However, some children “want to do it myself” as they go through disequilibrium. These kids may actually want to learn to use the toilet as part of their growing independence – so again, if your children are the ones asking, keep encouraging them, even if they are in a period of disequilibrium.
Ten Steps in Toilet Learning
Once you decide that it is a good time for your children to learn to use the toilet, here are the ten steps to follow:
Relax! A calm, easy-going approach to toilet learning works best.
Comfort level and relaxation about toilet learning is more important than any single right method.
You should only start when you have the time and patience.
Show your children what to do in the bathroom.
- Have fathers/men help teach sons and mothers/women help teach daughters.
- Use dolls to practice the steps.
Teach your children the words your family uses for body parts, urine and bowel movements.
- Remember to select words you will be comfortable with them using in public.
Help your children recognize when they are urinating or having a bowel movement.
Verbalize to them what is occurring.
Help them become aware of how uncomfortable wet, sticky diapers are, and how comfortable it feels to be dry.
Borrow or purchase a potty chair or a potty attachment for the toilet.
- Let your children get used to the idea of sitting on the potty.
- Realize that the act of urinating is complex.
- Give your children time to practice bathroom habits; don’t rush them.
Begin reading potty books to your children.
- Emphasize the universality and maturity of going to the toilet: “Everyone does it.”
Use training pants and easy-to-remove clothing without a lot of buttons or snaps.
- Call “learning” pants “underpants,” and point out that other family members wear them.
Beginning when your children tell you that they have to go to the potty: STOP and help them with clothing and assist them onto the potty.
Praise success and reassure about misses.
“Accidents” are outside your children’s control and are a part of the learning process.
Be gentle. Often children are already upset when they have “accidents” and need your support.
– Limit sitting on the potty to 5 minutes – for your sanity and theirs.
Some kids hate to sit, others love that they have your full attention and will want to stay on for as long as they can.
Teach them how much toilet paper to use, how to wipe, and how to wash their hands.
A few other sugggestions
- One way to test if your children are ready is to have an underwear weekend.
You will need to pick a time when you have few outside obligations, you are able to do extra laundry, and you have the time and patience to work with your child.
You can explain that for this weekend your child is going to wear underwear.
If you see progress and your child seems to be getting the hang of it, you can continue.
- If your child has many accidents and you are not seeing steady progress, then the weekend is over and diapers are again in place. It wasn’t a failure, rather the weekend was up. You can then try again in a few weeks, a few months, or whenever your child seems to be ready.
If your children have many of the readiness factors in place, the process of toilet learning can go fairly quickly and smoothly. Some children have very few accidents.
If your children aren’t fully ready, but you’ve started and you are both willing to commit, then with a bit of patience they will get there.
Once you start, ideally, you don’t want to go back and forth between underwear and diapers. It can be confusing to children as to when they are responsible for toileting.
- If you decide that now is the time, then do not present wearing underwear or sitting on the toilet as an option. Give simple, direct instructions about what has to happen and remember to bring along your patience!
All children become proficient at using the toilet. If you can wait until your children are motivated and willing to work with you, it is best to do so. If it has turned into a power struggle and you are able to wait, it is best to back away from the issue for the time being and try again in the future.
Frequently Asked Questions:
You mentioned that some children have a difficult time sitting still. That is my son. He is always on the go and fights with me when I suggest he sit on the potty. Or he sits but he is back up within 5 seconds. How can I get him to stay still long enough?
It can be hard for some children like your son to sit still long enough to go on the potty. It is important to realize that he isn’t trying to be difficult. For some children with a high activity level, it really can be hard to stay put long enough to finish up on the toilet.
One idea is to read a book (or two) to him or sing a song with him. Make an agreement beforehand that he’ll stay seated until you are finished.
Help! My child wanted to sit on the toilet all the time when she was a year and half. Now she is 2 ½ and shows no interest. Did I miss my opportunity?
A lot of people go through the same thing you describe. Around 18-months many children do show an interest in bodily functions and toilets in particular. For most, it is just a passing interest.
While some will actually get the hang of it, most want the opportunity to sit on the potty, but will be back in diapers for a while more. Your daughter may show greater interest around age three.
My daughter made a bowel movement on the toilet. I was so proud of her. I called my husband in and we had a big flushing celebration. My daughter started crying hysterically and doesn’t want to go in the bathroom now. What happened?
Although your daughter’s reaction seemed surprising to you, it is not that unusual. Children view their bowel movements as being part of them and it can be scary to see it disappearing down the toilet.
You’ll need to talk with your daughter. See if you can put words to what she is feeling and reassure her that the rest of her will not be flushed away. You can have her practice flushing toilet paper. If she is still upset, you may want to have her go in a “potty chair” for a while and then clean it out and flush it when she is not present.
Should I purchase disposable underwear or am I better off going straight to cloth underwear?
Disposable underwear can be useful in certain situations, but in general we recommend that children who are learning to use the potty wear cloth undies. That way, they immediately experience the natural consequences of having an accident, such as feeling wet, needing to get changed, and having to help clean up any mess.
Disposables can be handy for nighttime when an accident could cost you and your child sleep. Also, they can be useful if you are going out and are concerned that an accident would be embarrassing or a problem.
My son, age 4, has been wearing underwear for the past year, but he often wets himself at night. Is there a problem?
Nighttime training is separate from daytime training and often does not occur until children are five. Nighttime wetting is not usually a medical concern until age eight. So you can relax about the nighttime and still use diapers for the time being.
Knowing that nighttime control can take longer than daytime can leave parents reluctant to try underwear at night. However, some children will successfully wear underwear to bed on their first night of training without any incident. So if your child wants to and if you have the time and patience to potentially change sheets in the middle of the night, you may want to give it a try. You may be pleasantly surprised.
My child is struggling with constipation. Now he cries when he has to go and says it hurts. What should we do?
Constipation can become a serious problem. If the child has a hard and painful bowel movement, then he may try to hold his next one to avoid the pain. Then the next bowel movement gets hard and once again is painful. So the child tries to hold in the next one… You can see where this is going. It becomes a vicious cycle. Ask your pediatrician for suggestions and ideas.
In addition, you’ll also want to contact your medical provider if your child who previously stayed dry during the daytime begins to wet him or herself. You’ll want to rule out constipation and urinary tract infections.
My son uses the toilet at preschool, but refuses to do so at home for me. What gives?
Many children have greater success in a school setting where they are emulating what the other students are doing. Look at it as a move in the right direction that at least he can stay dry in certain situations and knows what to do.
You may want to ask the school what words they use and what procedures they follow, so you can follow through with the same words/schedule at home. You can also ask the teachers to talk to your child about using the toilet at home. Sometimes an outside person, such as a teacher or pediatrician, can get through to your child in a way that a parent cannot.
<recommended books about toilet learning
<books to read with your children about using the potty
<all our recommended parenting books
<additional articles in the Baby through Preschool series