When should you start toilet training your child?
Your child must be both physically and emotionally ready for toilet training. Most children are ready to start when they are between 22 and 30 months of age, but every child is different. Toilet training usually becomes a long and frustrating process if you try to start it before your child is ready.
Before children can use the toilet, they must be able to control their bowel and bladder muscles. Some signs of this control are having bowel movements around the same time each day, not having bowel movements at night, and having a dry diaper after a nap or for at least 2 hours at a time. Children must also be able to remove clothing and climb onto the toilet, communicate, and have mastered other basic motor skills before they can use the toilet by themselves.
Most children are physically ready to toilet train before they are emotionally ready. Your child must want to use the toilet and be willing to cooperate with you. Your child may even talk about being a "big boy" or "big girl" and wearing underpants rather than diapers. Training often doesn't go well if your child is in the stage where "no" is their automatic response to every request.
At your child's 2-year regular checkup, the health professional will ask you about your child's progress in toilet training. This is a good opportunity to discuss any concerns you have about your child's readiness.
How long does it take to toilet train?
A child is considered toilet-trained when he or she knows that it is time to go to the bathroom and is able to climb onto and use the toilet with little help. The average time it takes is 3 months. Girls usually are toilet-trained a little earlier than boys are.footnote 1
Your child will likely need help with wiping after a bowel movement until age 4 or 5. He or she may also need extra help in unfamiliar bathrooms, such as public restrooms, until about age 5 or 6.
What if your child isn't ready?
If your child resists using the toilet, your child probably isn't ready. Sometimes toilet training disruptions or delays are caused by stress or major changes in routine. Also, a child who is doing well with toilet training may suddenly have difficulty for no obvious reason. This is a normal part of toilet training. It is best to start or resume toilet training when your child is receptive to it and in a stable environment.
Your child's toilet training experience should be positive. If it becomes a struggle or a battle of wills, it is best to ease up or stop for a while. Although you may be ready for toilet training, your child may not be.
Your child is not ready to start toilet training if they show any resistance. Typically, a child objects by:
- Standing next to the potty and then going on the floor.
- Screaming and crying when taken to the potty.
- Seeming comfortable and even happy about sitting in a soiled diaper.
- Saying, "No potty!"
It can be hard to know when to start toilet training. In general, a child must be both physically and emotionally ready before toilet training can be successful. Most children are ready to start when they are between 22 and 30 months of age, but every child is different.
Children go through a toilet readiness phase that won't be the same for every child. Watch for physical and emotional signs that your child is ready to toilet train. Things going on in your family affect your child during this phase. It is not advised to toilet train during a time of family change, such as when there's a move, a new baby, or divorce.
When your child is ready to toilet train, the learning phase can begin. During this time, provide opportunities to toilet train and encourage your child.
A child is physically capable of being toilet-trained when your child develops muscle control over the bowel and bladder. This rarely happens before 18 months of age.
Some basic signs that your child has bowel and bladder control include the following:
- Bowel movements occur on a regular, somewhat predictable schedule.
- Bowel movements do not occur during the night.
- Diapers frequently are dry after waking from a nap or for at least 2 hours at a time.
- Facial expressions, grunting, or squatting show an awareness that your child is passing urine or stool.
Your child must also be able to remove clothing and climb onto and use the toilet with some help. And your child must be able to communicate with you about the need to use the toilet.
Your child may be physically ready to toilet train after 18 months of age. But emotional readiness may take more time. Your child must want to use the toilet. And your child must be willing to cooperate with you during the toilet-training process. For example, training often doesn't go well if your child is in the stage where "no" is their automatic response to every request.
Your child shows emotional readiness for toilet training in several ways. Your child may:
- Tell you when their diaper is dirty and ask to have it changed.
- Be eager to please and able to follow simple directions.
- Tell you that they want to use the toilet or wear underwear instead of diapers.
- Like to be neat and tidy. Many children go through a period where they like being clean and organized.
- Act interested when other family members use the bathroom.
Be careful of getting too excited about your child's readiness after they show one or two of these signs. A child may be excited about using the potty, only to lose interest very quickly.
Delays in toilet training
It is normal for your child to be doing well with toilet training and to suddenly begin having problems. For example, he or she may try to "hold it" for long periods or want to wear diapers again. This does not mean your efforts have failed. But it does mean that you need to ease up on the training for a little while.
Stress in the home can interfere with a child's toilet training. For example, toilet-training setbacks can be related to the arrival of a new baby, a move, a change in preschool or child care, family conflict, or illness or death of a close family member.
A child's toilet habits may also be affected if he or she gets an illness, especially one that has a long recovery time.
Sometimes your child will not cooperate—for no reason that you can figure out.
Negative reactions typically do not help. Children need frequent praise throughout the entire process of toilet training.
You will know your child is toilet-trained when they regularly anticipate the need to go to the bathroom and with little help are able to climb onto and use the type of toilet (potty) that you provide. This process takes time, from weeks to months. Each child is different. But most children are successfully trained around age 3 or shortly thereafter. (Girls are typically trained a few months earlier than boys.) Your child may still need help now and then, such as with wiping, until age 4 or 5. Your child may also need help and reassurance when using a toilet in an unfamiliar bathroom, such as in a public restroom, until about age 5 or 6.
Most toilet-trained children sometimes wet or soil their pants during the day, usually because they get distracted. For example, your child may ignore the need to go to the bathroom because they do not want to interrupt playtime. These accidents may occur until your child is 5 years old. Stress can also cause a child to revert to wetting their pants.
Most children sometimes wet the bed at night until about 12 months after they use the toilet during the day. Many 3-year-olds wet the bed at night at least once a month. Nighttime bed-wetting may even occur sporadically into school age.
Pressure to toilet train your child
You may be confused about when to begin toilet training. This is not surprising, considering that most people are bombarded with advice and expectations from relatives, friends, and day care providers. You may also have personal reasons for wanting your child toilet-trained, such as being pregnant and wanting to avoid having two children in diapers at the same time. Balancing all of these factors can be a challenge.
Resist pressure from friends or family to toilet train your child too early. Parents often feel that their child should be trained by a specific age or to meet a deadline, such as for a requirement to enroll in a particular day care. You and your child are less likely to become frustrated and more likely to have a good experience with toilet training if it is not forced. Staying positive and relaxed is an important part of training your child.
Your child's physical and emotional readiness for toilet training is the most important aspect of the timing. Although you can begin toilet training your child at an earlier-than-average age, it usually takes longer. Also, both you and your child will likely become frustrated if you try toilet training before your child is physically and emotionally ready.
Common behaviors during toilet training
Accidental wetting or soiling
Toilet-trained children may have some accidents up until school age. A child who has an accident during the day is often in the middle of playing and simply holds it too long. Nighttime accidents may occur frequently within the first 12 months after children learn how to use the toilet during the day. Many 3-year-olds wet the bed at night at least once a month.
Playing with stool
The focus on toilet training sometimes inspires children to play with their stools. This is normal behavior. Remind your child that stool is not a toy and that it belongs in the toilet. Reinforce this idea by helping your child to flush it down the toilet. Help your child satisfy a natural need to feel textures by offering playtime with molding material, such as clay or Play-Doh, or finger paints.
Touching the genitals
Sometimes toilet training sparks curiosity about where urine and stool come from, prompting some children to feel and touch their genital area. This is a normal part of how children learn about their bodies. Don't shame or punish your child for this behavior. You can explain the function of the genitals and suggest that they are personal body parts to be looked at and explored in private.
When To Call
Call your doctor if you have concerns about your child's readiness for or progress with toilet training.
Most children use the toilet during the day consistently and successfully around age 3. Call your doctor if your child:
- Does not use the toilet during the day by age 4.
- Continues to soil their pants after age 5.
How to Prepare Your Child
There are many different strategies and approaches to toilet training. The methods that work best use positive reinforcement and begin intensive training only when a child is physically and emotionally ready. Introduce the basic concepts of toilet use gradually and repetitively to your child. As your child gains the necessary skills, he or she will show a sincere interest in using the toilet.
Before you decide to start toilet training, make sure the household environment is stable and that all family members are prepared to help in the process. Trying to start potty training soon after having another child, while remodeling your home, while having a succession of household guests, right before going on vacation, or during a time of relationship problems will likely not be as successful as during a calm period when the family can focus on helping your young child reach this important developmental milestone.
Talking with your child
Talk with your child about having a bowel movement and about urinating. Your child may be more comfortable saying "poop" and "pee." It is fine to use these words, but use the proper terms as well so that your child learns what they mean.
Start to talk with your child about how to use the toilet. Explain how the toilet works and how your child will be able to use it when he or she is ready. Be enthusiastic and always speak positively about your child's using the potty. Talk about how he or she will no longer need to wear diapers, will get to wear underpants that are more comfortable, and can go just like a big boy or girl.
You can also use books and DVDs to help prepare your child. Ask your doctor or a librarian for more information.
Your child may want to join you when you use the toilet. If you feel comfortable with an audience, allow him or her to join you. Talk with your child about what you are doing.
Choosing a potty
Take your child with you to select a potty that is sturdy and comfortable. Be patient and give your child time to get used to and comfortable with it. Some ways to do this are by:
- Letting your child move a portable potty into his or her room or other play area to get used to having it around.
- Helping make the potty special by personalizing it, such as painting it or writing your child's name on it.
- Letting your child sit on it and read a book or sit on it with his or her diaper on while having a stool or urinating. You can say, "This is your special chair for you to go pee-pee and poop in. Soon you will use it just like grownups use the toilet."
Eventually, your child will show an interest in using the toilet. When this happens, follow your child's lead and start the process.
Here are some suggestions that can make this process go more smoothly.
- Dress your child in clothing that is easy to remove.
Clothes that have elastic waistbands or easy-to-open fasteners (such as Velcro) work best. Pull-on diapers also work well during toilet training. Bib overalls and one-piece outfits are hard for a child to take off.
- Get a step stool.
A step stool supports the feet and allows your child to push his or her feet against the stool during a bowel movement.
- Help your child feel comfortable and safe on the toilet.
Assure your child that he or she will not fall in. Some children feel more comfortable sitting backward, facing the toilet tank.
- Teach your boy how to urinate as he sits on the toilet.
(Some boys may need to push down on their penis so that the urine stream goes into the bowl and not over the front of the toilet seat.) As he grows taller, he can learn to urinate from a standing position. A small step stool may help him reach the toilet bowl and improve his accuracy.
- Teach your child to wipe properly.
Show him or her how to remove toilet paper from the roll, wipe, and throw the used toilet paper in the toilet. Instruct girls to wipe from front to back, which helps avoid infection caused by getting stool near the urethra or the vagina. Many children need help to wipe effectively, especially after a bowel movement, until about age 4 or 5. You may want to keep diaper wipes near the toilet to help remove residue without chafing your child's skin.
- Help your child flush the toilet.
Some children are afraid of the sucking mechanism of the toilet. If your child has this fear, it is fine for you to flush the toilet after he or she leaves the room. Eventually, your child will be able to flush the toilet without a problem.
- Teach your child how to wash his or her hands after using the toilet.
Do not try to begin toilet training before your child is physically and emotionally ready. Trying to toilet train your child before this time creates frustration for both of you.
Toilet training is usually more successful if you are relaxed and patient with your child.
- Avoid power struggles.
These will only make toilet training more stressful and last longer.
- Be positive.
All experiences and associations with toilet training should be positive. Do not scold, punish, or embarrass your child for failing to use the toilet.
- Do not force your child.
Do not verbally or physically force your child to sit on a potty. Allow your child to sit on the potty only for 5 minutes at a time unless he or she is beginning to pass stool or urine.
- Let your child choose.
Tell your child that it is up to him or her to decide when to use the toilet.
- Praise and encourage your child for success.
You can say, "You are sitting on your potty just like mommy (or daddy, or big sister)" or "You are trying really hard to poop (or pee) in your potty." Reward your child for trying to use the toilet. You can use verbal praise and fun activities, such as stickers or special playtime with you.
- Remember that accidents happen.
Do not scold or punish your child for accidentally wetting or soiling his or her pants. Be matter-of-fact and reassure your child that it's okay and that he or she will get better with practice. Also, remind your child to use the toilet when he or she wakes up in the morning.
- Be patient.
If you and your child are not making progress with toilet training, it's okay. It's probably not the right time. Put the potty chair away until your child shows that he or she wants to try again.
The most important things to remember for toilet training are to wait until your child and family are ready and to make it a positive experience. Be patient, and look forward to the days ahead of freedom from diapers.
Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:John Pope MD - Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics