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A Parent's Guide to Potty Training: the research, the advice and my experience.

Updated: Feb 2

I’m Lauren, a child development expert and mum of three. All of my children are now potty trained and, while I don’t profess to being an expert, I do hope this article is helpful if you’re about to embark on the toilet training journey!



As with so many other aspects of parenting, the internet seems to be able to read our minds whenever we think about the next step, be it weaning, sleep training or potty training! As soon as we so much as mention it out loud, our feeds are full of post after post of advice, tips and well-meaning sources of information. The trouble is, if you’ve not been through it before, it can soon feel overwhelming, contradictory and downright confusing!


If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll know I always start by looking at what published scientific research says on the topic. From there, I add in my own experiences and share any handy hints I’ve learned along the way. I’m not here to tell you how, or when, to potty train your child, but I hope this article helps you to wade through all the sources of information to find the path that feels right for you.


When to start toilet training?


In the UK, the NHS are a little vague in regards to an actual age, preferring instead to focus on the “signs of readiness”. I’ll talk more about signs of readiness later on as there are many and varied “signs of readiness” floating around the internet. I’ll share the research-backed signs alongside the anecdotal ones I’ve heard so you have the full picture.


If you’re looking for a ballpark age, the NHS website¹ states, “You may want to introduce sitting on the potty as part of your child’s normal day when they’re around 18 months to two years. Some people choose to start earlier.” While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)² are a little more definite and suggest that most children are ready for toilet training between 18 and 24 months. In Japan, training commonly starts around the age of two also.


Interestingly³, Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway, often take a more relaxed approach whereas China and some other East Asian countries often begin training much earlier, some from as early as six months!


All of my children successfully trained within a week around the age of two. My eldest was asking to use the toilet at around 22 months old, but I was heavily pregnant with her brother and couldn’t manage the bending so I asked her to wait until he was born and she had just turned two. My eldest son was a little over two when, one day, completely out of the blue, he stubbornly refused to let me change his nappy and that was that! My youngest, on the other hand, showed no interest whatsoever. I wouldn’t say he was against it, he was just completely indifferent and, whenever I suggested he sit on the toilet he’d say no thanks and life moved on. It was only that his older siblings had all trained at a similar age that I thought I’d give it a go and see what happened, it was successful and he was dry day and night within a week, yet if I had only looked for “signs of readiness” I likely wouldn’t have trained him yet at all!


What are the “signs of readiness?”


Research tells us that children are ready when they have:

✔️ “Some degree of bowel and bladder control, identified by the ability to suppress reflexes of the bladder and bowel” (In other words, you might notice you’re changing their nappy less, it’s remaining dry for longer or they’re waking up from naps dry)

✔️ “The neurologic capability to cooperate, as seen in children who can perform basic gross motor skills.”(In other words, they can follow basic instructions and have the motor skills to be able to pull their pants down or remove their nappy themselves)

✔️ Both the child and parent need to be interested and be in a social situation where toilet training is possible.⁴


There are so many other signs that are flying around the internet based on individual children’s cues. I’m not saying these aren’t accurate, because I’m sure they were for the person who shared them and in fact, a study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics highlighted the importance of recognizing individual readiness cues, but bear in mind you might not see all (or any) of these in your particular child.


  • Interest in the Toilet: A child may show curiosity about the toilet, showing interest in watching others use it or asking questions about it.

  • Expressing Discomfort with Dirty Nappies: Children who are ready for toilet training may display discomfort or displeasure when their nappy is wet or soiled.

  • Communication Skills: The development of language skills is often associated with readiness. The child may be able to communicate their needs or express when they need to go to the bathroom.

  • Recognition of Bodily Functions: Children who are ready for toilet training may show awareness of their bodily functions, indicating when they are about to urinate or have a bowel movement. They may go to a particular part of the room or ‘hide’ themselves before they poo.

  • Consistent Patterns: Consistency in bowel movements or urination patterns may suggest readiness for toilet training.

  • Expressing Independence: Some children may begin to assert their independence, wanting to do things on their own, which can include using the toilet.


Your attitude matters!

Research in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology⁵ emphasizes the significance of positive parental attitudes, encouragement and consistent routines during toilet training. My advice would be to decide on the method you feel comfortable with (more on that later) and then commit to it. If your experience is anything like mine, there will come a point (maybe on day 2 or 3) where you think you’ve made a mistake, they’re not getting it and you start to doubt whether they’re ready after all. Much like that moment during labour when you think you can’t do it anymore, in my experience, this feeling of doubt is usually when things start to improve. I know with all three of mine, I was really close to giving up and putting a nappy back on, but, I was very glad I didn’t, because 24 hours later there was a very noticeable improvement. Perhaps obvious, but worth noting, the Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis⁶ found that using positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment when it comes to toilet training. There are many different methods to use for positive reinforcement. For your own sanity as much as their motivation, I recommend celebrating EVERY small improvement. Maybe it was that they managed to pull their own pants down and sit on the toilet themselves, or they sat for longer than they did before, they went and sat down when you asked them to, the time between accidents increased, they managed to do some in the toilet...you get the idea! Celebrate it all. My children loved stickers at that age so they would get a sticker each time they sat on the toilet or potty, another if they managed to do anything in it. We also used a sticker chart so they could show Daddy how well they had done at the end of the day when he got home from work.


Before we started, I also involved my children in choosing a new packet of underwear so that they would be excited to use it when training. Secretly, I’d buy two different packets that they liked but then only show them one beforehand. When they had had their first dry day I’d give them their second set as a well done and a motivation to keep going.


You may or may not like the use of reward systems, in fact, I previously wrote an article about their use, so head over there if you want to know what the research says about them but I think the most important thing during this process is that your child knows you love them, that you believe they can do it and that you are proud of them for trying.  


Does training a boy or a girl make a difference? 


I had heard that boys were harder to train than girls. When my eldest son was two, I had no idea if this was truth or rumour, but it had made me slightly worried, especially as he kind of sprung the toilet training thing on me by refusing to wear a nappy all of a sudden!


When I looked into it later, I found studies, such as one in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioural Pediatrics⁷, that had found that girls often show readiness signs earlier than boys, but that once boys' training starts, they often catch up with girls quickly.


The study found that “girls achieve nearly all toilet-training skills earlier than boys, including successful completion although the fairness of this study was questioned, as many of the girls’ parents started training before the boys’ parents.  


Subsequently, some questioned whether the parent’s differing expectations of boys and girls were ultimately causing the differences. For example, if parents expect boys to take longer or face more challenges during potty training perhaps parents are adopting a more gradual approach.


So, you’ve decided your child is ready, but what now?


There are so many different methods out there. Here I’ve gathered some of the ones I’ve read about over the years, again, I’m not here to say which one you should do but I’ll share my experiences too.


Child-Oriented (Child-Led) Training:

This method involves allowing your child to take the lead in the process. Parents who favour this approach will wait for their child to show an interest in using the potty or the toilet before beginning the training process. Once it begins, they may place a potty in every room as a reminder and ask their child if they want to use it but the key is not to push them and instead let them learn at their own pace.   This was the approach I took with my daughter – she was very articulate and able to communicate her wishes very clearly from a young age. She was also my only child at the time so she had my full attention and I could, more or less, respond to her every need. We ditched the nappies and relied solely on underwear (apart from at naptime and night time) and encouraged her to keep going even if she was having lots of accidents. She had her first accident-free day on day three but I would say of all my children she was the most ready. We figured out early on that she didn’t like to sit on a potty and preferred a training seat on the normal toilet.   My son, on the other hand, who refused to wear a nappy one day, was partly trained using the child-led approach, in that the decision to start training was his. But, because I had two children (and less time), I needed to take more control and be more prescriptive about how he did it so I veered more towards the parent-oriented approach. Parent-Oriented (Parent-Led) Training: In this approach, parents take the initiative to schedule regular toilet breaks for the child, even if the child does not show explicit signs of needing to go. It often involves a more structured and proactive approach from the parents. Parents may block out a period of time and clear their schedules so that they can stay home and focus solely on helping their children learn to use the toilet.


With both my sons we would take regular toilet breaks, to the point where it felt like we were living in the bathroom at times! I would sit on the floor next to them or, if they were on the potty, I’d sit on the toilet and either model going to the toilet or just sit and chat while they tried to go. In the beginning, nothing would happen while they sat and so, after a while, they’d get up and go and play. Usually, a couple of minutes later, they’d have an accident in their pants so we’d go back to the bathroom, sit down, see if there was any more and then get changed. This process was repeated often and, if I’m honest, it took a lot of patience and deep breaths to stay positive when I knew exactly what was about to happen, but, I promise, they do get there. Both the boys were accident-free day and night within a week. I initially put nappies on them at naptime and sleep time but they were dry so I stopped using them. We would always go to the toilet before going to bed and immediately on waking. Gradual Potty Training: Some parents prefer a gradual transition from nappies to the toilet. This may involve inviting the child to use the potty or the toilet before the bath each night or using it before bedtime. Gradually building up the opportunities to use it allows the child to adapt slowly to the new routine. To some extent, we did this with my daughter. From about 12 months, we would sit her on the toilet before her bath in the evening. Nine times out of ten, nothing would happen but when it did we’d make a big fuss of her and tell her how clever she was. I think this was part of the reason she was keen to use the toilet early and never really used a potty (she preferred the actual toilet). Naked or Bare-Bottom Method: This method involves allowing the child to go without nappies or underwear, especially during the initial stages of training. The idea is that without the security of nappies, children may become more aware of their bodily functions. Many people favour training their children in the Summer months for this reason. Personally, I deliberately trained all my children in Winter because I’d rather their accidents were caught in their (thick) trousers than fall on my carpets, and I think there is something to be said for the feeling of being wet. It’s not something they are used to and one that they’re probably quite keen to avoid! Night-time Training: Night-time training is a whole separate topic and one I won’t go into in too much detail here as this article has gone on long enough already! Some studies⁸ show that night-time dryness usually lags behind daytime dryness due to a number of factors including the presence (or lack of) a particular hormone. It is normal for children to take longer to stay dry at night but it isn’t always the case. Both my boys were dry day and night at the same time. My daughter was nearer three when we finally ditched the nappies at night but I think we could have taken them away earlier. We worried massively that we would have lots of night-time disturbances if we took her nappy away, we didn't and haven't with the boys either, so don’t let the horror stories of the internet worry you.  


Hints and tips I’ve learned along the way!

Potty Training Books and Videos: Using books, videos, or other educational resources can help introduce the concept of using the toilet in a fun and engaging way. Some children respond well to visual aids and stories.

We had a couple of books that we introduced to our children from about 18 months onwards. One was called Pirate Pete Potty which has a sound button they can press and the other was I Want My Potty by Tony Ross. If the boys wanted to instantly get up from the potty we would sometimes show them a short clip of the Potty Monkey cartoon on YouTube. It’s very American but would distract them for a few moments.   Team Approach: Involving the child in the process and making it a team effort can be motivating.


Having older siblings to watch go to the toilet and to give praise was also really beneficial as our youngest absolutely idolises his older brother and sister.


Allowing them to flush the toilet or show you how they wash their hands can make them feel more in control.


We would also keep a basket of spare pants and trousers in the bathroom so he could choose which ones he put on each time he had to get changed.


Having another adult to share their progress with. We would make a really big deal of telling their dad how well they’d done when he got home from work and we’d immediately phone their Granny when they were successful on the toilet.

And finally...


If you've got this far, well done! I hope this has helped give you a summary of the research alongside my experiences hints and tips.


If you’re soon to start the process, make sure you've plenty of activities to keep you going while you're stuck indoors (my activity cards come in really handy here!) and make sure you buy yourself some nice hand cream to save your skin after all the extra handwashing.


Finally and most importantly, don’t forget to buy yourself a treat to eat or drink when your little one is safely tucked up in bed as you’ll well and truly deserve it!


Remember this phase is not forever and, once they've nailed it, it’ll save you a fortune on nappies!


All the best,

Lauren

x



Credits: Image of boy with toilet paper by Freepix

Sources:

² Kiddoo DA. Toilet training children: when to start and how to train. CMAJ. 2012 Mar 20;184(5):511-2. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.110830. Epub 2011 Aug 8. PMID: 21825046; PMCID: PMC3307553.

T. Berry Brazelton; A CHILD-ORIENTED APPROACH TO TOILET TRAINING. Pediatrics January 1962; 29 (1): 121–128. 10.1542/peds.29.1.121

William J. Shaw, TOILET TRAINING: WHAT DO PARENTS KNOW, ANYWAY?, Journal of Pediatric Psychology, Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 1976, Pages 4–6, https://doi.org/10.1093/jpepsy/1.1.4

⁷ Schum, Timothy & Kolb, Thomas & McAuliffe, Timothy & Simms, Mark & Underhill, Richard & Lewis, Marla. (2002). Sequential Acquisition of Toilet-Training Skills: A Descriptive Study of Gender and Age Differences in Normal Children. Pediatrics. 109. E48. 10.1542/peds.109.3.e48.

Angeli M, Bitsori M, Rouva G, Galanakis E. 2023. The role of the autonomic nervous system in nocturnal enuresis. J Pediatr Urol. 19(1):6-18

Bascom A, McMaster MA, Alexander RT, MacLean JE. 2019. Nocturnal enuresis in children is associated with differences in autonomic control. Sleep. 42(3). pii: zsy239

Borg B, Kamperis K, Olsen LH, Rittig S. 2018. Evidence of reduced bladder capacity during nighttime in children with monosymptomatic nocturnal enuresis. J Pediatr Urol. 14(2):160.e1-160.e6.

Butler RJ and Heron J. 2008. The prevalence of infrequent bedwetting and nocturnal enuresis in childhood. A large British cohort. Scand J Urol Nephrol. 42(3):257-64.

Caldwell PH, Edgar D, Hodson E, Craig JC. 2005. 4. Bedwetting and toileting problems in children. Med J Aust. 182(4):190-5.




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