Toilet training is a big step in both yours and your toddler’s life. It is one of the first indications of their burgeoning, albeit slightly trying, sense of independence and mastery of their own little bodies.
There is, however, a bit of a secret to toilet training and that is this: there is absolutely no point if your child is not ready. No point at all. None.
You’ll get frustrated (because let’s face it, who really enjoys cleaning up puddles of urine, soaked into Nanna’s best upholstered lounge suite?), your child will get frustrated (they understand mum isn’t happy with them but can’t do anything about it!), everyone gets very stressed and no one has very much fun.
So the big secret is… wait until your child is ready.
While some children may be ready as early as 18 months, others may not show much interest until around three years of age. Aside from age, there are a number of subtle signs to watch for to help you know when your child is ready to start using the toilet or potty themselves.
Here are five.
Your child can sit still for short periods of time
Your little one needs to absorb quite a lot of new information when it comes to toilet training. Until your toddler can walk capably to the toilet themselves and try sitting for a few minutes at a time (and there may be lots of ‘trying’ and not a lot of ‘going’ at first), it may be best to delay the start of toilet training until they can sit still for three to five minutes at a time.
When ‘trying’ to use the toilet, try sitting your child on the potty or toilet for just a few minutes at a time. Any longer can feel like a punishment (for both you and your child). You want this to be a positive experience and your child really does just want to please you (most of the time), so praise these small accomplishments, like sitting on the toilet for 3 minutes, even if nothing else happens.
It’s easy to get upset and stressed when you feel like toilet training is taking a really long time or isn’t taking at all. Accidents are always going to happen while your little one is learning. Try to stay calm (easier said than done when your child delivers you a large brown log and ever expanding puddle in the middle of the shopping centre, while you are halfway through your weekly grocery shop!) but accidents are going to happen.
There are a few things you can do to avoid these potential accidents or at least, minimise their potential. Pay attention to your child. If they start jumping up and down, wriggling, holding their ‘bits’ or straight out tell you they need to go to the toilet, abandon your trolley mid-shop and act on that information immediately. Preferably, you have already scoped out where the nearest toilets are.
Alternatively, if your child hasn’t gone to the toilet for a while, gently remind them and ask them if they need to use the toilet (this is different from nagging them about it) and always, I repeat always, ask them before you get in the car to go anywhere.
Nothing makes a child want to go to the toilet more than getting in a car for 2 minutes or less, being stuck in traffic and racing to some really, really important appointment that you are already late for. So ask them if they need to use the toilet before you back out of the driveway.
When an accident does happen (and they will!) try to clean it up without fuss. Ok, mutter grumpily under your breath if you need to, but try to do it with a smile so as not to let on to your child.
Your child does not like the feeling of a soiled nappy and can tell you
Some babies from a young age can make it very clear to you when their nappy is soiled and that they do not like it. For others, having a soiled nappy seems to take them completely by surprise until they are a little older and the feeling of what it’s like to poo or wee starts to become predictable and understandable – and therefore more controllable for your little one.
Your toddler may be able to tell you verbally when they are pooing or weeing (or more likely, have just gone!) and even try to take off the soiled nappy (what fun that is for the parent!) As they become more familiar with the feelings and the words, they will eventually be able to tell you before they need to go.
Even when in nappies, long before you or your child are thinking about toilet training, it’s helpful to start to associate toileting words with the feelings and actions. When you notice your young toddler straining, or going suddenly and ominously quiet, you can ask if they’re doing a poo, or later, when changing the small gift they’ve bequeathed you in their nappy, explain “you’ve done a poo” or another such startling revelation. The word correlations will eventually connect up in your child’s mind as they connect the words with the actions and feelings.
They become interested in watching other people use the toilet
While it’s a bit weird for anyone else to want to watch you use the toilet, it’s a great sign your child might be ready to give it a go themselves. Mums throughout the ages will lament that they can never get a few minutes peace to themselves – including (and perhaps especially) while they are on the toilet.
Often young children take this as a sign that the toileting parent must meet some vital, immediate need. If your child is watching you and asking questions about your bodily functions or what happens after you flush (rather than simply treating you as a captive audience), this is a great sign they are curious and becoming ready for toilet training themselves.
Toddlers at this stage may also be interested in ‘big girl’ or ‘big boy’ undies rather than nappies. There are so many undies with great designs, it should be easy to find the perfect character or pattern to engage your child. No one wants to mess up Thomas the Tank Engine or wet a pretty butterfly.
A great game to use when starting toilet training is to act it out with a favourite doll or teddy bear. You can show your toddler how dolly sits on the potty then ask your toddler to copy. As they grasp the routine, ask your toddler to show dolly how toilet training works.
If you have twins or other multiples, it is often easier to try toilet training with one child at a time. It rarely takes twice as long to toilet train, as the second twin copies their sibling and learns quickly from the first.
Your toddler can keep a nappy dry for two or more hours during the day.
It comes as no surprise that babies have little capacity for bladder or bowel control. As soon as there’s a small amount of liquid in their bladder, it automatically empties out. As most new mothers will tell you, it’s almost a continuous process – which is why small babies can easily have 8 (and often more) soiled nappies every day.
By toddler-hood, children start to learn to ‘hold on’ for a short while as the muscles around their bladder and urethra begin to strengthen. Eventually, toddlers will understand what it feels like to ‘release’ and start to correspond that ‘release’ with the slightly unpleasant, hot, sticky feeling now in their nappy.
It’s easier to start toilet training if your child has predictable soft, formed bowel movements, so try not to start toilet training in the middle of a gastro outbreak or after your child has just eaten their own body weight in cheddar cheese, for example. You want toilet training to be as fun (and I use the word loosely) and relaxed as possible.
Children usually become dry during the day before they can hold it in all night, as this is something they can’t consciously control. It’s just a matter of time until they become night dry and genetics often have a big to play. In the meantime, just accept that some kids will still be wearing nappies at night until they are four or older and some may have bed-wetting accidents until six or seven years of age.
Your child can follow and carry out simple instructions
Before toilet training starts it is going to be helpful if your little one can pull their pants up or down and follow instructions like “bend over and touch your toes” (a particularly useful phrase when wiping bottoms) or “please don’t put teddy in the toilet.”
Teach your little boy to shake his penis to get rid of those last few drops of wee (or else you’ll find them continually splashed across the bathroom floor, on his undies and around the toilet.) Boys may choose to sit or stand to wee. If standing, aiming at a Ping-pong ball or some other ‘wee aid’ can help little boys with direction – but let’s face it, you’ll know many boys of all ages still need help with this tricky step. Sitting down is usually the less messy option.
Learning to use the toilet is not all about the pooing and the weeing. You will also need to teach your child other steps of the routine, such as using soap, washing their hands with water and then drying thoroughly with a towel.
Even if your child follows the routine perfectly, there are still going to be some areas where they need a lot of help initially – bottom wiping being the main one until they learn how to do it themselves. For some this can take years! Always wipe from front to back – no one wants the complication of a UTI when learning how to control their own bodily functions.
While not every one of these signs has to be present to start toilet training, it is certainly going to help if, at the very least, most of them are there. Otherwise as a parent, you’ll be knocking your head against a proverbial brick wall. Or to put in more a current and applicable context – you’ll be cleaning up a monumental amount of toileting accidents over and over and over and over again. Which let’s face it, with toilet training you’ll be doing anyway – but less so if you start when your child is ready.
It’s not a race and really, there is not very much you can do to hurry the process up until your child is ready. It will just cause you all stress. Some children will grasp the basics of using the toilet within a few days, others may take weeks. If you are not seeing progress after about four weeks, your little one may not be ready, so put your toilet-using plans on hold and pick it up later.
Sadly, early toilet training is not a foreshadowing of intellectual brilliance in your child, just as starting to go accident-free as an older toddler should not cause parents too much alarm.
But when should you worry? If you notice any big changes to the regularity of poos and wees, (like constipation or diarrhoea), blood or pain when passing poo or wee or anything else which concerns you, please always speak to your doctor or family health nurse.
So relax and just wait. Your child is the best judge of their bodies (ok, so not really, but they are learning – it’s part of what being a toddler is all about!) Just this once, let them guide you through this milestone. And if I can offer one more piece of advice – always carry one, but preferably two, three or four, spare set of your child’s underwear everywhere you go for about a year. Just in case.