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Toilet training

Supporting your child to toilet train, is a huge step in their independence and freedom.

Toilet training takes time, patience, positivity and plenty of clothes! Potty training should not be delayed; it is much harder to achieve when a child is older.

Bear in mind that most children can control their bowels before their bladder.

  • By age 1, most babies have stopped making poos at night.
  • By age 2, some children will be dry during the day, but this is still quite early.
  • By age 3, 9 out of 10 children are dry most days – even then, all children have the odd accident, especially when they're excited, upset or absorbed in something else.
  • By age 4, most children are reliably dry during the day.

It usually takes a little longer for children to learn to stay dry throughout the night. Although most learn this between the ages of 3 and 5, up to 1 in 5 children aged 5 sometimes wet the bed.

Most parents start thinking about potty training when their child is between 2 and 2 and a half, but there's no perfect time. Some people find it easier to start in the summer, when there are fewer clothes to take off and washed clothes dry more quickly.

Try potty training when there are no great disruptions or changes to your child's or your family's routine. It's important to stay consistent, so you do not confuse your child.

Checking for Signs 

Recognise when your child is ready. It is essential that the child is:

  •  Pooing at least one soft poo a day
  • Staying dry for at least an hour and a half between wees

Other signs to look out for are:

  •  Showing interest in the toilet
  •  They can follow simple instructions.
  •  Able to sit themselves on the potty and get up again
  •  Starting to show signs of awareness of when they have done a wee or a poo
  •  Showing awareness that other family members and peers don’t wear nappies, and that they use the toilet

Children with additional needs may not show reliable signs of awareness.

Getting Started

Keep the potty in the bathroom. If it's upstairs, keep another potty downstairs, so your child can reach the potty easily wherever they are. The idea is to make sitting on the potty part of everyday life for your child.

Encourage your child to sit on the potty after meals, because digesting food often leads to an urge to make a poo. Having a book to look at or toys to play with can help your child sit still on the potty.

If your child regularly does a poo at the same time each day, leave their nappy off and suggest that they go to the potty. If your child is even the slightest bit upset by the idea, just put the nappy back on and leave it a few more weeks before trying again.

Encouraging them to use the potty to wee will help build their confidence for when they are ready to use it to poo.

As soon as you see that your child knows when they're going to pee, encourage them to use their potty. If your child slips up, just mop it up and wait for next time. It takes a while for them to get the hang of it.

If you do not make a fuss when they have an accident, they will not feel anxious and worried, and are more likely to be successful the next time. Put them in clothes that are easy to change and avoid tights and clothes with zips or lots of buttons.

Your child will be delighted when they succeed. A little praise from you will help a lot. It can be quite tricky to get the balance right between giving praise and making a big deal out of it. Do not give sweets as a reward, but you could try using a sticker chart.

If you go out, take the potty with you, so your child understands that you'd like them to wee or poo in the potty every time they need to go. Check that any other people who look after your child can help with potty training in the same way as you.

Potty Training Pants and Pull-ups

Disposable or washable potty training pants (also called pull-ups) can be handy when you start potty training and can give children confidence when it's time to swap nappies for "grown-up" pants. They do not soak up wee as well as disposable nappies, so your child will find it easier to tell when they are wet.

Training pants should be a step towards normal pants, rather than a replacement for nappies. Encourage your child to keep their training pants dry by using the potty.

If your child is not ready to stop wearing nappies, and it's hard for them to know when they've done a wee, you can put a piece of folded kitchen paper inside their nappy. It will stay wet and should help your child learn that weeing makes you feel wet.

Nighttime Potty training 

Focus on getting your child potty-trained during the day before you start leaving their nappy off at night.

If your child's nappy is dry or only slightly damp when your child wakes for a few mornings in a row, they may be ready for nighttime potty training.

Ask your child to use the potty last thing before they go to bed and make sure it's close by, so they can use it if they need to wee in the night. There are bound to be a few accidents, so a waterproof sheet to protect your child's mattress is a good idea.

Just like daytime potty training, it's important to praise your child for success. If things are not going well, stick with nappies at night for a while longer and try again in a few weeks' time.

Refusing to poo on the potty

Children who will only poo in a nappy are completely normal. Lots of children go through a phase, usually soon after potty training has begun, when they refuse to poo in the potty or toilet and insist on using a nappy.

Other children go through a phase of refusing to wee in the potty or toilet. You’ll find the information and techniques below will be relevant to them too.

Some boys and girls will work it out for themselves, but without support, some would happily poo in a nappy for years.

Here are some tips to help you break the pooing in a nappy habit.

If your child insists on using a nappy to poo, DON’T SAY NO, or they will simply try to avoid pooing. Withholding the stools will lead to constipation – which is definitely something to avoid! Let them have the nappy on just to do their poo, and work on gradually changing their behaviour.

1. Constipation

Constipation often plays a part in potty/toilet avoidance. A big, hard, painful poo will scare the child, and to stop it happening again they simply hold on. Look at ERIC’s Guide to Children’s Bowel Problems for information on how to recognise if your child is constipated. There is also lots more information on the Flowchart for Constipation. Make sure any constipation is really well managed before attempting to change toileting behaviour.

2. Making the toilet less scary

Some children are frightened of the toilet itself. This fear will need to be overcome before they can start learning to sit on it. If your child is scared of the flush, start by flushing it while they stand by the bathroom door, then gradually ask them to come a little closer. When they are near enough, encourage them to put just a little bit of toilet paper in the toilet to flush away.

If they are worried about the water splashing back when they use the toilet, show them how to put a layer of toilet paper over the water in the toilet bowl.

Create a game with a few bottles of food colouring! Add a few drops to the cistern, then ask your child to guess what colour the water in the toilet will change to when they flush.

3. Learning to sit on the toilet

To start with, sitting on the potty/toilet should have nothing to do with pooing.

The emphasis should be completely on relaxed, happy sitting – when you ask them to do so.

To start with, this may be a five-second sit, once a day, fully clothed. That’s fine!

Reward them for sitting (have a look at our Toileting Reward Chart), and resist the temptation to mention wee or poo!

The key now is moving forward gradually, so each little step forward is an achievable goal. You plan when the toilet/potty sitting should take place – aim for 20–30 minutes after each meal as that is the best time to poo, and before bed. Make sure your child’s bottom and feet are firmly supported – see the section 'How to get the poo in the loo' in ERIC’s Guide to Children’s Bowel Problems.

Over time, you’ll build up a regular toileting programme, with your child sitting on the potty/toilet for 5–10 minutes four times a day. Keep a bag of special, washable toys in the bathroom ready, so they look forward to exploring what’s there whenever they sit on the loo.

Remember to reward every potty/toilet sit with lots of praise and a treat if you are using an agreed system.

4. Next steps

Once you’ve made sure your child is not constipated, and they can happily sit on the potty/toilet for 5–10 minutes, you’re ready to begin working towards them pooing in the right place.

The key thing is to work out where they like to poo in their nappy, for example, behind the sofa or in the corner of their bedroom, and where you want them to poo – on the potty/toilet. Put as many tiny steps as possible in between until eventually they reach the potty. Each step should be an achievable goal.

Be patient – this may take a long time, but it will be worth it!

Using the toilet instead of the potty

Some children start using the toilet instead of the potty earlier than others.

A child's trainer seat that clips onto the toilet can help make your child feel safer and more confident on the toilet. A step for your child to rest their feet on gets your child in a good position for doing a poo.

If you have a boy, encourage them to sit down to pee. If they also need a poo, sitting down will encourage them to go.

Potty training with a disabled child

Some children with a long-term illness or disability find it more difficult to learn to use a potty or toilet. This can be challenging for them and for you, but it's important not to avoid potty training for too long.

The charity Contact has a parents' guide on potty training with a disabled child (PDF, 763kb)

Visit the Contact website for further support and ways of getting in touch with other parents with a disabled child.


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