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Rebecca Chicot PhD
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Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Toddler / Potty learning and self care

Potty training and teaching your toddler to use the potty

Potty training and learning to use a toilet is a big toddler milestone, and something that lots of parents worry about. Wait for signs of that your toddler is physically and emotionally ready and use a gentle approach to make it as stress-free as possible.
In Short

Look for signs that your toddler is:

Physically ready.

Physiologically ready.

Cognitively ready.

Before you embark on potty learning or toilet training, remember it can be counter-productive to:

Start potty training when there are changes and upheaval in your toddler’s life, e.g. moving house or a new sibling.

Put pressure on your toddler to use a potty.

Criticise him when he has an accident.

It can sometimes seem that your entire role as a parent is judged on when your toddler is potty trained. When babies in the UK were all wearing terry nappies with big nappy pins and plastic waterproof pants (nappy rash was rife), there was a cultural and personal imperative for earlier potty training. Having to soak, wash and dry up to 10 nappies a day, as well as bedding, saw to that. Today, the pressures to potty train can include environmental concerns about prolonged use of nappies as well as pressure (from peers and grandparents) to get past this milestone in development.

Potty learning

I have chosen to call this potty learning rather than potty training as this approach highlights your toddler’s natural ability and motivation to develop self care as opposed to the idea of the parent ‘breaking in’ and training their savage toddler like a lion tamer.

The disposable nappies available today are so absorbent that fewer nappies are used each day and using nappies can seem more convenient and easy than moving to underpants and needing to have a potty close by. However, with the environmental considerations and the expectations of others, there is social pressure on parents to potty train early.

According to the University of Michigan, the physical skills needed for successful potty learning appear between 18-30 months of age in both girls and boys. The average age for girls to be potty trained is 29 months, and the average age for boys is 31 months. There is a big range in the actual age by which toddlers can be categorically described as ‘fully potty trained’ but nearly all (98 per cent) of children are fully potty trained by their third birthday.

Physiological development

Trends, nappies and all the associated paraphernalia may have changed over the years but toddlers’ bodies haven’t. The stages of physiological development of potty learning begin with involuntary (or incontinent) pooing and weeing that all babies demonstrate with flair.

Over time, there is a transition to an increasingly voluntary control of bladder and bowel and their relative sphincters. This is and has always been a process. First, you will observe a pattern between when your baby or toddler has a feed and when he has a poo. Eating stimulates peristalsis (the involuntary muscle rhythms that push waste products down to the rectum and out through the anus) so that all the involuntary smooth muscles of the gut push food down the gut where nutrients are absorbed and then water is removed, and waste products are added. If your toddler’s gut is working effectively and his diet is balanced (with plenty of fibre, fruits and vegetables), you will notice that soon after a meal he will need a poo.

Your toddler’s voluntary control of their bladder and bowel

There is a difference between the reflex to empty the bladder or rectum and the voluntary expulsion of these waste products, though they often get conflated.

You will first see that your toddler’s wees and poos are stimulated by other bodily functions and activities – for example, a few minutes after eating lunch. This is largely a reflex driven by involuntary muscle control: eg. peristalsis in the gut. You can use these timing patterns to help your toddler to associate weeing and pooing with being on the potty. This is not voluntary control, but rather being in the right place at the right time.

At around 18 months of age you may see that the timing reflex isn’t as strong as your toddler exerts increasing voluntary control over his body, for example, he may hold in a poo (not something welcomed in potty training as it can lead to constipation and impaction). It’s hard to know why toddlers sometimes hold in poos, but it lead Sigmund Freud to formulate complicated theories of people he termed as ‘anal retentives’ and ‘anal expulsives.’ I think toddlers sometimes hold in a poo if they are sidetracked and don’t want to stop playing or what they are doing, but they can also begin to hold in their poo if they’ve had a painful experience and become scared of pooing.

Signs of readiness for potty training

Here are some signs that your toddler is ready to start potty training.

Physical signs
  • Stays dry for over two-hour stretches during the day (can be quite hard to assess if your toddler is wearing a highly absorbent nappy or diaper).
  • Has a dry nappy or diaper after a nap or when he wakes up in the morning.
  • Poos at a predictable time (e.g., after breakfast) each day.
  • No poos or poops overnight.
  • Does big, long pees – meaning a full bladder is being emptied rather than continual incontinence. You may notice this if your toddler’s nappy doesn’t need changing for a while during the day and then it’s suddenly very full and heavy – so you know that the wee occurred in one go.
  • Being able to get comfortably onto and sit on the potty or toilet.
Behavioural signs
  • Is able to pull up and down his trousers and underwear.
  • Asks to be changed or tries to remove dirty nappies because he is uncomfortable.
  • Tells you he needs to pee or poo or signal when he is pooping or peeing.
  • Is keen to stop wearing a nappy or diaper.
  • Is keen to sit on a potty.
  • Is keen to be a ‘big’ boy (or girl).
  • Likes being cooperative.
  • Is not afraid or resistant to the potty or toilet.
  • Says ‘I do it’ a lot and craves independence.
  • Takes pride in independence and new skills.
Cognitive signs
  • Anticipates needing the toilet or potty with an initially urgent sense that pooing or peeing is about to happen (he will only get a few seconds warning at first).
  • Maybe has words for poop, pee, potty, nappy, diaper, toilet.
  • Can follow simple instructions.
  • Understands the physical signals that mean he has to go and can tell you before it happens or even holds it in until he has time to get to the potty.
Toddler-led potty learning

Potty training or learning tends to go more smoothly if it is toddler-led. However, you will still need to line up your ducks and have a plan of action to facilitate your toddler’s potty learning. First, be sure that your toddler is ready (see points above). Second, choose the equipment you will need with him.

Potty training equipment

I recommend:

· A double loo seat that gives toddlers the option of going straight into the big toilet (but with a smaller seat that comes down to make them feel secure). This can be a better option for tall toddlers who can find potties on the floor uncomfortable to balance on.

  • A house potty. I found the high-backed potties with a removable potty have been better for my toddlers as they were small for their age and could sit comfortably on them.
  • A travel potty. I found the Potette potty, kept under the pram, was a real bonus for those days when I had to be out and about with my toddlers when they could only give me a short ‘warning’ that they needed to go.
  • Lots of underpants – depending on your budget you can buy some very desirable ‘big’ boy and girl pants or underwear, though I also used hand-me-downs from cousins as back up. I don’t recommend those ‘big kid’ pull ups for potty learning per se as they are neither one thing (an absorbent nappy or diaper) or another (underwear). However, I did put my babies in pull-up style nappies when they could walk as they were easier to put on and take off with a walking baby but this was before potty training. There are also ‘big kid’ style pull-ups which are the product that I don’t find particularly useful unless you have an older toddler who is struggling with potty learning but doesn’t want to wear a ‘baby nappy.’ You will know best what underwear will be most appropriate for your toddler.
  • “Everybody Poos” by Taro Gomi helped my youngest (and latest potty learner) to feel comfortable with the fact she pooped waste that needed to be flushed away.
  • A spare set of clothes for on the go and lots to hand in the house.
When should I potty train?

Plan to set aside at least a week to bed down some potty learning at home. This means waiting for a school holiday or half term if you have older siblings who go to school or preschool each day:

1. Keep your toddler very well hydrated and give him a diet full of fruits and vegetables to make pooing easy and frequent; these foods include apricots, beetroots, and sweetcorn.

2. Let your toddler get used to sitting on the new potty and toddler loo seat.

3. If possible have a ‘bare bum’ house week (easier in summer and if you decide to hang out outside and near the potty/loo).

4. After a big wee and poo let your toddler try on his first pair of big boy pants.

5. Explain that when these pants get wet or dirty, he will feel uncomfortable, so your toddler and you will work as a team to give a signal and get to the potty.

6. After breakfast (or whenever your toddler tends to have a poo) ask him to sit on the potty and read a story or have a chat.

7. To help encourage your child to wee, offer lots of big drinks and say ‘Let’s see if your next wee can be on the potty’.

8. If your toddler wees or poos in the new pants be completely relaxed about it. Say ‘Oh, you’ve done a wee/poo in your pants, that must feel uncomfortable. Never mind, let’s get you changed and next time let’s work as a team to get to the potty.’

In the early days of potty learning, the idea is to let your toddler notice the signs that they need a wee or poo. Getting to the potty on time, along with your praise, is a reward in itself so don’t feel that you need to give a treat each time he manages this.

Try to use phrases that specifically highlight the benefits of what they’ve achieved, e.g., ‘You must feel like such a big boy wearing your new underpants’ or ‘I bet you feel proud to sit on the big loo like mummy does and do a wee!’

I made the mistake with one of my children of giving ever more inflated rewards with each success. My daughter was struggling due to a bad experience with constipation that had led to a fear of pooing on the potty (weeing was no problem, and she was dry at night). Making the whole thing reward driven was counter-productive as it just sought to raise the stakes in an already stressful situation. The moment she did manage to poo on the potty the massive relief to her was a huge reward, and she never asked for a nappy again.

What if my toddler regresses during potty training?

Try to time introducing the potty at a time when things are most relaxed at home. Times to avoid are around the birth of a new baby, older sibling starting school, moving house, around times of lots of travelling and visiting, for example, the Christmas holidays.

Even with everything set up to be able to gently focus on potty learning things can set your toddler back, from illness to a developmental leap in another area, meaning that he isn’t motivated or able to learn this new skill simultaneously. Bad experiences can also lead to potentially a great reluctance to regularly poo on the potty, such as an anal fissure or constipation leading to painful pooing. The pain sets up an association, and the fear can lead to a phobia of the potty.

In all these cases it’s better to relax, take a break and come back to the potty learning after a week or a few days. Try not to make it into a huge deal, as this can lead to a stubborn toddler digging in his heels or an anxious toddler getting increasingly stressed around the potty.

Note
Top tip: In the case of a bad experience it’s important to get your toddler’s gut moving so that lots of natural pooping happens. Try to include lots of gut regulating food such as water, beetroot, apricots, figs and corn on the cob. You might also want to reduce the amount of food that might exacerbate constipation such as lots of cheese and red meat for a time.

Try to avoid the use of laxatives, although your doctor may suggest a stool softener like lactulose to get through a period of fear. I’ve always found that diet and exercise work best.

When will by toddler be dry at night time?

Night time dryness is not something you can force and is unrelated to a toddler’s progress through daytime weeing and pooing on the potty. While most toddlers no longer poo in the night, there is a big range in bedwetting.

Some toddlers are dry through the night at quite a young age and some toddlers aren’t. In fact, studies around the world have consistently reported 1 in 5 five-year-olds display bedwetting. At this age, it is referred to as primary nocturnal enuresis (PNE) and is more common in boys. This means that these children do not have consistently dry nights. One of my friend’s sons was still wetting the bed fairly frequently at the age of seven. Ironically he had potty trained early but he displayed many of the factors shared by other older children who have primary nocturnal enuresis. These include drinking a lot during the day and sleeping very deeply. If you are concerned about your older child you can find help and support with Eric – the Children’s Bowel and Bladder Charity.

This gives a little insight into the physiological changes that lead to night-time dryness. It seems to be governed by vasopressin which is a hormone that regulates urination. It is our internal diuretic.

You should not have high expectations about when your toddler will be dry at night. There is a big range in physiology, sleeping behaviour and temperament amongst toddlers. There is nothing you can do regarding disciplining a bedwetter. It wouldn’t work, it would be cruel, and it would be counterproductive. Indeed, bedwetting can be brought on by severe stress. You may find that your child who has been dry at night for months wets the bed in anticipation of starting preschool or after a stressful event. You will need to take these events in your stride and reassure him that he hasn’t done anything wrong, and that sometimes our bodies react when are upset. It’s important to reassure your child about the underlying stressor too.

Be patient and wait until your toddler is consistently dry before you ditch the night-time nappies. It can also help to avoid lots of fluids last thing at night. When he has had lots of dry nights in a row you might want to stop using nappies at night and:

  • Offer your a toddler a wee last thing at night
  • Place an under-sheet bed mat on his bed to protect the mattress from urine
  • Have a potty in his room and a red night light if he would like that security
  • Leave a night light on, near the toilet for night-time trips
  • Some children who wet the bed after they have started school can sometimes benefit from being taken for a sleepy wee before you go to bed, e.g., at 10 pm but I wouldn’t recommend waking up your toddler in the hope that you’ll have a dry night.
Common potty training dilemmas

Here are some FAQs on potty training.

What if my toddler refuses to let me pour away the contents of the potty or flush it away?

This was something that my youngest child did and is a common reaction for many toddlers. They feel like they are losing a part of themselves (it did come out of their body after all) and they feel protective and almost panicky when it disappears. Try to be patient and explain the basic biology to them – that this is the leftover food that your body doesn’t need anymore. Don’t insist that they flush it away. My eldest daughter drew a cartoon which she stuck next to both of our toilets. It showed a shoal of fish in the sea thanking my youngest toddler for the scrummy lunch. Now I’m not advocating this attitude to sewage pollution at all, but it reassured my toddler and after a few days of leaving toilets unflushed she was able to flush away her poos and wees herself.

I have to take my toddler a long way at the weekend in the car. Can I put him back in a nappy for the trip, so he doesn’t have an accident?

It’s not a good idea to change back to nappies or diapers once you and your toddler are potty learning. For this reason, I would suggest postponing potty training until after a long drive. I was potty training my son when we had to make a trip back to my parents of 176 miles. We set off after a big wee and a poo (for him, though I always ask everyone to go to the loo before we set off…even my husband!), made the decision to avoid the motorways and instead built in lots of time for lots of stops. When you avoid motorways and highways and choose smaller roads, it’s easier to stop for lots of walks and attempts on the potty without panicking that it’s 25 miles until the next service station. It was actually a rather wonderful way to travel which I would recommend in general for small children. To them (unless they are blissfully asleep) they see the journey as part of the holiday or the trip, and it’s possible to go slow and enjoy it too. It can be a good idea to put a terry nappy or towel under their bottom in the car (with a couple of spares) so that if they do wee in their sleep or have an accident you can keep their car seat clean and dry and pull over and change them.

My toddler says he wants his diapers back – what should I do?

You need to look at the backstory to this request. If your toddler has been having lots of accidents and feels a bit defeated he might not yet be ready so maybe go back to diapers or nappies and try again in a week or so. Potty learning can often be more of a two steps forwards, and one step backward path, so don’t feel like you have failed if this has happened.

However, if you feel like your toddler is nearly there you could let him choose some new underpants. He will be excited to choose his own pack, which will be more interesting than neutral coloured nappies and it might just give them the impetus they need to move away from nappies for good.

My toddler likes to sit down and pee on the potty, but he won’t poo there.

This is very common so try not to get too anxious if your toddler cracks weeing on the potty before pooping. Pooing or pooping is more physically demanding than peeing. If your toddler needs a wee, then one little muscular push and the wee will flow. Pooing can be much harder work and if the potty is unstable or the loo is very high your toddler can feel very vulnerable and unsteady as he has to make a concerted effort to push out the poo over several minutes. Toddlers often stand up to poo in their nappy or diaper, and this is easier than sitting down if the potty or toilet is at the wrong height. It’s a bit like active birthing – allowing gravity and your muscles to bear down make both childbirth of a baby and pushing out a poo easier. This added concentration and difficulty can put off toddlers from pooing. One thing to make things much easier is to make sure that your toddler has an efficient gut with soft poo. This means lots of activity, fluids and foods that promote digestion and peristalsis, e.g., beetroots, apricots, figs and prunes. If he is regular and his poo is soft and you frequently and positively suggest poos on the potty he will hopefully have a go and realise that it’s safe and comfortable to poo on the potty too. It is usually just a phase of anxiety around pooing in a new way.

My youngest was dry in the night and happily weed in the potty and toilet, but she wouldn’t poo partly because the potty was too difficult to sit on and she’d had constipation and a bad experience. I bought her a new more stable potty with a back and armrests and cooked her lots of her favourite corn on the cob, and it made the muscular pushing and balancing act of pooing on a potty much easier and more secure for her.

My toddler is starting nursery and isn’t fully potty trained; I feel I’ve run out of time.

It can be very stressful as a parent if you feel under pressure for your toddler to be potty trained before they start nursery. However, accidents are common even at preschool, and most nurseries are used to dealing with a range of potty learning stages and those establishments offering care to younger toddlers will change nappies as a matter of course.

My toddler has the occasional accident. How should I respond?

It’s important not to get angry or shame your toddler if he has an accident, even if you feel tired and frustrated. Instead, let your toddler know that accidents happen, don’t dwell on the past and say, ‘Don’t worry, accidents happen sometimes, and we can try next time to get to the potty.’ Don’t force your toddler clear up an accident as punishment as this may stress and shame your toddler.

Note
Top tip – Naked Bum Time

I really recommend a bare bum week (preferably in summer when you can hang out in the garden). This removes the problem of taking off clothes and not noticing when your toddler needs to go. Choose a bare bum week when you have time to really focus on your toddler and notice when they need to try on the potty.

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