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Thursday, 13 November 2008

Toilet Training Step by Step

Written by  Esther Boylan Wolfson

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How do you know if your child is ready for toilet training?

Although there are parents who swear that their one and a half year olds are perfectly trained, in my experience, most children are not ready to be trained until they are approximately two and a half and sometimes later. Trying to toilet train a child who is not yet ready, can set up a difficult physical and emotional struggle that can impact on your child's self esteem and ability to toilet train properly later on. If a child is ready for toilet training, a consistent toilet training approach such as the one I will describe, should be successful in a "relatively" short period of time.

If your child exhibits three or four of the following behaviors, he/she may be ready for daytime toilet training:

  • Stays dry for several hours at a time.
  • Has regular bowel movements.
  • Asks to be changed when his diaper is wet or soiled.
  • Shows awareness of his bodily functions.
  • Announces what he is doing either before or after urinating or passing a bowel movement.

Asks to have his diaper removed in order to use the potty or indicates that he/she wants to start wearing underwear instead of diapers.

A child is ready for nighttime control when he/she:

  • Stays dry for three or four hours during the day.
  • Wakes up dry from naps or in the morning after a night's sleep.

Unless your child expresses an interest (as well as the above two signs) I do not suggest attempting nighttime control until daytime toilet training is well established.

(This list was prepared with the help of Parent Time )

A COMMON QUESTION: My child is two and a half and has not yet expressed any of these signs. Is there a problem? What should I do?

Many children, especially boys (although some girls also), are not ready for toilet training until they are three years old. If you find diaper changing extremely offensive or if your child is registered for a school program in September where he must be trained, then you can "try" to follow a toilet training schedule.

Keep in mind not to allow the issue to become a struggle and to drop it if necessary and try again when your child is truly ready. It is better to wait a little longer to train your child and have a smooth and relaxing transition into toilet training, than to set up a power struggle that can affect both your child's and your emotional health.


  • Discuss Toilet Training with your child

    Point out that babies use diapers and "big" children and adults go to the bathroom. Use examples - i.e." Does Mommy wear a diaper or underwear?" Buy underwear with a design that will excite your child and show it to her. Tell your child that when she use the bathroom/potty, she will get to wear underwear. (I do not recommend letting children wear the underwear before they are trained or over their diapers.) Present underwear as a privilege your child will earn if she uses the potty.

  • Demonstrate

    "Show" your child how a big child or adult uses the bathroom. For this demonstration you must use a gender appropriate model. Mom's for girls and Dad's for boys. If the parent of the appropriate gender does not live at home, you can use an older sibling as a model or ask for the help of a neighborhood child. (four and five-year-olds are usually proud to show off their prowess to a younger child.)

    If this step makes you uncomfortable, then skip it.

  • Buy an appropriate potty

    If possible, take your child with you to choose the potty. After all, she is going to use it. As you will see, there are a wide variety of models to choose from. Most children feel more comfortable with a potty that is placed on the floor. Climbing up to the big toilet seat can be scary for a young child as a first step.

    I recommend buying a model that sits on the floor and has the option of fitting the seat onto the regular toilet seat later on. I find this makes for an easy transition. Make sure that the bowl on the bottom is easy to remove and if you are training a boy, buy a model that comes with a shield. I have read articles that say you should not use the shield. I disagree. The most important thing in the beginning is to give your child success. If your child urinates into the potty and the urine ends up all over the floor, he will not feel successful. Try and buy a model that looks as much as possible like the "real thing." I do not advise trying fancy gimmicks like a potty that plays music when your child urinates.

  • Choose a method of reinforcement

    Decide what you want to use to reward your child for her success during toilet training. If you choose a food, choose something small such as chocolate chips, M&M's or raisinets. If you are opposed to food rewards, you could try stickers. The important thing is that it is something relatively small (since you will be giving a few a day) and something your child will like. In addition, you could also choose a "big" present to be given at the end of toilet training. (My four year old got a bike after toilet training.)


  • Set up a schedule

    Think about your child's schedule and see if you can identify three or four times a day that he is usually wet or dirty. If you are not sure, then randomly choose four times spread out throughout the day. Try to choose one in the early morning, one around lunch time, one late afternoon and one evening.

  • Have your child "sit" on the potty

    Do not expect instant success. (Although if a child is very ready or a parent is very lucky it can happen) Let your child get comfortable just sitting on the potty. Discuss how the potty is for "making pee pee" and if your child needs to, he should let the "pee pee come out in the potty." Read your child a toilet training book, sing his favorite songs and generally make potty time pleasant. After at least 5 minutes (more is even better) give your child a big kiss and some reinforcement (stickers/chocolate chips etc..). Just for sitting he deserves one or two chips/stickers. If your child uses the potty, give him/her more.

  • Adjust the schedule according to your child's progress

    Make a written chart of your child's progress and adjust the schedule to fit her needs. If you take your child at 9 A.M and her diaper is wet and your child does not use the potty, then the next day take your child at 8:30. If you see that your child's diaper is dry several hours after a changing, grab the opportunity and put the child on the potty. If you keep a written schedule and check it regularly, you will find the right times to place your child on the potty. I know this step sounds complicated and for the first week it is time consuming. If done regularly, however, after only one week, a pattern should begin to show. The important thing in the beginning is not to expect your child to tell you when she needs to go. You need to monitor her so that you can "catch her in the act."

  • Give your child lots of reinforcement when he/she succeeds.

    Within one or two weeks, you should begin to have some success (assuming your child is ready). Show your child how excited you are for her if she succeeds. Give your child hugs and kisses and tell others in front of the child how proud you are. Give her more reinforcement for successes (for instance, 5 M&M's instead of 1). As long as toilet training is not well established you can continue giving your child a treat just for "sitting." This should not mean that your child can go to the potty every five minutes and demand a chocolate chip. Potty visits should be spaced according to the schedule you devise with exceptions made only if you truly sense that your child is serious about needing to use the potty.

  • Make a chart for your child to see her success

    Once your child begins to have some regular success, you can make a chart for her to see the progress. Take a piece of colored oaktag and make a chart of the days of the week or month. Every time she succeeds, put a sticker on the chart. At the end of the day, you can count the number of stickers with her and give your child a big kiss (or another expression of endearment she might prefer) for each sticker. Tell your child how proud you are of her success. As time goes on, you should see the number of stickers increasing.

  • Make the transition to wearing underwear

    Once your child is having fairly regular success at potty training, it is time to suggest he try and wear underwear. As a transition, you could try having him walk around the house without wearing anything. This lets the child work on only one task at a time - going to the potty when they need to, and not also remembering how to pull down the underwear correctly to do so. This method, of course, is best in the summer when your child will not be cold and clearly can only be used inside the house. When you put your child in underwear or allow him to run around without a diaper, regularly remind him to go to the potty and insist that he try every few hours. If your child has an accident say "that's O.K., you forgot, you'll remember next time." If you try for a while and your child has all accidents and no successes, then the child may not be ready for this step. Make sure though, that you are reminding your child regularly enough, before you give up.

  • Buy your child a well deserved present.

    Once your child has worn underwear regularly for two to three weeks, has almost no accidents and regularly goes to the potty on his own without being constantly reminded, it is time to buy your child a well deserved present. You do not need to wait for no accidents - many young children still have an accident every now. It is also fine for your child to need a reminder every now and then - most young children do. If you have not yet chosen a present, take your child with you to the store and let him pick it out. It might be best to check out the store first, so that you can direct your child to the presents that are within your price range.

During the toilet training process, keep in mind the following issues and questions:

  • Toilet training for bowel movements

    Most children will show an ability to be toilet trained for urine before they are trained for bowel movements. This is normal. Bowel movement training is also often more difficult for boys than it is for girls. Work first on urine training and only once that is well established go on to bowel movement training.

  • Coordinate this program with your childcare worker

    If your child spends part of the day with a babysitter or at day care, you must coordinate this program carefully with your childcare worker. This program (or any program) will not work if it is used during only part of the day. Do not worry. While it is more difficult to coordinate a toilet training program, thousands of children are toilet trained through the coordination of parents and child care workers. The key is to "work together."

  • How long will this program take to work?

    That depends on your child. Every child is different. If you have tried for several weeks and do not see any progress, check two things.

    1. Are you sure that your child is ready for toilet training? (See "Ready")
    2. Are you consistently following the program described above (or another consistent approach)?
  • Is this the only way to toilet train?

    No. This is only one suggestion for a toilet training program. The program I have described is one that was successful both for my own children and for many children that I have taught over the course of my years of teaching. It is by far not the only way to do it. Thousands of articles and books have been written about this topic.

    If you would like to read more on the topic before starting or if after trying this program you want to look for another approach, you can start by checking:

    Toilet Training Links

    Let me know what you think.

    I welcome feedback from you about your toilet training experiences. Let me know some of your suggestions and I can post them for other parents to read. If you try this program, let me know if it helps you. I am also happy to answer any questions you might have. I can be reached at estherw@wholefamily.com. I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 May 2013 12:02
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Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Wolfson , director of our Early Childhood Development Center is an Early Childhood Specialist, who received her BA in English Communications from Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University and an MA in Early Childhood Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, both in New York City. Esther worked as a pre-school special education teacher for seven years. Three of those years were spent working in a school for language delayed pre-schoolers, which is her area of specialty. Another special love of hers is cooking with young children. One of her most enjoyable projects was developing a program for cooking with pre-school children for three special education programs. Esther and her husband Myles have three boys aged eight, five and two-years-old. While her three lively boys and her work at WholeFamily, keep her quite busy, in her spare time (if she ever has any!) she is an avid reader who also enjoys creative writing, exercising and swimming.

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