By Jill Campbell, Psy.D.
There are many different reasons why parents’ feel the need to potty train their children. Some parents feel pressure from their peers or family members, some fear that they are not doing a good job as a parent if they wait too long to potty train, others are pressured from their child’s daycare or preschool. In addition, many parents are just tired of having to change diapers and eager to get on to this next stage in their child’s development.
For your child to be successfully toilet trained, however, he or she must be physically, cognitively and emotionally mature enough to understand and to control what is happening in the toilet teaching process. If you begin to toilet training before your child is ready, chances are it will lead to a lot of frustration. A child who is toilet trained much before the age of 2, usually has a parent who knows when to put the child down on the potty, and wait for the child to go.
Mark Wolraich, the author of the "American Academy of Pediatrics' Guide to Toilet Training," says that children typically begin to toilet-train between the ages of 18 months and 4 years. Some learn quickly and others take months. Many learn, and then regress. Accidents are common. Most children are daytime independent by age 4, but about 20% of 5-year-olds will still have some daytime accidents. Nighttime accidents can continue for much longer. Wolraich says that the push for early training is more a reflection of parents' need for accomplishment than of any understanding of child physiology. "It's almost like a super-mom/dad issue," he said. "There's not been any evidence that children who get trained earlier are any smarter or more accomplished later in life.”
The AAP states that most child development experts believe that toilet training works best if it can be delayed until the child is ready to control much of the process herself. Please remember that your child’s readiness for toilet training is not an sign of his or her intelligence, or your level of parenting ability! When your child is truly ready, physically, cognitively and emotionally, toilet training will happen much more easily. It is important to go by your child’s cues for readiness. The right time to begin this process will vary from child to child.
Signs of Readiness:
The more readiness signs that your child is demonstrating, the quicker and easier the toilet training process should be. Look over the list below to help determine where your child is at in the readiness department.
Your child must have voluntary control of his or her sphincter muscles. This means being able to open and close very specific internal muscles. This gives your child the ability to delay excretion for a brief period of time. The AAP states that children’s sphincter muscles reach full maturity somewhere between 12-24 months with the average age being 18 months. While this is usually possible by about 18 months, this voluntary control only truly begins when a child can distinguish the sensations that precede a bowel movement or urination. Due to this fact, most children will not be reliable until after the age of 2.
Your child is no longer excited about walking and being on his feet all the time. He is at the maturity level where he is ready to sit down and learn a new task. Most children are at least 18 months, often older, before this happens.
Your child is more aware of his body and of the “need to go” (urinate or have a bowel movement) and shows it by facial expression, body gestures, telling you, and possibly going off somewhere (a corner of the room, behind furniture) when he/she feels the need to eliminate.
- Your child is able to stay dry for at least two hours at a time during the day.
- Your child often wakes up dry after a nap.
- Your child urinates a lot at one time vs. a little throughout the day.
- Your child usually does not have a bowel movement through the night.
- Your child starts to urinate and move her bowels at more predictable times.
- Your child does not like to be in dirty diapers and wants to be changed.
Cognitive and Verbal Signs:
Another sign that your child may be ready to be toilet trained is that he or she has good receptive language skills. That means your child has the ability to understand what you are asking of him or her.
Your child can follow simple instructions. For example, “Go to your closet and bring me back your red shirt.”
Your child can say the words “yes” and “no.” She needs to have the ability to make her own decision about whether or not she is ready to use the potty.
Your child can express and understand one-word statements, including such words as “wet,” “dry,” “potty,” “pee,” “poop,” and “go.” Your child may even begin to tell you, “I peed.” Or “I pooped.”
Your child starts putting things where they belong. He may begin to pick up his toys. He may put his blocks in the box where they belong. He may start arranging and organizing things like his toys or his books.
Emotional and Social Awareness Signs:
Your child wants to please and imitate you. This natural ability to observe others and the desire to imitate them will help with the toilet teaching process.
- Your child expresses interest in using the potty or toilet.
- Your child wants to wear “big-kid” underwear.
- Your child has a desire to master one’s own body and environment. “I want to do it.”
Motor Skill Signs:
- Your child can walk to and from the bathroom and help undress.
- Your child is able to pull underpants and pants up and down.
Dr. Jill Campbell teaches our Potty Training Lecture at The Pump Station & Nurtury and partner locations.