Toilet teaching

Most children are at least 2½ or even 3 years old before they’re ready to learn how to use the toilet. You can’t rush toilet teaching. Wait until she wants to learn and is physically ready (when the muscles that control her bowel and bladder are strong enough). By not rushing, toilet teaching will take less time. It will also be easier and less frustrating for you and your child.

Your toddler may be ready to use a toilet when she:

  • stays dry for several hours or through the night
  • has bowel movements at fairly predictable times and is getting better at controlling them
  • knows she is urinating or having a bowel movement. She may even tell you when she needs a clean diaper.
  • doesn’t like to be in wet or dirty diapers. If you use disposable diapers, your toddler may not feel wet. She may learn to use the toilet faster if you switch to cloth diapers.
  • can pull down loose-fitting pants and follow simple directions
  • shows interest in using the potty chair or in other people using the toilet
  • can tell you she needs to use the toilet

Helping your child learn to use a toilet

There are many things that you can do to help your child learn to use the toilet.

  • Begin by helping your toddler recognize when she is urinating or having a bowel movement. Use words that are familiar to your family.
  • Tell your toddler that you also use the toilet.
  • Let her see you empty the contents of her dirty diapers into the toilet. Then flush, so she can understand where bowel movements go.
  • Show your child the potty chair or adapted toilet seat. Tell her how it’s used and that you’ll help her.
  • Ask her to tell you when she needs to go to the toilet. She won’t be able to wait more than a few moments.
  • Watch for signs she’s about to go. These include: stopping what she’s doing, looking down or off in the distance, or saying, “Oh, oh”. She may also fidget or hold her hand between her legs. If you ask her if she has to go, she is likely to say, “No!” You may get a better response if you say, “Looks like you have to go to the bathroom", or “Let’s get you to the bathroom”.
  • Stay with her while she’s on the toilet or potty.
  • Little boys may want to urinate standing up like their dad or other boys and men. It might be easier for them to learn by starting in a sitting position until they know what to do.

Encourage your child’s efforts, successful or not. Get her into the habit of washing her hands whenever she uses the toilet. If your child isn’t making progress after a couple of weeks, she likely isn’t ready to learn. Try again in a few weeks or when she seems more interested.

  • It takes time to learn to use the toilet

    Your child may not be able to make it to the toilet on time when she is just learning.
  • This may upset her. Reassure her that it's a part of learning. A calm, matter-of-fact approach will help her feel better about what happened.

If you use a potty chair, make sure it is sturdy and doesn't tip easily.

  • Your child's feet will be on the floor. She may feel safer and she won’t be afraid of falling into the toilet.
  • She will quickly be able to get on and off without your help.
  • She will see the results of her effort; her own urine or bowel movement.

If you use a toilet-seat adapter, make sure it fits securely onto the toilet. If not, it may pinch your child's leg, or she may be afraid of falling when it wiggles.

  • Your child may be scared if the toilet is flushed while she’s sitting on it. Many children this age fear being flushed down the toilet. Remind her she is too big for this to happen. Respect her fear by letting her flush the toilet after she is off.
  • Your child can get on and off the toilet more easily if you use a step stool. She may feel safer if her feet touch the stool when she’s seated.
  • You can help your toddler learn to use the toilet

    • Take your child to the toilet or potty chair when she wakes up (in the morning or after naps), after meals, before going out and before a bath.
    • Put the potty chair in a bathroom close to where your toddler spends most of the day. Keep a few books there to help her sit longer.
    • Dress your toddler in clothes that are easy to pull up and down.
    • Run the water. The sound may help your child feel the urge to urinate.
    • Be consistent. If she has other caregivers, talk to them about what you’re doing.
    • Be patient, positive and relaxed. Children learn in their own way and on their own time. Don’t set deadlines or get into power struggles. Expect setbacks if routines change (e.g., starting child care, a new baby’s arrival).
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