Ask an expert: How do we start toilet training?

We asked Essential Baby members what their child’s major issues are in the toilet training process. Here, Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, the Director of Learning and Teaching and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood and a mum of three, addresses a problem many families encounter.

My child won't wee or poo on the potty
My child won't use toilets outside our home

I’m confused about how we should start toilet training. Help!

Read books about using the potty/toilet.
Read books about using the potty/toilet. Photo: Getty

Dr Cathrine says: Toilet training can be a lengthy process marred by successes and setbacks – or a relatively stress-free event that is accomplished fairly quickly minus the tears and tantrums.

Many parents feel the need to begin toilet training in response to outward pressures placed on them from well-meaning relatives or friends. But the key to successful toilet training is readiness, and I don’t just mean child readiness – I also mean parental readiness. How ready are you for the toilet training process?

Young children have a lot to accomplish in their first few years of life. They form new relationships, learn to walk, to talk, to draw, and to feed themselves. Trying to enforce any of these new skills before a child is ‘developmentally ready’ can results in a stressed child and a frustrated parent.

Firstly, remember there is no single ‘correct’ way to toilet train a child. What works for one child or family may not work for the next. Every child is unique. Even with my own three children I adopted slightly different approaches to suit each child.

The first step to toilet training success is preparation. Even parents who claim they toilet trained their young child in just one week probably spent at least one or two months engaged in toilet training preparation. Preparation comes in two forms: parental preparation and child preparation.

Parental preparation
• Read, read and then read some more. The more information you have about the different approaches to toilet training as well as the possible hurdles to success the better prepared you will feel.
• Decide on what approach you plan to use (keeping in mind that you will need to be flexible when things don’t go to plan). Are you going to use incentives or rewards? If so, what ones? Think about how you are going to manage accidents. And what are you going to do when you go out?
• Decide whether you are going to use a potty or toilet seat.
• Make sure you have lots of loose fitting pants and clothes that are easy for your child to pull up and down.
• Decide whether you are going to progress straight to undies (or a bare bottom if you choose the summer months), whether you’re going to use pull-up training pants, or a combination of both.
• If your child attends childcare, make sure you chat with their carers and discuss what approach to toilet training you would like to use. Make sure they’re also comfortable with this, as it’s important to ensure consistency across contexts.
• Avoid times of high stress, and reduce social commitments and outings for at least the first week or so.


Child preparation
• Take your child shopping and let her pick out a potty or toilet seat. Put this somewhere visible so your child gets used to it. Let her play with it. She can practice putting her dolls on it or use it as a seat when watching her favourite DVD.
• Independent toileting means your child can pull her pants up and down, so it’s good to start practicing this beforehand.
• Read books about using the potty/toilet.
• Look for signs of physical and emotional readiness.
• Start talking to your child about using the potty or toilet over the few weeks leading up to the commencement of training.
• If you are comfortable to do so, it’s a great idea to take your child with you when you use the toilet. This way she can become increasingly familiar with the toileting process, how you pull down your pants, sit on the toilet and do your wee or poo, wipe yourself, pull up your pants, flush the toilet, and wash your hands.
• The week before you begin training, talk about what signs to look out for that show them that they need to do a wee or poo.

With effective preparation out of the way you are now ready to start!

Commencing toilet training
• Get up early and be ready to take your child to the toilet or potty first thing in the morning when she wakes up. Most toddlers pass urine not long after they wake-up and about 20 minutes after eating.
• Let her sit there for a while. Young children don’t have a lot of patience, so your child will probably be ready to get up off the potty after a few seconds. You can help hold her attention be reading a book or talking about what’s going to happen during the day.
• Remember that your child may not wee at first. If she hasn’t gone after about five Minutes, or she shows signs that she really doesn’t want to sit there anymore, let her get up. Don’t put a nappy back on – instead, dress her in whatever you have decided to use: bare bottom, undies or pull-up training pants.
• Remind her that today we are going to try and use the toilet for our wees and poos. Explain that she may not make it to the potty every time and that it’s perfectly okay if she has an accident.
• Don’t be tempted to restrict fluids, as this can lead to constipation.
• Keep a look out for behavioural cues that your child needs to go to the toilet, then help her to get there as quickly as possible. The time between feeling the urge and actually going is not very long in these early stages.
• Take your child with you each time you use the toilet, and check if she would also like to try. Praise her for trying, even if she ends up not doing anything.
• Put your child on the potty about every two hours, or around the time that you know that she typically has a bowel motion. A good routine is to put your child on the potty about 15-20 minutes after meals, before daytime naps as well as before their bath and bedtime.
• Avoid constant reminders about going to the toilet, as this can result in potty/toilet refusal.

If you do need to go out in the early days of toilet training you can either take your potty with you (if it’s to a friend’s house, for example), or be aware of where all the public toilets are. Don’t be tempted to just let her wet her pull-up training pants when you’re out, as this provides confusing messages. Remember consistency is the key during those early days.

In the early stages of toilet training it is important to treat all efforts and attempts with the same level of praise as successes. Just sitting on the potty or toilet is a great accomplishment!

This response provided by Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Early Childhood Education & Child Development Expert. 

Share your toilet training challenges and tips with other parents in our Toilet Training forum.