Marion's journal, week 3: toilet training incentives

Spencer coming to grips with his Pull-Ups.
Spencer coming to grips with his Pull-Ups. 

Marion’s son Spencer is 22 months old and is now in his third week of toilet training. Read Marion’s first and second journal entries, or read on to see how Spencer is faring in his second week.

We are just plodding along this week with toilet training, but there has definitely been some progress in his awareness of doing a poo - he’ll immediately tap his Pull-Ups and seek me out. This is really great for him to want to change straight away … now to change the awareness to alert me before he does it so he can get onto the potty!

I am watching him constantly and asking him all the time if he needs the potty. I must be quite annoying, I’m not sure if I'm overdoing it. 

There’s a little poem/song at the end of the book we are reading to him (It’s Potty Time! by Tracey Corderoy & Caroline Pedler). He seems to enjoy it when we sing that when he has time on the potty.

He’s still pretty young, so I'm not as keen to incentivise with lollies (snakes/M&Ms). I found that worked for my older son, but he was three when we toilet trained. I think we’re working well, just with the positive and happy encouragement – we give lots of cheers and clapping and a little sticker. 

Response by Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, early childhood education and child development expert:  

Dear Marion,

It sounds like things are progressing really well. The fact that he is now telling you when he does a poo in his Pull-Ups is definite progress; the next stage really is to help him to associate the feeling he gets just before he does a poo.

One of the tricks to try and encourage the use of the potty for poos is to remove his pants altogether (weather permitting of course), or to simply remove them around the time of day when he typically does a poo. Make sure his potty is in a place where he can get to it quickly. You can help him poo in the toilet by keeping track of when he normally opens his bowels, to see if there is any pattern to this. If you can anticipate when this will occur you can encourage Spencer to sit on the toilet or potty. Sing your special potty song when you do this to help him to stay focused and relaxed. It’s perfectly okay for this to occur a few times each day even if nothing happens. 


Make sure he is drinking plenty of water and has sufficient fibre in his diet, as you don’t want him to become constipated. Hard, large or even small pebbly stools are all signs of constipation, and this is the most common reason for children withholding poo or toileting refusal. It can take weeks, sometimes months, for a child to get over having a painful bowel motion, resulting in significant delays in the toilet training process.

Another way you can encourage independent toileting is to buy Spencer a special doll or teddy, and help him to teach his teddy how to use the potty for “wees and poos”. You can even put his doll in a Pull-Up, syringing some water into it so it looks like the doll has done a wee. By teaching his teddy or doll he will also be teaching himself, reinforcing the key skills of toileting. 

Using the doll will also help you navigate around the tendency to ‘over do it’ when it comes to constant reminders. This is a common mistake made by many parents in the early stages of toilet training; while it’s perfectly fine to remind children at particular times of the day, like when they are absorbed in play, after meals, and before you go out, constant reminders can result in children ‘switching off’ or ignoring cues when they do occur. Independent toileting depends on Spencer’s ability to respond to his own body, and an over-reliance on reminders from you can actually delay the process.

Use of incentives 

There is considerable debate surrounding the use of incentives, when many young children, like Spencer, respond perfectly well to verbal praise and physical affection. Tangible incentives are only really necessary when children aren’t responsive to verbal encouragement, or when they require a little more motivation or show signs of resistance. 

Incentives work best when they involve something that children strongly desire and are given directly after the behaviour you are trying to encourage (like when he does a poo in the toilet or potty). It’s great that you have chosen not to give food and lollies as incentives – this is something I recommend parents avoid where possible. 

Some other great ideas for incentives include:

• Make a photo diary of his toilet training journey – you can add photos and stories at the end of each day. You can involve Spencer by getting him to help you by adding pictures he draws.

• Sticker charts are a perfect visual reminder of childrens’ toilet training success. You can also use this to talk with Spencer about the number of times he has gone to the toilet on his own. If early reward systems focus on more simple behaviours, like telling you that he needs to do a poo, be sure to create a new chart once you increase the stakes, using stickers he’s received for more advanced behaviours.

• Singing special songs like “Its Potty Time” (I love that you are doing this) or reading his favourite book are equally effective incentives. You can take Spencer to the bookshop and let him pick out some special new potty books – it’s important to save these just for times when he goes to the bathroom.

• Put red or blue food colouring in the bottom of his potty. When he does a wee in his potty it will change colour to orange or green, making toilet training lots of fun. When Spencer gets a bit older and starts standing to do wees you can just put a small drop in the toilet, which will give him something to aim at!

All the best for the week ahead, I look forward to hearing more of your progress!


Dr Cathrine

Talk to other parents about toilet training in the Essential Baby forum