The 5 stages of toilet training your toddler

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 Photo: Getty Images

There are many milestones we celebrate on the journey of parenthood: a baby's first tooth, first words and first steps are all common hallmarks in the baby albums of parents everywhere.

There are some milestones, however, you won't find a greeting card for - such as toilet training your toddler. It's one of the less glamorous tasks of parenthood (because, well, poo) but a necessary one nonetheless. Here are some common stages of the process to help you navigate through the transition from nappy to undies with your toddler: 

1. Acknowledgment of 'the time'

There are many influences, which can determine when it's time to start 'Toilet Training 101':

  • you've booked a holiday and the 'Kids Club' only accepts toilet-trained children 
  • the introduction of a sibling has doubled your nappy budget and time at the change table  
  • your child has reached the age where his nappy activity is akin to that of a fully-grown adult. And as someone sassy once said, that ain't right. 

Once you've decided it's time, also ensuring your child is ready to start training will set you up for success. Signs of readiness in your toddler include: 

  • a regular schedule. If your toddler's nappy-change schedule is still random in timing, they may not be ready to identify the feeling of 'needing to go'. Waiting for a more predictable schedule ensures better anticipatory awareness within your toddler and less 'accident' washing cycles for mum and dad 
  • active interest in the toilet. If your toddler has graduated from putting their Peppa Pig figurines into the toilet, to wanting to sit on it, it might be time to get them on the seat. 
  • they can independently remove their nappy. If they can take their pants off in the middle of Target to run around the toy section, they can independently remove their pants to use the toilet.

[Read more about signs of readiness here]

2. Make a plan, or plan to fail

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Plan your approach to toilet training like an athlete prepares for the Olympic games.

You need mental preparation: get your head in the game. Set your performance benchmarks and expectations for the process. Have you set them? Great. Now lower them. Keep going. Lower ... lower ... there you are. Don't listen to Ruth with the perfect hair down the street, who tells you her Lucy just woke up one day and started using the toilet with no accidents. Ruth is most probably lying.

Also mentally prepare yourself for many accidents. And mentally prepare yourself for many philosophical conversations in public bathroom stalls with your toddler.

Toddlers will get the hang of it in their own time; having low expectations ensures you won't be disappointed from comparing your child with others. 

There's also physical preparation. It's time to limber up. You'll be pounding the pavement to purchase all the tools you'll need to get your toddler into undies. A padded toilet seat, a dedicated children's potty, a storybook to introduce the conversation, and a reward chart for positive reinforcement are all popular tools considered by parents who have walked this path before you.

[Read more about toilet training products here]

3. Introduction to the loo

Once your toddler has shown the signs of readiness and your sticker chart is on the wall, it's time for formal introductions. Like a positive first date impression, a favourable first meeting with the toilet will ensure a successful relationship ensues. Ways to introduce the toilet could include: 

Remember, when it comes to toilet introductions: don't force the acquaintance. If your toddler has an adverse reaction or they're showing you they're not ready, take a step back and look for the signs of readiness to try again. 

4. Excitement at the novelty, followed by resistance to permanent change

At first, the novelty of a new routine will seem exciting. Your cheers will encourage them as their tinkle hits the porcelain. They will rejoice with every new sticker that glistens on their reward chart.

The novelty may, however, wear off. Toddlers can gradually become less enthused as the gravity of their new reality sets in. It's at this stage that many toddlers begin to yearn for the comfort and ease of nappies (don't we all after 18 false alarm trips to the bathroom).

Now is when the real work starts, and expectations lower than Peppa Pig's centre of gravity are crucial to your survival.

Your toddler may have many accidents at this point. Some accidents because they were distracted by play, others because they are seeking your attention, and some because they just haven't quite got the hang of anticipating the 'need to go' yet. Tips from parents at this stage include: 

  • buy plain non-descript underwear for this high-rotation period. Character undies become favourites that may not go through the wash cycle fast enough for them to wear again straight away
  • dig out the pant size they've just grown out of. Once the volume of a nappy has disappeared, your toddler may go down a size
  • consistency is key: keep cheering, even after your 100th bathroom visit, and try not to deny an opportunity to use the bathroom when requested, even if you suspect they don't really need to go. (We're looking at you, 34 trips to the toilet after bedtime)
  • be open to adaptation: nothing will impede the toilet training process more than enforcing a strategy your toddler is not responsive to. Sticker chart not working? Find out what gets them motivated and incorporate that. Does your toddler have a favourite colour? Try and purchase underwear in their favourite hue to get better buy in. Not ready for a toilet seat? A small potty can help alleviate fear and uncertainty for cautious new adopters.

5. Your new reality

Apart from the obvious benefits (money saved on nappies, nostrils saved from daily assault at the change table), once trained, the benefits for your toddler are great.

Toilet trained toddlers have learned the skill of self-control, have an increased sense of independence and self esteem, and are considered more socially aware. Despite the less-than-glamorous process to get there, the pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to transitioning from nappies to undies.Congratulations - it's time to celebrate!

[Read about potty parties here]

Got questions or tips for other parents about toilet training? Check out the Essential Baby forum