When is the best age to start potty training?

If there is any doubt your child is ready to toilet train, wait. It will happen eventually!
If there is any doubt your child is ready to toilet train, wait. It will happen eventually! Photo: Getty Images

Potty training is not the most glamorous of parenting responsibilities, but it’s something that we all have to go through. These days there are a range of theories and techniques to try and a wealth of information to help guide you though the process.

But when should you start? It is a decision that can be fraught with worry, and, like nappies, there is no ‘one size fits all’.

But parents who opt to start sooner rather than later may want to think twice: a new study has found that children who start potty training before age two have a three times higher risk of developing daytime wetting problems later.

Dr Steve Hodges, the professor of urology who led the study, warned parents that there can be negative consequences to starting too early. “Parents who train their children early to meet preschool deadlines, to save landfills from diapers or because they think toddlers are easier to train should know there can be serious repercussions," he said.

In the study, researchers from Wake Forest Baptist medical center profiled 112 children aged three to 10 years. Half the children were seen in the urology department for daytime wetting or urinary urgency/frequency. They were then compared to a group seen in a general pediatric clinic who had no history of urinary dysfunction. Patients were then grouped into three categories of potty training: early (before age two), mid (between two and three), and late (after age three) training.

Dr Hodges found that the children who were potty trained early (before the age of two) were three times more likely to experience day time wetness than the children who were potty trained later.

The researchers think that the early potty trainers could be more prone to wetting issues because they “hold” their stool or urine. “When children hold stool, it backs up in the rectum,” Hodges explained. “The enlarged rectum presses against the bladder, reducing its capacity and causing the nerves feeding the bladder to go haywire.”

But psychologist and child behavior expert Nicole Pierotti from Babysmiles.com says that parents shouldn’t worry too much about age, and instead focus on signs of readiness.

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“If the time is right for the toddler then the whole process should be fairly easy, usually if parents start too early it is a longer process,” she says.

Sometimes parents can push their child too to start potty training too soon because they think there is a certain age they should be trained by. “Many parents can’t avoid comparing their child to other children. They feel disappointed if their child doesn’t do something as early as other children, they feel proud if they do it early,” Nicole explains.

“It seems that parents sometimes forget that it’s not a competition and may even look at what age their child is when they learn to do something as a direct reflection of their own parenting abilities.”

Nicole notes that just because a child is a certain age doesn’t mean automatically that they are ready. She suggests parents looking out for the following signs:

  • Your child can be dry for a couple of hours at a time.
  • Her poos are regular and you can see a pattern in the time of day.
  • She notices or gives you a clue that she is doing a poo or wee – usually toddlers stop what they are doing, crouch down or bends their knees, clutch their nappy area or sometimes even go and hide when she is doing a wee.
  • She simply tells you or asks to be changed after she has done a wee or poo.
  • She is keen to wear underwear or training pants.
  • She may look  for a little privacy when doing a wee or poo.
  • She is able to follow simple directions like ‘sit down’, ‘quick let go’.
  • She wants to co-operate with mum giving instructions.
  • She can walk well – as she needs to actually be able to get to the toilet in a hurry.
  • She can pull pants up and down – she needs to be able to basically get dressed and undressed. (Still, make it easy for her with clothing that’s easy to remove, no need to make it trickier than it is!) 
  • She has a basic understanding of what the toilet is for.
  • She wants to please mum or dad, and is not in the difficult ‘no’ stage as they want to see what you will do about it.
  • She can sit quietly for short periods of time, say 5-10 minutes to do a puzzle or read a book. She will need to on the potty.
  • She can tell you that she needs to go, or notices she is doing a wee.

According to Nicole, most children will start to show the signs of readiness over the space of a few months. Her advice to parents is that if there is any doubt your child is ready – wait. It will happen!