Signs of toilet training readiness: Which are crucial, and which can you skip?

© 2021 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

When children show signs of toilet training readiness, they may learn toileting skills more easily or quickly. But not all signs are equally important — or even relevant — to your family’s needs.

What is “toilet training readiness”? The concept was pioneered by two pediatricians — Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton. They argued that some children are pushed into training before they are developmentally ready. So kids resist, and families fail to make progress.

To avoid these pitfalls, the doctors recommended patience. Wait until a child has achieved certain physical and psychological milestones. Then you can be confident that your child is prepared for the toilet training process (Brazelton et al 1999).

It sounds reasonable. But should we view these milestones as prerequisites for training?

Not necessarily.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to the timing of toilet training

Watching for milestones is useful.  It helps us understand what types of toileting skills our children are ready to learn.

But over the years, pediatricians and researchers have come up with lots of different signs of toilet training readiness, and they aren’t all equally useful, not to everyone.

For example, your own child’s readiness depends on what, exactly, you want to achieve.

For some parents, the goal is complete toileting independence. They want their kids to be able to walk into a bathroom, pull down their pants, use the potty, wipe themselves, and so forth. 

If that’s your goal, then you obviously need to wait for certain key milestones, like the ability to walk independently.

But other parents — like parents who practice traditional infant potty training? They have more modest goals in mind. They aren’t going to ask their babies to seat themselves on a potty chair — let alone expect them to walk. For these families, many of the proposed “signs of toilet training readiness” aren’t relevant.

And then there’s another point. Even if you’re interested in training your child for complete, toileting independence, you don’t need to wait until you observe every sign of readiness that has ever been proposed.

For instance, some writers have advised parents to wait until their kids are staying dry during daytime naps. Is it really necessary to wait this long?

A recent study suggests otherwise. Less than half of the children who were successfully toilet trained had reached this milestone (Wyndaele et al 2020).

And it’s worth noting: Some “signs of readiness” concern your child’s curiosity and motivation to begin training. You can wait for these signs to arise spontaneously. But you can also take active steps to engage your child’s interest — and generate enthusiasm for the process.

So what should be on your parental radar? And how should you decide which signs are worth waiting for?

Here I will review the expert advice, beginning with the preconditions for training that everybody agrees about. Then I’ll review some of the most frequently-mentioned signs of toilet training readiness, which I’ve compiled from a variety of medical publications.

Crucial conditions for toilet training: What every family should wait for

There’s no hard-and-fast list of developmental milestones that every child must achieve before potty training. But — no matter what your goals — there are certain background conditions that need to be in place before you start asking your child to learn new toileting skills.

In general, you shouldn’t try to begin potty training unless your child is

  • healthy (no diarrhea or constipation, for example);
  • relaxed (not stressed by new life changes, like a move); and
  • cooperative (not going through a rebellious phase).

Why are these crucial? Because successful outcomes depend on children maintaining positive feelings about toilet training.

If you try to train during a difficult time, your child may learn to associate toilet training with pain, illness, emotional distress, or fighting. And once that happens, your child may become very resistant to the training process.

But let’s assume you’ve got a healthy, relaxed, cooperative child who is experiencing regular bowel movements. What’s next? What sorts of behavior might signal that your child ready to train?

Signs of toilet training readiness signs: A list compiled from 7 different expert sources

Back in 1999, Dr. Peter Gorski presented a set of signs which are still embraced by the American Academy of Pediatrics today. He advised that kids should be capable of

  • imitating your actions;
  • putting some objects “where they belong”;
  • showing independence by saying “no”;
  • expressing an interest in potty training (by, for instance, following you into the bathroom);
  • walking and sitting down;
  • communicating when they are urinating or defecating, and when they need to do these things;
  • removing and replacing their clothes (i.e., pulling their pants up and down).

In addition, physician Drew Baird and colleagues (2019) suggest that parents look for signs that children are

  • demonstrating “dissatisfaction” with a dirty diaper (i.e., they want to stay clean, and feel distressed by soiled or wet diapers);
  • using “expressive” language; and
  • showing  “bladder or bowel control” (e.g., staying dry for two hours at a time, or during a nap).

And other experts have proposed more signs of toilet training readiness, including

  • asking to use a potty chair, or to wear “big kid” underwear; (American Academy of Family Physicians  2019);
  • being capable of responding to directions, questions or explanations (Wyndaele et al 2020);
  • wanting  to perform tasks independently, and showing pride in such achievements ( O’Connell 2000; Schum et al 2002); and
  • displaying a desire to control elimination, and actively participate in toilet training (Canadian Pediatric Society 2000; Schum et al 2002).

Okay. That’s quite a few signs, and you can probably understand the rationale for most of them.  But it’s also clear that different signs can lead us to different conclusions.

For example, in Gorski’s signs of toilet training readiness, he doesn’t mention asking to wear “big kid” underwear, or staying dry during a daytime nap. Your child might show all of Gorski’s signs, but fail to show some of the others.

Confusing? Yes. And the people who are arguably the most knowledgeable about this — researchers who study toilet training and bladder control — agree. After reviewing the published literature on toilet training, Nore Kaerts and her colleagues reported:

“Our results show that there is no consensus on which or how many readiness signs to use. Depending on the readiness sign, the moment to start toilet training can vary a lot” (Kaerts et al 2012).

So how should parents sift through these signs?

Skip signs that aren’t relevant or important to your goals

Many of signs of readiness assume that parents want to wait until their kids have developed rather advanced developmental abilities. And that might not describe you.

For instance, some parents might want to delay training until their children are showing considerable bladder control — staying dry for at least two hours at a stretch.

It’s a reasonable choice to make. If your child can “hold it” for longer intervals, you won’t have to pay as many visits to the potty.

But other parents may feel differently. They prefer to get started earlier, even if it means some additional trips to the potty chair.

Is one of these approaches right, and the other wrong?

No. Starting earlier might involve more work up front, and — in general — younger children usually take longer to master the entire process. But on the positive side, families may get their kids out of diapers sooner, which comes with a number of benefits.

There’s a case to be made for both options. It just depends on what trade-offs you’re willing to make.

And remember that you can take steps to actively prepare your child for toilet training

According to the original concept of toilet training readiness, you’re supposed to wait patiently for skills to emerge. But this approach could leave you waiting for quite a long time.

For instance, in a study of American children, aged 15-40 months, most toilet-related skills were not mastered until after 22 months, and the median age for attaining some skills — like telling a parent beforehand about the need to urinate — was over 32 months (Schum et al 2002).

That’s quite a long wait if you consider that “median” means that half the kids took even longer.

So can parents speed up the development of certain behavioral milestones?

In a study of more than 200 children living in the Netherlands, researchers found evidence in favor of the idea. Their data suggest that kids developed some “signs of readiness” not before training, but during training.

For example, going through toilet training predicted the development of increased interest in toilet training. It was also associated with picking up more expressive vocabulary, including a knowledge of potty training related words (Wyndaele et al 2020).

And course this fits with everyday experience, and what we know about how kids learn. There’s a lot that parents can do:

  • They can stimulate interest in potty training by actively showing children how toileting works.
  • They can expose kids to words that will help them talk about using the potty.
  • They can read children books about toilet training.
  • They can dress toddlers in pants that are easy to pull up and down — and show kids how to practice this skill.
  • They can present children with a potty chair to investigate — long before training begins.

In sum, it’s a good idea to actively introduce your child to potty training skills and concepts. Barton Schmidt, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado, says that one of the most common mistakes parents make is doing nothing to prepare until the week they start training (Schmidt 2004). 

Are any signs of toilet training readiness especially helpful for predicting success?

In that same study of kids in the Netherlands, researchers asked this question. They collected data on 221 (aged 15-35 months), and looked for correlations between signs of readiness and toilet training status.

What were the signs most strongly linked with children who had successfully completed toilet training? The three biggest were

  • The child “expresses a need to evacuate and shows awareness of the need to void or to have a bowel movement.”
  • The child can pull “clothes up and down in a toilet training related context.”
  • The child “insists on completing tasks without help and is proud of new skills.”

So perhaps these are the most helpful indicators of your child’s readiness to begin toilet training.

More information

Looking for more information about the timing of training? Check out my evidence-based article about choosing the right potty training age. In it, I review the pros and cons of toilet training at different stages of development, from infancy to 24 months — and beyond.

References: Signs of toilet training readiness

American Academy of Family Physicians. 2019. Information from Your Family Doctor: Toilet Training. Am Fam Physician. 2019 Oct 15;100(8):online.

Baird DC, Bybel M, Kowalski AW. 2019. Toilet Training: Common Questions and Answers. Am Fam Physician. 100(8):468-474.

Brazelton TB and Sparrow JD. 2004. Toilet training the Brazelton way. Cambridge, MA: deCapo Press.

Brazelton TB, Christophersen ER, Frauman AC, Gorski PA, Poole JM, Stadtler AC, Wright CL. 1999. Instruction, timeliness, and medical influences affecting toilet training. Pediatrics, 103: 1353-1358.

Canadian Pediatric Society. 2000. Toilet learning: Anticipatory guidances with a child-oriented approach. Paediatrics and Child Heath, 5: 333-5.

Gorski PA. 1999. Toilet training guidelines: Parents—the role of parents in toilet training. Pediatrics, 103: 362-363.

Kaerts N, Van Hal G, Vermandel A, and Wyndaele JJ. 2012. Readiness signs used to define the proper moment to start toilet training: a review of the literature. Neurourol Urodyn. 31(4):437-40.

O’Connell, D. 2000. As they grow: Your two-year-old. New York: St Martins.

Schmidt BA. 2004. Toilet training: Getting it right the first time. Contemporary Pediatrics, 21: 105-119.

Schum TR, Kolb TM, McAuliffe TL, Simms, MD, Underhill, RL and Lewis M. 2002. Sequential acquisition of toilet-training skills: A descriptive study of gender and age differences in normal children. Pediatrics 109: 48-54.

Wyndaele JJ, Kaerts N, Wyndaele M, Vermandel A. 2020. Development Signs in Healthy Toddlers in Different Stages of Toilet Training: Can They Help Define Readiness and Probability of Success? Glob Pediatr Health.

Content of “Signs of toilet training readiness” last updated 2/14

image of girl with bear by Manish Bansal / flickr

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