Toddler potty training: How to get your child ready

In Western countries today, many pediatricians recommend a child-oriented approach to toilet training. Children set the pace. Parents delay training until children demonstrate certain skills, abilities and interests.

The goal of this approach is to avoid pressuring children before they are physically and psychologically ready. But “child-oriented” doesn’t mean parents have to wait passively. On the contrary. Whether your goal is to start training earlier – or simply make training less stressful when you finally begin – it’s a good idea to actively prepare your toddler for potty training.

toddler pulling on his own pants

If you reflect on what kinds of things contribute to successful training, you can see why. When researchers have asked what sets kids apart, they’ve found that children who complete training have certain characteristics in common (Wyndaele et al 2020), including

  • a broad vocabulary (for communicating about potty training);
  • an awareness of body signals and the need to eliminate;
  • a desire to remain clean and dry (and to tell caregivers when pants are dirty or wet);
  • an interest in potty training; and
  • the ability to their own pants up and down.

It’s also clear that kids need to feel safe and comfortable about the process of toilet training. And these are all things that parents can foster.

For example, we know that children can learn by observing us, and the ability emerges early. In experiments, babies just 12-15 months old have reproduced object-oriented actions they saw another person perform (Fenson and Ramsey 1981; Jones 2009; Fagard and Lockman 2010). By 20-24 months, most toddlers are imitating actions on a pretty reliable basis (Köster et al 2020).

So we’ve good reason to think that even very young toddlers can become more familiar with the toileting routine. We just need to show them! Moreover, we know that kids can learn new skills through play — including pretend play (Bock and Johnson 2004; Pellegrini and Bjorkland 2004). We also know that children become more cooperative when we address their concerns with empathy, good humor, and positive, supportive talk.

With these points in mind, here are some suggestions for getting your child ready for potty training.

Teach by example

From brushing your teeth to putting on your socks, you model many motor skills for your toddler. Toilet training should be no different.

Let children observe family members using the bathroom as part of everyday life. Demonstrate the whole bathroom “script,” from recognizing the sensations that signal the need to eliminate, to finishing up and washing hands. Describe the steps, and, if kids show interest, find ways for them to participate. For example, William and Martha Sears suggests you invite kids to help you flush the toilet (Sears et al 2002).

Get attuned to your child’s body signals, and talk with your child about them

Potty training will be much easier if you and your child can communicate about it. The first step? Take notice of signs that your child is feeling the urge to eliminate. Researchers say the most common signal is a change of facial expression, combined with body movements and vocalizations (like grunting or letting out a little cry). In addition, you might detect a change in breathing pattern (Vermandel et al 2020).

Once you’re able to read these clues, call your child’s attention to his or her body signals. Give them a name (e.g., “you need to poop,” “you have to pee,” or “you are having a “potty feeling”,) and explain that everyone experiences these sensations. Talk with your child using relevant language – including whatever family words you want to use for urine, defecation, and basic anatomical parts.

To reinforce your explanations – and spark conversation about bathrooms, underpants, and other concepts — explore children’s storybooks about toileting and elimination. Some older classics include Everyone Poops (by Taro Gomi) and Where’s the Poop? (by Julie Marks and Susan Kathleen Hartung). You can also supplement these readings by talking about how pets and wild animals “go to the bathroom.”

Introduce a potty chair, and guide your child with pretend play

Weeks before you plan to start toilet training, give your toddler a potty chair and explain how it’s used. Let your child sit on it, fully clothed, and investigate it during play.

One promising approach is to engage in pretend play with a doll, stuffed toy, or action figure. By the age of 19 months, many children may be capable of imitating sequences of pretend acts with dolls (Fenson and Ramsey 1981), and when parents participate, pretend play becomes more complex and lasts longer (Fiese 1990). So there’s reason to think that kids can learn by guiding a doll through the steps of using the potty. You might act out the bathroom “script,” or use make-believe to deal with sources of potential anxiety. For instance, your doll might have an accident and require reassurance (“Sometimes it’s hard to get to the potty in time. That’s okay. We’ll help you clean up.”)

Stoke an interest in underwear, and help kids practice pulling their pants up and down

Many toddlers are reluctant to give up diapers, so it’s helpful to portray underwear-wearing as a special privilege—something to look forward to. It’s also a good idea to give kids opportunities to practice pulling their pants up and down — before they start using a potty.

Get kids accustomed to feeling clean and dry

Pediatrician Barton Schmidt recommends this, and he has a suggestion for making it happen: Teach children to ask for a change of diaper whenever they are wet or soiled. And make sure that diaper changes are pleasant – not stressful (Schmidt 2004).

Prevent constipation

Most toddlers prefer starchy diets and eat little fiber. This puts them at risk for developing constipation, which leads to longer, more difficult potty sessions and, possibly, pain (Blum et al 2004). So it’s crucial to avoid toilet training if your child appears to be constipated. Discuss dietary changes with your pediatrician, and make sure your child is drinking enough fluids. Soft, easy-to-pass stools will make toddler potty training easier.

Avoid a negative tone

Sometimes children develop fears, and these can really hinder progress. So experts advise us to portray elimination and toileting in a positive light. Going to the bathroom is normal – not embarrassing or threatening. When kids get it right, they should be praised. When they have accidents, we should avoid punishments or negative emotions, and we should encourage them to keep trying.

In addition, at least one writer (Dr. Barton Schmidt) has warned parents to avoid sending negative messages about feces as “dirty” or “yucky.” In theory, such messages might make kids get the idea that defecation itself is bad, and this, in turn, could contribute to problems like stool withholding, hiding from parents, and refusing to use the potty (Schmidt 2004). In one study, avoiding negative messages about poop didn’t seem to prevent kids from developing these problems, but it may have benefited kids who were already struggling. For example, kids got over stool withholding faster if their parents avoided referring to feces as dirty (Taubman et al 2003).

Pay attention to sources of anxiety, and avoid toilet training during times of stress or transition.

Is your child afraid of the sounds that a toilet makes? Worried that she might fall inside? Is your child afraid to defecate (maybe because he’s suffered from constipation in the past)? These are problems you will want to address before your child starts toilet training, so take the time to discover your child’s feelings, and talk with your pediatrician about solutions.

Be careful, too, about major life transitions. Any big changes – a new baby, a new home, a new childcare routine – could trigger stress and make potty training more difficult. By helping kids cope with anxieties and transitions, we can remove potential barriers to toilet training in the future.

More information

Want to know more about signs of toilet training readiness? See this Parenting Science guide. And for more information about toddler potty training, see my article on toilet training techniques.

References: Preparing for toddler potty training

Blum NJ, Taubman B, and Nemeth N. 2003. Relationship between age at initiation of toilet training and duration of training: A prospective study. Pediatrics, 111: 810-814.

Bock J and Johnson SE. 2004. Subsistence ecology and play among the Okavango Delta peoples of Botswana. Human Nature, 15: 63-81.

Fagard J and Lockman JJ. 2010. Change in imitation for object manipulation between 10 and 12 months of age. Dev Psychobiol. 52(1):90-9.

Fenson L and Ramsay DS. Effects of modeling action sequences on the play of twelve-, fifteen, and nineteen-month-old children. Child Dev. 52(3):1028-36.

Fiese BH. 1990. Playful relationships: A contextual analysis of mother-toddler interaction and symbolic play. Child Development, 61: 1648-1656.

Jones SS. 2009. The development of imitation in infancy. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 364(1528):2325-35.

Köster M, Langeloh M, Kliesch C, Kanngiesser P, Hoehl S. 2020. Motor cortex activity during action observation predicts subsequent action imitation in human infants. Neuroimage. 218:116958.

Krevans J and Gibbs JC. 1996. Parents’ use of inductive discipline: relations to children’s empathy and prosocial behavior. Child Development, 67: 3263-77.

Meltzoff A. 1996. The human infant as imitative generalist: A 20-year progress report on infant imitation with implications for comparative psychology. In: CM Heyes and BG Galef, Jr. (eds). Social learning: The roots of culture (pp.347-370). San Diego: Academic Press.

Pellegrini AD and Bjorkland DF. 2004. The ontogeny and phylogeny of children’s object and fantasy play. Human Nature, 15: 23-43.

Sears W, Sears M and Watts Kelly C. 2002. You can go to the potty. Boston, MA Little, Brown and Company.

Slade, A. 1987 A longitudinal study of maternal involvement and symbolic play during the toddler period. Child development, 58:367-375

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

Taubman B. 1997. Toilet training and toileting refusal for stool only: A prospective study. Pediatrics, 99: 54-58.

Taubman B, Blum NJ, and Nemeth N. 2003. Stool toileting refusal: A prospective intervention targeting parental behavior. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 157: 1193-2003.

Vermandel A, Van Hall G, Van der Cruyssen K, Van Aggelpoel T, Neels H, De Win G, De Wachter S. 2020. ‘Elimination signals’ in healthy, NON toilet trained children aged 0-4 years: A systematic review. J Pediatr Urol. 16(3):342-349.

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. 7:2333794X20951086.

Content of “Toddler potty training” last modified 10/2022. Portions of text derive from an earlier version of this article, written by the same author, in 2006.

image of toddler pulling his pants on by Raul Teran Aquino / istock

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