Potty training is a major milestone in any small person's life and one that marks a real watershed between infancy and childhood. But before you (and your wallet) can enjoy the benefits of no more nappies, you've first got to get over the hurdle that is toilet training.
This really is an ultimate guide and we've covered everything you could ever want to know about potty training, so you can use the links below to navigate easily through our advice. Or alternatively, read from the top to take in everything as you should approach it:
- Laying the foundations
- How to tell if your child is ready for potty training
- When's a good time to start potty training
- Two methods of potty training
- Help! It's not working
- My child won't poo in the potty
- Potty training boys
- Potty training girls
- Moving from potty to toilet
- Real mums' potty training tips
Don't rush them out of nappiesUnfortunately, a rush to potty train is something parents often get their own knickers in a twist about. Sometimes it's because they've got to get their little one dry before they can go to play group or nursery, or perhaps it's just because of that age old pressure of keeping up with the Jones's.
‘We often speak to parents through our helpline who have been listening a lot to others, maybe their parents, in-laws, or to other mums who say we've just managed to potty train their own child in under a week. They are worried because it seems to be taking them a lot longer,' says Jayne Miller, helpline and information specialist for ERIC (Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence), the UK's leading continence charity.
And it does seem that potty training is a particularly touchy subject for us mums. A study of more than 2,000 women carried out by Huggies found that one in three mums had fallen out with a close friend or family member over how to raise their children, with potty training being the topic most likely to touch a raw nerve.
But whatever the reason, trying to push your child to start using the potty before he's ready really is counter-productive. Studies have shown that if parents begin too soon, the process simply takes longer and is met with more resistance. So try not to stress even if it seems like your little one's the last of his playgroup peers to master the art of bladder control. The age at which he stops using nappies has nothing to do with his intelligence nor with your parenting skills and trying to encourage potty training before he's ready really is a pointless exercise. All you'll be doing is making a rod for your own back.
'If the process doesn't seem to be working and your child is due to start school or attend a nursery which won't take them unless they are completely potty trained, then perhaps that might be a point to get some help,' suggests Jayne. 'Talk it through with someone to see if there are different things you might do to try engaging your child.' Your health visitor can help you, or you can ring the Eric Helpline on 0845 370 8008.
'Usually it's not that there's anything wrong - a child who has something wrong with their bladder or bowel will have got picked up before they get to the potty training stage,' explains Jayne. 'Very often when we are talking to parents it is about behaviour - the parents' behaviour in relation to the child, or the child's behaviour with regard to the whole thing.'
Potty training doesn't happen overnight but it needn't be a big job if you time it right and do lots of groundwork. From around 18 months, start planting seeds in your tiny tot's brain which can grow and take root long before you begin tackling the process in earnest. Hopefully, this way, he'll be more prepared for and receptive to the change from nappies when it does come.
Let him see you on the loo
Toddlers learn by imitation. When he sees you or his siblings using the toilet, take the opportunity to talk to him about it. Explain that he can use the toilet when he's a bigger boy. Make it sound exciting. Tell him he won't have to wear nappies any more but can wear pants like you, daddy or his big brother.
Tell him about what happens when you use the toilet.
Explain about how the poo or wee goes down the toilet, you wipe your bottom, flush the handle and wash your hands. Say things like: "Won't it be lovely when you don't have to have your nappy changed anymore."
Get him used to the idea of the potty
Buy a potty and leave it lying around. Tell him what it is for and that he can use it to go to the toilet in when he's a bigger boy then let him do what he likes with it... sit on it, play with it even wear it as a hat.
Read books about using the potty
There are loads of fantastic books available which are specifically designed to help your toddler to start thinking about and understanding the potty training process. Particular favourites are 'I Want My Potty' by Tony Ross and 'Pirate Pete's Potty' and 'Princess Polly's Potty', both of which are written by Andrea Pinnington and published by Ladybird Books.
You could try incorporating the potty into a game. When you're going to the toilet, suggest he brings his favourite cuddly toy up to the bathroom to see if he would like to do a wee as well. Then you can practice acting it out together with teddy. If he's willing, you can encourage him to sit on the potty with his nappy on just to get a feel for it.
There are plenty of DVDs on the market to inspire and teach young children about potty training. Particular favourites are Bear in the Big Blue House - Potty Time With Bear, price from £4.25 and Elmo's Potty Time, priced from £4.83. Available from Amazon.co.uk.
OK, so you've had months of laying the groundwork but you're not sure how to tell when or if he's ready for the next stage. Here are some signs to look out for which would suggest that your tot is now emotionally and physically ready to begin potty training.
- He notices that his nappy is wet or soiled and wants you to take it off.
- He stays dry for a couple of hours during the day.
- He tells you he needs to go - perhaps by pointing or grunting. Or maybe breaks off from play to go off somewhere quiet for a poo.
- He fills his nappy at the same time every day (for example, after breakfast.)
- He's keen to show he's independent - perhaps by pulling off his nappy or wanting to undress himself.
- He shows an interest in other people going to the toilet.
- He likes praise and shows an eagerness to please and co-operate.
So the signs are there that your little one is ready to begin in earnest but there are other things worth considering before embarking on the potty push.
Your toddler is ready for this new stage, but are you?
- If your heart's not really in it... perhaps because of broken nights' sleep or because there are other things preoccupying you, wait until you're in a better frame of mind.
- Don't start potty training if there are any big upheavals coming like starting nursery, moving house or the arrival of a new sibling.
- Delay potty training if there's anything coming up which is likely to prove disruptive to your toddler's usual routine like a family holiday or a hectic schedule.
- Maybe put off potty training until the summer months. Summer is a great time to start potty training. It's just so much easier when your little one isn't wrapped up in lots of layers and you can let them run around with next to nothing on or in toilet training friendly clothes.
With the warmer weather those extra items of washing also won't seem so difficult to dry. And if your child is starting playgroup, nursery or school in September, then with patience and perseverance they could be dry by then.
Getting ready for the big push
OK, so the time is right, the signs are there and the decision is made. Now is the time for the pre-potty warm up which you need to make fun, exciting and as relaxed as possible. You've been talking about toilet training and potties for some while; your child is familiar with the concept and understands that she's going to make this change at some point soon. So where do you begin?
The final countdown
Now is the time to whip up some final enthusiasm. Imagine it's the countdown to a family holiday or birthday. What you want to try and do is get your child on board with the whole idea. You want them to want to use the potty.
Learning by example
If you've got a friend whose child is a similar age but is already potty trained, arrange a play date and let your little one see his friend going to the potty or using the toilet. It may just be the light bulb moment they need to kick start them in the right direction.
Buying potties and pants
If you haven't bought a potty already, now is the time to get one. Organise a special outing to the shops and make it about one thing and one thing only; buying grown up pants and a potty. (Don't be tempted to squeeze in a sly trip to the supermarket - this is meant to be fun.)
Try and make this a special day all round by incorporating another fun element which your child particularly enjoys. Maybe stop for a milk shake or go for a picnic in the park.
Another good tip is to let them choose pants with their favourite characters on. Thomas the Tank Engine or Peppa Pig may prove mighty allies.
See our round-up of the best potties to buy.
Pimp your potty
There are some all singing all dancing potties on the market but to make it more personal you might want to opt for a cheaper plain potty and then jazz it up when you get home. Again this is about getting your little one to invest in and engage with the process in a fun way. Buy some coloured permanent markers and write their name in big bold letters on the front in order to give them a sense of ownership. Then let them go to town decorating it themselves.
1. The crash courseWho does it suit?
If you're keen to get the mess and stress over in one short, sharp burst then this method's for you. However, in order to succeed you need to be able to clear your diary, batten down the hatches and stay in and around the house for a week or so. Basically, the nappies are off and it's all systems go!
This method works best with an older child who is really showing signs that he's ready to engage with the potty training process. It's not for you if you're someone who can't stand being cooped up indoors for any length of time.
What does it involve?
This method involves staying at home and ditching the nappies. Start day one with pants and a motivational potty pep talk. Then every couple of hours throughout the day tell him it's time to sit on the potty to try and do a wee. You should also try him around half hour after he's had a drink. If he isn't keen or quickly loses his enthusiasm then try making it fun. 'Come on, we'll sing some songs together' or 'I'll read you your favourite story while you have a try'. Continue with this method on a daily basis until he's got the message.
Obviously, it's not practical never to leave home, but if you do have to pop out, try timing it so that it's just after he's had a wee. Either that or encourage him to try using the potty before you leave just in case. In both incidences, take the potty and a change of clothes with you.
How long will this method take?
With luck, your child will start getting the hang of it within a few of days and will start seeking out the potty himself. You need to be prepared for puddles along the way but give it a week or so and you should be home and dry.
What are the pros of this method?
- Your child gets clear consistent messages about where to go and when.
- The intensive nature of this method means that it is quicker.
What are the cons?
- You're pretty much tied to the house for a week or so which won't suit everyone.
- It can be messy.
- You may find that you have early success but that your little one takes a few steps back a couple of weeks down the line. This is a very normal response in children whichever method you employ but it can be particularly disheartening if you've put all your energies into such an intensive approach.
2. The relaxed methodThis method takes a more leisurely approach to potty training and can fit around your normal routine.
Who does it suit?
If you like being out and about with your toddler and enjoy a busy schedule of outings/play dates and toddler groups then this method may suit you better as it allows you to carry on with normal activities.
This method will suit you if you're pretty laid back about the whole process and happy to go just go with the flow.
If your child is a little younger then a more relaxed approach may suit him better.
What does it involve?
When you're at home you use pants and potties and follow the same method of popping your child on the potty every couple of hours and shortly after they've had a drink.
The difference is that when you go out you put his nappy or pull ups back on. It's worth taking the potty out with you as well so that if your little one recognises the signs and tells you that he wants to go then you can respond.
What are the pros of this method?
- Less stress, less mess.
- Life carries on as normal. It doesn't become all about potty training.
What are the cons?
- You can be tempted to encourage your child to simply go in his nappy or trainer pants when it's difficult to find a toilet or it's not easy to get out the potty. These sort of mixed messages can prove confusing and prolong the process.
How long will it take?
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to potty training. The penny may quite literally drop the first time your child does his first wee, or you may find it's a slow process that spans several months with plenty of puddles along the way.
There are some children who get it just like that, explains Jayne. They decide; 'Right I am going to use this potty or this toilet. I'm not going to wait for you to tell me that it's OK to do it.' But for the majority of parents, it's about taking them through a learning process. It's very similar to the way in which parents teach their children to dress themselves, or clean their teeth, or feed themselves. It's a steep learning curve for them.
That first potty pee!Whichever method you opt for, there will come a moment when your little one does his first wee in the potty. When he does he's likely to be as pleased as you are about it. What you need to do at this point is make the biggest fuss of him you can. Little children thrive on praise, so tell him in no uncertain terms what a very clever boy he is and how proud you are of it. Make sure you share his news with the rest of the family when they come home. Basically, the bigger the fanfare, the better.
Are reward charts a good idea?
Lots of little ones respond really well to a reward system. (No, it's not bribery it's incentivising!). However, in order for it to work well you need to make it part of the ongoing process.
'What we do as adults is focus on an outcome,' explains Jayne. 'If as an adult we start at point A and want to get to point B, we work it out for ourselves and are willing to do what it takes to get there,' explains Jayne.
'If a child is at point A it's usually us as parents that decide that they need to get to point B, so it's not their choice. In order to help them you need to take them on that journey and show them how to get there.'
What Jayne advises is breaking it down and rewarding lots of small achievable steps along the way in order to keep them interested and on board with the process. ‘If we say that you're only going to get rewarded when you get to point B, then it doesn't really mean too much to a child. What we suggest doing is rewarding the process along the way... even little steps. So for example you can reward things like drinking well, which is really good for the bowel and bladder.'
Print our free reward chart and star stickers.
When they have an accident, you want them to be aware of the consequences of not acting on that signal but you're not punishing them,' advises Jayne Miller. 'Simply say well you've had an accident, let's go and get some clean pants and I will help you to clean yourself up.'
Potty training requires patience, perseverance and positive reinforcement but before you know it nappies really will be a thing of the past.
Out and about
If your child is recognising that he needs to go and is taking himself to the toilet with reasonable success, now is the time to take his newly trained tush out into wider world. In these early stages, don't leave home without a change of clothes and a potty. We love the award winning My Carry Potty, price £24.99.
'I've tried everything, it's just not working!'If you've timed it right and prepared well then it may be a relatively painless process. However, sometimes, despite your best efforts and careful planning you can still find you run into unexpected obstacles.
'He just won't co-operate'Has your normally placid little offspring morphed into a mini Godzilla? Does he seem hell-bent on turning every simple request into a battle of wills? Well, welcome to the terrible twos.
Some children see potty training as another opportunity to dig their heels in. If your child's favourite word is 'no' and conflict seems the name of the game, now is probably not the time to introduce the potty. Wait until he's over the worst of it and in a more co-operative frame of mind. The tears and tantrums that so often accompany this stage in a child's development are a sign that they are wanting to become more independent and do more things for themselves. Once the worst of the foot stomping is over, you may find that this newfound determination could work to your advantage.
'It's taking forever!'Of course, sometimes you may start potty training only to find that you're making little or no progress.
'If you think about it,' suggests Jayne, 'we put a nappy on a child from birth and are quite happy for them to use that as their toilet and they are quite happy with that arrangement. Then all of a sudden we tell them they can't do that anymore. That doesn't go down well with all of them.'
If you've taken a considered approach to potty training but find that the progress is painfully slow or non-existent, it may be that your child is simply not ready. Rather than pushing on regardless, it may be better just to put your child back in nappies for the time being and come back to it in a few months' time.
'It's one step forwards, two steps back'Children do often get off to a good start but then seem to think better of it. 'To start with, potty training is something new and interesting,' says Jayne. 'But after a good beginning, it is quite common for children to then take a few steps backwards. This is a perfectly normal part of the potty training process,' explains Jayne. 'It's all part of how children learn.'
Sometimes children who are toilet trained, or well on the way, can regress. This can coincide with a period of change or upheaval, a period of illness, or the arrival of a new sibling.
'It is not unusual for us to hear from parents that the weeing is fine but there's a real problem with the pooing,' explains Jayne Miller. 'Having a poo is a very active process. There's this feeling that they've got to push something out, then a lump of something comes out of their bottom which can be scary for them. Up until now they've never had to deal with it. They've simply lain on their back while somebody takes care of it for them. Some children don't like the smell of it, the look of it or even the noise that it can make when it comes out. They simply don't like it.'
To try to unravel, you need to find out what's causing the reluctance. There can be a number of different causes.
Fear of the unknown
Some children are frightened of 'firsts'. Think about your child's personality. Is she nervous about new situations and experiences? If this is the case then a little trickery may be in order. Try compromising by asking them to sit on the potty with their nappy on while they do a poo. Once you've this degree of co-operation established, try sneakily cutting a hole in their pull up or nappy. If it works and the poo falls through into the potty, feign surprise and astonishment and then praise them to the rooftops. If it's just a question of getting that first poo out of the way, you may find that once is enough and your child is able to relax from then on in.
Loss of self
Some children don't like the feeling of their poo falling away from them or feel incredibly anxious seeing it being flushed down the toilet. It's as though they are losing a bit of themselves. This is where good communication can come into its own. A good book like 'Everybody Poos' by Taro Gomi can help children understand that pooing is a normal part of daily life. Perhaps let them see your own poo in the toilet and watch you flush it away. You can even wave it goodbye and send it happily on its way. Try lessening any sense of loss your child is experiencing by telling that their poo is going somewhere important - the poo factory!
Help them understand
Try explaining to your child what poo is in terms that they can understand. Tell them that when they eat their meals their body takes all the good stuff it wants and then gets rid of the bits that aren't any use and that this is the poo. It's like scraping leftovers into the rubbish bin, or unwrapping a present and throwing away the wrapping paper.
Once you've talked through all the things that may be bothering them start by getting your child to sit on the potty and poo with their nappy on. When they are finished say: 'Shall we practice putting the poo in the potty where it belongs and tipping it down the toilet?' Praise them for being good and helpful. Next, try getting them to poo into an open nappy placed inside the potty. Hopefully with patience and understanding it won't be long before your little one learns to relax and let go of his anxieties.
Sometimes fear of pooing in a potty can become a vicious circle. The child holds onto their poo for too long to the point where they become constipated. When they do eventually go, it can be hard and uncomfortable, which reinforces their anxieties and compounds the problem.
'What we say to parents is that it is better that a child poos than doesn't poo,' explains Jayne Miller. 'If they are happy to poo in the nappy then rather than waiting until the night time nappy goes on, perhaps tell them to ask for a nappy at the point where they need to have a poo. By using the nappy, you can then progress in small stages - sitting on the toilet with the lid down, then with the lid up, loosening the nappy. But if they start holding on for it for too long then you can lead to problems with constipation, which can lead to quite long term problems.
When he first starts using the potty, your little boy will start by peeing sitting down. When he does, you need to make sure his penis is pointing downwards into the potty or things could prove a little hit and miss. ‘Initially, for little boys, we would suggest not encouraging them to stand up to wee too soon,' advises Jayne Miller. ‘It's quite important for them to be encouraged to sit down in order to give the bowel an opportunity to empty as well.' Once he's finished, he needs to learn to shake afterwards to get rid of any drips.
Most little boys continue to pee sitting even once they've moved onto an adaptor seat on the big toilet and this is a good thing for you to encourage in the early phase. However, there will come a point where he needs to learn how to pee standing up. There are lots of products on the market to help encourage good aim. We particularly like smiley toilet buddy Max, priced at £3.49 for a pack of 2. Max bobs around in the toilet bowl giving your little boy a target to take aim at. It's a fun way to avoid too many unpleasant spills.
Another new gadget specifically designed to help little boys get the hang of things is the Wee Man Urinal, priced at £14.99 and available from babykind.co.uk. Some little boys really do find it extremely satisfying making a stream of wee and this mini urinal is just the right height for toddlers to take aim. It also lets them copy the men in their life and is designed to make for less mess.
In general, girls tend to be potty trained a little earlier and a little quicker than boys. This may be because girls' speech tends to be more developed than boys of the same age.
The same basic methods apply to boys and girls, the only real difference being that you need to wipe a girl's bottom for her. With time, as she starts doing this for herself, you need to make sure that she learns to wipe from front to back in order to avoid infection. Another thing you need her to be aware of is that she's pulled her skirt or dress up and it isn't dangling in the potty or toilet.
Once she's using the big toilet then you should encourage her to sit right back rather than perching at the front. This will help limit ‘tinkles' on the toilet seat. If you can also encourage her to sit with her knees apart it will help relax her pelvic muscles.
'Although starting off with the toilet cuts out one phase, it will need a bit more supervision from you,' explains health visitor Annette Maloney.
'Not many toddlers will sit without company on a toilet, and in the beginning that can be a lot of time in the loo! They also need an adapted seat and a step to get up to it. The potty on the other hand can move from room to room and is easy to take out on short trips. Your little one can also sit comfortably on it and read a book while waiting for nature to take its course.'
However, once he's got the hang of things and has enough bladder control to recognise the need to go and take himself off to do his business then you can tell him it's time to make the step up to the big toilet. With luck, this should be an easy transition but some children do feel a little anxious about the toilet and have specific worries about falling in or don't like the feeling of their feet dangling. A well-fitting adaptor seat that doesn't rattle around and a foot stool will help make them feel more secure.
Happy potty training!
Your top potty training tips
'The potty was just left around for months before it saw any action. In fact my son Tom used to stick it on his head and run around saying, "I'm the king of the Poo Poo". He knew what it was for but we didn't really make a concerted push to potty train him until one day he'd just weed in it all by himself. He was so proud of himself and rather surprised by his own success.'
By goodtoknow user, Lara mum to Charlie, 3
'When my son, Charlie, was potty-training, I made it fun by giving his favourite bear, Tom, his own potty. It was only a spare soup bowl, but Charlie loved the fact they were training together.'
By goodtoknow user, Bella Smith, 28, mum to Charlie, 2
'I used incentives for both my boys and it worked wonders. I gave them 1 Smartie for a pee and 2 for a poo. Eventually this can be phased out but it's a great way to get them started.'
By goodtoknow user, Jennifer, mum to her 2 sons
'Take them to buy some big boy pants and let them choose their own. My son spent 3 or 4 months wearing his big pants over his nappy before he decided to wear them without a nappy. I believe that kids will learn to use the potty when they're ready. My son was 3 years and 4 months old when he told me he didn't need a nappy anymore and he has been dry since.'
By goodtoknow user, Rachel, mum to her 4-year-old son
'I made a lucky dip by filling up 2 toy boxes with sawdust and wrapped up lots of little cheap toys. I made them really appealing looking with a big glittery sign for the front saying Lulu's Wee Wee Potty Prizes and Lulu's Poo Poo Potty Prizes. She loved it and it was just the incentive she needed to help make potty training fun and rewarding for her.'
By goodtoknow user Marnie, mum to 3 year old Lulu
'When he started learning to stand and aim for a wee, I used to chuck Weetos in the water to give him something to aim at. '
By goodtoknow user Mark, dad to Ryan aged 4
'When Danni first started using the potty we used to chant 'Come on wee wee. Come on wee wee.' I also used to run the tap in the basin. The two together certainly seemed to produce the desired effect.'
By goodtoknow user Josie, mum to Danni, aged 4, and Martha, aged 1
'When Jack did his first wee in the potty, we made such a fuss of him you'd think he'd just won gold at the Olympics. We got straight on the phone to daddy at work and then rang up granny who sent him a well done card, which arrived in the post the next day. I think he was so chuffed with himself that it really encouraged him to carry on.'
By goodtoknow user Becky, mum to Jack 4 and Lucas 2
'If your child's nervous about potty-training, distract them with toy or book while they're on the potty so it doesn't seem such a big deal. '
By goodtoknow user Nicola, mum to Danny, 6 months
'Nappy changes had been a real battle for months so we decided to start potty training Molly and bought her a bright pink potty. She was delighted with it for 5 minutes but refused to sit on it. As she seemed more keen to go to the toilet, we bought her a pink princess toilet seat that clips on over the top of the normal toilet seat. She went straight to it, demanded to be put on it and used it there and then.'
By goodtoknow user Anna, mum to 2 1/2 year-old Molly and 1 year old Woody
'When you're buying clothes, always think about what's going to be easy to pull up or down.'
By goodtoknow user Kim, mum to Eloise 4 years
'The day I found a surprise wee festering in the potty was the day I knew we'd cracked it.'
By goodtoknow Linda, mum to Sean and Eddie, ages 2 and 6 months
'As a single mum with a little boy I thought it was normal to get him to wipe his willy after a wee with toilet paper until a male friend of mine told me that it definitely wasn't. He said he needed to be taught to shake and go!'
By goodtoknow Annie, mum to Darragh 5 years
'Bobby was fine on the potty but sometimes got anxious when we tried him on the toilet. It turned out he didn't like the splash when he did a poo. Once we'd worked that out, I always put some toilet paper down first.'
By goodtoknow Emily, mum to Bobby aged 3 and Emma, aged 3 months
'I bought her some Hello Kitty pants which were exactly the same as her big sister's and told her she needed to try really hard not to get Kitty wet.'
By Allyson, mum to Chloe, 6 years and Lola 3 years
'They say children learn by imitation so I was a bit worried when I went in to the bathroom one day and found him and his dad having a wee stream sword fight over the toilet bowl! Boys!'
By Jess, mum to Angus, 4 years
'Sally seemed more keen on the toilet so we hid the potty that she'd previously rejected and now we don't have to go from potty training to toilet training as she's missed out that middle step. I'm going to try and do the same with my son too.'
By Louise, mum to 2-and-a-half-year-old Sally
'I could always tell when Sam needed a poo so I started asking him to do it in the potty. When I thought he was about to go, I took him to the bathroom, put him on his potty then I sat opposite him on our toilet and said 'do a poo poo in the potty'. He always needed help staying put so I held his hands and sang 'Old MacDonald' and he'd go.'
By Jenny, mum to 21-month-old Samuel
'We got Amaala pulls ups and told her if she tells us ‘when' she's done a wee then she can wear them. After we put her in pull ups we bought her fancy knickers and told her if she tells us ‘before' she does a wee or poo she can wear them. By that time she knew the signs to look out for and she was only in pull ups for just over a week before she was fully in knickers.' By Israil, mum to 3-year-old Amaala and 2-month-old Adaan.
Are you potty training your children right now? Leave us a comment below to let us know how you're getting on and let us know your potty training questions.