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(By Meg Zweiback, R.N., M.P.H.
Published in Parents’ Press)
Adapted by Mother Goose School

Sometimes the most well-intentioned advice backfires. Years ago, parents (in those days, mothers) were urged to begin training toddlers to use the toilet as soon as they were walking, and to be out of diapers by 18 months old. Moms were highly motivated-washing machines and diaper washing services were rare, disposable diapers didn’t exist, and most children just learned how to use the toilet.

However, some children weren’t willing to follow the usual program. As we learned more about children’s individual rates of development, the established ways of toilet training were modified, and a “child-centered” approach was introduced. T. Berry Brazelton, the pediatrician and author of many books for parents, urged waiting for signs of readiness on the child’s part, noting that in his pediatric practice, children were out of diapers by age 2 ½ when this approach was used.

Brazelton was right about watching for signs of readiness. It doesn’t make sense to try to get a child to sit on the toilet when she can’t sit in a chair for three minutes, or hasn’t learned to pull down her own pants. Introducing toilet training when a toddler is saying “no” to every parental request isn’t a good use of parents’ time either.

However, I’ve noticed that some parents have interpreted the idea of “signs of readiness” to mean that their child will somehow figure out how to use the toilet all by himself, without parents’ helping him master all the small steps he has to learn on the way to being independent.

Children learn to do almost everything by watching, being taught through repetition, practicing, and then gradually becoming competent. Without help, they don’t do very well. Can you imagine what would happen if you never gave your child a spoon or fork and then expected her to feed herself with utensils on her third birthday?

Here’s a brief overview of the steps of teaching your child to use the toilet. Most children can begin this process by the time they are 2 years old.


Choose one that’s comfortable and the right size for your child to be able to rest his feet on the floor. Tell your child, “This is a toilet” and let him examine it, carry it and play with it. Decide with your child (offer several choices) where it should be placed (the kitchen and bathroom are easiest to clean!!)


Choose a teddy bear or your child’s favorite stuffed animal, and sit it down on the toilet; demonstrating how to sit on the toilet teaches a child through observation, rather than telling the child what to do.


You can begin by letting your child practice using the chair while he’s dressed or by demonstrating with a stuffed animal. The toilet seat can feel cold and hard at first, so having cloth between skin and chair is easier for many children. Of course, if your child wants to take his diaper off, that’s fine.

Have your child “sit” for two or three minutes while you read him a story, sing a song, or just chat. Tell him that he’s practicing sitting on the toilet now, and that after a while he’ll be able to use the toilet when it’s time to “pee” or “poop” (or whatever words you choose to use). Continue this practicing for a week or so.

If he doesn’t want to sit, don’t try to persuade him. If a child is at all resistant to sitting and a parent insists, a power struggle will begin that can delay the entire process.


In the second week, at a time when your child is undressed (such as before or after his bath), suggest that he try sitting on the toilet bare-bottomed. Again don’t insist that your child sit if he doesn’t want to. Continue your practice sessions once or twice a day until it seems very matter of fact to both of you.


Once your child is happy to sit on his toilet chair for a few minutes every day, you can begin to increase his opportunities to practice. Always choose a relaxed time for having him sit. After meals, the middle of the morning, right after a nap, or before or after a bath are times that usually work well. Whatever time you choose, your child must feel that it is easy and pleasant to sit on the toilet. Keep up this pattern of regular time to sit, but don’t put pressure on your child. If he is unwilling to sit very often, take a break for a week or two and then try again.


When you want your child to sit on the toilet chair, don’t ask, “Would you like to use the toilet?” A toddler often answers all questions with “No!” Instead say in a very matter-of-fact way, “Let’s go use the toilet now.” Using language that reflects positively on the toileting process is also helpful. “Big boy/girl toilet” sounds more grown-up than “potty”.


If your child wakes up dry from a nap or in the morning, there is an excellent chance he will need to go soon. After a meal, the feeling of fullness in a child’s abdomen triggers a natural reflex that may cause him to move his bowels.


At some point in this process, your child will pass urine or a bowel movement into the toilet. Many parents are thrilled when this happens that they shower the child with praise. However, sometimes too much celebration can overwhelm a child. Yes, offer praise, but don’t go overboard. You don’t want your own excitement to motivate your child more than the child’s own pride in his accomplishment.


When your child has used the toilet successfully once, you will probably hope that he’ll begin using it every time. He might, but he might not. If he is cooperative, you can increase the number of times a day you take him to the toilet. If you are at home all day, you can suggest going to the toilet about every hour or two.

Even if you notice that your child tends to wet or have a bowel movement in his diaper five minutes after he gets up, don’t try to make him sit longer. He may not be aware enough yet of the sensation of “needing to go” to get back to the toilet. He also may want to wait until he has his diaper back on to let go. If you make him sit longer, he may start to hold on rather than to gradually get comfortable enough to let go.

Don’t get angry at your child for going later. Instead of scolding or expressing disappointment, change the diaper, and tell your child that someday soon he’ll be able to use the toilet instead of the diaper all by himself.


Continue with this stage of training until your child is regularly producing urine or a bowel movement several times a day. It may be days, weeks, or months before a child begins to put his urine or bowel movement in the toilet more often than he puts them in his diapers. That’s why it’s important to keep the sitting time short. You won’t be spending more than ten or fifteen minutes a day total in this activity, but your child will be learning at his own pace.

IT’S TIME TO INTRODUCE TRAINING PANTS or “big boy/girl underwear”.

Cloth underpants for your child may be more desirable if they are imprinted with a favorite character. Your child can wear them when she’s awake once she’s more likely to go in the toilet. Some people think that it is better to take diapers away earlier so that the child will be motivated by feeling cold or wet if he goes in his pants.

If you decide to try taking away the diapers when your child is still regularly wetting them, don’t make a fuss about accidents. Tell him you’re just going to try the cloth pants for a few days and see how it goes. A timer set every hour or so may improve your chances of getting your child to make it to the bathroom before soiling his underwear.

If your child continues to go in his pants instead of the toilet, it will, of course, be more work for you to clean up. It can be hard to be cheerful about cleaning up messy pants for weeks at a time, especially if your child doesn’t seem to care. Some parents find that if they begin using cloth pants too soon, they wind up getting very angry and even losing their temper with their child. Although a child may react to parents’ anger by trying harder to stay dry, he is just as likely to be even more unwilling to use the toilet.


Once you child is out of diapers, he’ll probably need to be reminded to sit on the toilet at regular, frequent intervals. Some children will go on their own, but the parent may need to offer a casual reminder every two hours or so. Help your child; set a timer so that the timer, rather than the parent, tells the child to go. Don’t watch the clock. The purpose of the reminders is to help the child have the feeling of being successful more often, not to avoid having any accidents. If you have to nag your child to go, or if he resists a reminder or a timer, it’s best to let him go at his own pace, even if it means more puddles.


Every child learns in his own way, at his own pace. If you are in a hurry, you will be the problem, not the solution!