Potty Training

A developmental process taken out of context.

Learning to use the toilet is the same as learning to walk.

I'm serious! It's the same.

Many factors come into play when helping children transition out of diapers and onto the toilet. Parents question how they will know their child is ready, how to start and what is the best way to approach the process.

A recent study tried to answer these toilet training questions. A group of Belgium urologists analyzed all the research to date on toilet training. They “found there was no overall consensus to the optimal age for starting to toilet train. There was also, no consensus on the expected mean of age of completed toilet training.” They went on to discuss the two main techniques used to toilet train, a more regimented and timed approach versus a child initiated approach. The research suggested a combination of the two would be best. “The last thing we want to do is teach our children holding habits, instead of teaching proper emptying habits,” was the major take away from the analysis. (June 2008) 

Thanks. That really narrowed it down.

It appears unlikely these seemingly important questions will ever be definitively answered. Fortunately, if learning to use the toilet is put back into the its proper place in regards to development and learning these questions become almost obsolete. 


Learning, at any age, is best when new information is put into context of what is already known. Start simple and build up from there. For many areas of learning we know and do this naturally. One example is learning to read.

We start singing the ABC’s when a child is very young. Then parents teach the letter symbols and their names at around 2-3 years old. Next, the sounds of letters are introduced. At around 4-5 years old a child begins reading simple words, followed with simple sentences. By 6 years, most children can read at a basic level. The reason a child can read at 6 is because of all the pre-literacy skills he or she learned along the way.

With toilet training, the idea of pre-toilet-ing skills had been lost. Parents were told, “Children are not ready until later so don’t talk about it until later.” The average age a child in the United States is introduced to using the toilet is 24 months. Waiting to talk about using the toilet is like not teaching the alphabet. Could you imagine someone saying, “Your son won’t read until he is 6, so don’t worry about teaching him the letters until then.”

Just like children need to learn pre-literacy skills, children need to explore toilet-ing before ever being expected to sit and relax on a potty. This means telling them they will be using the potty early. Children also need to know what underwear is, about flushing the toilet, how to use toilet paper, and washingtheir hands. And we have to avoid talking about the toilet as a dirty yucky thing we are never to touch.

Motor Skills

Learning to control the bladder and bowel is ultimately a motor skill. All motor skills start off as reflexes and become voluntary. The sphincters and muscles in the pelvic floor of infants reflexively release when the bladder and bowel are full. Gaining control of a set of muscles requires muscle awareness, strength and coordination. The only way to gain those three things is practice. Therefore a child needs the opportunity to contract and release his or her sphincter muscles. A child needs to see what is going on under the diaper.

Most important for toilet-ing, is the ability to recognize the feeing of a full bladder and bowel. Children have to learnto recognize the sensations in their bodies.  Parents can support their children in learning body awareness by talking about peeing and pooping when their child is peeing and pooping. So next time you see your child stop and strain, simply proclaim, “Your are pooping! It is so cool how your body stays clean! I can’t wait until you do it in the toilet instead of your diaper.”


Early learning and body awareness are completely intertwined in early childhood.  Most learning is a direct result of body development. Young infants discover they have a body and how to control it. Older infants begin to reach out with their bodies to discover how they can affect the world around them. By 18-24 months most children have basic mastery of their bodies. Gaining control of the bowel and bladder is the last major milestone of this early body mastery.

At about 2 years, the brain makes a leap in understanding. The focus of learning switches from the body to relationships. Language growth is explosive and play becomes more cooperative. As mentioned earlier, the tend is to wait until 2 years to introduce toilet-ing. The very point when a child is ready to start focusing away from the body.

Taking toilet-ing out of the normal developmental outline has changed our approach and outcomes around potty training. The current average age for American children to be potty trained is 36-40 months. In 1955, the average was 18 months. Urologist are noticing significant issues in the late toilet training of American children. These issues include a rise in bed wetting and urge incontinence, or the inability to feel the need to go.

All children meet developmental milestones in their own time, usually within a normal range. The significant rise in toilet-ing age can not be attributed only to the difference between children. The development of children’s ability to learn to use the toilet has not changed in the last 60 years, our lifestyle, attitudes and technologies have. Some of the changes have been good and some have been bad. But child development tells us we need to start talking about potty training sooner than later.


 A New Look at Potty Training

The goal of potty training as stated in the research summary is “teaching proper emptying habits.” To reach that goal we have to take toilet-ing out of the realm of training and put it back into the normal developmental learning process of early childhood.

Learning to control the bladder is natural. We don’t have to train children to walk, and we don’t have to train them to control their bladder and bowel. But we do have to tell them where we put our waste.

A parent’s job is to provide the information about where the poop and pee are suppose to go. Then, they need to be excited about the child learning to poop and pee there. The child takes over from there. Going to the bathroom is an internal process, so nothingexternal can make the process happen. 

A young, informed child will explore and use the toilet without the need of outside pressure. Parents may have to help them until they become more coordinated and clean up a few mess along the way. But that is what parents do in every area as a child grows. 

The best way to help a child make a happy and healthy transition to using the toilet is to talk. Talk about using the toilet as often as possible. Be excited and confident in the child’s ability to use the toilet. Then, step back and take the child’s lead with a loving expectation of the importance of going to the bathroom on the toilet.



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