4. Potty training

What Toilet Training Teaches You

If you are like most parents, you are delighted to see your child successfully concluding the toilet-training process. The days of loading the grocery cart with diapers are behind you (at least with this child), and accidents have dwindled to a manageable few. But the completion of toilet training signifies much more than liberation from diapers. By learning to control this bodily function, your child has moved significantly closer toward self-mastery—every young child’s goal.

Responding to your wish for him to use the toilet “like a big boy” and practicing this new skill and succeeding again and again have given him a wonderful new sense of competence and even independence. This feeling that he can successfully meet a challenge will add to his confidence in other areas of his life, including social and academic pursuits. Even in the face of occasional accidents, then, it is important to recognize the level of accomplishment your toilet-trained child has reached.

What Will You Learn About Yourself?

One of the fascinations of parenthood is that many of our own long-unexamined assumptions and buried emotions surface as we interact with our children. When your child was first born, you may have been surprised at how you responded to each new experience. You may have been awed or frightened by the act of childbirth, enchanted or apprehensive about breastfeeding, confident or anxious the first time you held your child.

Toilet training also evokes a wide range of feelings, many of which may have been deeply buried in the unconscious until now—competitiveness, anxiety, anger, neediness, ambition, and a host of other emotions. Reasonable or not, such feelings can be difficult to control. As you look back on your experience toilet-training your child, think about your emotional responses—the positive feelings as well as the ones you now regret. Why do you think your emotions were stirred by these specific occasions? What did you do when you felt these ways? Did you find ways to express your emotions that did not damage your child’s self-esteem and led to positive solutions? What did you learn about yourself through these interactions that you can generalize to other parenting situations?

Toilet training is a valuable task that every parent must undertake. But its greater value lies in its power to teach parents more about their children, themselves, and their lives together as a family. Ideally, in the years to come you will be able to draw on lessons learned during this task to communicate effectively, promote desirable behavior, approach new challenges in positive ways, and toilet-train future children with greater ease.

What Will You Learn About Your Child?

The toilet training process not only offers you new insights into your own emotions, attitudes, and parenting approach, but also allows you a fascinating look at your child’s personality and learning style. Once toilet training is more or less completed, think back on your child’s experiences. Which parts of the process were easy for him and which were more difficult? Did he have a hard time sitting still on the potty for more than thirty seconds or so? Did he become so involved with other activities that he frequently forgot to go? Did he tend to mimic whatever child he was with at any given time—using the potty if the other child did but having an accident if the other child was still in diapers? Which training techniques worked best—talking a great deal with him about potty use or simply placing him on the potty, sticking to a regular schedule, or just letting him sense when he needed to go? Did he appreciate your reminders to go to the bathroom or did he perceive them as controlling and resist? Did he respond better to hugs and kisses, words of praise, stars on a chart, or promises of fun activities if he stayed dry through the day or the week?

An observant parent will notice how much more effective positive reinforcement is with children than criticism or punishment. The desire to please a parent—and to be praised, loved, and rewarded—is extremely powerful in most young children. Toilet training is one of the best times to witness and appreciate this motivation in your child. As your child moves on to kindergarten and elementary school, your continued positive interest and rewards for progress will keep his desire to please alive, helping him achieve academic, social, and personal success.

What Will You Learn About Your Family?

Some of the more frequent insights you will experience during the toilet training process have to do with the ways in which your family works together. Chances are you notice over the six months or longer that toilet training generally takes that you (or your partner) take on the role of family disciplinarian while your partner (or you) prefers a more permissive approach. (All references in this section to a partner can be applied to any other adult involved in raising your child.) Or you may notice that your child generally goes to one parent when she has an accident and the other when she announces her success. You and your partner may also learn to recognize the signs indicating when one of you reaches his or her limit, requiring quick intervention from the other. Finally, you may notice that one of you may be more inclined to “do” for your child, while the other is more likely to help her to be as independent as possible—a pattern that may continue for years.

Though you will find that many of these created patterns will continue throughout childhood, others will change many times over the years: Your child may turn to one parent more than the other for a few years, then switch parents; she may imitate one of you at one stage of her life, the other at another stage, and then switch back again; she may prefer one of you as her confidant, the other as her playmate. The main thing to remember is that she will have separate relationships with both of her parents, and this is all part of growing up and becoming herself.

However, you can use what you observe about your patterns as a family to make whatever changes you think are necessary. Perhaps you will find that the two of you tend to “gang up” on your child when she makes a mistake, overwhelming her rather than allowing her room to understand and correct her mistake. Or you may notice that when you and your partner disagree over your approach to a parenting problem, you each tend to follow your own course, undermining the other’s efforts instead of agreeing on a viable compromise. Reserve some time to discuss these issues alone with your partner or together with your child’s pediatrician. You may even talk with your child on a simple level about which parenting techniques lead her to feel better or worse.

Enjoying Your Self-Sufficient Child

When it comes time for your toilet-trained child to say goodbye to toddlerhood and move on, you can congratulate yourself on the completion of a major parenting challenge. Your child has become more confident and independent as a result of your efforts to help him achieve this developmental milestone, and his pride in his ability to master a new skill will support his further development. The simple fact that he has experienced the pleasure of achieving a goal will make later success more likely. In the years to come, accidents will happen now and then. What’s important is that your child and your family have accomplished something together and you are now better prepared to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

4. Potty training

Using a Public Bathroom: Information for Parents of Toddlers

​Helping an opposite-sex child on the toilet is certainly easier during the toddler years. As children grow and become more aware of gender differences—and more aware of their surroundings in general—public bathrooms can become an increasingly uncomfortable place for both parent and child.

It is best to take your child to the bathroom corresponding with your own gender through at least age four. After that, if he objects or if you feel uncomfortable, you may decide to send him into his own gender’s bathroom while you wait within hearing distance right outside the door.

First, though, hel​p him practice removing and refastening his clothes, flushing the toilet and washing his hands​, and performing all the other routines of bathroom use that you have been reinforcing up to now.

Now is also a good time to reinforce the concept of “private parts” and to instruct him to come to you immediately if he is approached in the bathroom by someone he doesn’t know.

4. Potty training

Toilet Training: Which Method is Best?

Just as everyone has a different opinion about when it’s best to begin toilet training, so every parent you know is likely to use or recommend a different training method.

You may have heard that demonstrating toilet use for your child is a good way to help him learn through imitation. A friend may have told you that all she had to do with her son was read him a book about potty use and talk it over with him. Many parents recommend talking with their children about toilet use and then asking every two hours, “Do you need to go?” Some feel that rewarding a child with gold stars on a chart or a small treat is the most effective method. Timing is also a factor, as some parents prefer a brief, concentrated approach (perhaps even taking time off from work to deliver two weeks of “immersion training”), while others feel that their children are less pressured when allowed to adjust to potty use gradually over many months.

Any of these techniques may work well with your child. But keep in mind that it is not necessary to choose a single method—in fact, your child will benefit from a combination of verbal, physical, social, and other forms of training no matter what his age. 

Accepting and adjusting to your child’s personal style can make toilet training a much less stressful experience than you may have expected. You may also find yourself getting to know your child in a way you didn’t before—appreciating his special qualities, becoming familiar with his emerging interests, and respecting him as a unique, interesting individual.

4. Potty training

Toilet Training and the Older Child

“My husband likes to tease me by calling my parenting style the ‘lazy parent’s method’ for raising a child,” writes one mother. “I like to just wait for my son to move on to the next stage of development and then follow his lead. He toilet-trained himself when he was four because he wanted to—not because I decided it was time.”

Such a relaxed attitude toward toilet training has grown somewhat more common in this country in recent years, though many parents continue to report surprised reactions from others who learn that their preschool-age children are still in diapers. Your older child—age three and a half and up—may not be potty-trained for a variety of reasons. You may have decided to delay training until your child expressed an interest. You may have attempted toilet training at an earlier time, only to give up when you met with resistance. Your child may have been fully trained but then regressed when a new sibling arrived or another major change occurred, causing him never to return to his toilet-using routine. Or your toddler or preschooler may have experienced physical or developmental challenges that interfered with bladder or bowel control.

If your child has recently tried and failed to master the toilet-training process, or has never responded to your attempts to begin, it’s a good idea to schedule a checkup with his pediatrician before beginning training at this time. An examination can identify such common, treatable obstacles to toilet training as a bladder infection or bowel problems. Your pediatrician can also explain how to compensate for physical or mental disabilities or developmental challenges. Whether a physical or other problem is confirmed or ruled out, a visit to the pediatrician will give you a better understanding of how to work with your child and will help you and your child proceed with greater confidence.

Toilet training a healthy older child can offer some advantages over training a toddler. Preschoolers’ improved ability to visualize a goal and achieve it, increased skill at communicating any confusion, anxiety, or resentment they may feel, and greater awareness of other children’s behavior all work together to promote a smoother and faster transition. Yet these same developments can also present new challenges. A child’s ability to act on his own spurs resistance to a parent’s directions. A preschooler’s improved verbal skills allow him to argue and negotiate. His awareness of other children’s behavior may backfire if he feels ashamed of his continued diaper use. The simple force of long habit can also make it more difficult to achieve the transition out of diapers.

In most cases, parents find that toilet training an older child is neither easier nor more difficult than training a toddler—just different. There are unique challenges and opportunities you are likely to experience with your preschooler or older child.

4. Potty training

Toilet Training Setbacks

Stacy and Hal’s daughter, Lindy, was toilet-trained at the early age of twenty-four months with surprisingly few of the problems her playmates eventually faced. For more than a year, she had been off diapers and using a potty. Of course, there had been some accidents, particularly during the first six months following toilet training, but fewer overall than her parents had expected.

Now that Lindy was four and attending preschool, however, a new challenge presented itself. Lindy had started “leaking” small amounts of urine once or twice a day. Her parents frequently found that her underwear was slightly damp when Lindy got home from school or when she undressed for her bath at night. It wasn’t that she was having accidents—she still easily stopped what she was doing and went to the bathroom when she needed to eliminate—but she seemed to experience a certain amount of dribbling between potty sessions that she was unable to control. The dampness didn’t bother Lindy, but her parents worried that a physical, developmental, or even emotional problem might be the cause.

As Lindy’s situation indicates, issues relating to bladder and bowel control can arise not only during the actual toilet training process but long after parents assume that their children are fully trained. In many cases, such setbacks can be remedied with relative ease once the causes have been identified.

Medical or psychological intervention may be necessary. No matter what the reason behind your own child’s problem, the earlier you address the issue, the better the chances that it will be resolved without seriously affecting your child. 

Additional articles in this section of the web site will identify many of the most common problems experienced by young children who have completed toilet training, listing the most common reasons behind such behaviors, and offering general guidelines for parents to follow in correcting them.

Still, there is no substitute for the individual advice of your child’s pediatrician. A conversation with, or visit to, your child’s doctor is the first step in combating any disturbing or ongoing issue.

4. Potty training

The Right Age to Potty Train

One skill children need to learn is when and how to use the toilet. Here are general potty training tips that can help you begin the process. If your children have special health care needs, some tips may need to be modified. Talk with your child’s doctor if you need specific guidance.

Learning to use the toilet

Potty training is a process that involves the body and the mind.

  • First, children need to be aware of their own bladder and bowel signals. They need to learn when their bodies are signaling them that it’s time to urinate or have a movement. In general, children show signs of bladder and bowel control between 18 and 24 months of age.
  • Second, children need to learn how to use the toilet. Children must be able to understand instructions and follow them. For instance, they have to be able to sit or stand comfortably. They have to be able to pull down their pants and underpants, as well as pull them back up.
  • Third, once children have bladder and bowel control and they know how to use the toilet, they need to be willing to use it. Toilet training struggles happen when children choose not to use the toilet. It’s important to remember that children can succeed at using the toilet but in their own time.

When to start potty training

Toilet training may come up during children’s 18-month, 2-year, 2½-year, and 3-year well-child visits. The average age toilet training begins in the United States is between 2 and 3 years of age. Most children in the United States are bowel and bladder trained by 4 years of age. However, toilet training can begin as soon as parents and children want to start.

In general, here are signs a child may be developmentally ready to begin the toilet training process. If you have any questions or concerns, talk with your child’s doctor.

  • Is dry at least 2 hours at a time during the day or is dry after naps
  • Shows signs they are about to pee or poop, like grunting, freezing, or squatting
  • Can follow simple instructions
  • Can walk to and from the bathroom and help undress themselves
  • Does not like to be in wet diapers and wants to be changed
  • Asks to use the toilet or potty-chair
  • Asks to wear “big-kid” underwear

Potty training tips

Here are toilet training tips to help start the process. Parents can help empower their children to be in control of their own toilet training.

  1. Keep the process positive. Choose the words your family will use to describe body parts, urine, and bowel movements. Avoid words that are negative, like dirty, naughty, or stinky.
  2. Pick a potty-chair. A potty-chair is a child-sized seat with an opening in the seat and a removable container underneath to collect pee and poop. Children’s feet should be able to reach the floor. Books or toys for “potty time” may help make this time more fun.
  3. Be a role model. Let your children see you use the toilet and wash your hands afterward.
  4. Know the signs. When your children feel the urge to poop, you might notice grunting, squatting, or freezing. Children’s faces may turn red while pooping. Explain briefly to your children that these signs mean a poop is about to come. If your children tell you about a wet diaper, praise them for “using their words.” It may take longer for children to notice the need to pee than the need to poop.
  5. Think of toilet training as toilet mastery. Invite your child to take over their toileting. Talk with them about how they will now be in charge of their pee and poop. Read children’s books about using the toilet to help the process make sense and seem inviting and exciting. When you start the process, try to turn as much of the care of toileting as possible over to your child. Remember, if parents are in charge, there is less room for children to step in and take charge.
  6. Make trips to the potty-chair a routine. Routines are important, and practicing the steps is helpful. Make a habit of seating your children onto the potty-chair first thing in the morning. Boys can urinate by sitting down first and can stand up to urinate when better at it.
  7. Expect hesitancy. Taking over toileting is a big step. Many children want their parents to take care of their pee and poop and may seek ways to keep parents involved, such as peeing and pooping into their pants. Gently help them overcome their hesitation. Then help them stay in charge by having them be in charge of the cleanup.
  8. When toilet training starts, switch to big-kid underwear. Talk with your children about taking control and toileting into the toilet and not their underwear. Some parents may use cloth training pants, which are a little thicker, to protect children’s clothing. (Diapers and disposable training pants send a message to children that they are not taking over and do not need to learn to use the toilet.)
  9. Teach your children proper hygiene habits. Show your children how to wipe carefully. Girls should spread their legs apart when wiping. They should wipe thoroughly from front to back to prevent bringing germs from their rectum to their vagina or bladder. Make sure both boys and girls learn to wash their hands well after using the toilet.
  10. A word on praise. Taking over toileting is something all healthy children do. Achieving mastery is the best reward for toilet training success. Avoid treats and punishments. Because this is an adventure for your children—a reach for new responsibility— treats and punishments distract rather than encourage. When your children succeed, be specific about why you are proud—”I am so proud you are able to use the toilet so well,” for example.
  11. Avoid a power struggle. Children at toilet training ages are becoming aware of their individuality. They look for ways to test their limits. Some children may do so by holding back bowel movements. Try to stay calm about toilet training. Remember that children control when and where they pee and poop. So power struggles, begging, pleading, rewarding, and punishing keep children from managing their own toileting.
  12. Understand their fear. Some children believe that their pee and poop are part of their bodies. They may be scared the toilet will flush parts of them away. Some may also fear they will be sucked into the toilet if it is flushed while they are sitting on it. To give your children a feeling of control, let them flush the toilet.
  13. Watch for a desire to move up. Most of the time, your children will let you know when they are ready to move from the potty-chair to the “big toilet.” Provide a stool to brace their feet.

When potty training should be put on hold

Major changes in the home may make toilet training more difficult. Sometimes it is a good idea to delay toilet training if

  • Your family has just moved or will move in the near future.
  • You are expecting a baby or have recently had a baby.
  • There is a major illness, a recent death, or some other family crisis.


If any concern comes up before, during, or after toilet training, talk with your child’s doctor. Often, the problem is minor and can be resolved quickly. Sometimes, physical or emotional causes will require treatment. Getting professional help can make the process easier. If your child needs additional care, your child’s doctor may suggest another pediatric health care specialist who can address the specific pediatric needs of your child.

4. Potty training

The Benefits of Peer Pressure During Toilet Training

“I went to the bathroom with Eric today,” four-year-old Frank reports to his parents over dinner. “That’s nice, Frank,” his dad says with a glance at his wife. “Did you use the potty all by yourself?” “I peed in the toilet!” Frank says proudly, helping himself to more bread. “Eric peed, too. We made an X with our pee!” Frank’s parents exchange a smile as Frank laughs with delight over his exploit. They know that the joy Frank takes in sharing his toilet-training skills with a friend is a powerful motivator.

Preschoolers’ expanding social awareness—their love of observing and categorizing all aspects of their peers’ behavior, from what they eat for lunch to whether they wear diapers or underpants—feeds a growing desire to be like their friends. While this aspect of a child’s development can work against his toilet training progress at age two and a half or three, when he may decide he wants to revert to diapers because so many children at the childcare center wear them, it becomes a more positive force as toilet use becomes more common among his classmates.

You can take advantage of this natural tendency to conform by pointing out, in nonshaming, nonjudgmental ways, which of the children your child knows have learned to use the potty. Keep in mind the fact that preschoolers are more likely to imitate people they most like or admire. This is a time to keep an open mind about the many aspects of toilet use that captivate young children. While we may not quite understand the thrill of sharing a bathroom stall with a friend, communal voiding has helped many a preschooler succeed at and enjoy toilet training.

Your preschooler is certainly thrilled to learn the ways he is like and unlike the children he knows, but this is a time when a strong urge to conform with same-gender adult behavior manifests itself as well. Fascinated as they often are by the concept of gender, three- and four-year-olds still have a limited understanding of what constitutes “maleness” and “femaleness.” They are easily confused—assuming that a teenage boy with a ponytail is a girl or that a girl with short hair and a baseball cap is a boy.

Bathroom use is one obvious way to discern differences between genders and to solidify one’s own sense of gender. As a result, your male preschooler may take great pride in urinating standing up “just like Daddy,” while a girl this age may enjoy using the potty while Mommy puts on her makeup nearby. Again, it’s best to use this natural tendency to categorize in your child’s favor.

Wanting to use the bathroom “like a boy” or “like a girl” is a signal that your child is exploring all aspects of what it means to be him- or herself.

4. Potty training

Stages of Toilet Training: Different Skills, Different Schedules

One of the most difficult aspects of toilet training for many parents is the uneven pace at which different types of training occur. Your child may learn to urinate into a potty quite easily but take several more months to start having bowel movements there. Daytime training may have been a breeze for your toddler, but he continues to wet the bed frequently through age five.

Since the order and speed with which each of these skills is mastered may differ from child to child, it is impossible to compare one child’s mastery with another’s to determine whether your child’s progress is “normal.” In most cases, the best response to uneven adoption of skills is to remain patient and supportive, giving your child the time he needs to take the next step toward complete success.

Delays in bowel control can be particularly disturbing for many parents, however—especially when children exhibit such puzzling behavior as secretly depositing bowel movements in a closet or other hiding place, smearing feces on the wall or other surface, or bursting into tears when their stool is flushed down the toilet. Our own adult associations with bowel movements are so negative that it is hard to remember that very young children have little awareness of the presence of germs, the potential for mess, the attached cultural stigma, and so on.

On the contrary, toddlers and preschoolers are often extremely proud of the product their bodies have created—expecting praise and admiration, not displeasure—and are reluctant or even anxious at the prospect of letting these products go. This reluctance can grow even stronger during periods when mastery of their body or privacy becomes a high-priority issue in their lives, or when they are experiencing a fear of the potty or of some other aspect of bowel training that they are unable to articulate.

In most cases, hiding or playing with stool, or resistance to bowel training, is a normal part of early childhood that will soon pass if you do not respond to it in an overemotional way. Instead, calmly ask your child why he is behaving in this way, firmly remind him of the rules about where stool goes, and work to come up with a solution to his problem—preferably with his help. You may find that your child is more willing to deposit his stool in the potty if he is then allowed to transfer it to the toilet and flush it himself. You may decide that it is necessary to monitor your child’s potty use until his interest in playing with his stools has passed.

In many cases, when your child’s health or other important considerations are not at stake, you may find that the best solution is to simply wait until your child matures. If so, you may find that what at first seemed an enormous gap between bladder and bowel training actually turned out to be no more than three or four weeks.

While nighttime bowel control occurs quite early and naturally in most children, bladder control usually occurs much later—frequently months or even years after daytime training is complete—and requires conscious effort. Forty percent of children in this country continue to wet the bed while sleeping after they have been fully day-trained. Bedwetting continues to be quite common through age five, and it usually does not require medical intervention until age eight to ten. Many children under age six are not physiologically capable of remaining dry at night, since their bladders have not sufficiently matured and their bodies may not yet consistently wake them from sleep when it’s time to urinate. Nearly every child will experience at least a few nighttime bedwettings before the toilet-training process is truly complete.

Since conflicts over such mishaps can easily spill over to cause resistance during the day, it is usually best to downplay night training through the toddler and even perhaps the preschool years. If your child is capable of consistently waking up to use the bathroom even at age two or three, count yourself lucky and allow him to do so. If accidents occur frequently, try keeping him in training pants or even a diaper at night for as long as he feels comfortable in them, and respond calmly to any accidents that occur.

4. Potty training

Social and Environmental Obstacles During Toilet Training

If your child’s pediatrician has ruled out physical causes for your child’s problems with toilet use, it is time to consider possible environmental factors. Your child’s daily interactions with you and other adults, as well as her siblings and peers, can have a decided effect on her bathroom behavior. Issues centering around child care can create complications, for example—particularly when both parents work full time and the child is cared for by other adults for long periods of time.

Sometimes the difficulty is caused by conflicting attitudes among the adults involved in monitoring bathroom behavior. Perhaps you have no problem with the fact that your four-year-old is not yet toilet-trained, while his baby-sitter resents having to change diapers. Or you may be battling a recent rash of accidents by keeping your child on a regular bathroom schedule at home, only to find that she’s wet her pants at school because she wasn’t sent to the bathroom after lunch.

Finding a solution to such problems requires discussing what is happening with all the adults involved in your child’s care. Describe any problems and the plans you have created to solve them. Solicit the other adults’ opinions about these plans, and listen to their objections or suggestions. Then come to an agreement about a course of action, so that your child will meet with a consistent response everywhere she goes. Ideally, because you are the parent, your decision should be the final one, but there may be times when it’s more practical or productive to follow another caregiver’s lead. If the child-care center schedules five bathroom visits a day, for example, you can schedule visits to the home bathroom at the same times.

Be sure to follow up such discussions by asking for feedback about how the techniques used seem to be affecting your child. If she is increasingly resisting a rigid bathroom schedule, it may be better to allow her to choose when she goes—even at her child-care center or preschool. If her accidents seem to occur when she is engrossed in story hour, perhaps she can be taken to the bathroom before the story begins.

No matter how embarrassing you believe your child’s problem is, it is necessary to seek out this kind of support. Rest assured that caregivers are accustomed to dealing with everything from fecal soiling to genital exploration to frequent experiments with potty talk. There is little your child can do that will shock or even surprise a professional caregiver or educator. By asking for their support and advice, you may receive some welcome support for your own efforts as well.

Multiple Households

Problems stemming from inconsistent or conflicting approaches to bathroom use may also arise for children who move between two separate homes—usually as a result of parents’ separation or divorce. Again, it is vital to communicate with the other parent about the rules and routines you intend to maintain. Such negotiations can be much more difficult in this case, of course, since both parents have equal authority and may have sharply divergent opinions. Still, it is important for your child’s sake to keep the bathroom routine as consistent as possible between the two homes—using the same type of potty when possible, for example, and keeping it in the same room in each home— and to respond to new challenges as a team. 


A change in environment caused by a vacation or other travel is another common cause of bathroom-related problems among young children. Travel plans that call for a break in a child’s routine, or that take the child away from a familiar bathroom or potty, may create anxiety that then leads to accidents or constipation. While most such responses are only temporary and disappear once the child is used to the new routine or has returned to the old one, some lead to negative learned behavior, such as withholding stool or delaying urination, that takes weeks or months to correct.

To avoid such complications, it’s best to keep your child’s bathroom experience while traveling as similar as possible to the routine he follows at home. If you are traveling by car, consider taking your child’s potty along. When flying, take your child to the bathroom at the airport before you board the plane, and bring along familiar stuffed animals or other favorite objects that may make public or hotel bathrooms less frightening. Plan to accompany your child to the bathroom and expect to prompt him toward bathroom use more than if you were not traveling.

4. Potty training

Psychological Readiness and Motor Skills Needed for Toilet Training

All parents are familiar with the routine of feeding breast milk or formula to a baby and then immediately changing her diaper after her meal. At times the diaper-wetting response occurs so quickly that it seems the milk has gone into one end of the baby and straight through to the diaper at the other end. This involuntary elimination process occurs because a baby’s digestive system has not yet fully matured.

While urine fills the baby’s bladder and is released through the urethra, and bowel movements fill the large intestine and are expelled via the rectum, just as with adults, babies cannot yet control the circular sphincter muscles that keep the bladder and rectum closed. As a baby’s stomach fills during a feeding and passes more fluid to the bladder, the sphincter muscles automatically relax, and urination or a bowel movement occurs.

As long as this process remains involuntary, until at least eighteen months in most cases, a baby is unable to consciously delay elimination. If placed on a potty at the right time, she will void into it, but she cannot deliberately wait to use the potty and so cannot be fully toilet-trained.

Awareness of the Need to Go

At around her first birthday, your child will begin for the first time to recognize the sensation of a full rectum or bladder, signaling a need to eliminate. In many cases, your child will show her awareness through her behavior: squatting and grunting when she is about to have a bowel movement or tugging at her diaper when she needs to urinate.

Even though she will still not be able to delay the function she senses taking place, it is a good idea to reinforce this awareness of the link between the inner feeling of fullness and the act of excretion or urination. When you see that she is about to eliminate, comment neutrally: “Oops, I think a poop [or pee] is coming. Do you feel it happening?”

Once she has soiled or wet her diaper, change it right away to reinforce the concept that bowel movements and urine should be removed from the body and discarded. There is no need to comment negatively on this natural process (words such as dirty or messy will only make your child feel bad), but you can certainly say positive things about how good it feels and smells to be clean and dry.

Your goal is to strengthen your child’s awareness of the feeling of needing to go so that she can build on this understanding when the time comes, and to encourage her to see toilet training as a desirable skill.

Motor Skills

In addition to his physiological development, your child’s motor skills must reach a certain level of maturity before he can easily begin toilet training.

The ability to walk (beginning at around twelve months) is an obvious asset in getting to the potty in time to use it. During the early months of learning to walk, your child’s preoccupation with practicing this new skill will probably leave little energy for experimenting with potty use. As he grows more comfortable with getting around on two legs, however (by around eighteen to twenty-four months), he may become interested in acquiring other “grown-up” skills.

The gradual improvement in other gross and fine motor skills, which usually begins at around eighteen months, will support your child’s ability to handle his clothing more efficiently and to engage in activities that may keep him seated on the potty long enough to eliminate successfully.

You can encourage these developments by teaching him to dress and undress himself, making sure that his clothing is easy to remove, and offering him picture books, toys, or crayons and paper to play with while he’s waiting for a bowel movement to occur. The ability to master all of these new skills also greatly enhances young children’s self-esteem—confidence that comes in handy as they meet the toilet-training challenge.