Toilet training questions

Many parents have questions about how, when and what to do while toilet training their children. We asked an expert to help answer some questions; maybe you’ll find the answer you need right here.

T1.55_Image _A

At what point do I need to get some professional help with toilet training my son. He is now 4 years old and he deliberately holds on to his bowel motion for ages and then goes off and poos his pants. I know he has the urge and that he recognises it, because he holds on to it. Help, I’m going mad!

We understand your frustration. It is important to remember that successful toilet training can only take place with the voluntary co-operation of a child. As you know all too well, battling with a strong-willed toddler or pre-schooler inevitably leads to certain failure and lots of frustration.

Children hold onto their bowel motions for a number of reasons. For some it is a matter of control – this is often the case when other things in their world seem to be out of their control like during times of significant change, beginning a new preschool, the birth of a sibling, or moving house.

It is important to transfer the control back to your child so that he feels that it is his decision to use the toilet, just remind him that he will need to wear a nappy or pull-ups until he wants to poo in the toilet. For other children, withholding poos can be induced by fear – it can be quite scary to watch something of themselves disappearing down a toilet.

You can encourage him to help you empty his poo into the toilet so that he becomes more familiar with the process. Some children need additional incentives beyond praise – sticker charts are good, as they are a great visual reminder of their attainments.

He may be holding on because it hurts to poo – constipation can be very common among younger children, particularly if their diet consists of little fibre or liquids. If all else fails, then it is certainly time to make an appointment to see your GP.


My daughter is 2½ yrs. We started toilet training her early this year when the weather was warm. She nearly got it, but then we went travelling overseas. When we came back she was sick and then the weather was too cold to do toilet training. Now every time I take her to the toilet she always cries, while 2 months ago when we took her to the toilet she did a wee but not any poo yet.

Should I start her back again into training this winter? Will she change automatically just like she started talking one day and say “no nappy today please, I’m going to the toilet for a wee” or something like that?

It’s not unusual for children to regress when toilet training; particularly when there has been particular changes to their lives such as travelling overseas, starting preschool or moving house. It is important to let your child determine when she is ready to toilet train.

If she is feeling too pressured or stressed, the process will only take longer or she may withhold wee or poo. The best thing to do is to wait until she is ready and she shows interest again. Take your cue from her behaviour.

My son is 29 months & tells me when he needs to go to the toilet but he refuses to use a potty or big toilet. What should I do?

Give your child time to get used to the potty before he uses it.

Involve your child in the process – take your child when buying the potty. If he is disinterested, put it away for a few months. You can involve him in the discussion about using the potty – read books, tell stories and try to make it fun.

Demystify the toilet by imitation – let your child watch you when you are on the toilet so he knows we all do it. One day it will simply fall into place.

My son is turning 3 in a few months & we have hit a brick wall with toilet training. He is happy to sit on the toilet or potty but will not pass any wee. He attends crèche full time & wants to sit on the toilet when the other kids all go but does not do anything.

We encourage him to go when I & my husband go, to try and show him what you do in the toilet – but still to no avail. We have stickers ready for encouragement & he has shopped with me to choose his new underwear. How do you teach a child to actually use his bladder when he is on the toilet?

There is no magic age to toilet train your child. It is not unusual for boys to not be ready to train until 3. Most importantly do not try until your son shows the necessary skills. These include:

  • being able to control an urge to go
  • having a dry nappy for more than 2 hours
  • having predictable bowel movements

Emotional indicators include:

  • expressing an interest in using the toilet or potty
  • imitating your behaviour
  • demonstrating independence (often by saying no)

Children ready to toilet train have a desire to please adults (give gifts, enjoy praise).

Your child needs to be able to predict and indicate when he needs to go and is able to follow simple one step commands. If you start too early or before he is ready, the process will be stressful and will take longer.

If you are feeling pressured to toilet train your child because of comments from friends and family, your anxiety within yourself will most likely provide anxiety within your child

Relax, it will happen in its own good time.


I have a 4½ year old son, whom I’m trying to toilet train, but because he’s only just started saying a couple of words it’s extremely hard.

He does go to day care & they are helping with his speech. Both the day care & my partner and I all think he’s just being lazy with his speech, but it’s delayed his toilet training.

I put him in underwear every day & put him on the toilet at least 3 times a day but I feel like I have no idea & that I’m fighting a losing battle. My main problem is that he has to be toilet trained by the end of the year, as he has to go to kindergarten next year. What can I do?

Yes, toilet training can be very difficult if your child is delayed in communication skills. In order to be able to toilet train your child must be able to let you know that he needs to go, is busy going or has gone to the toilet. You don’t mention anything about his respective language, but it is important for him to be able to follow simple one-step commands.

I think it is wonderful that you are working in partnership with your son’s day care and working on his speech, which appears to be significantly delayed.

Can I suggest you make an appointment with your GP, to get a referral for a developmental assessment as they can rule out any problems that may contribute to learning/ developmental delays.

I just wanted to know when I should start toilet training my son and the best way to do it. I hear all these horror stories of children experiencing trauma etc. if pushed into it. But I would really like to encourage him earlier rather than later.

There is really no perfect age to toilet train your child. Readiness depends on each individual child. The more ready your child is, the easier the process will be.

First of all, look for signs of readiness; physical, emotional and communication indicators.

Physically – your child needs to be able to understand the feeling and can feel the urge to go, bowel movements need to be predictable. Your son needs to be able to move around independently and be able to take his pants down and up with minimal assistance.

Emotionally – He needs to be able to imitate your behaviour and show an interest in using the toilet. It is not unusual for a child, when they are showing signs of readiness, to go away in a quiet corner to poo.

Communication – he needs to be able to express a need to go to the toilet and follow simple instructions. The average length of toilet training takes about 3 to 6 months.

Watch out for behavioural indicators (like grimacing) when they’re about to have a poo. Sometimes children need to be given help with indicators, like shifting their weight from one foot to another, so they begin to understand that this is their body’s way of telling them what is about to happen.

Boys should learn to wee first while sitting down as they need to feel comfortable when sitting to do a poo. If your son attends child care make sure to co-ordinate toilet training plans to have consistency. Good Luck!

My daughter started using the potty quite young as she was definitely ready, she was really excited and was pooing and weeing in the potty every time.

Then, suddenly, after 2 months, she didn’t want to anymore and has now stopped using the potty altogether. What went wrong?

It is not unusual for young children to regress when toilet training, particularly when there have been changes in their life, like starting preschool, moving house or the birth of a sibling.

It is important to let your child determine when she is ready to train again.

If she is feeling too pressured or stressed, the whole process will only take longer or she may withhold her wee or poo. The best thing to do is to wait until she shows interest. By all means, you can continue talking to her about using the potty, let her sit on it fully clothed, or even watch you use the toilet.

Most importantly, take your cues from her behaviour when deciding when to start again.

Hi, my son is 5 and still wets his pants a lot. He doesn’t seem to care that his pants are wet. We have tried bribes, charts, treats, threatening loss of treats. I’m really worried it will continue at school. Can you help?

If your child seems to be a late starter in this area, you may be reassured to know that toilet training is not linked to intellect in any way.

Most children that continue to wet their pants after age 5 tend to have smaller bladders, which are too small to hold in all the urine that accumulates. Or occasionally emotional problems may be the cause, so it is essential that we do not make too much of a big deal about what is happening.

If you are particularly concerned and your son is showing all the other signs of readiness, it may be a good idea to chat with your GP to see if there are any physical or psychological reasons that are causing your son difficulties in achieving dryness.

With my first child I had lots of false starts with toilet training and I think we both felt very frustrated. I’ve decided to wait until my son is around 3 before I start to train this time so we do it once and do it quickly. I’m getting a lot of resistance from day care as they would like him to be trained ASAP (he’s 2 and half now). Do you think I should stick to my guns or let them take the lead?

The success of toilet training depends largely, if not solely, on your child’s readiness and willingness to participate. It is essential that you do not begin toilet training just because someone is pressuring you.

The more ready your child is, the easier the process will be. In deciding when to start, look for signs of physical, emotional, and intellectual readiness. Physically your child needs to be able to recognise the feeling that he needs to go and is able to hold on.

He should have regular bowel movements and he needs to be able to independently get himself to a toilet or potty, as well as pull his pants down with minimal assistance. Children ready to train usually show an interest in going to the toilet and may be keen to imitate your behaviour.

He needs to be able to express the need to go to the toilet and follow simple instructions. Boys should learn to wee first while sitting down, so that they feel comfortable sitting to do a poo. So, stick to your guns and good luck!

T1.55_Image _B

My daughter is almost 4 and has been toilet trained without any problems for a while now. Our problem has started recently where she will need to go so suddenly that she will take her undies off (and flick her shoes off) in a flash and do a wee wherever she is standing… mostly in a public place!


She used to be really good at telling me in time for us to rush off to the loo. But now she seems to be distracted right up until the last moment when it’s too late.

I’m not sure if it’s because she’s embarrassed, but she won’t even tell me in these instances, she does it all in a blink without saying a word. And before I know what’s going on she’s mid-wee.

Why has this just started happening? And how can I get her to pay more attention and give herself the time she needs to get to the toilet?

This is not an unusual story. Relapses in toilet training are not uncommon; even after a child has been trained for months (or years) it is not unusual for her to be having accidents again. There are many reasons why this happens.

Your child may be sick, angry, forgetful, tired, excited or just doesn’t want to miss out on something that they’re playing (and this is often the case with girls). She simply doesn’t want to drag herself away from a game she is very involved in.

It’s important that you do not get annoyed with your daughter, as she probably wishes she didn’t have the accident either. Instead, clean her up without concern, and remind her that whatever she is doing, will still be there after she returns from the toilet.

You can monitor her for a while by reminding her that she may need to go to the toilet, and looking for cues that she needs to go, like dancing around or holding herself. The more confidence she feels in herself, the more likely she will have successes again.

T1.55_Image _C

I’ve got a 3 year old boy who starts preschool next year and I need to have him toilet trained before he starts. Do you have any advice on how I can achieve this over the next few weeks?

He has had a couple of false starts but just doesn’t seem to realise that he’s about to do a wee or a poo. It all happens so quickly that he ends up doing it exactly where he’s standing. 

The need to toilet train our children so that they can begin preschool can result in a great deal of stress for both parents and children. Regardless of how much you desire or need your child to be toilet trained, it can be very difficult to train a child that is not ready.

In saying this, there are a number of things you can do to help prepare your son for toilet training. When you see your son doing a poo or wee you can comment on this, “Oh you’ve just done a wee” (using a non-judgemental tone) as this will help him to learn what is going on with his body.

Summer is the perfect time to start training as you can let him play in the backyard without a nappy. Don’t be shy about letting your son watch you using the toilet, as he needs to be able to understand how this fits into the toileting process. Some children learn best through role-play, so you could demonstrate this by putting his favourite doll or teddy on the potty.

If you choose to use a potty, make sure it is easily accessible to minimise accidents and dress him in clothing that can be quickly pulled down. You can get him to dress himself in the morning and undress himself at night, so that he gets lots of practice.

If your child has a regular time for bowel motions, say mid-morning, try to ‘catch it’ by sitting your child on the potty – don’t forget to get really excited when this happens but not too excited so as to overwhelm him!

It’s also a good idea to read books about toileting – there are some wonderful books available that I purchased for my own children.

Remember that repetition and reinforcement are keys to success – keep talking about how we do our wees and poos in the potty or toilet and importantly - praise all successes (depending on your child, you could use sticker charts, verbal praise or edibles) and ignore those little accidents.

Is 18 months too young to start toilet training? My mother keeps telling me that all her kids were trained by 18 months, but it doesn’t seem like a lot of kids today are.

I’d like to be able to tell her with confidence that I’m waiting until my son is ready to start.

On average, most children begin learning to use a potty by around their second birthday but, as with all areas of children’s development, each child is different.

Research shows that bladder capacity increases significantly between the ages of 2 and 3, and by 4 most children are able to hold on and be dry for a reasonable amount of time. There are however a number of behaviours that you can look for to help determine whether your son is ready.

Look for signs of physical readiness, such as periods of dryness and regular bowel motions – it’s also best to wait until your child can manage to pull his pants up or down.

Young children also need to be cognitively or intellectually ready – this means he recognises the toileting process, that his body makes wees and that other people use the toilet when they want to wee (a good way to familiarise him with this is to let him watch you). He should also have the language skills to understand a simple request, such as ‘please put your toys away’ or ‘let’s go to the potty’.

I would wait until he shows an interest in using the toilet or potty – forcing a reluctant toddler to toilet train is only going to create a battle for everyone and may turn the toilet into an object worth fearing.

Don’t feel pressured to start training before he is ready – waiting for these signs will ensure the process is much easier and much less stressful for everyone!

Why do so many kids seem to have trouble with getting the number 2’s worked out?

My son, and a number of kids from mother’s group, have mastered doing a wee but they all seem to have a fear of doing a poo except in a nappy. He knows that he’s about to do one as he asks for a nappy and then disappears and hides while he does it.

I haven’t tried to force the issue with him yet and always offer the potty as an alternative to a nappy but there is flat refusal. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Children hold onto their bowel motions for a number of reasons. For some it is a matter of control – this is often the case when other things in their world seem to be out of their control, like during times of significant change, beginning a new preschool, the birth of a sibling, or moving house.

It is important to transfer the control back to your child, so that he feels that it is his decision to use the toilet, just remind him that he will need to wear a nappy or pull-ups until he wants to poo in the toilet.

For other children, withholding poos can be induced by fear. It can be quite scary to watch something of themselves disappearing down a toilet. You can encourage him to help you empty his poo into the toilet so that he becomes more familiar with the process, or wait until he leaves the bathroom before flushing.

Encourage your son to sit on the toilet or potty at times when he typically has a bowel motion, and offer him a reward when he is successful. Some children need additional incentives beyond praise – sticker charts are good, as they are a great visual reminder of their attainments.

 
In this article