Ready, or not? Potty training is a stage that varies from child to child.
Potty training requires patience, perseverance, and a dash of humour! Children are generally potty trained between the ages of 2 and 4. This stage often elicits questions from parents and comments from family and friends. It’s important to respect your child’s rhythm as they begin potty training.
Before being potty trained . . .
To be potty trained, a child needs to learn to control their bladder and bowel movements. It’s only around the age of two years that they can recognize the feeling that they “have to go.” That’s when they learn to identify when they are about to pee or poo. They also have to be able to get to the potty before it’s too late . . .
You can’t “teach” a child to do this. Instead, the role of the parent is to support and guide the child throughout the potty training process. To successfully use the potty, a toddler has to be physiologically and, more importantly, psychologically ready. This learning process largely depends on the child. As a result, it’s important to trust them.
The 6 key steps of potty training
1. Don’t force your child
Forcing your child to use the potty before they’re ready is useless. It could even delay the process.
Children start by being potty trained during the day. Nighttime potty training typically happens a few months later. However, the age at which a child becomes potty trained usually varies from one child to the next. For this reason, try to avoid establishing a set age by which you expect your child to be potty trained. Instead, look for signs that they’re ready, and then follow their rhythm. They have to decide. Potty training is a process that usually takes 3 to 6 months on average.
However, overnight potty training can take longer. Before the age of five, there’s no need to worry if your child doesn’t wake up to go to the bathroom.
How do you know if your child is ready to be potty trained?
Here are a few signs:
They go to the potty and sit on it by themself.
They partially undress without your help.
They stay dry for several hours (have a clean diaper).
They tell you when their diaper is dirty (e.g., they say “peepee” or “poopoo”).
They understand simple instructions, such as: “Bring this to Mommy.”
They start being able to express their needs clearly and say, for example: “Water.”
They’re curious about the subject. For example: they want to see you go to the bathroom, they put their stuffed toy on the potty, they like stories about potty training, etc.
2. Choose the right time for your child
There is no ideal time for potty training, but it is recommended that you start when things are peaceful at home. Some people think that summer is the best time to take this step, since summer clothes are easy to remove quickly whenever their toddler says they need to go to the bathroom.
Despite this, the right time is whenever your child shows signs that they’re ready, and they shouldn’t be forced to potty train. Most importantly, you should not start potty training at a time that is stressful for your child, such as during a move or shortly after a new little brother or sister is born.
Make sure to get help from their other caregivers as well. If your child goes to daycare, their caregivers need to respect their rhythm. To learn more about this topic, please see our fact sheet on Potty training at daycare.
3. Introduce them to their potty
Put their potty near the toilet and explain what it’s for. Then, invite them to sit on it, even with their clothes on, or to sit a stuffed toy on it. At first, it’ll be like a game!
Let them watch you go to the bathroom. Then, encourage them to do what you do when they have to pee or poo. Praise them every time they try. If they’re truly ready, they’ll want to imitate you.
What about the “big toilet?”
Because their potty is more stable than the big toilet, your child will feel more secure on it. When sitting on the potty, your toddler can put their feet flat on the floor and lean. One day, you’ll be able to use the adjustable seat. Your toddler will probably ask you if they can use the “big toilet” themself. When that happens, you can place a small stool under their feet to make sure they can stabilize themself and not fall. They need to feel safe at all times. Foot support is also very important in order to use of the anal muscles that allow for bowel movements.
4. Establish a routine
Gradually, get your child to sit on the potty at regular times—when waking up, after meals and snacks, and before naps, baths, and bedtime.
Does your child want to get up as soon as you sit them down? Suggest that they stay a little longer, but no longer than 5 minutes. Avoid giving them a toy or book while they are sitting on the potty. Your child needs to focus for a few minutes on the sensation of a bladder or bowels that need to be emptied, and a toy might distract them. If nothing happens, let them get up and go back to playing. Don’t act disappointed or comment about it. However, if they do their business in the potty, make sure to praise them.
5. Switch to cloth underwear
Is your child starting to use the potty often? Don’t put them in diapers during the day. They’ll be more motivated to stay dry if you have them wear cloth underwear or training pants. Dress them in clothes that are easy to remove and remind them to go to the potty often. At their age, it’s normal for them to forget, especially if they’re focused on playing.
Of course, accidents happen. This is part of the learning process, so don’t give them a hard time about it. If they tell you after it happens, thank them for letting you know.
If they have a series of accidents shortly after starting to wear training pants, they should be able to resume wearing a diaper without shame or punishment. Instead of making a big deal out of small accidents, focus on increasing your child’s self-esteem by encouraging them and reminding them of their successes. Let them know that it’s not a big deal and that you’ll help them recognize the signs next time. If your child has already used the potty successfully, things will only get better over time.
6. Stop putting them in a diaper before it’s time to sleep
Do they stay clean all day? Has their diaper remained dry during many naps? That means it’s time to go without. When the time is right, you can do the same thing at nighttime. Until then, even if you put them in a diaper to sleep, encourage them to call you if they feel like they need to go potty during naptime or at night.
Going out during potty training
If you’re not sure they’re ready yet, and you know you’re going to be away from home for a long time, put them in a diaper or training pants. That said, if you’re only going out for a short time and will be in a place with easy access to a bathroom, go for it!
Tell them to go potty right before you leave and don’t forget to pack a change of clothes. If you’re travelling by car, bring the potty with you, as well as a box of wet wipes. Plan to stop frequently if you’ll be driving a long distance. Don’t let them drink too much right before you leave.
If your child refuses to go on the potty
If your toddler doesn’t want to poop on the potty, let them go in a diaper. Otherwise, they might hold back and become constipated. Constipation can cause painful bowel movements. If your child is in pain, it will take even longer for them to become potty trained. When they’re ready, they’ll use the potty on their own. In fact, they’ll probably be excited to show you their first poo.
Before the age of 4, a child cannot wipe themself properly. Until then, your toddler needs your help. Remember, girls should wipe from front to back to prevent stool from coming in contact with the vulva. If this happens, an infection might occur. Teach your child good hygiene techniques and remind them to always wash their hands after using the bathroom.
Consult a doctor if, despite all your encouragement and praise, your child is over 4 years old and:
Refuses to go on the potty
Seems unable to hold it in
Shows no interest in potty training.
Your doctor can try to figure out the reasons for these difficulties, and whether they are psychological or physiological in nature.
They were potty trained, but don’t seem to be anymore
It’s common for a child to appear to regress after having successes on the potty. If this is the case with your toddler, don’t scold them or get discouraged. Start the process over by helping your toddler pay attention to what it feels like to have to empty their bladder or to have a bowel movement, and by making their potty easy to access. Most importantly, remember to praise your child when they make progress.
Things to keep in mind
To learn to be potty trained, a toddler must be physiologically and psychologically ready. This usually occurs between the ages of 2 and 4.
You can’t force a child to become potty trained, and you should follow their rhythm and trust them.
If your child pees or poops their pants, they shouldn’t be scolded or punished. If needed, they should also be able to return to wearing a diaper without feeling shame.
Scientific review: Dr. Anne-Claude Bernard-Bonnin, pediatrician
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: April 2018
Photos: iStock.com/kfleen and GettyImages/Ryan McVay and Uliana Petrosian
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Canadian Medical Association. Complete Book of Mother & Baby Care: A Practical Guide from Conception to Age 3. Toronto, DK Canada, 2011, 264 pp.
Bernard-Bonnin, Anne-Claude. Devenir propre : petits et grands tracas. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2010, 64 pp.
Doré, Nicole, and Danielle Le Hénaff. From Tiny Tot to Toddler: A practical guide for parents from pregnancy to age two. Quebec City, Institut national de santé publique du Québec. www.inspq.qc.ca
Rossant, Lyonel and Jacqueline Rossant-Lumbroso. Votre enfant : guide à l’usage des parents. Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, Bouquins series, 2006, 1515 pp.
Canadian Paediatric Society. “Toilet learning.” Updated March 2018. www.cps.ca