During early childhood, children learn another self-care skill that gives them more independence than any other skill they will learn during this phase of life - toilet training. It's also one of the self-care skills that caregivers most anticipate, as leaving diaper duty behind is a huge relief. Surprisingly, toilet training is a controversial topic. How soon should children learn to use the toilet on their own? What is the best method? Should parents use training pants (sometimes called "pull-ups") or go cold turkey with real underwear? We provide a brief overview of toilet training in this article. Caregivers interested in learning more specific and detailed information about toilet training can consult our article about toilet training. (This article is not yet complete.)
In theory, children could be ready for toilet training as early as age 2, because most babies of this age recognize the urge to urinate or defecate and can control the sphincter muscles that facilitate waste elimination. Before this point, infants are simply unable to physiologically monitor and to control waste removal from their bodies. In other words, very young babies and toddlers can't tell that they have to "go" before it's too late (they already went!), and they are unable to control whether or not they "go".
Age 2 is also typically the earliest age that toddlers have developed the gross motor ability to walk to the restroom, and the fine motor ability to dress and undress themselves. However, as stated before, each child develops individually, and many children will not have these physical skills mastered by age 2.
Most often, the best way to tell that a young child is ready to start toilet training is to watch for signs of readiness. Typically, children will show you clear signs that they are ready to try using the toilet on their own. For example, a child might want to watch Mom or Dad use the bathroom. Or, a child may sit on the "potty" on her own without prompting, or come to you and tug on his diaper (or use a word for diaper or dirty) when it's wet or soiled. Even though child development experts do not agree on the best technique to use for toilet training, they do agree that it is extremely important that the toilet training phase not be rushed. Just because children are physically ready to toilet train does not mean that they are mentally or emotionally ready to do so. Successful toilet training depends on having all three factors (physical, cognitive and emotional readiness) in place.
Children normally master toilet training tasks in a specific developmental order. Typically, children first learn to notice the warning signals and react in time to master daytime defecation, and then nighttime defecation. Next, children typically learn how to react to their bodies' signals for daytime urination. Nighttime urination is the hardest for young children to control, and this step may take longer than the others to achieve.
Most children are toilet trained by age 5 or 6, in time to begin school. Most kindergartens require that students have mastered toilet training; some preschool settings require it as well. However, at this age, this new skill isn't perfect, and accidents can happen. Bed wetting may still be a common occurrence, because nighttime urine control is the last and hardest task to master. Young boys may take longer than young girls to toilet train, and boys may also have a longer period of nighttime accidents.
Practicing patience throughout the entire toilet training process is important. You may hear some parents tell stories about how their little ones simply ripped off their diaper one day and never looked back. This is rare and unusual and NOT the norm! Each child will toilet train at his or her own pace, and parents should offer guidance and encouragement in a consistent, calm manner and let nature take its course. Again, more specific tips and advice about toilet training can be found in our Toilet Training article.