How to tell if your toddler is ready to potty train and toilet training top tips

Several parents have asked me for my ‘top potty training tips’ lately, I have only one really:

“Always wait until your toddler is ready, physically and emotionally – whenever that may be”

If you start when your toddler is genuinely ready to toilet train things will be infinitely easier. Many toilet training troubles are caused by trying to train the toddler before they are ready, physically and/or psychologically, sometimes for the ease of the parents, request from nursery or preschool, comments from family/friends or health visitors or a worry that “all the toddlers we know of the same age are potty trained”. Training before a toddler is ready is likely to result in lots of stress, many accidents and far much more work than if you wait. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a three year old in nappies and although it may feel like your child when never be toilet trained and in nappies for the rest of their life I can assure you that won’t be the case!


My personal viewpoint, after having four children, is that with young children it was a great deal easier to go out for the day or travel with a child in nappies than a toilet trained young child! No constant looking for public toilets, carrying around bags with potties or emergency stops on car journeys, life in nappies is a lot simpler – don’t be in a rush to change things!

Many parents expect toddlers to be toilet trained earlier than the actual average. The average age for showing readiness for toilet training is 20-30 months with daytime toilet training occurring on average around two and a half years of age. It is not considered a ‘problem’ for a child to not be fully toilet trained at night until the age of 7 years.

 Some signs of readiness to toilet train:

  • Physiologically, readiness occurs from around 18 months of age
  • Nappies may be dry first thing in the morning
  • Your toddler may poo only in the daytime
  • Your toddler is aware of having a wee or poo
  • Your toddler may ask you to change their nappy
  • They may tell you when they need to go
  • They may ask to wear pants of knickers
  • They may ask to use the potty
  • They may be interested in other family members using the toilet

 This list really isn’t prescriptive though, it is far better to follow your toddler’s leads even if they are not showing all of these signs or are showing their own unique signs.


Give your toddler as much control over toilet training as possible – ways to do this include:

  • letting them choose their own potty (help them to consider comfort as well as looks)
  • letting them choose where the potty should go
  • letting them choose their own pants/knickers

To add to this normalise toileting as much as possible, share books about potty training, allow your child to go to the toilet with you or observe older siblings and talk about visiting the toilet or using the potty as much as possible in advance of training.

I am not an advocate of rewarding wees or poos on the potty. In my opinion the act should be treated as normally as possible and the ultimate aim is to teach your toddler to listen to their own body and the cues their body gives them when a wee or poo is imminent, training a child to wee or poo to get a sticker or a chocolate treat absolutely does not do this, in fact it may even teach them to override their own body’s feelings in order to receive a reward and in time they can regress if you withdraw the reward. I am firmly of the opinion that toddlers should know this is a totally normal thing that all humans do, not an act to perform to receive a sticker on their reward chart or a sweet.

I’m also not a fan of praising toddlers for toilet training, for most of the above reasons. That’s not to say that your toddler shouldn’t be encouraged to feel proud when they successfully wee or poo on the potty, they should, but far better to say something like “wow, you must feel like such a big girl with your new knickers on!” or “I bet you feel proud of yourself for doing a poo in the potty?” than “good boy, you did a wee wee!” or “I’m so proud of you for using your potty”. Our toddlers are hard wired to want to grow, explore, try new things and grow, the reward of their own achievement is more than enough for them.

 On a practical level always make sure you have a lot of spare pants and knickers and one or two sets of clean clothes to hand, especially if you go out! Lots of parents find it easier to leave their toddler naked from the waist down for the first couple of days if they are at home and baby legwarmers, or special toddler thigh high socks, can be especially helpful for this as they keep their legs warm but with free access for using the potty. Don’t keep your child naked for too long though, being ‘bare bummed’ for too long can actually cause problems as children can struggle when they are back in underwear and clothing.


Wee Problems

By far the biggest wee problem is toddlers not making it to the potty in time. This is why it is so important for toddlers to listen to their body’s signals and learn when they need a wee but can wait a bit longer and when they really must wee NOW. Often toddlers have trouble differentiating and when they are engrossed in play can often miss the signals until it’s far too late. One of the best things you can do here is to watch for any signs your toddlers shows when they need a wee (common ones a fidgeting, squirming, bouncing and rocking) and immediately asking “do you think that it may be time to use the potty?”, if they do use the potty then reinforce the feelings that they had and the fact they are signs it’s time to have a wee, this will mean that they are better able to understand their body’s signals in the future and in turn less accidents will happen.

 Never chastise your toddler for accidents or refer to them as naughty, remember they are still learning and it is important that they view potty training as a normal and positive life event. If you toddler doesn’t make it to the potty on time let them know “it’s OK, it’s tough always knowing when we need a wee or a poo, you will soon learn though!”, clean up in a very matter of fact fashion and make sure that you never show any irritation over having to clean up – however irritated you may feel.


Poo Problems

It is really common for toddlers to have issues with poo, often they are related to discomfort and constipation. One of the simplest things you can do to make having a poo simpler for your toddler is to ensure that their potty is comfortable and that their feet are resting flat on the ground or on a stool if they are using a seat on the big toilet. Humans are meant to poo in a squatting position, with their feet firmly on the floor, when they do this the muscles around their anus are loose allowing for an easy poo, when little legs dangle from a toilet seat these muscles can tighten and make it harder for the child to poo.

The next issue related to poo comfort is the possibility of constipation and also the memory and fear of previous constipation, which may make some toddlers reluctant and hold in poo for as long as possible, which ends in a never ending circle of constipation, pain and fear. Aside from helping your toddler through their diet and encouraging drinking as much liquid as possible the fabulous story ‘Poo goes to Pooland’ can work wonders for young children who are fearful of pooing.

Lastly some children are reluctant to poo in public and instead need privacy in order to poo easily. I have experience of this with my own children with two preferring to hide behind the sofa to poo. I was always personally happy for them to do so and made sure I kept a watchful eye out for impending poo (namely a toddler disappearing behind the sofa!) and quickly brought the potty behind the sofa too, perhaps you could buy a second potty to leave in their favoured private place.

Similarly to the above, if your toddler has a poo accident stay calm and remind them that it’s OK, that he or she will get the hang of it soon.

For a thorough look at the physiology of toileting, potty training readiness and a gentle, effective plan to follow take a look at my Gentle Potty Training Book

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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5 Responses to How to tell if your toddler is ready to potty train and toilet training top tips

  1. So happy you are getting this positive message out! We don’t actually train our kids, we help them learn from their bodies!

  2. tiptoebay says:

    Some interesting and helpful points, thank you. I’m not sure about not rewarding my toddler for doing a wee or a poo. In fact, I needed to reward her simply for sitting on the potty otherwise I’m sure she wouldn’t have done it. I only needed to reward her for a couple of days before she realised that weeing and pooing is just normal and now she’s confident in using her potty. 🙂

  3. Celine says:

    I have an 18-month-old and still no potty anywhere in my house :))
    She definitely is not ready yet, and luckily, none of my friends and relatives give me a hard time about not “training” her yet.
    I just wanted to say I really love this post about the subject, particularly because you highlighted that life is not necessarily easier once they are nappy-free, as I have always believed (who has never seen an embarrassed parent hide behind a tree or ask if there is a toilet nearby, with a wailing toddler in one hand?).
    I also think you might be spot on about the need for privacy for bowel movements. I personally have seen other parents not respecting their children’s privacy, and maybe that’s why some of the kids concerned still asked for a nappy just for that or simply went in their trousers. I will definitely keep this post bookmarked for when my time comes, or rather my DD’s time comes 🙂

  4. smallwalletbigappetite says:

    I am so glad we decided to just wait until my daughter was ready and just skipped all that ‘training’ which is more work for the parents then anything. We had a potty in the house since she was 2 but just more to have around so it was normal. At 30 months she started asking us to take off her nappy so she could use the potty. I am happy to say she did it all by herself which she felt so proud of. She use to jump off the potty and shout “I did it!” And ask for a high five. I wish people didn’t put such pressures on toddlers to do something they aren’t ready for. I know a lot of people who think toddlers should be out of nappies by their 2nd birthday.

  5. Ginaa says:

    Quite refreshing to read after constantly being called out by relatives on when I’m going to potty train my son when he shows absolutely no signs of being ready but because he should be started by now :/. We have a potty and I give him the choice in the day of potty or nappy n occasionally he’ll choose potty and this way seems to help as although he isn’t making it to the potty he knows now to tell me he’s been and this I’m pleased with as it took long enough for him to understand he’d even been. I’m in no rush he’s 27months and I’m happy to just keep doing hints on his terms at his own pace we’ll get there soon enough I don’t see it as a race 🙂

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