Toilet training involves recognition of readiness for and implementation of the separate steps of toileting: discussion, undressing, eliminating, dressing again, flushing, and hand washing. Most children can be trained for bowel control between age 2 yr and 3 yr and for urinary control between age 3 yr and 4 yr. By age 5 yr, the average child can go to the toilet alone. For children ≥ 4 yr, see Urinary Incontinence In Children for incontinence of urine (enuresis) and discussed in Stool Incontinence in Children for incontinence of stool (encopresis).
The key to successful toilet training is recognizing signs of readiness to train (usually at age 18 to 24 mo):
Approaches to toilet training must be consistent among all caregivers.
The timing method is the most common approach. Once children have demonstrated readiness, the parent discusses with them what will be happening, selecting words that they can readily understand and say. Children are gradually introduced to the potty chair and briefly sit on it fully clothed; they then practice taking their pants down, sitting on the potty chair for ≤ 5 or 10 min, and redressing. The purpose of the exercise is explained repeatedly and emphasized by placing wet or dirty diapers in the potty. Once this connection between the potty and elimination has been made, the parent should try to anticipate children's need to eliminate and provide positive reinforcement for successful elimination. Children are also encouraged to practice using the potty whenever the need to eliminate is sensed. They should be taught about flushing and hand washing after each elimination. For children with an unpredictable schedule, this type of plan is difficult, and training must be delayed until they can anticipate elimination themselves. Anger or punishment for accidents or lack of success is counterproductive.
Children who resist sitting on the potty should try again after a meal. If resistance continues for days, postponing toilet training for at least several weeks is the best strategy. Behavior modification with a reward given for successful toileting is one option; once the pattern is established, rewards are gradually withdrawn. Power struggles must be avoided because they often cause regression from any progress that has been made and may strain the parent-child relationship. Toilet-trained children may also regress when they are ill or emotionally upset or when they feel the need for more attention, as when a new sibling arrives. Refusal to use the potty may also represent manipulation. In these situations, parents are advised to avoid pressuring children, offer incentives, and, if possible, give children more care and attention at times other than when toileting is involved.
Last full review/revision February 2010 by Eve R. Colson, MD; Melissa R. Held, MD; Rachel L. Chapman, MD
Content last modified November 2013