Three Basic Stages of Toilet Training

When it comes to toilet training, some kids take a week, others, a year. At whatever speed you approach it, three basic stages need to be covered. 

Assuming your child is showing the typical signs of being ready for toilet training, potty training can be broken down into stages, making a seemingly daunting process as simple as one, two, three.

On your marks...
You’ll probably have a pretty good idea about when your child is ready for toilet training. Some of the common signs are having an awareness of bodily functions, asking to have a dirty nappy changed, being able to follow simple instructions, get to the bathroom unaided and remove clothing.

The first stage of toilet training is all about familiarisation — with potties, toilets and how the whole process works. A lot of this your child will learn from observing you as, conveniently, we parents gave up our right to privacy a long time ago. It is a good idea to include lots of explanation of why we do what we do from wiping to flushing to washing hands. Think indoctrination!

Talk about using the toilet in a way that offers plenty of information but no pressure. Allow your child to take the lead — his curiosity will kick in and he will become quite intrigued when he’s ready to have a go himself. 

Toilet TrainingThis is a good time to help your child practise the skills involved in dressing himself. You may want to swap regular nappies for pull-on-style training pants so your child can practise getting them on and off and also start to get excited about graduating to “big kid” status.

It is not essential that your child actually uses the potty at this stage, just have it available and offer it with no pressure at, say, bath time every day.

Some children happily take up the offer of sitting on the potty whenever it is suggested and wee readily. Other children have a blanket refusal policy. That is okay. Just relax, resist the urge to put the pressure on and wait until they show more interest.

As with any developmental phase, the length of this familiarisation stage varies from child to child. It could take only a couple of days of talking about the potty for a child to want to use it regularly.

Other children may ignore the potty in the corner of the bathroom for months before actually taking it for a test run. The key is to follow your child’s lead and not to worry or make comparisons with other children. 

Get set...
This stage is the practice phase. It’s all about teaching your child to listen to his body and recognise the feeling of needing to go to the toilet.

You can talk about theory until the cows come home, but the real learning comes through experience. A child must learn to recognise the sensation of needing to go, and then figure out how much time he has got to act on that feeling. And, somewhat inconveniently, this learning happens through the experience of wet pants.

Pull-Ups have been designed with this pivotal learning experience in mind — they are less absorbent than standard nappies and have a learning liner that temporarily allows children to feel wet.

It is important to give your child lots of fluid to drink and then suggest plenty of time on the potty so he experiences success. Of course, timing is still pretty hit and miss at this stage, so regular trips to the loo on a parent’s recommendation will be needed to ensure more hit than miss. 

Toilet TrainingOr “letting go” would be another way to address this stage. Your child is now familiar with how the whole process works, he understands the sensations around needing to go to the toilet and he is confident about using the potty himself. He knows what it feels like to have wet pants and he understands it is best to put wee and poo in the potty.

The goal from now on is more in the potty or toilet than in pants or on the floor. Your child will still require frequent reminders about going to the potty, but gradually you can trust him to figure it out on his own.

When you hear the “toilet training in a week” theories, this is the stage the seven-day time frame is probably referring to. With all the background work completed, a week may be all it takes to graduate out of nappies. And summer is the ideal season for this stage of toilet training as kids can be outside a lot and don’t need as much clothing.

It is also a good idea to pick a week where you know you can be at home with your child without the complications of going out and about or needing to use childcare facilities.

The key to this stage is positive reinforcement. Sticker charts in the bathroom, a jellybean or favourite food after each successful trip to the potty, or some time watching a favourite DVD are all hugely motivational. So is lots and lots of verbal praise. It is also important to remember not to criticise or tell your child off when the inevitable accidents occur. Just stay calm and say, “Never mind, accidents happen — next time you’ll make it to the potty.”

While some parents opt to use training pants exclusively throughout the toilet training process, others use them only when out and about, and some avoid them and go straight from nappies to underwear. It comes down to your personal preference.

One idea is to take your child shopping and allow him to choose some new underwear. A favourite TV character on the front (step in, Thomas the Tank Engine) is often quite motivating, especially when you explain that said character really prefers to stay dry!

When a child is developmentally ready to transition from nappies to knickers and has been given all the information and practice he needs, you may be surprised how quickly he masters the art of using the potty or toilet independently.

Staying dry all night may take a whole lot longer, so don’t be surprised if that stage isn’t achieved at the same time as daytime continence.

At night time you may want to put your child in nappy pants which pull on with an elasticated waist (so feel a bit more grown up) but have the same absorbency as a traditional nappy thus protecting your child from the disappointment of waking up in a wet bed.

It is completely normal for children to regress in times of upheaval, for example moving house, starting daycare or kindy or the arrival of a sibling. The key is to stay calm, downplaying accidents and praising success. Parental pressure and reprimanding won’t help.

With any regression and, in fact, throughout the toilet training process, be aware that anxious parents create anxious children, and anxious children are more likely to wet or soil themselves.

Children will achieve day and night-time continence in their own good time. In the meantime, we parents get to share in the satisfaction of teaching our kids a new range of skills. 


Under 5

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