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Toilet training: Recognizing readiness

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Many children show signs of being ready for toilet training between ages 18 and 24 months. However, others might not be ready until they’re 3 years old. There’s no rush. Rather than relying solely on your child’s age — or when his or her peers are being toilet trained — look for your child to show key signs of being ready and interested in using the toilet.

Your child’s readiness depends on when he or she achieves certain physical, developmental and behavioral milestones. It doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence, will or character.

Physical readiness

To use the toilet successfully, a child must have voluntary control over his or her pelvic muscles. This is something your child grows into with time. You don’t have control over this aspect, and some kids take a little longer than others. Signs of voluntary control usually begin to appear by 18 months or so.

Signs of physical readiness include being able to recognize the urge to urinate or have a bowel movement and sense this urge in time to make it to the toilet or potty chair. Most children achieve this neurological function between 24 and 36 months.

Developmental readiness

A number of motor, language and social skills are important to using the toilet. Your child may be developmentally ready if he or she is able to:

  • Walk to and sit on the potty
  • Stay dry for up to two hours
  • Pull bottom clothes down and back up again
  • Follow simple two-step instructions, such as, “Pick up the ball and put it in the toy basket”
  • Communicate the need to go potty

Behavioral readiness

You can also look for key indications in your child’s behavior, such as:

  • Being able to imitate the behaviors of others, such as using the toilet
  • The ability to put things where they belong, which helps with understanding that pee and poop go in the toilet
  • The ability to say no, which shows a degree of independence from you
  • A desire to cooperate and less of a desire to engage in power struggles
  • An interest in using the potty on his or her own and in staying clean and dry

Parent readiness

Your own readiness as a parent is important, too. Expect that toilet training will take some time and patience. It’s also likely to get a bit messy. In general, let your child’s motivation, instead of your eagerness, lead the process. Avoid equating toilet training success or difficulty with your child’s intelligence or stubbornness.

Also, keep in mind that accidents are inevitable and punishment has no role in the process. Typically, punishment or criticism tends to make the process take longer. Plan toilet training for when you or another caregiver can devote the time and energy to be consistent on a daily basis for a few months.

Setting the stage for success

 There’s not much you can do as a parent to speed up your child’s physical readiness for using the toilet. However, as early as your child’s first birthday, there are some ways you can begin laying the groundwork for a successful psychological transition from diapers to the toilet.

There are several children’s picture books written specifically to interest children in this natural transition. You can read these books with your child. There are also videos and smartphone apps designed to help your toddler get acquainted with the benefits of using the toilet.

Another way to begin building for a successful transition at this early stage is to allow toddlers to watch parents and older brothers or sisters using the toilet. Thus, family members can be role models for a year or more before toilet training actually begins.

Dr. Klaas and Dr. Cook are co-editors of  Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Years.

Walter J. Cook, M.D.

Dr. Cook is a specialist in general pediatric care within the Department of Pediatrics, Mayo Clinic Rochester, Minn., and an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. A father of three, including twins, he has cared for thousands of babies in more than 25 years of pediatric practice.

Kelsey M. Klaas, M.D.

Dr. Klaas is a pediatrician in the Division of General Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, Minn. She is the mother of two children who brings both a medical and new parent perspective to her practice and writing.

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