Can I start toilet training my toddler before she turns two?


I am so confused about when I should start toilet training my toddler.  It seems like it is more common than not for kids to be wearing diapers until they are three years old or even longer.  Ava is almost two, and I am pretty sick of changing diapers already.  Most of my friends are just “waiting” but no one seems clear about what they are waiting for!  Help!

It’s not surprising that you are confused, since the range of parent and expert advice is so wide and contradictory! 

Fifty years ago, a two year old in diapers would have seemed outrageous, and the parents (moms, of course) who were soaking and washing cloth diapers would have done everything they could to avoid that task.  Many children were pushed a little too quickly, and when Harvard based pediatrician T Berry Brazelton learned about the number of punitive measures parents were taking he did his own research with the families in his private practice.  Brazelton found that when parents took a “child centered” approach to training, waiting for signs of “readiness”, most children were using the toilet regularly by 2 1/2.  His results were published and popularized, and “readiness” became the gold standard for when to begin.

Of course “readiness” could be defined in many ways, from  basic physiological and developmental maturity to a child announcing that she wants to wear underwear like all her friends at preschool.  Parents who were ready to be done with cloth diapers found their motivation undercut by the rise in use of disposable diapers.  When Dr. Brazelton became the spokesman for Pampers, the official blessing was given to wait, wait, and wait some more.  When my children were little, a two year old size disposable diaper was “large”.  Now the “large” is suitable for a four year old. Children haven’t changed, but parents find it much easier to wait, and wait, and wait.  In the Bay area, many parents begin introducing the potty at a time when some children are already our of diapers.

One reason for the long delay in starting is that it challenging for many parents to develop the routines that support toilet training.  Children learn faster when they repeat the same patterns day after day.  Imagine trying to convince a toddler that she can eat most of her meals while sitting on the sofa and watching TV and then expecting her to sit at a table using a  spoon and fork for dinner on the weekends?  Children learn how to feed themselves, dress themselves, ride a bike, swim, even read, because we teach them the basics and then repeat, repeat, repeat. So for parents who are on the go a lot, it can be hard to practice the patterns children need.  It can seem like it’s easier to just wait and see if the child seems more cooperative or interested as he gets older.  Some do, some don’t, and it’s pretty hard to predict which children will train more quickly than others. A few children develop the habit of only releasing their muscles to “go” when they are in a diaper, and transitioning to toilet use is harder.

So, with all of that, I will say that as an expert who sees many, many three and four year olds because they can’t be persuaded to use the toilet,  my vote is with beginning when your child is still at the stage of learning most things by repetition.  That way she builds habits of letting go in the potty before she begins to be dependent on her diaper. I can’t guarantee that this approach will work quickly for your child, and there may be reasons to wait longer, but if you’d like to begin toilet training your toddler, here are guidelines.

How to know if the time is right?

Observe: Is your child stopping briefly during play or other activities to urinate or have a bowel movement?  Some children tune in to these sensations more than others. Most notice after and during first!

Other signs of a child’s readiness: 

  • Imitating lots of adult behavior such as brushing teeth, trying to use your phone
  • Can understand and follow simple directions “Bring me your shirt”
  • Can sit still on a small chair for two to three minutes while you read or talk to him.
  • Not in an intense phase of rebelliousness or negativity.  (all toddlers can be negative at times!)
  • Learning other self care skills: dressing self, washing hands, helping clean up--this helps your child to feel capable.
  • Has stopped using bottle, pacifier, perhaps crib (which are symbols of being a baby

Setting the stage

      • Use words to describe all aspects of using the potty. Labeling body parts steps, catching the moments when you notice child peeing and pooping:  “Oh look, you made pee pee!” ” I can see you are letting your poop out”

      • Encourage imitation of things you want her to mimic

      •Notice whether you are being too polite with requests such as asking “Do you want to . .?”. If the answer       could be “no”, change your language to “It’s time to . .” or “Let’s”

      •Teach your child, step by step, how to do more self care.  Treat her more like a child than a baby (except         for cuddle time, of course!)

  • Consider using a bell to signal “Time to . . .” which is very effective in calling attention before a transition and will be important to remind her “Time to so potty”

How do we begin?

•  Any approach must be routine, low key, and consistent

•  Introduce a potty chair, then the idea of sitting, then the practice of sitting.

•  Model by using stuffed animals first

  • Practice sitting time with teddy bear first, then your child.  Make it pleasant!

•  Have your child sit in morning and at bath time for a few minutes.

  • Gradually increase frequency of sitting times until you begin to "catch" urine (for most children, two hour intervals are best)
  • Point out success, but don't overdo it--let the accomplishment be your child's.
  • Take your time.  If you provide structure and routine,  your child can set the pace of progress. Don’t have a timeline for success!

And then?

• Continue to encourage and expect more independence in ALL self care

  • It's helpful to move all bathroom related activities into the bathroom. Stop using the changing table.
  • Always dress your child in pants that s/he can manage independently.

• Continue practice times, keeping the time pleasant.

• Increase "sits" to match your child's patterns

  • Avoid pushing your child to produce. Sitting after BMs can be very helpful! 
  • Token rewards can be used to encourage small increments in behavior(going in to sit, or when that is routine, going in to sit on her own, or producing, all in little steps) but don’t use that as your only method
  • Big prizes usually backfire
  • Once your child is producing pee and poop at most sitting times, it's time to be out of diapers while awake.

So that’s it?

• That’s just the beginning.  Now your child is patterned, but not independent.

• Independent toilet use (noticing, stopping play, finding bathroom) may take a year!

• Praise (mildly) success, ignore accidents

• Expect gradual improvement, accidents and slippage, specially in new situations.

  • Every child learns in her own way, but all children need to be taught!

There is really no downside to this method of training as long as you don’t have a timetable.  Think of toilet training as just one of the daily routines of being a parent. Success is not a commentary on you as a parent or your child.  Starting early is not more time consuming than starting late, and will ultimately be less work, but starting when you are ready is most important.