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The Right Time to Start Toilet Training: Children's Readiness

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Most parents want to know the earliest date they can start toilet training. Since children mature at different rates, it is impossible for us to provide a hard and fast date when it is first appropriate to start training. Each child is unique and will become ready to start the toilet training process at his or her own "right" moment. The average age for a child to be toilet trained varies by culture.† For example, in some tribes in Africa, it can be as young as 1 year of age, whereas on average, most children in the United States start toilet training between 18 and 32 months old. Because children normally don't walk up to their parents and say, "I'd like to start potty training, please," parents need to learn the signs and signals that indicate children are ready to begin.

Primarily, children show physiological, or bodily, signs that they're ready to start toilet training. These signs happen only when young children's excretory and digestive systems have matured with age; something they have no real control over. There is little or nothing parents can do to hurry children's necessary physical maturation along.

When the natural maturation process occurs, young children's bowel movements start to become more regular, occurring between 1 and 3 times each day. As well, caregivers will notice that children's diapers are often dry, or that at least two hours pass between each wet diaper. This indicates that children's bladders and sphincter muscles are growing larger and stronger, and are able to hold back urine for longer periods of time.

Somewhere around 18 months of age, toddlers start to realize that they create waste in their diapers. Later on, they will start to notice that elimination is occurring, or notice the physical sensations that means they're going to eliminate waste soon. They demonstrate this awareness by grabbing at their diaper or standing or crouching differently so as to be more comfortable as they eliminate. Though their awareness of elimination may have started, children are not yet able to control the physical process of elimination quite yet.

When children are older, they communicate their readiness for toilet training by showing a dislike for wet or soiled diapers and a clear desire to take them off. Children may come to a parent and ask to be changed, or they may just strip off their clothes and diaper in the middle of an activity.

Young children show that they are cognitively ready to begin toilet training by demonstrating several different skills. First, children need to be able to understand and use basic words such as potty, toilet, diaper, poop, pee, penis, etc. to describe elimination and related terms. This list of words are commonly used in America currently, but there is nothing special about these particular terms. Families can use different words if they have preferences. Some families are more comfortable with anatomically correct terms, while others prefer to use euphemisms for body parts. What is important is that children begin to demonstrate a command of language that can be used to describe elimination.

Young children must also be able to understand and to follow simple verbal directions or commands. For example, they should be able to walk where indicated, stay seated when asked to do so, pick something up when asked, and so on. They also need to be able to follow multiple directions given at once, including two or three-step instructions that convey sequences of events, such as "Take off your pants and then sit down." Children also need to be able to communicate their general needs and bodily functions to adults. Children's ability to describe what is happening with their bodies allows them to signal when they feel the urge to use the toilet, and to tell adults when they're peeing or pooping. If these cognitive and language skills have not yet been mastered, children and parents may become frustrated trying to juggle all of the coordinated steps and skills described above that are necessary prerequisites for toilet use.

There are also emotional signs that children are ready to begin the toilet training process. Parents may notice that their toddlers go off to a quieter or more private place (like behind the couch) when they have to soil their diapers. This desire for privacy shows that children not only recognize that they're passing waste, but also that they recognize the act of elimination as something which is expected to be done in private. Young children will send additional emotional signals of their interest in toilet training by showing interest in their parents' toileting habits and what happens to the waste.

Another emotional skill that children may demonstrate just prior to their being ready to toilet train is the degree of patience and maturity necessary for them to sit in place while doing a quiet activity like reading. On a larger scale, children will begin to show an overall desire for independence, wanting to show off their abilities and insisting that they can do things for themselves. This emotional maturity will be necessary for children to complete their business on the toilet.

Finally, children must have developed a range of motor skills reasonably well before they can hope to be successful using the toilet. Young tots need to have developed fine motor skills sufficient to dress and undress themselves in a quick and easy manner. Children who fumble about before being able to take off their pants and other clothing items are likely to have accidents and to become rather frustrated.

Gross motor skills are also essential for toilet training. Children need to be able to mount and get off the potty seat, toilet, or step stool easily and without knocking it over or causing it to fall off (or into) the toilet. An ill-timed dunk may, understandably, keep children from wanting to try the toilet for a while.

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