Updated: May 23
Parents often wonder, when is the perfect age to begin toilet training? There is an old wives tale that says toilet training an older child is easier, however, this is not what an extensive body of international research suggests.
Toilet training research
There is actually a great deal of research regarding the timing of toilet training – it all suggests a window of opportunity where success is more likely to come easily between 18 months and 2½ years. Our experience as Australia's leading toilet training educators would certainly support the research.
Delayed toilet training
We meet many parents with three and four-year-olds where refusal is the biggest problem. The child has passed through the more pliable two’s and is into the independent, “I’ll do what I want” later years. The toilet training ‘problem’ becomes ongoing and bigger and bigger and bigger for everyone.
I had a parent of a four-year-old come to see me to discuss their problem. Both sets of grandparents came, as well as the parents and child – all talking about the reasons for the child’s lack of success. What a massive pressure for the child.
It also became clear that the neighbour was also on the case, asking every time she saw her if she’d pooed in the toilet that day. I felt so sorry for the child.
There had been advice to wait until the child had advised they were ready. Well, in many cases, this never happens and so now everyone was up in arms.
So how do you move a child from being quite happy to wee and poo in their nappies to using the toilet?
Toilet training steps
The first step was to gently take the pressure off the child, with no ongoing discussion about toilet training and no more questions from anyone. This needed to return to a normal learning process and a chance for the child to learn it without pressure.
The little girl had been in undies during the day and was having regular accidents. Her parents were still using a changing table so she could completely disengage from the cleanup. So we shifted everything about toileting into the toilet – nappies and conversation, all cleaning up and working towards the child helping with wiping and flushing.
She didn't like this at all so to encourage her into the toilet room for a clean-up in the first place, we used a star chart. Works well for this age group generally and rewarded a full line with a snake – incentives have to be small and immediate and she loved snakes! The reward was simply for going into the room.
This little girl then decided there was no way she was using the toilet and didn't want to dirty her undies anymore, so she started to hold on. This is the last thing we wanted. Holding wee or poo can cause lifelong problems – we needed to ensure this didn't continue.
It was an easy fix – we made the nappies available for the little girl to use in the toilet room. She would advise she needed to go, be helped on with a nappy, go and then be cleaned up and put back into undies. This was working well, and between some tissues in her nappy reminding her that she didn't like the wet feeling and the disruption to her play that took longer to get a nappy on and off, she happily moved onto the toilet for a wee. She maintained no interest and outright refusal to sit on the toilet to poo.
We maintained the nappy option in the toilet room for poo and persisted. A successful poo in the toilet at kindergarten (where the teachers were wonderful) encouraged her to throw away the nappies at home because she didn't need them any more.
Successful toilet training
The little girl was successfully wee trained and eventually poo trained too. This process also allowed her parents to take her out in undies while providing her with the security of a nappy to poo without anyone else realizing it was happening. This was a real release of pressure for the Mum, who was being hassled and feeling the pressure being applied by ‘well-meaning’ friends and family.
This process took a couple of months and resulted in a very happy, independent and autonomous four-year-old as well as relieved and proud parents.
We always encourage parents to begin toilet training when their child becomes curious about the toilet. Learning to use the toilet takes time; just like any new skill, it is a process, and over time, it will be mastered and will become automated. Remain positive, take the pressure off and expect success.