Toilet training: When, how and troubleshooting for the stressful times

Learning to toilet train

I vividly remember the day my daughter woke up (at the crack of dawn as usual) and exclaimed that she no longer wanted to wear nappies, and please could she use the potty now? Talk about a mix of emotions running wild inside me! As a paediatric psychologist, I love to see independence in my daughter. But there was a voice behind my plastered-on smile screaming ‘but we don’t even have any underwear for you yet!’ This was one of the occasions that my experience and knowledge of having helped hundreds of families toilet train their children in my professional career, actually paid off and helped me!

Children are usually ready to get started with toilet training somewhere between 18 months and 3 years (so I should have expected it from my daughter given she was somewhere in that huge window of ‘normal’). Going about toilet training the right way means that there’s more of a chance your child will have a (relatively!) seamless toilet training experience, making your life easier!


If you’re not sure whether your littlie is ready to ditch the nappies, look out for these signs. (Not all signs need to be present, but if some to most of them are, then you should be good to go.)

  • Communicating with you in some way when they are going to do a wee or pooh
  • Hiding or going somewhere particular to do a wee or pooh in their nappy
  • Showing discomfort in their dirty or wet nappy
  • Being interested in your toileting habits!
  • Increased bladder control – waking up from naps with a dry nappy
  • General independence in other areas of development


Your child needs to be able to do these things before you can expect success with toilet training. (Again, not all of these skills are needed but the general trend of your child’s development will let you know if they’re ready.)

  • Pulling their pants up and down
  • Sitting and walking independently (with the exception of children with some physical disabilities, in which case I recommend seeking individual guidance)

Bowel movements are soft and formed (toilet training a child with severe constipation is really hard….pardon the pun!)

Little girl the right age toilet train


Here are the toilet training tips I found most helpful as a parent and also for the families I’ve worked with:

  • Never push toileting. If you’re worried about your child not being toilet trained before starting a day care or kinder program, and they’re not showing eagerness or ‘toilet-ready’ signs yet, speak to an expert for help! I’ve seen severe constipation and withholding when parents have pushed toileting onto their kids who are not yet ready. It’s developmental and not something you can force.


  • If you have a kiddo with additional needs, developmental delay or disabilities, it can help to get professional help from the start so that you can be set up with all the helpful lingo and resources. However, I’ve always found using visuals for these kids helpful, and starting with ‘toilet timing’ (taking them to the toilet at regular times where you predict they will need to go to the loo, rather than waiting for them to communicate their need for the toilet with you independently).


  • Make it fun and stay calm. Celebrate the wins and never punish the accidents.


  • When your child has an accident (and they will), stay neutral and don’t make a bit deal of it. Kids can very easily be inadvertently rewarded even with ‘negative’ attention – meaning that when a toileting accident happens and a huge deal is made out of it, it’s possible it may happen again intentionally because of the big reaction the child received. We also need to consider their self-esteem and how big a step this is in their little lives.


  • Keep a potty in the car, it decreases your anxiety about going out (especially for those of us with girls!) and you can always pull over safely and let your child have a successful toileting experience in the potty! I’ve done this many a time…


  • Once you’ve decided to start toilet training, don’t go back to putting nappies on your child. It doesn’t take long for a child to gain toileting independence, so it means a week or so (or more) of a bit of mess, but it pays off in the long run. Putting nappies on a child who has started toilet training (with the exception of night nappies if you’re not there yet), sends a mixed message to your child, confusing them.


  • Reward charts are super helpful for toileting – just make sure the reward is motivating and the goal/expectation is reasonable. Start with getting a small non-food reward for every successful attempt and gradually increase your expectation. Never set the bar too high, as your child will feel unsuccessful and the reward chart won’t work.


  • Remind yourself that this can be an overwhelming time for your child, and they need you to be supportive. If you need ideas for knowing how to manage their big feelings (which often arise around big developmental leaps like toileting) check out my tips here.

Boy upset about toilet training


For kiddos who have struggled with toileting, some of the ideas I’ve had success with have been:

  • Allowing them to wear a nappy, but with a hole cut in it so that they have a sense of security while they sit on the toilet or potty, but the pooh or wee ends up in the toilet.


  • Put toilet paper in the toilet before they sit on it, to minimise splashing which can make some kids uncomfortable.


  • Have some books in the bathroom/toilet room for your child to look at while they sit on the loo if needed


  • Use a specialised toilet seat that promotes good posture to help your child feel secure on the toilet


  • For night-time toilet training, put a double set of linen on your child’s bed. So first layer consists of a mattress protector and sheet and then put another mattress protector and sheet on top of that. This minimises fuss in the night if your child wets the bed. Have another doona or blanket nearby as well so you can quickly change your child and get them back into their bed. Avoid allowing them to come into your bed – because again, this can be rewarding and we know that rewards increase the chances of something happening again.


  • If your child’s is reluctant to transition to regular underwear from nappies, try getting the thick ones made out of a towelling fabric. They are more absorbent than regular underwear, but they allow your child to really feel if it is wet if they’ve had an accident which speeds up the learning process.


In the many years I’ve been working with families to help toilet train their children, I’ve seen it all! And I can vouch for the fact that relaxed parents equal relaxed kids. There’s heaps of help around, so don’t be shy to ask your doctor or paediatrician for advice. This is a topic that most paediatric psychologists and paediatric occupational therapists will be able to help you with.

You can always get in touch with us if you’re in Melbourne and looking for support. Just click the website link in my bio below.

Good luck!

Amanda Abel

Amanda Abel

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) – a multidisciplinary paediatric practice in Preston. The mission at NCCD is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families with the tools they need to thrive. Amanda and her team do this by providing services that promote clarity, are of high quality and best of all – they keep it real.

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