Becoming Continent; A Guide to Toilet Training


Toilet training is one of the biggest challenges for parents. When to start, how to start, do you go straight to undies? Basically, being “toilet trained” means a child moves from a state of incontinence to a state of continence and it usually takes some time for children to be completely competent at using the toilet.

Generally, children are ready to toilet train between 18 months and 2 and a half years. It’s important for parents to follow the child’s lead otherwise the experience will not be successful.

Have you thought about the process of going to the toilet? To successfully go to the toilet a child must do all of these tasks:

  • Register the sensation of needing to go to the toilet
  • Make a decision to go to the toilet. (This often means taking themselves out of play, which is incredibly difficult.)
  • Get to the bathroom
  • Pull down their pants
  • Sit on the toilet
  • Successfully use the toilet
  • Wipe themselves if needed
  • Get off the toilet
  • Flush the toilet
  • Dress themselves
  • Wash their hands

This is a very complex skill set for a young child and we need to support them to do all of these tasks successfully.

How do you know your child is ready to start?

  • Your child shows interest in what is happening in their nappy and can tell you when something is happening in their nappy.
  • They are interested in watching you and others in the bathroom.
  • This is an advantage of a child being in Long Day Care as they will see other children using the bathroom.
  • They want to take their nappy off and sit on the toilet
  • They have a dry nappy for a period of about 2 hours
  • They follow simple instructions such as go and get your hat book.
  • They can pull their pants up and down

When you have noticed many of these signs they may be ready to start.


An often-forgotten aspect of toilet training is nutrition. A child can only go to the toilet if they have been consuming enough liquid and solids to warrant their body expelling the waste.  Drinking plenty of water is essential, and to support toilet training encouraging your child to stop and have a “big drink” rather than regular sips of water will help their bladder to work as it should, but filling and emptying.

Poor nutrition and limited consumption of water will lead to constipation which in turn makes toilet training really hard.

Here are a few tips:

In the months prior to starting ensure your child is drinking enough water so they produce enough urine.

Take note of your child’s interests around toileting. Encourage and praise their interest and any successes.

Take your child to buy some undies.

Parent Mindset

You are going to have to be really ready to do this, and your support, encouragement and praise will really help your child and lead to success. You are going to have to be the most encouraging, over the top praising parents you have ever been.

Everyone in the household, and community (grandparents and Early Learning Service) is going to have to be involved and have the same rules. That is, undies should be worn everywhere. If grandparents are unable to support this then you will need to find a time when you can limit visits to their house for a few weeks.

Ensure the child’s routine is relatively stable and you are not adding extra stress to their life. Don’t start if you are moving house, close to expecting a new baby or starting Early Learning.


  • Plan to be at home for a few days so your child can be successful at home before you add the distractions of the community into the mix.
  • Stop wearing nappies during the day and start using undies.
  • Dress your child in pants that are easy to pull up and down or just leave them in undies if you are at home.
  • Encourage your child to sit on the toilet about 20-30 minutes after drinking (or eating). This will give them a good chance of being successful on the toilet.
  • Try not to nag your child but encourage them to sit on the toilet if you can see they are jumping around, wiggling and passing wind.
  • Praise your child for successes and if they have an accident try not to bring too much attention to it but talk to them about it and encourage them to use the toilet next time.

Bathroom Hygiene is a lifelong lesson

  • From the start you will need to wipe your child’s bottom, from the front to the back.
  • Boys need to learn to shake their penis to get rid of any drops.
  • Children are capable of washing their hands and should be encouraged to do so each time they go to the toilet.

Other considerations

Most children are dry at night at 3 or 4 years, but some are still in nappies until they are in school.

Training pants are absorbent underwear worn during toilet training. They’re less absorbent than nappies but are useful for holding in bigger messes like accidental poos. Once your child is wearing training pants, dress her in clothes that are easy to take off quickly.

Pull-ups are very popular and are marketed as helpful for toilet training. It isn’t clear that they actually help. But you can try them to help your child get used to wearing underwear.

Reward charts are not that effective as children need relevant immediate rewards. Positive relevant praise works is more effective, parents who use stickers and food rewards such as chocolate can end up in a power battle with their children which does not result in the child training quicker.


Many parents will report that their child’s toilet training has regressed. Children’s development in all areas is up and down. Sometimes they seem clumsier, or they seem to forget a skill they were able to do.  Children are constantly growing and sometimes the messages their body sends the brain get lost in their growth. Remember toileting starts with the bladder or bowel sending a message to the brain saying “hey, empty me!” Stay with it remain positive and encouraging and all will be good.

What if my child isn’t interested?

If your child is not interested by 3 ½ – 4 years of age then you should seek help from your GP. Below are some good online resources for you to read.

Written by Su Garrett

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