Updated: May 21, 2020
For many parents, the prospect of making the move out of nappies can seem daunting. Often they fear it will be a messy, protracted process, dragging out for weeks, that ruins household furniture and leads to mountains of washing. Now I’m not going to lie, there will be a few puddles, a few poo’s in pants and a bit of extra washing, but over my many years of hands-on caring for children, the really ‘messy’ period has only lasted a matter of days and even that bit wasn’t that messy. Maybe I have just been lucky with the numerous children I have worked with, but I think it was down to right timing and a consistent approach.
The majority of children will be ready to start potty training somewhere between 18 months and 3 years, with most children making this step between the ages of two and two and a half. Although, just as with all areas of development, children are individuals and will do things at their own pace. And for children with underlying health conditions or Special Educational Needs, the time-frame for making the transition out of nappies can be very different.
However, in the UK there is an increase in the numbers of children starting school still in nappies. Research into this by Eric, the Bowel and Bladder Charity, seems to show that increasingly parents are unsure about when children should be supported to make the move out of nappies. More parents seem to think being dry and clean is not something children should be achieving until they are in school. Part of the reason for this is the invention of things like ‘pull-up pants’. While a great invention for children who have additional needs or still bed wet at night (something that can be perfectly normal, particularly for boys up until the age six or seven), the increased use of pull-up pant during the day is hampering children making the switch out of nappies.
Why is this? Firstly, the advertising of these products often shows children that look around five or even six. Subconsciously, this gives parents the message that it is developmentally typical for children to still be in some kind of nappy at this age. Secondly, they are often advertised as ‘big girl/boy pants’, implying that moving into pull-ups is something children need to do, and that the pants should take the place of normal underwear.
However, pull-up’s (and nappies) do a quite different job from cotton underwear. Disposable nappies and pull-ups are so good at their job nowadays that they wick the wee away from the child before the child even realises what has happened. Cotton underwear on the other hand becomes wet, cold and pretty horrible to be in if they’ve had a wee! Also, pull-up’s and disposable nappies are significantly less bulky than traditional towelling nappies. This means that they get in the way far less, further limiting a child’s motivation to transition to the potty or toilet.
Imagine for a moment you are child engrossed in your play. It’s much quicker to simply have a wee where you are, rather than having to break off from your exciting activity, make the trek to the potty or toilet, take down your underwear, pull it back up, and wash your hands, all before you can return to your game. And this is one of the reasons why catching the moment to transition out of nappies is so crucial. Leave it too late and your child may have discovered the benefits of still wearing their nappy and it can be much harder to pursue the benefits of using a toilet or potty.
Based on my 15+ years of experience helping to potty train children (including twins) these are my top tips for a successful move out of nappies.
1 - Seeing others using a toilet
Long before you’re even thinking about toilet training, your child needs to see people using the toilet. If not, how will they ever get the idea that this is what happens? In most households this is something that happens naturally (I certainly rarely manage a solo wee with a mobile toddler, who comes to find me if I’m gone for more than 30 seconds). However, some families will feel uncomfortable at the idea of children seeing bodily functions taking place. If you can, though, try and put these feelings aside and just naturally let your child be in the space with you. You don’t need to make a big song and dance about it, most of the time you don’t even need to draw attention to what you are doing but occasionally, if the child shows interest you can just say something very simple like, ‘Yes, I’m using the toilet’ or, ‘I’m having a wee on the toilet’.
2 - Playing and exploring
Again, long before you’re ready to try and make the move out of nappies, start to introduce the idea of the potty or toilet. Have a potty hanging about in the bathroom or toilet. Let your child pretend to sit on it (both clothed and un-clothed) perhaps when you are using the toilet or before their bath time. If your child happens by ‘accident’ to have a wee or a poo on it give lots of specific praise - ‘Amazing you did a wee in the potty!’ - but don’t make a big deal if they don’t. At this stage you just want them to become friends with the potty or toilet, for it not to be a scary place.
On this same line, get a few books in about using the potty or toilet and make them part of everyday reading. Don’t make too much of a big deal about them; the aim is to make the move out of nappies seem as natural as possible. Some of my personal favourites are:
I Want My Potty by Tony Ross - A great read in its own right. A hilarious account of royal potty training, where the potty isn’t always where its meant to be, it will amuse young children and parents alike.
On My Potty by Leslie Patricelli – With pitch-perfect humour and pacing, this story follows one baby's thoughts and hilarious actions as they learn to use the potty for the first time.
Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel - Comes in two versions, one for girls, and one for boys. It has bright graphics, simple language, a fun story and an anatomically correct hero.
3 - Picking the right moment
This can often be one of the most crucial parts of the process. Too soon and your child won’t be developmentally ready, too late and your child may be harder to coax out of a nappy.
For children to be able to successfully make the transition out of nappies and on to the potty (or toilet) they need to be able to recognise the sensation of needing to have a wee or poo. For this to happen, nerves need to be sufficiently developed so that children get the message. For boys, this development can often be slightly later than girls.
Ways to spot that your child has developed these sensations include;
Asking for their nappy to be changed as soon as they have soiled (and sometimes wee’d, but this is a more subtle sensation). But be warned not all children do this, many will be very happy to sit in a wet or soiled nappy, so even if your child is not asking to be changed, they may still be developmentally ready.
Taking themselves away to have a poo. This shows they have developed the sensation of needing to go and are able to control when it happens.
Seeming to pause in their play for no real reason – this could well be because they are having a wee.
If any of the above are happening regularly over a few weeks it’s time to seize the moment.
In addition to being able to communicate that they need to use the toilet, it’s also helpful if children can sit on and stand up from a potty unaided (another reason it’s good to have one around to play with).
4 - Go all out
Once you have taken the decision to give potty training a go, it’s vitally important to commit to it 100%. This means taking your child out of their nappy as soon as they wake and only putting a nappy back on for afternoon nap time and at bedtime. No popping a nappy (or pull up on) to nip to the shops, or because you are off to grandma’s. Chopping and changing in and out of nappies just confuses the matter and makes it much harder for your child to master their new skill.
Top tips for this stage;
Allocate a few days where you can be at home when you first start potty training. This make it less stressful for you both. If things seem to be going ok after a few days, you can venture out - but don’t put a nappy on. Use a towel or puppy training mats to line car seats/pushchairs and take lots of changes of clothes (including socks and shoes – you will be surprised how far wee can go!). Take your potty with you and make sure your child knows where it is.
Have the potty nearby (initially there will be minimal time between the urge to wee and actually going) and encourage your child to sit on the potty regularly. Don’t worry if they don’t produce something each time but it’s good to encourage them to go.
Chose clothes that are easy to get up and down. In the early days you don’t want to be fiddling with zips and buttons. In fact, if your child can just hang about in their underwear for the first day or so even better. Oh! and have lots of trousers and underwear ready.
Be prepared for accidents. Initially they will happen regularly, but the number should start to tail off quite quickly. If accidents happen, don’t tell the child off. They are learning a new skill - just as when they were trying to learn to walk and you wouldn’t have told them off for falling over. Approach a wee or a poo in their pants in the same way, with an ‘oh dear’. Talk about how ideally it should have gone in the potty and encourage them to sit and see if there is any more to come.
Praise, praise, praise – even for just sitting on the potty, as well as when they actually manage a wee or a poo in there.
Two week rule – in general it shouldn’t take more than 10 days to two weeks for your child to have got the hang of using the potty a significant amount of the time (daily accidents, or small bits of wee coming out before they make it to the potty may still be happening). However, if you are still having more accidents than successes after this time, even with regular reminders and prompts to try, it might be good to take a pause for a few weeks and go back to nappies fully. Both you and your child may be feeling a bit battle weary and the last thing you want is for potty training to turn into a battle. Wait a few weeks until you think your child might be ready again and give it another go.
The only time you might not do this is if your child has mastered doing wees on the potty but not poos. In this case you may initially put a nappy back on just for the poo’s (only when your child tells you they need to have a poo). More support around this issue can be found in our article The Reluctant Toilet Pooer.
Work in partnership with your childcare setting if your child is attending one. The message needs to be consistent there as well and they should be fully supportive of your move to potty train your child. You may find your childcare setting talks to you about potty training your child. But not all do (sadly, there is a lack of training for staff in this area), so don’t wait for them to initiate the process if you feel your child is ready.
Don't rush to standing. While it can be very tempting for dads to encourage their sons to learn how to pee standing up, if done too soon it can have an impact on boys being able to poo on a toilet (or in a potty). To be able to poo effectively on a toilet, boys need to feel relaxed when sitting. Learning to pee while sitting is a vital first step for healthy pooing. (More can be found in the The Reluctant Toilet Pooer.)
5 - Don’t panic if suddenly more accidents start happening
Don’t panic if initially potty training seemed to be going really well, then your child starts having more accidents. This is something that a number of children do. Remember, they are still learning their body’s signals. It may just be that you have got used to your child managing to make it to the toilet, so you aren’t reminding them as often.
It could also be that they have got a bit bored of using the toilet or potty – it’s no longer a fun and exciting game. In fact, having to go and use it gets in the way of the fun game they were playing! If this happens, try using sticker or reward charts as a way to re-motivate them.
They may have got better at holding their wee and are simply pushing the hold a little bit too long. Many children will do the ‘wee dance’ when they need to go. Try and look out for this and remind your child to go to the toilet if you see it.
Very occasionally they may have a urinary tract infection, and this can make it harder for them to control their wee (although this is usually accompanied with other signs such as pain when going or smelly wee).
6 - Night times
Once your child has been dry during the day for a while and is regularly waking up with a dry nappy in the morning you can try removing the nappy at night. Remember to protect the mattress with a waterproof cover and talk to the child about where to wee if they wake up in the night for one. Make sure your child can access a toilet or potty on their own, as you may not always hear them in time if they wake in the night needing a wee. You may want to have a potty in their bedroom. And remember to be consistent at nights as well – including if you’re away on holiday or overnight at grandma’s house.
Some parents also do a ‘dream wee’ with their child just before the parents go to bed. This involves lifting the child, popping them on the toilet and encouraging them to wee while they are basically asleep. However, some professionals worry that using dream-weeing long term may interfere with children learning to recognise the signal to wee and waking themselves up.
7 - Bed wetting
Some children master being dry at night very quickly after daytime toilet training; for others it takes a while longer. Bedwetting is very common - affecting around half a million children and teenagers in the UK. It's important to remember a child who wets the bed isn't being naughty or lazy and they should NOT be punished. Bedwetting is a medical condition and is usually caused by one of three main reasons;
1. The bladder not stretching enough to hold all the wee made at night.
2. Producing too much wee at night.
3. Not waking up when the bladder sends a signal that it’s full.
The good news is that all three causes are treatable and you don't need to wait for children to 'grow out' of bed wetting. In-fact, current NICE guidelines are that all children five years or older who wet the bed should be seen by a health professional to access treatment. Eric, the Bowel and Bladder Charity has more information.
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