Pregnancy and baby

Potty problems and toilet training tips

When should we start potty training? (18 to 30 months)

Media last reviewed: 17/01/2015

Next review due: 17/01/2017

Children are able to control their bladder and bowels when they're physically ready and when they want to be dry and clean. Every child is different, so it's best not to compare your child with others.

Bear in mind the following:

  • most children can control their bowels before their bladder
  • by the age of two, some children will be dry during the day, but this is still quite early
  • by the age of three, 9 out of 10 children are dry most days – even then, all children have the odd accident, especially when they're excited, upset or absorbed in something else
  • by the age of four, most children are reliably dry

It usually takes a little longer to learn to stay dry throughout the night. Although most children learn this between the ages of three and five, it is estimated that a quarter of three-year-olds and one in six five-year-olds wet the bed.

When to start potty training

It helps to remember that you can't force your child to use a potty. If they're not ready, you won't be able to make them use it. In time they will want to use it – your child won't want to go to school in nappies any more than you would want them to.

In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to encourage the behaviour you want.

Most parents start thinking about potty training when their child is around 18 to 24 months old, but there's no perfect time. It's probably easier to start in the summer, when washed nappies dry more quickly and there are fewer clothes to take off. Do it over a period of time when there are no great disruptions or changes to your child's or your family's routine.

You can try to work out when your child is ready. There are a number of signs that your child is starting to develop bladder control:

  • they know when they've got a wet or dirty nappy
  • they get to know when they're passing urine and may tell you they're doing it
  • the gap between wetting is at least an hour (if it's less, potty training may fail and at the very least will be extremely hard work for you)
  • they know when they need to pee and may say so in advance

Potty training is usually fastest if your child is at the last stage before you start the training. If you start earlier, be prepared for a lot of accidents as your child learns.

How to start potty training

  • Leave a potty where your child can see it and can get to know what it's for. If you've got an older child, your younger child may see them using it, which will be a great help. It helps to let your child see you using the toilet and explain what you're doing.
  • If your child regularly has a bowel movement at the same time each day, leave their nappy off and suggest that they go in the potty. If your child is even the slightest bit upset by the idea, just put the nappy back on and leave it a few more weeks before trying again.
  • As soon as you see that your child knows when they're going to pee, encourage them to use their potty. If your child slips up, just mop it up and wait for next time. It takes a while to get the hang of it. If you don't make a fuss when they have an accident, they won't feel anxious and worried and are more likely to be successful the next time.
  • Your child will be delighted when he or she succeeds. A little praise from you will help a lot. It can be quite tricky to get the balance right between giving praise and making a big deal out of it, which you don't want to do. Don't give sweets as a reward, as that can end up causing more problems. When the time is right, your child will want to use the potty and they will just be happy to get it right.

Potty training with a disabled child

Some children with long-term illnesses or disabilities find it more difficult to learn to use a potty or toilet. This can be challenging for them and for you, but it's important not to avoid potty training for too long.

Visit the Contact a Family website for information, further sources of support and ways of getting in touch with other parents who have had similar problems.

Common potty-training problems

My child isn't interested in using the potty at all

Try not to worry. Remind yourself that sooner or later your child will want to be dry for their own sake. If they start to see potty training as a battle of wills with you, it'll be much harder.

My child keeps wetting himself

You've got two options: you could go back to nappies for a while and try again in a few weeks, or you can keep trying now, but be prepared to change and wash clothes a lot.

Whatever you decide, don't let it get you or your child down and don't put pressure on them. Talk to other parents about how they coped. You also don't want to confuse your child by stopping and starting too often. If you do stop, leave it for a few weeks before you start again.

Just when I think things are going well, there's an accident

Accidents will happen for a while, so when your child does use the potty or manage to stay dry, even if it's just for a short time, let them know how pleased you are.

Even though accidents can be very frustrating, try not to show your child that you are frustrated. Explain that you want them to use the potty or toilet next time. If your child starts to worry, the problem could get worse.

My child was dry for a while, but now they've started wetting themselves again

If your child has been dry for a while, either at night, during the day or both, and then starts wetting themselves again, it can mean they have a bladder infection, constipation, threadworms or type I diabetes. Ask your GP for more advice.

Alternatively, there may be an emotional reason. Disruption – such as moving house or a new baby arriving – or a change of routine can often have an effect.

The best thing you can do is be understanding and sympathetic. Your child will almost certainly be upset about the lapse and won't be doing it on purpose.

My child is about to start school and is still not dry

By this age, your child is likely to be just as upset by wetting as you are. They need to know that you're on their side and that you're going to help them solve the problem.

Talk to your GP or health visitor to get some guidance. They may refer you to a clinic for expert help. You can also contact Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence (ERIC) for information.

Page last reviewed: 06/01/2014

Next review due: 06/01/2016


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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Liza F said on 30 September 2015

My toddler has only just started to show signs that she is interested in the potty. I'm encouraging her to sit on the potty, but I’m getting a lot of pressure from family to take her out of nappies already. I don't think she's ready, and I’m worried about my mother taking her out of nappies when she is babysitting her. I think my little one will get confused. Has anyone had this problem or have any advice?

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User1001272 said on 06 September 2015

Why no info about poo? What if your child is dry but still poos in pants some of the time? Wait for a few weeks or continue? I think this is a common problem and obviously quite distressing so would be nice to discuss it.

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MyraAlcorn said on 19 April 2015

As with any other skill, the more they use the potty, the better he/she'll be at it.

If your child has a favorite doll or stuffed animal, try using it for potty demonstrations. Most children enjoy watching their favorite toy go through the motions, and may learn more this way than from you telling them what to do.

Dress your child in loose-fitting clothes that they can easily take off him/herself, or buy panties a size too big.

You may just be surprised to find out potty training doesn't have to be hard or stressful.

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