How to toilet train your toddler

Tips for when and how to potty train your toddler.
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  • Updated:7 Jun 2011

02.Setbacks and tips

Toilet training setbacks and accidents

Night-time toilet training

There are a few children who throw away the nappies completely when they begin toilet training, but for most they will continue to wear nappies at night for at least a year after they have moved to underpants during the day to get used to night-time toilet training. Some children still wet the bed at six or seven, and beyond.

If you're one of the lucky few who has a child who is waking each morning with a dry nappy, try a couple of nights without putting a nappy on him and see what happens. For the rest of us, we'll need to wait another year or two until our child begins to have the odd dry nappy overnight.


Some parents find that after months of successful toileting and at the exact moment they are congratulating themselves on a job well done, their child begins to have the occasional accident.

This is often because as you relax your focus on toilet-training, so too does your child. Without the constant reminders to monitor his bladder and bowels, he will get distracted by much more interesting things and suddenly realise that he has to go to the toilet NOW, when it's all too late.

Try not to be too concerned about this - all your hard work is not being undone! With a few gentle reminders, you child will be back on the right path and ultimately he has to learn to listen to his own body - even when he's deeply involved in an exciting game - instead of relying on you to monitor his body.

Avoiding accidents:
  • If your child tells you he has to go to the toilet, act quickly! In the beginning, he won't be able to hold on for long.
  • If he's busy in play, you may need to physically remove him from the game before you can get his attention and ask him if he needs to go to the toilet.
  • If your child doesn't seem bothered about having wet pants, try regularly taking him to the toilet rather than asking him if he needs to go - he may just say no regardless of how full his bladder is.
  • Ask him to go to the toilet before you leave the house. If you make a point of going to the toilet yourself before a trip, he'll see that it's just part of a routine.
  • When you are away from the house, make sure you know where the closest toilet is at all times (even if it is just a big tree in the park). You don't want to get stuck trying to find a toilet when your child has 30 seconds before he'll wet his pants.
  • Remember that every child will have accidents and they are really just part of the whole toilet-training experience. While they can be momentarily embarrassing when you're in public, as long as you're prepared with a change of clothes, there's no damage done and they can be dealt with quickly and without fuss.

Refusing to poo in the potty

So, your child is using the potty like a champ and proudly wearing her underwear. There's only one problem: she refuses to have a poo on the potty or the toilet, so she holds it in and gets painfully constipated. This can often mean you find yourself involved in an epic power struggle, and you're worried she's in pain. Why won't she just relax and go on the potty? What can you do to help her?

Getting comfortable

First of all, remember that this is a really common toilet training situation and although it seems insurmountable, it is totally normal, and just a potty training accident.

Your child's reluctance may result from initial constipation, or the constipation may be a result of the reluctance. It can be difficult to tell what's causing what. (Some small children withhold from having a poo for so long that they become impacted, which can cause involuntary leaking of feacal liquid; parents may misread this as diarrhoea or a child with anal incontinence, when really what's happening is extreme constipation.)

Whether it's a cause or an effect, constipation is something you can directly address. Try increasing the amount of fluid or fibre in your child's diet. Talk to your GP about the situation; there may be a stool softener they can recommend. The first step is making sure having a poo is not painful - that might be an easy way to solve her problem.

But it may also take a little more work on your part. Here a few other things to try:

  • Back off and offer her a nappy or a pull-up nappy when she needs a poo. Then, when she's finished, empty the poo into the potty or toilet and gently remind her that poo goes in the potty. 
  • If she does want a nappy, encourage her to do her poo in the bathroom. At first, let her choose whereabouts in the bathroom. Then gradually encourage her to sit on the potty, even if she's still using a nappy, she's still associating the potty with a poo. From there, you might be able to undo the nappy as she poos and then eventually remove it. Some parents have even cut a hole out of the bottom of the nappy, so the poo goes in the potty, even though she still has the sensation of wearing it.
  • Don't lose your cool when she asks for a nappy instead. Remember: she's not doing this to make your life miserable. And she will get it eventually.
  • Take a break from potty training and let her go back to her nappy or pull-up for a while. Not all kids are toilet trained at the same time, and yours may just need a bit longer.

Top tips for toilet training

  • For boys, nothing beats pointing them at a tree when they start to do a wee. They love nothing better than to “water” the plants.
  • Girls are generally more pernickety about making messes so they're often more motivated to use the toilet properly. Try dressing her in a skirt or dress while she's learning - that way she can easily manage her own clothes as well.
  • Move to using proper underpants as soon as you can - a large part of successful toilet-training is learning to manage getting pants down and back up and knowing how they feel. Wet undies are also very uncomfortable which makes for a great motivator!
  • Most children learn to control their bladder before their bowels. Don't be concerned if he seems unwilling to do a poo in the toilet - lots of children find this idea scary. When you know he has to do a poo, try to sit him there for a couple of minutes and encourage him but if there's no progress, just put a nappy on him.
  • Many children become temporarily constipated whilst toilet training because they hold onto their poo until they get a nappy on at night. Make sure he's getting enough fibre in his diet so that he won't be too uncomfortable.
  • At a certain point, you will have to begin leaving the house with your child dressed in underpants. Take plenty of spare pairs wherever you go - along with back-up sets of clothes and a towel - and don't try anything too ambitious on your first outings. Go to the park or the beach, or go for a bike ride. Avoid going to the supermarket or taking a bus ride!
  • Keep a potty in the car for emergencies. You may never need to use it but you'll always be glad it's there.

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