Toilet learning

Learning to use the toilet is an important developmental milestone for toddlers. Child care providers can help children with this learning process by being encouraging, knowing the signs of toilet learning readiness, and keeping toileting routines as consistent as possible while children learn how to use the toilet.

Signs of Readiness for Toileting

Each child will follow his or her own time schedule in being ready to use the toilet. To use the toilet successfully, children must be able to control bladder and bowel muscles, manage their own clothing, and let adults know when they need to go. Most children show signs of readiness between ages two and three. On average, girls tend to be ready earlier than boys.

The timing of toilet readiness may be affected by the child’s cognitive and social maturity, stresses and changes in the family, or strong pressure to stay dry. Do not attempt to force children in child care to use the toilet too early, but encourage them as they begin to control elimination. For more information, check out Signs Child Care Providers May Notice that Indicate Toilet Learning Readiness.

Supporting Toilet Learning

If you think a child in your child care program is ready to begin toilet learning, talk with the child’s parents and develop a plan. Talk about when to begin the process, how to help the child, and ways to handle accidents while the child is learning. Agree on the words you will teach the child to tell you he needs to use the toilet. If you do not have a child-sized toilet in your program, decide with the parents whether you will use child-appropriate toilet seats or potty chairs. The following are ways to make the learning process as smooth as possible:

  • Help parents be prepared. When a child is about to begin toilet learning, encourage parents to bring in at least three or four changes of underwear and clothing in case of accidents. Ask them to dress their child in clothing that is easy to manage. Pants should be loose-fitting and easily pulled down. Elastic waistbands are easier for most toddlers to remove quickly than pants with snaps or buttons.
  • Watch for signs that the child needs to go. Children just learning to use the toilet may or may not know to tell you they need to go. Some will use the words they have learned, but you may have to rely on behavioral cues from others. Watch for signs like wiggling, crossing their legs, pulling your hand, or tugging at their diaper. As soon as you notice these behaviors, take the child to the bathroom.
  • Create a consistent toileting routine. When children begin toilet learning, make it a part of the daily routine. Take the child to the toilet at regular intervals, whether or not she indicates that she needs to go. Help her remove clothing and sit on the toilet.
  • Stay with the child. As a child is beginning to use the toilet, stay with her. Remember that this is a serious activity, not playtime. Do not provide toys to play with while she is on the toilet. Encourage the child to sit for a few minutes, but never force a child to stay on the toilet when she wants to get off. When she has finished using the toilet (whether or not she actually went), remind her to flush the toilet and wash her hands.
  • Use lots of encouragement. When a child successfully uses the toilet, tell him, “You used the toilet. You must be really proud of yourself!” Focusing on his pride in the accomplishment will help motivate him to keep trying. (For more on praise and encouragement, check out Encouragement Is More Effective Than Praise in Guiding Children’s Behavior.)
  • Handle accidents casually. As children begin wearing underwear instead of diapers, accidents may happen. Help the child make the connection between the wet clothes and toileting by saying something like, “Now that you are wearing underwear, you need to use the toilet. When you forget to use the toilet, your clothes get wet.” Help the child change clothes without scolding or lecturing.
  • Keep toileting routines as consistent as possible between home and child care. Children will learn more easily and smoothly when parents and child care providers use the same basic toileting routines. Explain to parents how you are managing toilet learning, and encourage them to share what they are doing. Work together to create as consistent a routine as possible.

Toilet learning is an important milestone for young children. With patience, routines, and clear communication between child care providers and parents, you can help children learn to use the toilet independently.

Scroll to Top