3 Reasons Kids Don’t Need Toilet Training (And What To Do Instead)

As a parenting teacher and writer, my intention is to support, encourage, and answer questions. So I feel a teensy twinge of guilt when I’m asked for advice about toilet training, and my response is, essentially, don’t.

Children don’t need adults to train them to use the toilet. They do need attuned, communicative parents and caregivers to support and facilitate the toilet learning process, a process that is individual to each child.

These are the 3 main reasons I don’t recommend adult-led toilet training:

It’s unnecessary
I have no recollection of my younger two children learning to use the toilet. I vaguely remember the beginning of this process with my first child, but only because I was flabbergasted when she initiated an interest at 18 months and had completed the process by two years old.

My experiences illustrate the normal, natural, ho-hum process that successful toilet learning can be when parents don’t invest in it. Hundreds of parents I’ve worked with over the years have reported similar experiences.

This begs the question: why would we add toilet training to our already overloaded job description when doing less works just as well, if not better? Why risk the headaches, power struggles and resistance, frustrations and failures? Why be a taskmaster when we can relax, enjoy, and take pride in supporting our child’s self-directed achievement?

It’s risky
Toddlers have a developmentally appropriate need to resist parents, and if parents have an agenda around toilet training, healthy toddlers are inclined to push back, even if they might have been otherwise ready to begin using the toilet.

Child specialist Magda Gerber noted three types of readiness children need for toilet learning:

1. Physical:  there is bladder and bowel capacity and muscle control.

2. Cognitive: children know when they need to eliminate urine and feces and are fully aware of what they are supposed to do.

3. Emotional:  children are ready to let go of a situation they are used to and comfortable with (urinating and releasing feces into a diaper whenever they feel like it), and also let go, literally, of these waste products, which they perceive as belonging to them.

The emotional readiness factor usually comes last, is the most fragile, and also the most powerful. Bright, sensitive, aware toddlers can readily perceive a parent’s agenda. For some, the subtlest nudge toward the potty or being diaper-free can cause holding of urine or feces, delay toilet learning for months or even years, make toddlers feel ashamed, lead to severe constipation.

In this video, mother of twins Suzanne Schlosberg shares her cautionary tale about adult-led toilet training:

In It’s No Accident, the book Schlosberg coauthored with pediatric urologist Steve Hodges, parents are urged to slow down toilet training and informed that constipation — caused mostly by early/rushed potty training and poor diet -– is the root cause of virtually all bedwetting, toileting accidents, and recurrent UTIs. Schlosberg and Hodges also created this infographic (available as a free download) to increase awareness about constipation:

croppedresized 12 Signs yPJG

According to Schlosberg, “Most parents don’t know the signs of constipation (assuming it means “infrequent pooping”), it goes unrecognized, and kids suffer.”

I’ve learned over the years working with parents that toilet learning is nothing to mess with. I even cringe when parents tell me they’re “working on it,” because I’ve seen this attitude lead to problems all too often.

Granted, I hear mostly from the parents who are struggling and anxious. There must be many for whom toilet training techniques work. Why else would there be such a proliferation of toilet training books and products? Hmmm… marketers wouldn’t try to convince consumers they need something they really don’t, would they?

Kids deserve to own this accomplishment
There isn’t a long list of accomplishments toddlers can achieve. But they can do this, so I see no reason not to let them master this skill. There is no more powerful, confidence-building affirmation for toddlers than “I can do it myself.”

Toilet learning happens naturally and easily when we:

Invite children to actively participate in bathing, diaper changes, and other self-care routines from the time they are born. We invite active participation by communicating each detail respectfully: “I’m going to lift your bottom now so that I can wipe you. Can you help me lift?” Be careful not to transmit negative messages about body parts or feces and urine (“stinky, dirty”, etc.).

Model toilet use. Children naturally wish to do what parents and older siblings do.

Never force or even coax children to use the potty, but give clear  behavior boundaries in general so that children aren’t tempted to use toilet learning as a testing ground. This sensitive and complex area of development needs to remain free and clear of power struggles.

Make a potty available. Some children like a small potty that allows their feet to reach the floor, while others prefer a seat that fits into the regular toilet.

Observe. Become a practiced observer. When children seem to be signaling an urge to eliminate (by touching their diapers, pressing their thighs togethers, etc.), ask matter-of-factly if they would like to use the potty. Calmly accept no for an answer.

Offer the choice of diapers or underwear when you sense children might be ready for toilet learning, always fully accepting their choice to stay in diapers.

Trust, trust, trust. As Magda Gerber advises in Your Self-Confident Baby, “Learning to use the toilet is a process that takes time. Rather than push or manipulate your child by giving him treats such as candy or a special reward for something that he will learn on his own, trust that he will learn it when he is ready. Respect is based on trust.”

For more support, here’s a podcast I recorded in response to a parent struggling with toilet training:

 ***
I share more about this respectful approach in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

 Recommended reading:

Toilet Learning Made Easy by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

A Doctor Responds: Don’t Potty Train Your Baby by Steve J.  Hodges, M.D.

It’s No Accident: Breakthrough Solutions to Your Child’s Wetting, Constipation, Utis, And Other Potty Problems by Steve Hodges, M.D. and Suzanne Schlosberg

In the Toilet and Toilet Troubles (on this blog)

(Photo by Russ on Flickr)

214 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. My son is 15 months. He’s not showing signs of being ready to potty train but I know between 12-18 months is a sensitive period for potty use. He’s happy to sit on his potty and read books and I’ve tried EC. When he’s going to poop I ask if he wants the potty and I have set him on it (so he knew what I meant) and he’ll happily sit and read books on it but will end up pooping later in the day. Can you give me specific ways to know when he’s ready and how to ask if he wants it? I don’t think he understands the point of a potty yet, although he sees me using the big one and I explain what’s happening. I just don’t know. I don’t want to rush him but I don’t want to somehow miss him being ready and I really don’t want him in a diaper at 5 years old. Any specific advice or experiences would be wonderful. Thank you!

    1. The child needs to be dry for long periods of time during the daytime such as two to three hours.

      The child needs to be able to undress with minimal assistance.

      The child needs to be able to sit on the toilet quietly for moderate periods of time such as five to ten minutes.

      The child needs to show an interest in use of the potty-chair or toilet.

      The child needs to have a desire to please parents by participating in toilet training.

      The child needs to notice or feel uncomfortable with wet or soiled diapers.

      The child needs to have basic language skills necessary for understanding and expressing the need to go.

      Many children show signs of readiness between their second and third years.

  2. I just want to note (as a work at home mom myself) it is not a reasonable expectation to ask Janet to help with your child’s every toilet learning difficulty in detail when you are not giving her anything in return. If she was paid for this work as her job, she would likely make well over $60/hour. (That’s $10 for her to consider your question for 10 minutes, just as an example).
    Please consider this and those who have serious difficulties maybe contact someone who is actually looking for this work?

  3. Janet, my son is 3 and uses the potty to pre but not poop. He has been popping on a diaper at night exclusively since he was about 18 months, well before using the potty to pee. He is up everynight because he’s pooped and so are we. Any suggestions?

  4. I agree with most of this, but I think that this part is setting up unrealistic expectations: “but only because I was flabbergasted when she initiated an interest at 18 months and had completed the process by two years old.”

    If you’re going to go this route, there is a good chance your kid is going to be in diapers (as mine were) until they are three or almost three. Which was totally fine as far as I was concerned. But if I were expecting this to happen at 1.5 to 2 years, I’d have been totally frustrated.

    Also if you find that your kid is three before they get around to figuring out how to use the toilet, “fully accepting their choice to stay in diapers” also seems a little unrealistic. They only make diapers so big! And some kids are just resistant to change. There is going to come a point when they need to give up diapers whether they want to or not.

    Finally I think this article needs to let parents off the hook a little in those cases where toilet learning is not happening naturally and easily, even though the parents are doing everything “right.” Some kids develop bladder control later than others. Some kids sleep deeper than others and won’t be able to wake up to pee at night until well into elementary school. None of that is the parents’ fault.

    1. avatar Elizabeth says:

      My daughter started this week asking for pee… went to the bathroom, pointed to the toilet and touched her diaper. We took it off, asked her to pee and so she did!!! Before going to sleep I ask her if she wants to pee and so she does. I didn’t expect that to happen, she is 17 months old… we have always peed in front of her ant talk about it naturally, but never potty trained her, i was going to do it before she turned 3. I really believe giving them what they neef is the key, don’t force them… they have different needs.

  5. i need help, my 4yr old knows to use the big potty to pee, but when it comes to poopy, he does it in his underwear everyday after after dinner, and i dont know he does it after it happens. and i cant pin point the time because it isnt always the same time. he holds it in while at daycare and only does it at home. on weekends he can go 2 times, in the AM and PM. but he knows to potty for poopy but wont do it. i dont know what to do

    1. My daughter was fine with urinating in the toilet, we never used a potty chair, she had a stool for her feet. But, when it came to poopoo she held it. She was so constipated! After crying for a diaper for the next few months so that she could poo and holding her while she cried as she passed this hard lump into her diaper she discovered – on her own – that the poo was going to be okay in the water. She’d tell me, “They’re going to be with their friends”, as she flushed them down the toilet.

  6. Hello, when my son was 18 months old he was very interested in using the potty. Every time I took his diaper off he would pee on his potty. I started working and later on found out I was pregnant, I was feeling very nauseous and tired from work so I kind stopped incentivizing him to use the potty and my husband never really helped in potty training my son. My son is 2.5 now and I am trying to motivate him to use the potty but he has no in interest in it. I think I missed his sensitive period for using the potty. Do you any advice to help my son regain interest in using the potty?

  7. My daughter is 4 years 7 months. She is extremely sensitive emotionally and still very dependent. She is constantly seeking attention. She will not do most things for herself which she is supposed to be able to do. I am trying to be extremely patient with her, but it gets difficult sometimes. She was ahead of her age-group when she was two years old. Her father and I went through a rough patch when she was just over two. We didn’t disagree in front of her, but I am sure she picked up on the tension, because she completely regressed in her development to the point where she tested to be two years behind in her development and a speech therapist suggested she might have asperger’s syndrome. She has also regressed several times with peeing on the toilet. The first time she was 2 1/2, it was because her brother was born, the second was when I took in another baby to care for during the day for extra income ( I am a stay at home mom). The third time she wanted to visit her grandma on her own for 4 days. That was about 4 months ago. The fifth time was when I tried to teach her to be more independent on the toilet (I had to take her there, pull down her pants, place her on the toilet, wait for her to pee, wipe her, and pull her pants back on) the only things she did herself was flushing and washing her hands. The last time, her dad wrongfully accused her of wetting herself about a month ago. Since then I have successfully taught her to be a little more independent. She can dress herself now and go pee on the toilet on her own, but still won’t pull up her own pants afterwards. The real reason I am writing this, however, is because she cannot or will not go no.2 on the toilet. She refused to use a potty to train right from the start, I since figured out that she was scared of the potty, so I put her on the big toilet with a seat. That helped with the pee, but not the poo. She has been struggling with chronic constipation since she was 3 months old. She went through a stage where she had to be held down for me to clean her, saying that her poo were her babies. She would actually cry and try to stop me when I flushed it down the toilet. We took her to a psychologist in November and he said that she is an extremely anxious child with beginning signs of ADHD and some markers of asperger’s which she seems to be outgrowing. He said that there is medication available for the anxiousness, but he would not recommend it. He also suggested she would be greatly advantaged by a pre-school. I have since enrolled her in the only one in our neighborhood, but now I have to get her ready by teaching her more independence and pooing on the toilet. Do you have any advice or suggestions? Anything at all would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Eden,
      It all sounds quite stressful and whilst your situation is quite different to mine I have experienced the guessing journey to address long term severe constipation (in both our children with very healthy diets and reasonable water intake) and the mix of emotions that go with that, incredibly traumatic bleeding inducing poos, doctors who dont seem to be able to appreciate the regular trauma of an infant with very painful pooing, altered behaviour pre-poop and then of course theres a vicious circle of anxiety induced withholding (a major factor in childhood constipation as if the poo doesnt come out of the rectum and is held in then it dries out, so when they eventually go its hard and sore). In hindsight for a long time my own emotions (compassion for the hurting child, guilt re what could i have done/fed them to create this situation, frustration at times when the child is older and you think its within their capabilities to do it etc etc) made things worse for my sensitive girl as this emotional involvement intensified the situation. I learnt from these mistakes with my second child, who had similar constipation but a very different journey.
      For your girl it sounds like the number one thing that you can do is to avoid adding fuel to her anxiousness, so I’d avoid anything that says “we need to do this or xxxx bad thing will happen” e.g. You cant go to school or you might dirty your clothes. Keep things as positive and if possible as lighthearted and funny as possible. Below are some things I mentioned to another member:

      1. An early break approach with my nervous girl was “personifying” the poo! I had read about it as a suggestion and thought, what harm can it do?! So when she looked like she needed to go i’d ask about Mr Poo Poo. Whilst sat on the toilet if things seemed hard i’d encourage her to talk about it, tell him its time to get out of my tummy now Mr Poo Poo (giving some sense of control over the situation. Tell him to get out! Gross I know, but we were desperate at that stage). I see that you mentioned your girl called them babies! Funnily enough my girl says “the poo poos have turned 5 now so they have to go to school” i.e. They re ready to come out into the toilet.
      2. We’d have a long running toilet sitting game where I’d ask “is he going to go…..(insert ridiculous whizzy noise often with actions) or will he go ‘plop’ into the water? This developed into a popular game of silly noises but was handy for my anxious girl and touching on the issue of it will make a noise in the water and thats normal.
      3. If you go for the reward approach make the first one a relatively big ticket item that she knows you have bought for when she poos in the toilet but mention it only once and if possible keep it in sight but out of reach (if u can safely do so). Take a blaze, i dont care if or when you do, approach but this reward is here for when you decide to do it. No pressure, up to you if you want to. You can go in your nappy instead if you like. I found taking this pressure off flicked her focus over.
      4. If she is into princesses etc you could try a pair of pants that she can wear but she has to keep them clean. if she gets them dirty she has to change into the B pants that she’s not keen on. Again I’d suggest a “no judgement” approach. “Never mind” you can try again next day or next week.
      Not sure if any of those things will help, but its some of the things we looked at. As i said below, finding her food combination that helps reduce constipation very helpful. Natural licquorice (black soft eating with extract in) helps ours plus eating pears instead of apples. Everyone is different though and yours might love figs or something else entirely.
      Good luck. I am sure that she will find even greater independence once she is in an environmeny like pre-school. She’s going in the right direction with everything, they rarely progress in a straight line fashion, they seem to shoot ahead in some areas, slow down, regress and shoot ahead in others!

    2. avatar Anne Fleck says:

      I have no idea how old this comment is, but just in case I thought I’d reply. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re not dealing with a potty training issue but trauma. Having a sibling or feeling that there’s something not quite right in the family can cause a child to feel helpless and powerless leading to psychological trauma. What your describing in her behavior overal sounds a lot like post traumatic stress. I recommend the book “Does my Child Have PTSD?” The symptoms of PTSD, especially in children often go unrecognized by mental health providers who don’t specialize in trauma. It is often misdiagnosed as ADHD and/or an anxiety disorder.

    3. Eden, sorry to hear this but it is not uncommon unfortunately after the MMR vaccine for this to happen, was she vaccinated around this time? If so then you can feel confident it wasn’t yours or your husband’s fault but she has a sensitivity to the vaccines. Please very carefully look into this before giving her any more (my advice don’t at all) and look at her diet (ie gluten free often really helps, also no artificial colourings or flavours) & a gentle detox which might help. Good luck xx

  8. Hi
    I am having severe problems related to my kid being potty trained. I m in need of help as my frustration and stress level is going higher day by day.
    I introduced my boy to potty when he was 18 months for first 6 months he never did pee or poo in potty. I gave a break of 6 month and started again. I kept this trainong on and off until he was 3. Then i shifted him to toilet seat. Luckily now he starts to pee. It has been 6 months now but he keeps having 1 or 2 accidents everyday. For pee he has a control but he has no control over his poo. He doesnot like to make communications about it. He gets aggressive and throws things in washroom. Most of the times he considers washroom a play area. He never tries to poo despite all the treats and bribes. He would pee right away but everyday his poo is out and he shows this face to me like he regrets it.
    I m a bi polar. And i have started to get frustrations of cleaning it and not able to get response from last 6 months. He usually doesnot talk when u ask him any question. He is not even trying to speak a lot though he knows all the words and vocabulary but 8 out 10 times he shouts to get his things done
    Plz advice me what to do.
    Thnx

  9. I read this whole article but coming away I simply see a lot of what the author doesn’t like and doesn’t recommend. Not a whole lot of details about what they suggest. Vague suggestions aren’t helpful when working with toddlers. My three year old is ready and able but I am not. I need help on how to move forward but this is only telling me what not to do. Not helpful

    1. Right, Gwen. This approach is about allowing your child to initiate a process and then facilitating that process. If your child is ready, then I would simply be open and accepting and helpful.

  10. Many preschools (all in my area) won’t allow kids to start unless they are potty trained. I didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity. I just trained my 2.5 year old in a few days (to make him more confident for when he starts at three). I guess I am just not seeing the argument. To each their own, though! Unlike the author of this article, I see validity in both sides of the argument and support either parenting choice. My friend trained her 20 month old twins in 24 hours. Hardly damaging in any way, I think. 😉

  11. I so agree with waiting until the child is ready, but what happens when your child is nearly four and still won’t use it at all (even though she knows how to) My daughter is the only one in her church class that is still in diapers and I am required to provide pull-ups for her (which I do not want to use on her) because there is no diaper changing station in the 3-4 year old class, of course. She knows the entire routine of using the potty but she just keeps telling me she’s not ready. I am hoping it is soon because I am worn out – I never though I would be diapering my child for four years and I am close to giving up.

  12. So what’s your take on elimination communication?

      1. Hi Janet and all the lovely peeps who post on this thread. Firstly, I’d just like to say thanks for your time, effort and care in sharing your experiences and knowledge! I have a bit of a ramble in regards to EC:

        It seems odd to me that a practice that appears to tick so many of the RIE boxes (improved communication, baby-led, observational, unrestricted movement etc) is disregarded because of problems that are not exclusive to that practice – they are problems shared by nappy or nappy-free babies! How can it be said that EC shouldn’t be practiced because babies hold elimination movements, when this is a regular experience of nappied babies (as evidenced by so many of the posts in this thread)! Isn’t that a bit pot-calling-the-kettle-blackish? What also seems odd to me is that the intention of EC is not to teach babies to hold their elimination movements, but for parents and caregivers to be able to understand and respond when a baby gives an elimination signal. If I am observant and listening, I understand the signal and can respond and help my child eliminate his waste outside of his nappy. If I’m not listening, I miss the cue and he still does his business. There’s no holding on. It’s still a child-led process.

        I can completely understand that it might create anxiousness and ‘holding on’ in my child if I were to put him in daycare and he is in an environment where he is not used to eliminating and other people to attend to him that he is not comfortable communicating with. But again, isn’t this something that nappied babies also experience? There are posts here of people telling stories of their child holding on until after daycare. So again, the effect of new environments and situations on a child’s eliminating process can be subject to the same problems – nappy free or not!

        With this being said, isn’t the approach to how you interact with your child more important, rather than the practice that this approach works around? Whether my child is nappy free or not, it still requires good communication, clear boundaries, respect, observation and child-led directions. For me, coupling the benefits of RIE with EC has been a very positive experience. I’ve also read stories here of parents who had a positive experience with baby-led toilet training from nappies at an older age. Could we instead focus on that rather than dissuading any particular type of toileting practice? I just didn’t find the article that you provided on the disadvantages of EC to be particularly well founded and in my experience (and my baby’s experience) the benefits of EC have been wondrous. His level of happiness, independence, physical movement and good bowel movements increased so dramatically when my husband and I started EC that it was astounding. Of course, this may change, but that is the joyous challenge of parenting! Much love,

  13. That doctor in the ‘don’t potty train your baby’ sounds like a quack. Seriously, he’s never seen a kid in diapers with a UTI? Those kids are at *higher* risk of UTIs, not lower, because their urinary tracts often come in contact with poop in their diaper. If he gets that wrong, I seriously doubt he has any real qualifications.

    1. I do agree with him. Yes, there is contact with poo in nappies – that’s why they should be changed regularly but holding it can have more damaging and long lasting effect. In many hunter gatherers societies they don’t use nappies at all but they hold their babies almost all the time and because they are very attuned to them they let them eliminate as soon as they need to. That’s different then making your baby to hold it.

  14. avatar sarah lee says:

    my child is 4 and has been in Special School District preschool since the age of 3. He will be 5 in January and start kindergarten the next year. He is still in diapers the sight and smell of of his feces and urine makes him vomit. I’m definitely thinking there’s some cognitive issues and have begun seeking therapy for them but so far have not gotten any responses. Anyone else have a problem with this?

  15. This is very encouraging. We are doing pretty much all of these things and our daughter does enjoy going to the potty and she knows what to do; however, she doesn’t seem to be interested in fully making the transition to panties. We have had her wear panties but she always ends up with accidents and I feel like that isn’t ideal so we have put her back in pull-ups. She can pull-up and do it herself but she also still will go several hours without actually going to the bathroom. She seems to be at that point still where she’d rather play and sit in a wet diaper than actually go the potty consistently. Do you have any recommendations to get her more consistent with going to the bathroom? She is 3 and half years old. She has had a history of delayed gross motor skills and hypotonia due to CHARGE syndrome. Which is why we haven’t pushed it too much with her and just have continually guided her in the process until she got strong enough to do it herself.
    This article encouraged me because I keep asking myself if I’m not dedicated enough to getting her “potty trained” and if I needed to push more than I do.

    1. PullUps feel like diapers to kids. Let her wet her underwear. At some point, she will dislike wet underwear and start using the toilet. She may need a small toilet you put on the floor or a seat that is solidly attached to the adult seat (homedepot $55).

  16. This is the worst advice I’ve ever read on potty training. It WOULD be easy if your child initiated by 18 months old. My second is potty trained except for pooping. He is 4 years old next month and refuses to poop in the toilet. He is afraid of falling in. The advice is to not even tell him about using the toilet? I should just let him “hold it in” until after school every day? That is not healthy. I have not said much to him about pooping on the toilet, but will start. He has stomach aches and needs to know that he can do it and he will be ok. Our kids need emotional support and belief in them that they can do it. There would be many things they would never attempt if we did not lovingly push them to at least try.

    1. But the problem with pushing (in this particularly delicate aspect of development) is that it causes children to push back.

  17. Okay I have a question. We have almost 3 year old triplets. Both girls use the potty independently but our son is still in diapers most of the time. The issue is that he says he wants to wear undies and is going be responsible with his pee. And sometimes he is and can go all morning diaper free. Other times he will just pee or even poop in his undies and not say anything unless/until I notice. I want to trust him and support his desire to be like his sisters, but he’s so inconsistent!

  18. I don’t understand : “Be careful not to transmit negative messages about body parts or feces and urine (“stinky, dirty”, etc.).” we joke that it stinks and they need to know it is dirty and don’t think it’s ok to smear it on the walls or put their unwashed potty hands in their mouths.

  19. My daughter has been diagnosed first with aspergers now it’s considered autism, even though she’s high functioning she still refuses to use the toilet or wear underwear. I’ve only known the potty “training” methods and have never heard of the learning ways till now and was wondering if autistic children are capable of learning this way as well.

  20. Hi,
    Do you have advice for us in supporting our almost 4 year-old who is still in diapers (day and night)? I’m pretty sure she can tell when she has to go to the bathroom but she is very upset by the idea of not wearing a diaper. I was taking the ‘wait until she’s ready’ approach but it is starting to feel as though that may never be the case…
    Thank you!

  21. This is the most backwards article I have read regarding potty training. While I respect personal opinions, this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve read and goes against everything else recommended.

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