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)

283 Comments

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

  1. This all makes sense, but what if their interest in potty has stopped, and they are 3 and still in diapers? My daughter is 99% percentile tall and diapers are getting too small. Also, what about my needs ir our family needs? I’d prefer to spend that $80/month, which currently goes toward diapers, on educational materials, saving for college ams retirement, and family experiences. I’m supportive of my child, but she also need to learn to be resilient. It’s going to be more damaging for her to be in diapers all her life than learning now.

    1. This. My son is three and all the freakin training advice by professionals all state their children were trained before two. This is laughable.

  2. I always love hearing this, but it always seems the people that approach kids don’t need toilet training have children that toilet trained super young. My son is almost 5 and still in diapers, he’s outgrowing them and I’m about to have my third baby and the thought of changing three kids diapers daily is daunting, especially when one is 5. He has no interest and absolutely REFUSES to use the toilet. I’m doing my best to trust, but man when he’s almost 5 it’s super difficult

    1. Hi my daughter is also almost 5 and is still in diapers, refuses to use the potty, she has used it before for a few days but had alot of accidents and got very anxious using it, her school really wanted her to use it so i think it really delayed her using the toilet, and now I don’t even try , i ask her every day if she wants to use the potty and she says no, i feel guilty and like a failure and that she will never want to do it!

    2. My son is almost five and still uses pull ups too, at least when he’s w us (not when he’s at school – for whatever reason he’s ok w that over there). It’s hard not to think I’m doing something wrong but I’m working on trusting that he’ll transition when he’s ready. I’m glad to know I’m not alone!

  3. Well I guess I did something right. I didn’t toilet train my babies. I bought them underwear with their favorite characters and told them they could wear them when they were ready to use the toilet. I bought the potty seat when my daughter was 18 months. She was very interested and really wanted to use it. But it didn’t pan out. Then we went for a play date. All the other kids were using the toilet. So my daughter decided she was done with diapers and that was it. My son waited until he was 3 years and 1 week. No accidents. They had done it on their own. Now I’m advocating for their kids who are both 2 years getting closer to 3.

  4. Hi
    My about to be 2yrold baby realizes she needs to potty,but whenever I put on her potty seat ,she losses the urge ,and again after half an hour she does it in the corner of the bed edge,or smwhrre she finds no one is looking at her.whenever I ask to go to the potty use toilet she clearly says no.
    But she is always ready to take bath in the bathroom.i don’t understand how can I make her understand to use toilet for peeing and potty.

    There is one more issue with me and my baby, whenever she gets angry she throws the objects offered to her to pacify her and also objects nearby her.i just don’t want to scold her and hit her like others do,and I have to go through lots of comments about my parenting skills ,that I am spoiling her by not hitting and scolding her.
    Help me out please

  5. My daughter drove her own toilet training around 2. She was desperate to use the toilet and wear undies. We let her use the toilet, she still had sleep nappies and was offered pull ups too for sleep. I couldn’t believe how driven she was and how well she really did. Now though, age 3 (coinciding around the time I returned to work post maternity leave) she has 4-5 accidents a day, wets on furniture, me. Our GP suggested gentle encouragement and toilet promoting but she will refuse if offered and then wet minutes later. I really dont know what to do now.

  6. Smugly written by the women whose child “showed interest at 18 months, trained fully at 2yrs”. Well, what do you advise for a 3.5 year old who REFUSES to sit on the potty or have anything to do with it? Is the ONLY child in her nursery class still in nappies but still refuses to sit in the potty, cries and has a melt down at the mere mention of it?! Not so easy peasy when your in the thick of that.

    1. Hi Lauren – I understand your frustration and it is exactly what I aim to help parents avoid. “Refuses” is the common response children have (particularly in the toddler years) to feeling pushed. It’s integral to their development that they assert themselves, and when parents take on the job of potty training, children (not all, but many) are inclined to resist. Once we have done this, it’s harder to turn it back, because children read their parents feelings and agendas. But if children are trusted to lead this process when ready, as I advise, they revel in the experience of mastery and autonomy. This is a gift we can give our children if we back off.

      My advice to you at this point is to stop talking about the potty, except to say to your daughter one time that you realize you have made this your agenda and you are sorry (genuinely) that you’ve upset her. You are happy to give her the comfort of nappies for as long as she needs them and if, at some future time, she would like your help to use the potty, you’ll be there. Then I would not bring it up again. And I would truly let go and trust her. In your heart.

      In other words, I would stop trying to make potty training happen and give your daughter the emotional space and trust she needs to guide this development.

      1. I appreciate the initial comment and your response. What do you do when the agenda is not only your own, but a requirement of your school/childcare provider? We are trying to gently encourage potty self-sufficiency now because our 3 year old is required to be fully “potty trained” before starting at his new public Montessori school. Thankfully we’re virtual until at least December and possibly the end of the school year, but we don’t have the privilege to wait an unknown period of time for him to be fully self-sufficient with pottying since we have a hard external limit.

  7. I couldn’t agree with this more. We tried hard with our first and it was awful. I wish we didn’t. It led to so many years and so much frustration. He was finally ready at 3.5 and never had an accident after. We didn’t push the night potty training and he on his own transitioned to underwear around 4. Definitely not pushing our second. He’ll do it when he’s ready.

  8. avatar Desert Sun says:

    I needed to read this but damn it’s so hard. My girl is 3.5 years old, speaks in full complex sentences, can count to 20, knows most of her letter sounds but is also attached to her pull-ups. For the past 6 months I’ve tried really hard to stop mentions of the potty. I had a conversation with her yesterday and told her she can use the toilet when she’s ready. She has explained she doesn’t know when to go, she can’t do it and she’s scared. She has pooped and peed on the potty in the past, after I was lucky with timing and encouraged her by telling stories and playing with toys while sitting on the potty. Another time I got her motivated with a book and she sat on the potty for an hour, didn’t go, then as soon as she walked away, trailed pee on the floor behind her. I don’t think she was trying to hold it or even understood she was letting go as she walked. So I think there is something there about not knowing how to do it. She also doesn’t seem to know when she’s feeling hungry (she just gets hangry) so I’m wondering if there’s just a delay in understanding personal needs. So then I’m conflicted about supporting her, or helping her figure out what she needs to do when it’s time to go, or just leaving her alone to figure out on her own, but then I worry she’s already made it a habit to go in her pull-ups and then there’s no telling how long this is going to go on. The uncertainty is the worst part. If someone could just say, by 4.5 years she’ll figure it out, I could probably wait patiently until that day comes. I’m sad she can’t go to the Montessori school I wish she could go tonight now. And sometimes she resists diaper changes because she’s conflicted about the whole potty thing. But even when she gets a rash on her bottom and complains it hurts it’s not enough to motivate her to use the potty. I don’t think there’s a short term solution but I needed to vent.

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