TrustCare | Kids' Health: When to Begin Potty Training

Kids' Health: When to Begin Potty Training

in TrustCare Kids

Kids grow up so fast! One day you’re taking the little one home from the hospital, and the next thing you know they’re heading off to college. Along the way there are countless milestones that mark their progress toward maturity, and one of the most significant (and potentially awkward) is the process of potty training. Different cultures and even individual families have different approaches to this process, but from a medical perspective: when is the right age to begin potty training?

The Basics of Toilet Training

Since we tend not to have clear memories of being a new baby, it’s easy to forget the complexity involved in mastering the process of using a toilet. Children aren’t born with the ability to consciously control the muscles involved in pooping or peeing, so they must learn how to recognize and control those muscles. Moreover, they must develop the dexterity to undress themselves, the understanding of hygiene practices, and the various social cues and norms associated with finding a toilet and using it at an appropriate time. All of these factors can be very challenging for a young child to navigate, so it requires patience and guidance from parents.

Throughout history, cultures around the world have used different approaches with different timelines to help young kids transition to using a toilet, so it would be inaccurate to say with certainty that one approach is necessarily better than another. In fact, even medical professionals still can have disagreements about the best way to proceed. The truth is that all children are unique and therefore the ideal training method will be at least partially dependent on the specific needs and temperament of the child.

How Do You Know if a Child is Ready for Potty Training?

Because there isn’t a rulebook for parenting, many parents turn to a variety of sources for ideas on how and when to toilet train. They may read books, talk to friends who are also parents, or they may ask their own parents for advice. But regardless of what anyone else says, the best time for starting potty training is when the child is both physiologically and emotionally ready to start learning. Below are some common signs and indicators that your child is ready for this next important milestone:

  • The Child Shows Interest: One of the ways to make it harder on a child is to force the potty training process before they’re ready. So one of the clearest indicators of their readiness is if they actually show interest in learning. This may arise out of a desire to avoid the wet feeling of a dirty diaper, or they might simply be curious about what adults do when they’re in the bathroom. Interest in potty training may also come from a desire to switch from diapers to pull-ups or other big kid underwear.
  • Increased Control: Even before a child shows interest in learning to be potty trained, they may already be demonstrating increased control over bowel and bladder function. This kind of increased control can be seen through increasingly longer periods of diaper dryness; the longer the periods of dryness, the more likely it is a sign of improved bladder capacity and control. There have been some studies that show a link between overall potty training readiness and the ability to remain dry during nap time.
  • They’ve Learned When They Need to Go: A key factor in a child learning to use a toilet is the recognition of when they need to “go.” Infants, for example, are both unable to control the relevant muscles and essentially unaware that waste elimination is even necessary. So it is a good sign of readiness when a child starts being able to recognize when they have to go and may even start to anticipate it. A classic sign of this stage is the child’s desire to go to a private place away from others to pee or poop.
  • Independence: A major developmental milestone (even beyond going to the bathroom on their own) is a nascent desire to establish their independence. The child may even attempt to assert this independence in feeding or dressing themselves even before any interest in potty training is observed, but the “I can do it on my own” mentality is a good sign that they’re also ready to be potty trained. This surge of independence may be prompted by observing an older sibling or through a general interest in trying new things.
  • Undressing: As noted earlier, the physical act of pulling their training pants up and down requires a certain amount of manual dexterity that takes a while for a young child to develop. A successful attempt at potty training, then, will similarly require a demonstrated ability to deftly remove clothing. Additionally, further engagement with what they’re wearing (and whether or not they participate in choosing it) may coincide with a desire to keep the clothing dry and unsoiled.
  • Following Directions: In the mind of a young child, the many different steps and skills involved in using the toilet can be overwhelming at first. The procedures are naturally very familiar to a grown-up, but to kids it is a foreign experience with a lot of rules and norms. So one of the other important signs of readiness is an overall aptitude for being able to follow simple instructions and take the steps one at a time without being distressed about it.
  • Demonstrating Patience: Everyone has slightly different patterns of bowel movements, and this is true from an early age. Going to the bathroom一especially to defecate一therefore may require patience to sit there and wait for completion. If a child is too young to be able to sit still for a few minutes without getting distracted or ornery, they may still be a little too young for potty training.
  • Communication Skills: Even when a child finally starts potty training, they likely won’t be able to go through the whole process without assistance at first. And in order to take those steps toward independence, they need to be able to communicate what they need through words or gestures. They need to be able to understand the need to go and then communicate that they need help to get in position.
  • Good Mobility: In a similar way that young kids need appropriate manual dexterity to use the toilet, they also need sufficient mobility. Very young children of course also need to learn to walk and run, so until they have developed that kind of mobility, potty training will be especially challenging.

    What is the Ideal Age to Potty Train?

    As alluded to earlier, there isn’t a hard and fast “rule” for when children are at the potty training age. Generally speaking, though, most children begin potty training between 18 months and 2 years old, and virtually all children are totally potty trained by age 4. Yet even after age 4, a fully potty trained child may have an occasional bed-wetting “accident” that isn’t really a cause for concern. There is also some evidence to suggest that starting too early (younger than 18 months) may actually cause the process to take even longer.

    The best potty training tips and advice from doctors and child caregivers is that potty training isn’t really a question of a specific age but instead a demonstrated stage of readiness. Some children will learn quickly, and some children will take a little bit longer; either way, there isn’t a universal “best” or healthiest timeline for how long the process should take. It should ideally be an organic process that is tailored to the individual child and marked by patience and positivity. Indeed, it can be counterproductive and even harmful to the child to force the issue or to make the child feel shame about not learning fast enough or having an accident.

    TrustCare Kids

    Kids are precious and wonderful bundles of joy, and the completion of potty training can ultimately be a treasured moment of success for your child. At TrustCare Kids, we are passionate about providing excellent pediatric care so parents can enjoy these important milestones while knowing they have happy and healthy children. If your child is in need of healthcare, or you would like to speak with a pediatrician, please contact us to schedule an appointment; if you need rapid relief of minor conditions, our urgent care services are also available on a walk-in basis.

    This post has been medically reviewed by Dr. Catherine Phillippi, pediatrician at TrustCare Kids. She earned her medical degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1999 and completed her pediatric training at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

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