How to toilet-train your toddler: experts share their top tips

We speak to the experts about when to start, avoiding potential hurdles and how the pandemic has affected the process

Some children benefit from a cushioned potty chair as well as doing an activity while on the toilet, like reading a storybook. Denis Closon / Shutterstock
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The only way my toddler will drink her doctor-prescribed laxative is disguised in my Earl Grey, presented to her in a red plastic teacup from her toy tea set. Yes, I’ve become that mother, drugging her child while giving her the one thing she’s always wanted, but that I had never given in to – my coveted tea.

I started toilet-training my daughter, 2, a few weeks ago and while she has got the hang of urinating in the toilet while sitting on a plastic seat insert, which I’ve decorated with colourful stickers, she isn’t pooping in the toilet – a common occurrence with toilet training, experts say.

Poo should not be taboo

“The most common hurdles are resistance from the child, which is likely if training starts before the child is ready; and constipation, as some children start withholding stool, causing chronic constipation,” explains Dr Bariah Dardari, a child health expert from the paediatric department of Fakeeh University Hospital.

At 18 months, children’s neural pathways begin to connect and they’re connecting bladder to brain
Lisa Sherrington-Boyd, early years consultant

To combat this hesitancy to poo in the toilet, Lisa Sherrington-Boyd, an early years consultant, former principal of Kangaroo Kids Nursery in Dubai and who now goes by the moniker “The Potty Queen,” has a variety of poo-themed props and even costumes, which she uses to help alleviate withholding in children.

“I’m trying to desensitise and change the attitude around poo in families,” she says. “My biggest advice to parents is to be cool and relaxed with ‘Mr Poo’.” Associating words such as “yucky,” “dirty” and “smelly” with the act can, she says, have a negative effect on the child.

Through Zoom workshops and private consultations and occasional house calls, Sherrington-Boyd coaches parents on how to effectively train their children. She started her consultancy in Dubai last summer when her nursery closed because of the pandemic, and she found that many parents were seeking toilet-training support.

The normal age for toilet training

With more than 30 years of experience in the field, Sherrington-Boyd claims that most children are ready for toilet training far earlier than their parents, yet external factors such as diaper dependency and busy lifestyles have led to parents delaying the process.

“At 18 months, children’s neural pathways begin to connect and they’re connecting bladder to brain; they’re beginning to understand they feel something and can respond and react,” she explains. “You get a lot of power struggles later – the longer the child is in a nappy, the harder it is for them to give it up.”

Relapses can occur due to multiple reasons, from a new sibling to illness to change of routine
Dr Bariah Dardari, child health expert

Technological advances in diapers may also hinder the toilet-training process. “The technology of nappies has advanced so much. Now, the nappies draw the moisture away so well that children don’t experience any kind of wetness, so, we’re toilet-training later and later,” she says.

While books and YouTube tutorials may claim to train children in three days, Sherrington-Boyd says parents shouldn’t rush the process. “It takes seven to 10 days for those skills to be happily adopted by the child, and about three weeks for the skills to be deeply consolidated and practised,” she explains. “For reliably dry children, you’re looking at about a three-week period.”

Yet, each child is different, and the most important thing is to listen to their cues and tailor the procedure in ways that work for them. Even after training, occasional accidents are normal, and night-time toilet training is a separate ballgame.

Dardari adds that some children experience relapses. “This could be due to multiple reasons, from a new sibling to illness to change of routine,” she says.

The pandemic’s impact on toilet training

The pandemic also threw a curveball in terms of toilet training – nursery closures, travel setbacks and working from home have all affected timelines. “I was working with 34 families in August last year who were in a terrible panic because the nurseries didn’t open and they were trying to get their toddler into schools that only allowed toilet-trained children,” says Sherrington-Boyd.

Nursery teachers often offer support with toilet training, alerting parents when children are showing signs of readiness, but Sherrington-Boyd points out that many children who had initially started nursery have had a year off, and so still haven’t been trained. “I’m working with a lot of kids who are three and a half, because parents have left it until now.”

Punishment causes the child to feel incapable, ashamed and give up
Sneha John, clinical child and adolescent psychologist

Travel plans have also had an impact on the timeline for some parents. “Particularly at the moment, there’s heightened anxiety around hygiene,” says Sherrington-Boyd, who recently witnessed a child who was showing complete readiness to moving on from nappies, but the mother was resisting out of fear of using public toilets while travelling during the pandemic.

One positive effect of the pandemic, says Sherrington-Boyd, is fathers who are working from home, not only attending the workshops she hosts, but also taking the lead with toilet training. “The involvement of both parents is crucial in order to provide support to the child and each other, and to have a unified way to deal with setbacks and resistance,” says Dardari.

Positive reinforcement

Upon Dardari’s recommendation, my husband and I have kept a basket of treats near the bathroom, filled with marshmallows and chocolates to entice my little one to use the toilet. “Using positive reinforcement and a reward system can help overcome resistance on the part of the child,” she says.

While this might be an age-old trick to toilet training, Sherrington-Boyd is wary of reward systems. “One day, you won’t have any Smarties or marshmallows, then what are you going to do? And in nursery, they aren’t going to give any [treats]. You’ve got to create an intrinsic motivation, which is much more long-lasting,” she says.

Sneha John, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Camali Clinic partnered with Medcare Hospitals & Medical Centres, also favours positive reinforcement through verbal praise, rather than tangible awards, which she says might instil a fear of failure in children and could lead to accidents and setbacks.

“Punishment, on the other hand, causes the child to feel incapable, ashamed and give up,” she explains, emphasising that parents need to keep up a positive attitude and mood, even with several and inexplicable accidents.

“Parents’ reactions towards the child contributes towards their progress. Those who treat mistakes lightly by not getting upset will set up their children for success with toilet training,” she says.

John says that in addition to keeping a positive and loving attitude throughout toilet training, setting up an optimal ambience in the loo can help, too.

“The bathroom can be an intimidating place with a lot of noises, sensations and smells. Having items needed for toileting within easy reach along with a sturdy stool can help.

"Some children benefit from a cushioned potty chair as well as doing an activity while on the toilet, like reading a storybook (better that than a screen). Placing bright towels and sweet-smelling scents will ensure the environment is comfortable, and talking to the child about the toilet can also ease some of the fear,” she says.

Toilet training, says John, is a milestone event and “a stepping stone for emotional growth and a sense of autonomy”. While we’ve certainly made progress, it looks like I’m in this for the long haul, and will be taking advice from all three experts by befriending “Mr Poo”, dishing out positive praise and hopefully avoiding power struggles. The marshmallows are staying, though – I must pick and choose my battles with my child, who is 2 going on 12.

Updated: August 02, 2021, 5:17 AM