What toddlers think about potty training

We plan, we buy, we encourage, we cheer - and sometimes our toddlers deliver in their potty or toilet. But what do they really think of it all?



The big decision

You think: “Great, let’s start!”


Your toddler thinks: “I’m a bit overwhelmed by this challenge.”

“You’re asking your child to take responsibility for something that she’s had no responsibility for before,” explains our child psychologist Richard Woolfson. “It’s probably the first major task that we ask of children, and while some are really ready for this step and have actually started understanding – for example your tot’s unhappy when her nappy’s wet or soiled, or she might have a dry nappy after her afternoon nap – others don’t get it. But even when your tot does grasp the concept, it’s still a huge thing to understand.”

You must be the voice of reason and stay calm.  “The one time you get angry is when your child misbehaves. So if you’re annoyed, your tot will think she’s doing something wrong, and that’ll only put her off,” says Richard. “Your child doesn’t know that you have these specific steps you’re trying to go through and she doesn’t understand what’s wrong or right in this new scenario you’ve introduced.”

Try this: See it as a ‘we’ thing and verbalise that. It’s not just your tot learning to potty train, you’re helping too.

Picking the right time

You think: “We’ll just crack on now.”

Your toddler thinks: “Why are we playing this boring game?”

“Pick a time when your child is most likely to use the potty,” says Richard. “Like after a meal or drink. That way, she’s more likely to need to go, and you’ll have her hanging around on the potty for less time. She won’t be thinking ‘what are we sitting here for?’ and you won’t get frustrated. Also, never hold your child on the potty, you can’t compel her to do this, your child has to take ownership of what you’re asking her to do.” Understand that your child might feel frightened. If she sees you’re nervous, she’ll be nervous as well. Richard explains: “Try and stay relaxed and be philosophical. You will get there, so keep the experience fun and light-hearted. Your little one has to be getting something out of this experience to see it as a positive one.” Otherwise why would she bother to keep trying? And if it doesn’t work at the first attempt, just try again at another time when you feel your child’s more ready for the challenge.

Try this: Keep your diary as empty as possible in the first days and weeks of potty training. This task needs your full attention and flexibility.

Ditching the nappy

You think: “Not wearing a nappy must feel fabulous.”

Your toddler thinks: “Why are you taking away something familiar?”

“Children are used to wetting and soiling themselves,” explains Richard. “It’s almost a warm comforting feeling when your tot’s nappy is full. However, it’s one thing to be running about at bedtime without a nappy, and having that feeling of freedom, but it’s quite different not wearing one permanently.”

He adds, “Changing from nappy to pants means your little one’s out of her comfort zone from the start of the day. The positive side of that is once she’s used to not wearing one, she’ll have more freedom, physically and psychologically. She has freedom to move, because she isn’t lugging around a big bundle 
of material. Leg movement’s easier, and it’s a more natural way to be. It allows your tot to get on with life.”

Try this: “The concept of big-girl pants is one to focus on. Children always want to be older, so using praise about doing big-girl things works well,” Richard advises. “Say things like ‘you’re a big girl because big girls have a wee on their potty’. Use your tot’s desire to be more mature to help the learning process.”

Using the potty

You think: “This makes sense, it’s like the loo.”

Your toddler thinks: “Why am I going to the loo on a strange chair?”

Whether it’s a highchair, a car seat, or even swings in the playground, your little one’s used to sitting on seats that are just the right size for her bottom. But she’s always got her clothes on. Now you’re asking her not only to understand that she must go to the loo at a certain time, but that she must do it sitting on what she sees as a strange, potentially scary, big bowl.

“It’s quite strange for her, and the initial challenge is to encourage your tot to sit still for long enough to use the potty,” says Richard. “The first thing she will probably do is put the potty on her head and play around with it. You’ll need to help her move beyond this fun stage and get interested in its real use.”

Try this:  Books, games and songs all help pass the time, and reinforce that this is a team effort because you’re still joining in and staying with her while she tries to go to the loo.

When it goes right

You think: “Wow! She’s done it!”

Your toddler thinks: “What exactly is that thing that I’ve produced?!”

Success! She’s sat down, she’s done a poo, all is well – or is it? From your point of view, completely. But for your tot, a strange feeling in her tummy and bottom has resulted in a dodgy brown mess underneath her – not what she was expecting.

“Children can be quite distressed at what they see,” explains Richard. “It can be quite upsetting to actually see the poo in the potty.” So should you explain exactly how it got there – from the food to the poo? No, says Richard, keep it simple and give it time.

“What will motivate your child more is approval, love and encouragement,” he adds. “Your tot will then think, ‘I’ve done what I was supposed to do’. In the initial stages, your child won’t be able to wipe her own bottom, so that’s when you step in and make it a real celebration. To you it’s cleaning up, but to your child you’re saying what she’s done is positive – you’re holding her, cleaning her, praising her. It’s all positive reinforcement.”

Try this: Praise, praise and more praise will get the right results. Say ‘We did it!’ and give her hugs and reward stickers so she knows she’s done it right.

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