Potty Training Readiness: 10 Signs It’s Time to Ditch the Diapers

Don’t you (secretly) wish child-rearing came with a manual? Like how to know when it’s time to start potty training?! And how to actually go about teaching a tiny, impulsive human to direct their inner recycled goods into a tiny throne several times a day?

Potty Training Readiness: 10 signs it's time to ditch the diapers! #functionalskillsforkids #pottytraining #childdevelopment

While I can’t tell you exactly how to potty train your little one (there are soooo many approaches), I certainly can try to help you understand the telltale signs of when your kiddo is ready for potty training.

THE DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF POTTY TRAINING READINESS

Did you know that, developmentally speaking, the transition from diapers to big kid undies actually follows a fairly predictable progression?

Many kids become mostly potty trained between 2-3 years of age, with boys typically achieving the feat later than girls. However, it’s not about starting at a specific age, it’s about starting when your child is physically AND emotionally ready. So tune into your child and see where he or she is at with this progression. You may end up starting earlier or later than you thought. This post contains affiliate links for your convenience (read my full disclosure here).

10 Signs Your Child May Be Ready for Potty Training

*The following signs (#1-#8) tend to develop between 1-2 years of age.

1. She experiences discomfort when wet or soiled.

She may walk with a wide-legged waddle or tug at her diaper when it’s soiled. Kids with low sensory awareness may lag on this one because they are less likely to feel the extra junk in their diaper.

2. He indicates or communicates when he has a dirty diaper.

Kids will often do this by patting or pointing to their diaper in the presence of their caregiver. Yours may even use words or signs to communicate if they are old enough and know the appropriate words to use.

3. She has regular bowel movements on a fairly consistent basis.

Many kids are able to be trained to poop in the toilet before they are actually “potty” trained, so this is an important one. In my experience as an OT, kiddos who have restricted diets due to picky eating and/or who experience constipation due to diet or medications often struggle with this one, and this typically affects their ability to learn to use the toilet.

4. He can sit on a potty for a short time when placed on it.

Make sure the potty is situated so his feet are supported rather than dangling from the porcelain throne. This is especially important for children who have low postural muscle tone (such as those with Down Syndrome, Autism, or a generally weak core) or postural instability. Foot support is also important for little ones who are afraid of being off the ground. Some examples include the Fisher-Price Cheer for Me PottyFisher-Price 2-in-1 Portable Potty, and the Sesame Street Elmo Adventure Potty Chair

5. She demonstrates a pattern of being able to stay dry for about two hours or more at a time.

An example would include starting to demonstrate a pattern of waking up dry from a nap. This means her bladder muscles are mature enough to hold potty for that long.

6. He tries to pull down his pants and remove his diaper.

Kids don’t need to be able to fully undress their lower body with total independence in order to successfully potty train. But, man, is it helpful when they can!

7. He demonstrates interest in watching and imitating others’ bathroom-related actions.

It’s so annoying when your little one follows you into the bathroom and won’t give you ANY space while you’re trying to pee JUST FOR A SECOND…I know! And then when all he or she wants to do is point at you and ask all about what you’re doing…Just leave me alone! am I right? I’m with you, I’ve been there on more than one occasion. But you know what? This interest in watching you do your business translates into MOTIVATION, which is a huuuuuuuge part (if not the BIGGEST part) of potty training. So hang in there momma. Be patient daddy. Curious little eyes won’t be fixed on your toilet visits forever! The payoff is coming.

8. She can follow basic directions.

Basic directions such as, “Turn around,” “Sit down,” Stand up,” and, “All done” tend to be part of the potty training vernacular. So when kids are able to understand and follow those prompts, it allows them to participate more and be a powerful partner in the potty training process, rather than having the adult physically prompt and complete every single part for them.

*The following signs (#9 and #10) tend to develop between 2-3 years of age.

9. He communicates the need to go before it happens.

This can be done through words, posture, or facial expression. Many kids I’ve worked with will often hide in a corner or turn away from others when they feel the need to poop (just before they start grunting and working hard, if you know what I mean!). It’s really cute and pretty amusing. However, some children with sensory or developmental issues lack the internal physical awareness that sends the signal from the bladder to the brain that the bladder is full and needs to be emptied. This lack of internal communication makes these kiddos very accident prone in the potty domain; they may need a more regimented potty schedule as opposed to relying on them knowing and communicating when they need to go.

10. She wets her diaper at consistent intervals.

If your little one is demonstrating a fairly predictable pattern of wetness, it can make toilet training just that much easier.

SO IS YOUR CHILD READY FOR POTTY TRAINING?

If you nodded your head in agreement to most of the above-stated milestones, then your child may be ready for potty training! Try your best to choose a potty training time frame that is relatively stable and calm (do those even exist in the parenting world???). What I mean is, avoid beginning the potty training process just before or during a big transition such as a move, right before or after the addition or return of a family member, etc. This will help you and your kiddo maintain as much consistency and follow-through as possible.

Additional Milestones That Contribute to Potty Training Success

*The following skills tend to develop between 3-5 years of age, after the initial potty training endeavor has occurred. And when they do, they make taking your kiddo to the potty wayyyy easier!

1. Seats self on toilet and uses it independently.

2. Attempts but may need help with wiping, fasteners, and difficult clothing.

3. Independent toileting, which includes being able to tear the toilet paper, flush, wash hands, and manage potty-related clothing on their own.

WHAT TO DO WHEN POTTY TRAINING ISN’T WORKING

If you and/or your child are really struggling with potty training, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my child demonstrating signs of physical readiness for potty training?
  2. Is my child demonstrating signs of cognitive readiness for potty training?
  3. Is my child demonstrating signs of emotional and/or behavioral readiness for potty training?
  4. Have there been any transitions or changes in my child’s environment or life recently, whether big or small?
  5. Are there any medical issues we need to work out that may be impacting potty training success? Your child’s pediatrician may have some recommendations for you, especially if the issue is related to constipation and the need for a supplement to “get things moving”, so to speak.

Still unsure about whether your child is ready for potty training? You can take this quick online potty training readiness quiz to gather more info about whether or not now is a good time to get started.

After toilet training my own two kids, I’ve learned from personal experience that the process can occur very differently for each child, depending on their personality and circumstances. 

With my oldest kiddo, potty training turned out to be a long and winding road. He has a slow-to-warm, resistant-to-change sort of personality and, looking back, his potty training story fits his personality perfectly. It seemed like he was ready shortly after his second birthday. We did all the things you’re supposed to do to help a kid be excited about potty training and gave it a go during Thanksgiving break (around 27 months), taking a 3-day sort of approach. Within the first few days we realized he wasn’t yet cognitively ready.  He was smart (SO SO smart!), but didn’t quite seem to understand that there was a connection between him peeing and his underwear becoming wet, so he quickly became terrified of the underwear, thinking it was all the underwear’s fault. Then closer to his third birthday (around 34 months) we tried again, a second time. He could check off all the boxes on the readiness list. Though he wanted to learn to use the toilet, it became apparent he just wasn’t quite emotionally ready. I’ll be honest that I don’t remember all the details, but he just wasn’t there yet, even though it seemed like he was. A few months later, after his third birthday (around 37 months), it was obvious that he was finally truly ready. By the end of the second day of potty training (the “potty party” as we called it) he was done with awake-time diapers and that was the end of that!

With my second kiddo, potty training also turned out to be a reflection of his personality — fast and furious. I joke that he was begging to be potty trained at around 21 months of age, but I was in the middle of a busy season of work (springtime is a BUSY time for school-based therapists), I knew I needed to be able to carve out time to be intentional with potty training, and I just couldn’t bring myself to admit that my ONE YEAR OLD was ready to be toilet trained! Right after his second birthday, we followed the same 3-day type approach we took with older brother and by the second day he was good to go!

I share my personal experiences just to provide a little insight into the fact that every child is unique, and it is SO IMPORTANT that you tune into your child’s readiness signs, personality, and circumstances in order to determine whether or not it’s truly time to ditch the diapers.

Don’t stress out if your toddler isn’t potty trained yet and little Suzy or Johnny down the street is!

In fact, a research study published in the journal of Pediatrics found that, just because you start toilet training earlier doesn’t necessarily mean it will be faster or easier. The authors noted that, “there is little benefit to beginning intensive training before 27 months of age, although we could not find any toilet training problems, other than a longer duration of training, that were associated with earlier initiation of intensive training” (Blum, Taubman, & Nemeth, 2003). Tuning into your child’s readiness signs is key!

POTTY TRAINING HELP

Looking for more potty training info and resources? Check out these resources for parents (and books for kids) to get that potty train moving!

6 Tips for Successful Potty Training from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)

Tips for establishing toileting routines for children and a printable tip sheet from AOTA

How Occupational Therapists can help toilet train children with Autism from AOTA (login required)

Toilet Training and the Child with Special Needs from AOTA Special Interest Section Quarterly (login required)

There are lots of potty training books for parents out there

Read one mom’s experience of using a 3-day potty training method with her daughter

Diapers are not foreverPotty book

The Potty Book for BoysThe Potty Book for Girls

Keep in mind, too, that children with developmental, sensory, or communication difficulties may struggle with potty training more than their typically developing peers.

Occupational Therapists and Speech Therapists can be hugely helpful during this challenging time and can assist with the development of the motor, communication, and cognitive skills necessary for your child to succeed. And if your kiddo is working with Behavioral Therapists they, too, can also be a highly effective part of the potty training team. While I wouldn’t recommend seeking out Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, or Behavioral Therapy for the sole purpose of potty training (we do not necessarily specialize in potty training!), I do think it is appropriate for these disciplines to address potty issues through goals that can be applied to situations related to potty training (such as following commands or routines, initiating communication with an adult, requesting help, managing clothing and fasteners, improving balance or postural instability, etc.).

Looking for even MORE potty training tips and tricks? 

Functional Skills for Kids: Potty Training #functionalskillsforkids

Then check out the other posts to help you with potty training in the “Functional Skills for Kids” series by browsing the list below. My OT and PT colleagues have written about all sorts of topics to support you and your child in your potty training adventures!

Potty Training Readiness: 10 Signs It’s Time to Ditch the Diapers  | Mama OT

Potty Training, Toileting and Fine Motor Skills | The Inspired Treehouse

Gross Motor Skills and Toilet Training | Your Therapy Source

Toileting and Sensory Processing   | Miss Jaime OT

Potty Training with Attention and Behavior Problems | Sugar Aunts

Modifications For Potty Training  | Therapy Fun Zone

Preparing Your Child & Environment for Potty Training | Growing Hands-On Kids

Potty Training Instruction Tips | Kids Play Space

Teaching Concepts for Potty Training Through Play | Your Kids OT

Find out all the “functional skills” we are addressing in our year-long series by clicking HERE.  And you can read all of my monthly posts I’ve written in the series right HERE.

Reference: 

Blum, N., Taubman, B., and Nemeth, N. (2003). Relationship Between Age at Initiation of Toilet Training and Duration of Training: A prospective study. Pediatrics 111(4), 810-814.

{Read the PDF of that article online HERE}

Want more handy tips and tricks to help the kids in your life? Then subscribe to Mama OT by clicking "Subscribe!" on the homepage so you can receive new posts via email. And be sure to keep up with all of Mama OT's tips and info shared on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest!

Mama OT In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with MamaOT.com is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!

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Please provide appropriate supervision to the child in your care when completing any activities from this site. You as the grown-up will need to decide what types of products/activities on this list will be safe for your child. If you’re not sure, check with your child’s occupational therapist or pediatrician. Appropriate and reasonable caution should be used when implementing any ideas or activities from this site, particularly if there is any risk of injury (e.g., falling, crashing), choking (e.g., small parts), drowning (e.g., water play), or allergic/adverse reaction (e.g., materials/ingredients). The author and blog disclaim liability for any damage, mishap, or injury that may occur from engaging in any activities or ideas from this site. 
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17 thoughts on “Potty Training Readiness: 10 Signs It’s Time to Ditch the Diapers

  1. Pingback: 10 Potty Training Hacks - The Realistic Mama

  2. So great to have all of these signs in one handy list! It’s so important to read the child’s signals and know that they’re really ready before starting on the potty training journey!! Thanks!

  3. Excellent suggestions! After potty training 5 kids and currently potty training number 6, in my experience #2 and #6 are key! When they tell you they are going or have gone and just want the diaper off in general. Internal motivation to be done with diapers goes a LONG way. I have never gone by the age but go by when the child indicates they have had enough of the diapers.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Margaret! I agree that it’s all about when the CHILD is ready to be done with the diapers, whether because they want to be a “big kid” or because they’re just tired of them. Good luck with getting that 6th kiddo past the potty training finish line!

  4. Great points here! What a resource to have all of these developmental readiness signs in one place. So often, parents push potty training when the child just isn’t ready physically, emotionally, AND cognitively. It’s so important to consider all of these areas!

    • Thanks, Colleen! Before I potty trained my oldest, I never realized that EMOTIONAL readiness could be such a big factor in potty training success. So important to keep all readiness areas in mind when diving in!

  5. I just love how you are so inclusive. I have a SN 4 year old and twin 20 months old twins. Your site is literally the only site I can come to and feel like I can get information and ideas for each of their unique situations. I love that you include SN tips into the traditional kid posts. Thank you for doing this and thank you for being so awesome.

    • Angie, I’m so happy you find my site helpful, and I truly appreciate your kind words. Thank you for taking the time to comment, and best of luck with potty training your kiddos if you haven’t already!

  6. Have you tried PottyDuck as a potty training tool? Invented by a friend of mine, after his daughter started making her rubber duck “pee” during bath time when it developed a hole in the bottom. She trained herself in just a few days. OTs know the importance of purposeful play as a training tool.

  7. Just as we don’t expect children to practice the piano 12 hours a day when they are learning to play the piano, we shouldn’t expect them to practice potty training all day long. We do part time potty training. When my oldest seemed ready for underwear we just had him wear them in the afternoon, at home. The first day he looked exhausted after a half an hour, so we put him back in a diaper. The next four afternoons he stayed dry and he was confident and fully trained on the fourth day. When he was dry at night for two weeks, we didn’t have him wear a diaper at night anymore. When he was fully trained, we had him go to the bathroom before announcing errands, and he never thought to ask to go to the bathroom in public places. Our other children were also fully trained in five afternoons.

  8. Thanks for this printable list – such a great resource for parents. As an OT, I am always looking for great handouts for my clients with little ones. Can’t wait to share!

  9. Just wanted to follow up on my OT friend’s comment about a new training device for 2016, http://www.PottyDuck.com. I am the inventor with a pediatrician-partner. My background is a stay-at-home Dad for 10 years. Dr. Mann and I both believe children learn best through play and discovery, and that this can be applied to potty training.

So, whadya think?