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Potties and toilets

What to expect

Children get bladder and bowel control when they’re physically ready for it and want to be dry  and clean. The time varies, so it’s best not to compare your child with others.

  • Most children can control their bowels before their bladders.
  • By the age of two, one in two children are dry during the day.
  • By the age of three, nine out of ten children are dry most days. Even then all children have the odd accident, especially when they’re excited or upset or absorbed in doing something.

Learning to stay dry throughout the night usually takes a child a little longer than staying dry during the day. He or she has to respond to the sensation of having a full bladder while asleep either by waking up and going to the toilet, or holding on until morning.

Although most children do learn this between the ages of three and five, it is estimated that:

  • a quarter of three-year-olds wet the bed
  • one in six five-year-olds wet the bed

Learning to use a potty

When to start
It helps to remember that you can’t and shouldn’t try to force your child to use a potty. In time he or she will want to use it. Your child will not want to go to school in nappies any more than you would want him or her to. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to encourage the behaviour you want.

Many parents seem to think about starting potty training around 18 to 24 months, but there’s no particular time when success is guaranteed.

It’s probably easier to start in the summer, when washing dries better and there are fewer clothes to take off.

Try to work out when your child is ready. Most children go through three stages in developing bladder control.

  • They become aware of having a wet or dirty nappy.
  • They get to know when they are peeing, and may tell you they’re doing it!
  • They know when they need to pee, and may say so in advance.

You’ll probably find that potty training is fastest if your child is at the last stage before you start. If you start earlier, be prepared for a lot of accidents as your child learns.

What to do
Leave the potty around where your child can see it and get to know what it’s for. If there are older children around, he or she may see them using it and their example will be a great help. 

Let your child see you using the toilet and explain what you’re doing.

If your child regularly opens his or her bowels at the same time each day, take off the nappy and suggest that he or she tries going in the potty. If your child is the slightest bit upset by the idea just put the nappy back on and leave it a few more weeks before trying again.

As soon as you see that your child knows when he or she is going to pee, try the same thing. If your child slips up, just mop it up and wait for next time. It usually takes a while for your child to get the hang of it and the worst thing you can do is to make your child feel worried about the whole thing.

Your child will be delighted when he or she succeeds and a little praise from you will make it better still, but don’t make a big deal of it and don’t use sweets as a reward. You may end up causing more problems than you solve.

When the time’s right, your child will want to use the potty.

Problems with toilet training

Wet children in the day

  • If your child shows no interest in using the potty, don’t worry. Remind yourself that, in the end, your child will want to be dry for him or herself. If your child starts to see the whole business as a battle of wills with you it’ll be much harder.
  • Take the pressure off. This might mean giving up the potty and going back to nappies for a while, or just living a wet life and not letting it get you or your child down. It might help to talk to someone about the best action. What you don’t want to do is to confuse your child by stopping and starting too often.
  • Show your child that you’re pleased and help your child to be pleased when he or she uses the potty or toilet or manages to stay dry, even for a short time. Be gentle about accidents. You need to explain that it’s not what’s wanted. But do your best not to show irritation or to nag. Once a child becomes worried, the problem often gets worse.
  • If your child has been dry for a while (night or day) and then starts wetting again, there may be an emotional reason such as a new baby or new house. 
  • Be understanding and sympathetic. Your child will almost certainly be upset about the lapse and will not be doing it ‘on purpose’.
  • By the time your child starts school he or she is likely to be just as upset by wetting as you are, so do all you can not to be angry. Your child needs to know you’re on his or her side and will help to solve what is now your child’s problem more than yours. You can also obtain helpful information from The Enuresis Resource and Information Centre (ERIC).


  • Bedwetting up to the age of five is considered normal, and treatment is not usually given. You may, however, find the following measures helpful if your four- or five-year-old wets the bed.
  • Try not to get angry or irritated with your child.
  • Protect the mattress with a good plastic protective cover.
  • Check whether your child is afraid to get up at night – would a night light or potty in the room help?
  • Don’t cut back on fluids as the bladder tends to adjust and holds less. It is better for your child to drink around six or seven cups of fluid during the day so that his or her bladder learns to hold a larger capacity. However, avoid giving fizzy drinks, citrus juices and those with caffeine such as tea, cola and chocolate before your child goes to bed as these can stimulate the kidneys to produce more fluid.
  • If your child is constipated, this can also irritate the bladder at night.

Constipation and soiling
Your baby or child is constipated if he or she doesn’t empty the bowel properly (some stool stays inside) when going to the toilet. The stool is usually, but not always, hard and difficult to pass. The stools may also look like little pellets.

Another sign of constipation can be if pants are soiled with diarrhoea or very soft stools. This may happen because there is not enough fibre in your child’s diet to keep things moving, or it can be something that starts as an emotional problem. Drinking too much milk can also cause constipation.

Once a child is really constipated, even if passing a stool isn’t painful, they lose the sensation of wanting to go to the toilet and it needs professional help to sort out.

If your child becomes constipated, stools can become painful to pass out. The pain means that your child will then hold back even more, become more constipated, have more pain, and so on. It’s important to stop this spiral. Ask your health visitor or GP to recommend a suitable laxative. If it doesn’t solve the problem quickly, talk to your GP.

Once the initial problem has been sorted out, it’s important to stop it coming back. Make sure your child eats plenty of fibre. Fruit and vegetables, wholemeal bread or chapattis, wholegrain breakfast cereals, baked beans, frozen peas and sweetcorn are good sources of fibre, and children often like them. Also give lots to drink – clear drinks rather than milk. All this will help to prevent constipation.

If dietary changes aren’t helping, consider whether something could be upsetting your child. A young child may be afraid of using the potty. Be reassuring. Let your child be with you when you go to the toilet. And try to be as relaxed as you can be about it.

We are indebted to Health Promotion England for their help in compiling this section.