Potty training is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of parenting. The good news? Those difficult, pee-soaked days won't last forever. And, eventually, the time will come when your little one is using the bathroom on their own and will no longer ask for your help. But when do kids start to use the bathroom alone? And how can a parent help facilitate this monumental milestone.
The quick answer? It depends.
Different factors impact when children feel comfortable using the bathroom on their own. Their confidence in in their ability to use the bathroom without the help of a caregiver depends on different factors as well. While it’s easy to focus on obvious things — like how your child’s sex impacts potty training — there are other things to take into account when it comes to kids and bathroom time. Especially when they’re doing so on their own.
For younger kids, if they’re using the bathroom alone they’re most likely in their own home. Don’t rely on their age to dictate when they’re ready to use the bathroom alone, though, because childhood development is different for all kids. Some tell-tale signs that they might be ready include understanding the words and phrases that people use about the bathroom, lots of experience using the toilet or their own “potty," interest in using underwear, or learning how to pull their own underwear or training pants up and down. There are, of course, other signs your child might exhibit so be on the lookout for those and more.
To get a better understanding of some of those signs, I spoke to Dr. Lauren Moulds,Ph.D., principal psychologist for Big Little Steps Psychology. While a child needs to be "physically (able to sit, walk etc), and psychologically (e.g. wants to be autonomous, can recognize signs in self that need to go) ready" to use the bathroom alone, she tells me, there are also the following "signs of readiness" that parents can look out for:
- Your child begins to put things where they belong.
- Your child can demonstrate independence by saying “no.”
- Your child can express interest in toilet training (e.g., following you to the bathroom).
- Your child can walk and is ready to sit down.
- Your child can indicate first when he is “going” (urinating or defecating) and then when he needs to “go.”
- Your child is able to pull clothes up and down (on and off).
- They express a desire to want to try and toilet train
Dr. Moulds also explains that "children want a parent/adult with them, particularly in the early stages for company, reassurance, and for immediate reinforcement." Be mindful if that happens because a failure to do so could lead to some harmful consequences.
"If your child is showing no interest – stop – and try and another time," Dr. Moulds tells me. "The worst thing is to develop a negative association with the toilet/toilet training, and for a child to associate it with stress, anxiety, punishment or negative interactions with parents."
Dr. Moulds recommends a "child-oriented approach to toilet training" that consists of:
- Gently, but systematically encourage
- Go at their speed
- Do it when both child and parent are ready
- Pressure free
- Using rewards
- Gradual, slow steps
- No punishment/negative feedback
- If there is no interest – stop.
As far as the idea that a child's biological sex impacts when the age they'll learn to, or feel comfortable enough to, use the bathroom alone, Dr. Moulds explains tells me that your child's sex and age are not as important as where your child is developmentally. "The average age varies from 18 months to 30 months - which is a huge variation, so every child is different. Individual factors are much more influential."
Some of the developmental factors to which Dr. Moulds refers are:
- developmental readiness
- desire for self-mastery/independence
- having older or younger siblings, and desire to “act” older, or indeed, younger
- how motivated they are by reward
- ability and willingness to control their elimination
- body awareness (of signs that need to pee, poo).
When it comes to using the bathroom alone outside of the home, Dr. Moulds adds that "children should have developed good social skills prior to going 'alone' and this may not be for some time, with other factors, such a safety, a consideration."
One thing is for sure: your child will start going to the bathroom on their own when they're ready and feel comfortable. Every child is different, so their developmental journeys will be different, too.