Potty and toilet training

10 mins read

This advice applies across the UK.

All children learn to use the potty or toilet at a different stage in their life. Most children start to show an interest in moving on to a potty or toilet at about two years old. If your child has a physical or learning disability they may not be ready to start until they are older.

On this page we explain how to start toilet training and what you can do to deal with common issues.

In this article

What do we mean by ‘toilet training’

Toilet training helps children:

We are aiming for a child who is able to:

When should you start toilet training?

Look for signs that your child is ready to use the potty or toilet. These might include:

What if your child does not show these signs?

If your child’s condition means that they are not showing any of these signs, you should discuss it with one of the professionals involved with your child’s needs. This could be the health visitor, community nurse, occupational therapist, paediatrician, teacher, teaching assistant or school nurse.

Before starting

Choose a time when you can spend a lot of time with your child, your child seems happy and there are no major distractions or stressful events such as starting nursery or moving from a cot to a bed. Make sure the time you choose fits in with you as well – perhaps when there is someone else to help you if this is possible.

It may take some time for a child to learn, so make sure that toilet training can be carried out in the other places your child visits such as the playgroup, nursery, or school. You will need to be sure that any one-to-one workers contribute to the toileting plan.

Tips before starting

Once you start

Bowel movement

Sit your child on the toilet or potty when you think they are likely to have a bowel movement and encourage them to push down gently. To encourage this, try making your child laugh or to blow into a toy or whistle.

If nothing happens, say nothing and try again a bit later.

If it is acceptable to your family, take your child into the toilet when you or family members go, to show the child what is expected. It may take much longer than with other children, so be patient.


Some children with learning disabilities smear their faeces after going to the toilet. This could be a child has not understood the process of wiping with paper. Others enjoy the feel of the faeces, and providing them with an alternative activity such as play dough can resolve the situation.

Some will use it as a way of getting attention, because they are extremely upset and agitated., or because they have learnt they are rewarded for such behaviour by being given a nice warm bath.

If your child smears:

Children who find it hard to communicate

Make sure your child can communicate to you when they need to use the toilet and that they know where the toilet or potty is and can get in and out of that room easily.

Some children who are able to speak will be able to use words. Others may not be able to ask to use the toilet and may need to use another system, such as a signing system like Makaton or a symbol. Other children may be able to use a photograph or object, such as a roll of toilet paper.

Make it fun – find a special toy, which your child only uses when in the toilet – this will help them to associate going to the toilet with fun and not stress.

If your child needs to be cleaned, make sure that people working with them know this should be done in a private bathroom area in an age – appropriate way. It is not acceptable for a physically able young person to be ‘changed’ whilst lying down.

If your child takes a long time to learn to use the toilet

If your child is having difficulty using the toilet

Speak to a doctor to check for physical problems if your child is having difficulty in learning to use the toilet.

Some children, particularly those with profound and multiple difficulties, may not be able to use the toilet on their own, but will need to have a toileting programme which will ensure their needs are treated with respect. Ask your health visitor or community nurse for advice.

All children are different and the way they learn to use the toilet may be linked with the specific condition they have. It is a good idea to get in touch with the relevant support groups to get advice from people who have more experience.

Getting help with continence issues

You can ask for advice on continence from health visitors, district nurses, learning disability nurses, community nurses, or social workers. They might refer you to:

Once your child is no longer an infant, continence aids can be supplied by your local health authority, provided your child’s difficulties with continence are due to a disability. In most cases, free pads will not be given before a child is four, but flexibility should be allowed for special cases, such as children with multiple disabilities. If your child requires nappies over the age of three, the NHS can sometimes help by providing nappies and incontinence equipment.

Continence aids may be charged for, or free, depending on where you live. Aids such as bedding protection, disposable nappies, catheters, pants and odour controls may be provided by the health authority, or can be bought privately.

The following organisations provide more in-depth practical information and advice on continence issues:

Water charges and washing machines

Help might be available with water charges. If your water supply is metered, then you may be able to get your bill capped. Please contact our freephone helpline for advice. Other help for families dealing with continence difficulties is the laundry service, although not all local authorities offer this. Where available, it is usually attached to the home help service of the social services department. In other areas, it is operated by the NHS.

Families with severely disabled children can apply for help with washing, such as a washing machine, from the Family Fund, or other charitable trusts.

You may live in an area where you can get a donated or recycled machine.

Our incontinence collection

Visit our Fledglings shop for products to help with continence issues and toilet training.

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