What Does Being 'Ready' for Potty Training Really Mean?

Dr. Linda Acredolo, Ph.D. And Dr. Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D.
February 26, 2009

Parents frequently hear that it's best to wait until a child is "ready" for potty training before beginning the process. But what exactly does the term "ready" mean?  For the answer we turn to the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Guide to Toilet Training (2003). According to the AAP, parents should watch for readiness in three specific developmental domains: physical, emotional, and cognitive. Let's take a closer look at what's required in each case.

Physical Readiness

To actively participate in potty training, children must be physically able to:

• sense when they need to eliminate,

• delay elimination long enough to get to the potty,

• sit independently on a potty chair.

At what age do these skills typically appear? The fact that before the invention of the disposable diaper 95% of all children in the United States were potty trained by 18 months is clear evidence that these abilities are available at least by early in the second year.  While most parents today delay potty training until after the age of 2, the truth is that babies are physically ready to potty train as early as 10-12 months of age.

Emotional Readiness

Emotional readiness for potty training means a willingness to cooperate.  According to the AAP, the likelihood of such cooperation increases after the first birthday with the emergence of the following:

• A desire for independence and self-mastery

• An interest in imitating others 

• A desire for approval

What most parents don't know is that this drive toward independence naturally increases and the desire to imitate and cooperate naturally decreases after a child turns 2. When you hear people talking about nightmare potty training experiences, you are most likely hearing them from parents who didn't start training until after the age of 2. In terms of emotional readiness, the perfect window of opportunity is open between 12 and 24 months - a time when babies are naturally willing to imitate and cooperate.

Cognitive Readiness
To actively participate in potty training, children must understand what it is they are supposed to do and be able to communicate about it.  That is, be able to:  

• associate the need to eliminate with using the potty,

• understand simple instructions,

• signal an adult when they need to go.

Again, the fact that children in the past were routinely trained by 18 months indicates that the first two of these abilities are both present during a child's second year. If most babies can't talk before they turn 2, how can they achieve the third step and "tell" an adult that they need to go?  We know from our Baby Signs research that most babies can understand and use simple signs to communicate before their first birthday. Simply teaching a child the sign for "potty" helps them tell parents and caregivers when they need to go. Clearly, most babies can meet all 3 of the cognitive readiness benchmarks for potty training readiness between 12 and 24 months.

The Bottom Line
Babies are physically, emotionally and cognitively ready for potty training as early as 12 months and can complete potty training by 18-24 months. In fact, potty training during this time frame is easier for you, better for your baby's self-esteem and good for the environment (not to mention your pocketbook).

Ready to Start?
Here's something you can do right now to start potty training your preverbal baby:
1. Put your thumb between your first two fingers
2. Make a fist
3. Shake your fist slightly.

You've just learned the American Sign Language sign for "potty!" (You might recognize it as the letter "T" - in this case it stands for "toilet.")

The next time you are changing your baby's diapers, when your baby is pooping or peeing, or when your baby is present when you are on the toilet, use this sign and you'll be on your way!

To learn other helpful potty time signs and get step-by-step directions for potty training between the ages of 12 and 24 months, check out the Baby Signs Potty Training Program.


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