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"Grit your teeth, clean it up and take a big breath": Sarah Ockwell-Smith shares her top potty training tips

Feeling daunted by potty training? We spoke to Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Potty Training Book, to ask her advice on how to potty train toddlers successfully. 

By Poppy O'Neill | Last updated Apr 21, 2023

potty training

Whether you’re beginning to consider potty training, wondering whether it’s the right time or you’re in the toilet-training trenches right now, you probably have questions. How do you know when it’s the right time to finally chuck away the nappies? Do boys and girls need a different approach? What on earth do you pack in your changing bag?

Potty training is a daunting task and one many parents feel ill-equipped to handle. The Mumsnet Talk forums are always full of questions, venting and helpful advice about this tricky milestone.

One of the potty training experts Mumsnetters often recommend is Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Potty Training Book. So, the name of everybody's sanity (and carpets...), we spoke to Sarah, putting some of Mumsnetters’ most-asked questions to her.

These are her top tips for potty training.

1. Wait until your child is keen to begin potty training

"Most potty training readiness is invisible, because it is based on the child's physiological development. For instance, the capacity of their bladder, development of sphincters and hormonal regulation of urine.

Physiologically, children tend to be 'ready' around 20-24 months of age, however this may not tally with psychological readiness. In order for potty training to go as smoothly as possible the child really needs to want to do it and they also need to really understand their bodily cues and be able to communite them to you in some way.

A big thing I look for is a child knowing that they need a wee or poo before they start to do it. It's great that they may have awareness during the act, or be able to tell you afterwards, but spotting the urge to go before it happens (and communicating it to you) is critical for potty training to go well."

2. Don't potty train boys and girls differently

"We overly gender parenting advice in today's society, there is absolutely no need to raise boys and girls differently, whatever element of parenting you're talking about - potty training is no different.

Boys tend to train slightly later than girls, but this isn't because of a physiological difference, it's because we've bought into the myth that boys are somehow harder or slower to potty train, and that just simply isn't true, although we do end up creating a self fulfilling prophecy."

"We've bought into the myth that boys are somehow harder or slower to potty train, and that just simply isn't true."
Sarah Ockwell-Smith

3. Remember that potty training takes as long as it takes

"If you're talking zero accidents, then for some children that can take years (especially overnight).

For most wees and poos in a potty/toilet in the daytime, then you're probably talking around a week or two if things go well and you're well prepared, though obviously there is a huge amount of natural variation either side."

4. Avoid rewards in most cases

"I'm not a fan of using rewards in any element of parenting. They create short term, external motivation but can cause problems in the longer term when you don't want to keep offering rewards and the child's motivation drops.

If children are genuinely ready to potty train they don't need any bribery, because the excitement of losing nappies is enough.

The other issue with rewarding potty training is it can cause issues with the child overriding their bodily sensations and cues in order to get a reward, for instance partial pooing or weeing, or straining for a poo that their body isn't ready to pass. This is the very opposite of the child being in sync with their bodily cues.

However, there are two specific instances where I would use rewards: 

  1. If potty training has been left late and the child's readiness and natural drive to train has been missed or ignored for whatever reason (for example, a new sibling arriving, or starting daycare at the time the child was ready), the reward can give them the push to get excited about the process again.
  2. If there are any learning disabilities or neurodivergence and the child really needs some external drive to help them."
a little girl looking shocked

5. Stay calm

"Respond to accidents calmly and with empathy. 99.9% of accidents are simply children learning and not quite making it to the toilet or potty on time.

Sometimes they happen because of physical issues such as constipation and something they happen because children are scared or anxious.

None of these are the child's fault and they should definitely not be punished, shamed or shouted at. Grit your teeth, clean it up, take a big breath and remind yourself they're doing their best."

6. Pre-plan when you're leaving the house

"Find out where the public toilets are, plan more stops at service stations than you normally would. Consider getting a travel potty, Get some absorbant mats to protect car seats, take your own toilet roll (for side-of-the-road emergency pit stops and don't rely on public toilets having any) and remember to take a couple of changes of clothes with you!"

"Can you imagine how frustrating it is to be asked if you need the loo every 30 minutes?"

7. Get the essentials in before you start 

  • A shower curtain or similar to protect your rug/sofa
  • Lots of comfy knickers or pants (I prefer boys pants for both girls and boys, they're much more comfy with cooler designs!)
  • A washable piddle pad or similar for car seats and the bed, or disposable bed mats (incontinence ones are usually cheaper and better than potty training ones)
  • Obviously a comfy potty
  • I also really recommend a stool for little ones to put their feet on if they're on the big toilet so that their knees are at hip height, making poos easier

8. Praise effort, not success

"There's a misconception that it's important to praise children when they get a wee or poo in the potty/toilet. Actually, it's important to praise them when they try and don't do anything, or don't quite make it and have an accident on the carpet. It's the trying that matters more than anything, not the succeeding. If you overly praise only when they achieve potty/loo wees and poos you can start to dent their confidence."

9. Don't keep reminding them

"Parental over prompting is a huge problem, children need to learn to listen to their body's cues when they need to go and they need to learn how long they can wait etc.. when we over-prompt we take away that learning from them and the constant reminding/encouraging can result in defiance and simply ignoring, resulting in more accidents. Can you imagine how frustrating it is to be asked if you need the loo every 30 minutes?"

a child drawing with crayons

10. Remember that potty training is mostly down to biology

"It's 80% biology (especially night dryness). If children's bodies are not developed enough to potty train easily then it's going to be a nightmare for everyone if we try to push it." 

11. It's OK to try again later

"[If you're at the end of your tether and thinking of giving up], maybe it just isn't the right time? Maybe you're both too stressed and a break would do you all good. Come back to it with less pressure in a couple of months.

12. Trust your instincts

"Don't be deterred by accidents, they're common and normal. It's a learning process and accidents bizarrely can be really helpful, teaching children about how long they can - and can't - wait.

Ultimately, trust your instincts - do you think it's the right time? Or are you doing it because your friends are? Or because family or childcare staff are encouraging you to?"

Read next: The best potties and toilet training seats, recommended by Mumsnetters