By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Around her second birthday, a child may show initial interest in the potty or training seat. Often this interest soon vanishes, especially if eager parents seize on it. Don’t be fooled by these early indications. Let the first steps be the child’s.

Before age 2, your child isn’t likely to be ready for toilet training. But it’s time to watch for seven new behaviors – usually not all present until then – as the earliest expressions of a child’s readiness.

When one or two signs appear, parents are bound to want to start toilet training. But they need to wait for the others to appear.

  1. She’s not as excited about walking and being on her feet all the time. At 18 months (and often older), she’s ready to sit still and learn a new task, like using her fingers for complex activities.
  2. She has “receptive language” – the ability to understand the words she hears: for example, a parent’s wishes. She can remember what she is told and translate it into action. She can even carry out a two-step command: “Go to your bedroom and bring me a book for us to read together.” And she’s so proud of herself when she succeeds.
  3. She can say, “No!” Don’t push her before she knows how to tell you whether she’s ready. She needs to decide for herself. A child may comply with toilet training for a while, as if to please the parent. Then she may stop, as if she’s realized, “This wasn’t my idea.” Once she can protest with words, she can make toilet training her own job.
  4. She starts putting things where they belong. She may even begin to pick up her toys. Some children this age amuse themselves by lining up toy cars or doll furniture. I’m always amazed at this orderliness that crops up sometime after a second birthday. She is getting ready to use her potty as an appropriate place for her “products.”
  5. She imitates your behavior. A girl wants to wear her mother’s shoes. A boy puts his father’s tie around his neck. This urge to imitate is a precious incentive for a child to use the toilet – “like mommy and daddy.” Children this age are already pressuring themselves to live up to their parents’ behavior. Pressure from parents can make the challenge seem hopeless.
  6. The child starts to urinate and move her bowels more predictably. Her urinary and digestive systems are maturing. She may remain dry for up to two hours at a time. Toward the end of this year, a child may even be dry throughout a nap. These patterns are a real tease for waiting parents who may mistake them as a sign of readiness.
  7. She becomes aware of her body. She points to her wet diaper. She grunts when she’s trying to have a bowel movement. Her awareness helps her train herself. She also starts labeling her body parts and functions. Your own words, or hers, are probably the best. All can alert her to her bodily functions.

When I share these developmental steps with parents, they say, “But this process may take forever!” I assure them that these skills come in a predictable way, and that toilet training is much easier and more successful if they wait for all the signs.

(This article is adapted from “Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.