Why are children potty training later?

Over the last century, the average age that our children are being toilet trained has moved from 12-18 months, to an average of around 3 or even 4 years today.

ERIC, The Children’s Bowel & Bladder Charity carried out research with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in 2016 and the National Day Nursery Association in 2018. Both surveys showed that parents are toilet training their children later and that more children than ever before are starting school wearing nappies or pull-ups.

We have identified a number of reasons behind this growing trend:

Introduction of disposable nappies

Modern nappies are so absorbent children don’t know when they are wet and don’t recognise when they need to use the toilet

Disposables are undoubtedly an amazing labour saving device, but when it comes to potty training they can make the process harder and take longer. They are designed to draw all the moisture away from a child’s bottom to prevent their skin from getting sore and keep them feeling comfortable – the perfect portable toilet! However, a child needs to get the feeling of wetness to be help them make the connection with what happens when they do a wee.

Re-usable nappies gives children this feeling and an incentive for parents to try and train them at a younger age.

Changes in parenting style

Modern parenting theories emphasise a child-led approach which can delay toilet training, as families wait too long for their child to take the initiative.

Over time, attitudes to parenting have also changed dramatically. Caring for children used to be parent-led with children being expected to fit in with our routines. We have become more child-led and responsive to our children and their needs.

Parents today are more likely to feel that they should wait until their child is ready to be potty trained but aren’t always sure exactly when this should be. They worry that they could be doing harm to their child by taking nappies away too early.

A child-led approach worked well when children were wearing washable nappies, but it isn’t always as effective with disposables. There isn’t the same motivation for children to want to stop wearing them.

Longer hours in childcare

More children spend longer in child-care settings, often cared for by early years workers who do not have skills nor experience to support toilet training

A survey conducted in 2018 showed that 72% of eligible 2 year olds and 92% of 3 year olds in England benefited from funded early education, in nurseries, pre-schools and with childminders. Our survey of early years practitioners showed that 70% of staff had received no training in how to potty train and only 53% of respondents said there was a potty training policy in place at their setting.

Changes to family life

Changes to traditional family life resulting in lack of routine and children looked after by more than one adult/family member & spending time in more than one home.

NHS cutbacks

Health Visitors are being cut or are no longer commissioned to help with toileting, leaving families with fewer places to go for help, and more likely to delay toilet training

The Institute of Health Visiting states that "around one in five health visitors were lost between 2015 and 2019 – the full-time equivalent of 18% of the workforce. This is due to public health budget cuts and the failure to protect health visitors’ preventative role by many cash-strapped local authorities, after health visiting commissioning moved from the NHS to local authorities in 2015".

Many families no longer have easy access to a Health Visitor after the statutory 2 year check and so do not have a reliable or trusted source of information to turn to for advice on when to start potty training.

(1) Department for Education: Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents in England 2018

(2) Health Visiting in England: State of health visiting in England, press release by IHV February 20th 2020

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