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Potty training crisis? ERIC's communications manager, Alina, goes behind the headlines and looks at the reasons behind why children are being potty trained and toilet trained later. The media are quick to lay blame and accuse parents of laziness, but it's a complex picture with lots of underlying causes.

ERIC has 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:

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

In 2000, a study was carried out which showed that over the last century the age that children were beginning toilet training was getting later and later. Researchers found a shift in the age of starting toilet training from 12-18 months in parents born in the 1920s to 1940s to over 18 months with parents born in 1960-1980. The reason they felt this was happening could be partly explained by the introduction of disposable nappies. 

Disposable nappies 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.

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.

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

Figures(1) from 2018 show 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 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

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