From Nappy to Potty – A Developmental View

Choosing a pre-school that will develop your child’s brain age-appropriately
February 7, 2022
Mechanics of learning vs Learning Skills
February 7, 2022

By Dr Melodie de Jager |

Potty training is similar to learning a brand new language: it takes time, and two people – mom/dad/caregiver and child. But it needs more than time and a relationship; your growing toddler also needs to learn about two of the ‘exits’ of her body – one for liquids and one for solids.

Potty training is like learning anything new; first the senses must find out what is going on (a funny feeling near my tummy), then the brain has to give meaning to the feeling (I need to wee) and then different muscles must act – either the muscles that hold onto and close the exit, or the muscles that open the exit and let go. Learning to open and close the exit muscles take roughly the same time as learning to open and close the hands.

DID YOU KNOW? Your response while changing your newborn baby’s nappy sets the scene for potty training later.


Potty-training doesn’t start at the age of two, it started with your response while changing your newborn baby’s nappy, when you either:

  • Appreciated a dirty or wet nappy as a job well done. This builds confidence and pride in a child’s ‘nappy creations’; or,
  • Pulled a face, called it ‘stinky’, pretended to gag, and so on . This triggers a negative feeling and makes the playing field uneven for potty training
    two and a bit years later.


  • S/he becomes aware of the need before doing the deed and stops playing – squirms, pulls a face, looks at mom as if to say, I want to do something.
  • Stays dry for longer.
  • Signals the need for independence and says ME DO! often.
  • S/he can sit upright, without any support, for at least three minutes.
  • S/he can walk to the potty, pull own pants down and up again.
  • Has had numerous visits to the toilet when you needed the loo.
  • Says: ‘wee’, ‘poo’ or ‘poo-poo’.
  • Bowel movements are regular and can be anticipated.
  • It is summer time!

Irrespective of when you start potty training, most children will stay permanently dry and clean, day and night, at the age of about 3½.


  • A toddler learns best when she feels safe and secure.
  • Routine helps to anticipate the need to GO.
  • Learn to read your toddler’s behavior (squirms, pulls a face, look at mom as if to say: I want to do ‘something’).
  • When the typical signs are shouting: It’s TIME! his feet must be firmly on the floor or on a step in front of the toilet; he has to feel safe before he can let go.
  • If there is no potty or step (at malls, friends’ houses, and so on) sitting and facing backwards on a toilet (so she can hold on to the cistern) can be
    helpful, especially if she can use a felt-tipped pen to draw on the cistern while she waits for her body to co-operate.
  • Show enthusiasm when he manages to see evidence in the potty, but don’t overdo it. Toilet time is just as natural as eating, playing and sleeping.
  • Teach her to pull up her panties, wash her hands and flush the toilet.
  • Remember that potty training takes time, so when you are under pressure to get things done, wait a little while otherwise your impatience could create
    anxiety and a feeling of shame.
  • Show your appreciation: it builds trust, self-esteem and an I-can-do-it attitude in your youngster.

A toddler first needs to be aware of bodily sensations, before being able to show readiness to potty train – Dr Melodie de Jager


  • Potty training is a project, and you need to have time to potty train successfully.
  • Buy a potty long before it is needed.
  • Before bath time, help your youngster to practice sitting on the potty and getting up from it.
  • Make potty training a relaxed and fun time, not a production.
  • Be practical and have a few ‘toilet time’ toys or books.
  • Wait for warmer weather.
  • Make buying undies an unforgettable experience for the whole family.
  • Girls should watch and copy mom.
  • Boys should watch and copy dad or a male role model; if dad sits, he sits, if dad stands, he stands.
  • Turn aiming into a game for the boys – put a ping-pong ball in the toilet and he has to aim to hit the target; good for co-ordination and for
  • This is a good time to teach counting: count how many squares of toilet paper are needed to do the job well.
  • Encourage your toddler to get the paper ready for you, and to flush.
  • Rub your son’s lower back towards the two dimples at the base of the spine to activate urination: this tends to release their muscles and eject

It is easier to ‘hold on’ to stools than it is to a full bladder; your toddler will most likely achieve bowel control first – Ann Richardson


For some, potty training is accomplished within 3 days, for others potty training is a drawn out, exhausting and very messy time! Take these factors into consideration before you start the process:

  • Is the toddler developmentally ready for it? Have all previous milestones been reached? I.e. can the toddler sit, stand and walk independently; is the toddler aware of bodily sensations; does the toddler have good muscle control and postural control; does the toddler eat well; is language developing appropriately, does the toddler sleep well?
  • Is mom, dad or caregiver relaxed and patient, or stressed, anxious or a tad too competitive? It is important to check the adult’s readiness too. If the adult is emotionally unwell, a perfectionist, doesn’t spend enough time with the toddler to read body language etc. this can add insult to injury.
  • If none of the above applies and the child still does not seem to progress, it is advisable to consult with a medical professional to rule out any medical conditions.

Maybe I’m not an underachiever… Maybe you’re an over-expector.


De Jager, M. 2016. BabyGym. Welgemoed: Metz Press.

De Jager, M. 2019. brain development MILESTONES & learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute.

De Jager, M. 2017. Play Learn Grow. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute


Lost your password?