Ask Rebecca: My son keeps taking his diaper off and I can’t keep up!

Perhaps it’s time to ditch the diapers and get down to basics says Rebecca Mottram – your son might just be asking for more independence

Dear Rebecca, we started potty training a few weeks ago because my son refused to keep his diaper on (he’s 23 months now) and we wanted to go with it, but I’m struggling to keep up with all the accidents! My question is, how long should we allow him to be out of his diaper?

Refusing to wear a nappy is a classic sign that your child is asking you to move things along their potty learning journey. In a way, it’s a gift as many children never reach this point on their own!  At 23 months, it’s the perfect age to work with your son and teach him how to be independent from his pull ups. Research shows that children are most receptive to teaching and direction about potty training between 18-24 months, so well done for picking up on this signal and going with it.

Research also shows that pull-ups do not help the potty training process, although many parents still use them and it can be hard to imagine how you will manage accidents without them. This is understandable, but at some point, you will need to stop using them completely and the quicker you do, the quicker your child will learn. One of the reasons for this is that pull-ups (and basically all disposable nappies) feel dry to the touch even when they are wet. Taking out the wet feeling reduces the opportunity for valuable bio-feedback, wherein your son would notice that he has wet them and feel motivated to do something about it. Although it sounds like your son is motivated not to wear them, using them even as a back up has disadvantages because using this sort of back up when you’re trying to potty train sends mixed messages to your child: “do I need a nappy? Am I big? What is expected?”. Such messages can really prevent your child from feeling like you are moving things along because it’s hard to learn a new way whilst still using the old.

As I am sure you will know, toddlers respond best to direct, clear instructions and this includes the messages we give about their body. So I suggest it’s time to stop using the pull-ups for good, and instead, focus on helping him to communicate his needs as well as be independent in all aspects of using the potty. If he can communicate with you before he needs to go, you will have fewer accidents. Likewise, if you are able to learn his needs, you can help him succeed. A key part of this is spending time learning his timings, of which you have already got a good grasp. Next, it’s about using what you know to help him to get it in the potty and teaching him the steps involved in that. You may find that once you start giving a clear and consistent message about what is needed and what you expect, that he can learn to space out his wees and communicate better with you about his needs.

Research shows that children are ready to learn all sorts of things from the moment they are born and there is no lower age limit to start teaching potty-related skills. By 18 months, most healthy children will be capable of doing at least some of the process independently, so this is a good age to start the process of teaching independence. if you need extra back up, such as when you are out and about, you might consider using cloth training pants. These provide bio-sensory feedback as well as absorb most of an accident if needed.  They also provide a clear message that your son is now ready to leave nappies behind.

Finally, in your longer letter, you talked more about his desire for independence in all aspects of his life. Between the ages of 12-24 months, children strive for mastery and independence and potty training can provide a great opportunity to embrace this internal drive. When potty training is concerned, it’s really important to respect your child’s decisions and capacity to make autonomous choices, even when they end in accidents. Accidents can be a useful learning opportunity if you use them to gently communicate what needs to happen and teach some skills along the way.  This works best when parents set aside a little time at the beginning to teach their child the basic skills so that they can succeed. That’s why I recommend that when you do decide to stop using the pull ups (or nappies) for good you help your child to learn all the skills in a structured way, working as a team and fostering the inner motivation he will need to carry him through the next stage.

Good luck! I hope this helps.


If you have a potty dilemma, why not ask Rebecca? Submit your question to our Potty Talk series.

Rebecca Mottram, the founder of Little Bunny Bear and author of The Baby Pottying Guide for babies aged 0-18m (available now on Amazon), is a registered Children’s Nurse, potty learning researcher and consultant. Rebecca provides coaching to parents and carers around the world via private consultations and workshops. She also designs the Go Potty™ range of nappy  belt systems, mattress protection and potty learning clothes and the Sew Potty™ range of sewing patterns.