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Potty Training Wars: Return of the Halfway-There Kid

Potty Training Wars: Return of the Halfway-There Kid

By Amalah

Feel like discussing poop AGAIN? Though you may have addressed this question in the one zillion other times you’ve written about potty training, I thought it was worth it to ask. You know, because who doesn’t like talking about poop.

Anyway, my situation is that I have a 2yo son who turns 3 in November. He first went pee and poop in the potty about a year ago. And while he thought it was sorta neat, and I was all about letting him see what the hubbub was about, I quickly determined he wasn’t ready for potty boot camp. He couldn’t pull his pants up or down by himself, he was never dry for any more than about 45 minutes and he was totally ambivalent about underwear or going on the potty after trying it a handful of times. (I tell you this part of the story because the boy did poop in the potty once upon a time).

At the beginning of the summer I thought it might be time to try to test the waters again. This time – totally excited about underwear. Totally digging the potty books. Regularly demonstrating his ability to take his pants and diaper off. (Ahem. Let’s forget about the time it happened at Target). So I waited for an open schedule weekend, stocked up in super hero undies and bribery M&M’s and let him pick out a Monsters, Inc. potty seat. He almost immediately took to peeing on the potty. Poop – a different story. After pooping his pants for 3 days straight, he got a full blown case of diarrhea and mommy abandoned the potty training ship. It was awful.

Moving on, I next did the unthinkable (according to many potty training experts, at least). I bought him pull-ups. I started with diapers at first, but he still liked going in the potty (and getting the treats!) and the diaper is such a pain to get on and off a standing child at a restaurant. And he continues to go pee in the potty most of the time. But he has not pooped in the potty once. If you ask him where poop goes, he answers, “in the toilet” with a great smile on his face. If I remind him in the afternoon – “Do you need to go poop? Do you want to try to go poop in the potty?” The answer is “NO!” If you ask him why he didn’t poop in the potty, he responds, “I don’t want to. I like to poop in the diaper.” I have tried to bribe him with race cars, candy bars, dollar store toys, TV time… and nothing has worked so far. The boy likes to poop his pants.

So. Do I just keep him in potty training limbo until he finally poops in the potty on his own? Do I redo the boot camp – – when? Do I stop doing pull-ups and insist on the diaper and ignore requests to go pee on the potty until he’s all the way ready? Was I wrong a year ago – and missed the poop window for him, never to be seen again? Honestly, I really am in no rush with this. I know he could wait another year and a half and still be well within the normal age range of potty training for boys. But, I also hate to take a step backwards with the peeing – THAT PART, he not only gets, but seems excited about and has a lot of pride when he announces that he peed and washed his hands ALL BY HIMSELF!

So, how do I get my boy to poop in the potty?


YES YES YES THIS THIS THIS. I remember this. I have gone through this. I have indeed written about this. I will likely be going through this again soon, because this is the EXACT sort of species of boy-child I seem to create. Pee on the potty? Woot woot. Good times. Over and done by two and a half, usually with just a couple days of New World Order Potty Training Boot Camp.

And then they proceed to crap in their pants for another six months to a year.

While I’m sure this happens to girls, it seems to be REALLY common with boys. At least anecdotally speaking, among my own network of friends and fellow boy-moms. I do not fully understand why, or if perhaps we were all doing the same wrong thing, but…yeah. Totally normal, and yet totally crazy-making. I’ve read all kinds of theories and possible explanations, including 1) Some kids feel poop is still “part” of them, of their body, and are afraid of letting it fall directly into the toilet (oh yeah, we’re going DEEP into the poop talk today, y’all, happy Monday!). 2) Some kids can get so rattled/traumatized by a single bad experience with constipation or diarrhea that they are simply scared to change anything. And finally 3), it’s just a really weird control/comfort thing.

All three of these explanations, however, have the same basic solution: Time. More of it. More maturity, more practice, more positive experiences and general comfort with their bodily functions, etc. (Perhaps, if you ascribe to the theory that girls are just generally more mature than boys, this is why boys seem to be a bit more prone to delayed poop training.)

Personally, I found that taking TOO hard of a line (withholding a diaper or pull-up completely) led to a kid who held it in no. Matter. What. And thus the cycle would start over with wicked constipation and pain and fear and etc. It was bad times, man. (Remember that little “You cannot make them eat, sleep or poop” saying? Totally, frightening true. This is a domain where they are in control, so be careful about turning it into a battle of wills. YOU WILL LOSE.) So I resigned myself to dealing with messy pull-ups/diapers at naptime or bedtime and just being glad poop was happening at all.

I will say that reverting back to diapers seemed to help, and seemed to be one of the final straws that broke the wall of their resistance — especially once my kids were consistently dry and could wear real underwear. Pull-ups/training pants didn’t bother them, but once I whipped out the honest-to-god BABY DIAPERS, whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. Maybe this isn’t such a good thing after all.

So here’s what I’d try: If peeing in the potty continues to go well, put him in real underwear whenever possible. But let him wear a pull-up at naptime and bedtime. Once he figures out that this is the only time of day he has “access” to one, he might start…uh…scheduling his poops accordingly so you aren’t caught unaware while out and about. (Be sure to be VERY mindful of his diet, however. Lots and lots of good high-fiber foods to ensure that he can’t hold it in indefinitely and cause problems for himself.) If he has an occasional accident, so be it, but let him know that a pull-up ain’t gonna happen outside of the prescribed times of day.

If all goes to plan and you can start predicting his bowel movements…and it’s clear that he can fully control the timing AND wants to avoid accidents in his underwear (SUPER KEY), you can either 1) withhold the pull-up entirely or 2) bust out the “baby diapers.” Option one gives me pause for the reasons I mentioned before, but I don’t doubt that there are kids who might respond in a more sensible, less nuclear fashion than my own. It might be worth a try, but then move on to option two at the first sign of a pooping strike beyond 24 hours.

For option two, you don’t want to make it a big shaming thing — it’s more like appealing to their ego to get with the big kid program and out of toddler limbo. Call them “baby diapers,” get rid of all the pull-ups or training pants or anything in between. But be SUPER matter-of-fact about it. You don’t care if he wears baby diapers to poop. This is HIS call. His choice: baby diapers or big boy underwear. What’ll it be? This is also a good time to add a really awesome incentive or bribe, since he probably WILL try to call your bluff that you “don’t care,” so give him an extra reason to view the baby diapers as Not Really Awesome.

Again, this will pass (HA IT’S A POOP PUN) with time and maturity. And thankfully, in my experience, it really just…ended. Bam. They went, it clicked, they got their prize and praise and that was the end of it. They pooped on the potty every time from that day on. (Save for some new sibling-related regression, which is a WHOLE ‘NOTHER COLUMN.) In the meantime, try to keep it positive and pick your battles. He knows what he needs to do and he probably knows full well HOW to do it. He just needs it to feel like it’s his decision, so operate (and manipulate) accordingly.

Published September 30, 2013. Last updated September 30, 2013.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • chelsea

    September 30, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    I just got to the other side of this! My boy has been totally pee potty trained since January (he was almost 3.5) But! He would not poop in the potty. We tried everything, bribing, begging, putting him on the potty when he had to go. Nothing worked. We kept him in undies and when he had to poop he would ask for a diaper to poop in. ( I bought pull ups for a while, then went back to diapers. Cheaper and more babyish, he didn’t care at all) He kept telling us he would poop on the potty when he turned 4.

    Well, he turned 4 on Aug 29th, and that day he turned to my BF and said “Daddy, I’m four now?…. I’m going to poop in the potty” And he went and did it like it was no big deal. ??!?! Kids are crazy. Good luck, he’ll poop in the potty eventually.

  • Claire

    September 30, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I have a 21 month old boy. I’m not looking forward to this! I’ll be mooching through the archives soon I think. Gonna wait till all his molars are through though, cause oh my god that plays havoc with the poor boy’s bowel. Yay for poop. Ish!

  • Myriam

    September 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    My daughter will be 3 in December. She has been (day) potty-trained since February. Shw was really doing well for the 1st 6 months, and then started having problems with constipation. For the last few months, she’s has “little” poops accidents throughout the day (not everyday, but on “those days”), where she will start to go, then stop, but won’t finish on the toilet. At daycare, she’s in diapers for naps, and at home, she’s in diapers for nighttime only. What we do is change her underwear and clear her up right way, without praise, blame or shame. However, I remind her that if she poops in the potty, she will have a “surprise”. Honestly, following the constipation episodes, I’m just happy she’s going, and I don’t mind changing underwaer. I just put the soiled ones in a bucket to soak, and wash them wilh the regular laundry. I used to cloth diapers, but washing one diaper a day was a pain in the ass, so she’s in disposable at the moment. As soon as her little sister is born and big enough to fit in my BG, I will put her in cloth again. I don’t know if she’s consider them more “baby-like’, but we’ll see. Anyway, all that to say that I don’t think you’re doomed, or missed the only available window for poop-training. Be patient, consistent and he’ll get there eventually. In my opinion, it is much easier to keep a kid in underwear if the problem is poop than if they keep peeing themselves : messy, but easily contained, and you just need to change the underwar, rather than everything else!

  • Liz

    September 30, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    We had this issue with our son, at almost the exact same age, and it kept up for the better part of a year.  For us/him, it was absolutely a control issue.  We were doing too much begging/pleading/arguing/reminding/EVERYTHING. By the time he was 3.5, we were exasperated, and we finally just completely backed off – and I mean, sat him down and said, “This is the last poop-in-the-potty-related conversation we are going to have. When you are ready to go in the potty, we know you can do it.”  Within a week – and while we were on vacation, no less! – he had completely potty trained himself and we never had the #2 in the pants issue again. 

  • Lisa

    September 30, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    We’re having this issue now with my 2.5yo daughter.  She’s got the pee down, no problem.  it’s the poop.  She says she ‘trying’ but well doesn’t actually poop in the pot.  we did just get a pack of regular diapers and not pull ups, and she’s a bit unhappy about that. we told her that’s all the store had, but if you poop in the potty you get awesome undies with flowers on!  

    she still pooped in the undies 🙁

  • KW

    September 30, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    GAAAAAAAH!!! Yep, totally normal, totally hideous phase! My son pee trained at barely 2 and for almost a year we couldn’t make poop on the potty the norm. Something finally clicked and we’re all good in the hood except for periodic bouts with the constipation/pain/accident cycle. They don’t last and they seem to be more of a biological thing specific to him. I will throw in that we’ve had to go back to diapers a few different times for varying reasons, even on a two week vacation where he then didn’t pee in the toilet once and once we got back home and out of diapers we got right back to peeing reliably on the toilet after about 2 accident. No big deal. I second the trying diapers route and good luck holding onto your sanity!

  • Jamie

    September 30, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    We had a 3 year old also refusing to poop in the potty, who was completely pee trained. Our dr. recommended giving him miralax since we thought he probably made himself constipated and we started with that the poop accidents stopped.

  • liz

    September 30, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    Many kids also just feel better doing it standing up. So you might want to move on to saying, “It’s fine if you’re more comfortable pooping in your pull-up than in the potty, but you still need to go into the bathroom to do it, because that’s where pooping happens. You can stand up or sit down or whatever, but you have to do it in the bathroom. Bring a book in there with you.”

    • Hannah

      October 1, 2013 at 3:08 pm

      YES, I was going to say this. I have three boys AND I run a home daycare, and last winter one of the ‘extra’ kids – a boy – had The. Worst. time learning to poop on the potty, holy smokes. He liked to poop in a kneeling position – usually while playing with cars or trains, natch – and just couldn’t do it on the potty.

      So, both here and at home, we started putting him in Pull-Ups right after lunch and dinner, because those were the usual times when he’d have accidents. We did that for a couple of weeks, no big thing, just “oh, you’re done eating? Time for a Pull-Up!” Once he was regular – started pooping every day after lunch, like clockwork – I started telling him that he needed to be pooping in the bathroom. Then I made him a sticker chart with GOLD STARS OMG.

      After a solid six months of daily poop-in-the-pants accidents, he was completely trained in three weeks. As a funny bonus, he now poops at exactly the same time every day. He’s more regular than an All-Bran commercial! 🙂

  • Grammy

    September 30, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    We went through this exact scenario with my grandson! Every single detail of the OP is the same. Mom, Dad, and two grandparents all thought we were doing all the right things and, still, this fabulous little boy just pooped in his pants for an extra couple of years after peeing in the toilet.

    Books, videos, bribes, all manner of praise and trickery were used until the adults were just exhausted. Keeping up that pace while trying to appear that there was NO pressure (and we honestly believed we weren’t applying pressure, just “helping” him remember) did us in.

    Just before his fourth birthday, each of us said something to him like “I give up, you win, use the toilet when you’re ready, and we’re not talking about this again,” — obviously not those words, but that was the gist of it — at about the same time. And none of us planned it and none of us knew the others had thrown in the towel and told him as much.

    Shortly after he “won”, he pooped in the toilet. And announced that he had done so. He has never had an accident in his pants since. I only wish I had known this was common among little boys when I worried that he was never going to get with the program. We could have probably hastened his success if we hadn’t been trying so hard.

  • karen

    September 30, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    My cloth-diapered daughter pee trained when I forced it on her at age 3. Now we are one month into 4 and she gets her poo in the toilet about 2/3 of the time, but 90% of the time it involves poop getting all over her underwear (which we clean and wash otherwise I’d be buying one new pack a week). We went in circles with pullups, no pullups, nothing made a difference. Just time. I’ve learning my lesson and will never battle with a kid over toilet training again.

  • Lisa

    September 30, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    Yep, we’ve been there. We had to work our way to pooping on the potty. The steps went like this:
    1. Let him poop however he wants for a week, saying nothing. No pressure, no comments. It’s just poop, no big deal.
    2. Diapers are only for pooping. Come get a diaper when you need to poop, wear underwear the rest of the time. Hooray for pooping in diapers, hooray for peeing in the potty, but no pressure.
    3. We poop in the bathroom. When you gotta poop, you get a diaper and go to the bathroom to fill it. Again, no pressure, just positive reinforcement.
    4. We poop while sitting on the potty, but still in the diaper. (This was the hardest step for my lil guy, he hated sitting to poop!)
    5. (optional) Cut a hole in the back of the diaper so the poop falls in the potty. Still the security of wearing a diaper, but poop goes in the potty, hooray!
    6. No more diapers.
    We gave each step about a week or so, I just followed his cues and when he was comfortable and confident at a step, we’d move to the next step. It worked GREAT, we’ve been completely potty trained for a year now. 🙂

  • Autumn

    October 1, 2013 at 1:30 am

    Thanks for any advise on this subject.  We are warming up to potty training, and I’m worried between daddy traveling for work and the fall/winter holiday travels we could get stuck in in between land.  I’m waiting for my 25 month old to get a few more words before we jump all in.  

  • Kate F

    October 1, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Ok, what about the opposite problem? My son turned 3 in late August. He has used the toilet for poop on and off since he was 1 (he had a phase where he was a real open-air pooper!), but shows few or no signs of being ready to pee-train. (He urinates before pooping on the toilet but always seems surprised.) Currently we’ve moved to pull-ups, and he goes in phases where he poops every day before nap for a week or two, then refuses and makes a mess in the pull-up, then back to toilet. He’s mega-stubborn, so I hadn’t wanted to push on toilet-training, but he’s so big (40″, 40 lbs.) that diapers didn’t fit well any more!!

    Do I need to do boot camp? Just let go until he’s ready? Ask his preschool teachers to encourage him?

  • Katie P.

    October 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Same issue with our boy. Peeing like a champ on the toilet, pooping his pants. We finally figured out that he likes to stand and poop. Once we tried squatting over his little toilet, he was much happier about going there. After awhile he transitioned himself to sitting and going. We also got him some underpants that were so AWESOME in his opinion (thank you Thomas the Tank Engine!), that he wouldn’t dream of soiling them.

  • Kate

    October 1, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Not sure I can add much to the good advice from Amy and the commenters, but I’ll say that I went through this with my older son too. He pee-trained fully (even at night!) within two months of turning three, but didn’t poop on the potty for 6 more months. It was a full six months of constant accidents in his underwear. I tried a lot of things (giving him something to rest his feet on was advice I heard a lot — didn’t work for us but might work for you?) He really was just scared that it would hurt and it finally happened one day when he wasn’t wearing anything. Apparenlty he was fine with accidents in his underwear, but he just would not poop on the floor. I’ll save you the details, but there was lots of drama and yelling and omg, you could have thought he was giving birth. but he did it because he felt like he had no choice. Then all was well, he just needed to do it once to get over his fear. Good luck!

  • Just me

    October 3, 2013 at 10:35 am

    I hate potty training, loathe it! I don’t recall having issues with my first daughter, she was the kid who was all excited at first, then lost interest and then decided when she was ready 3 months later, it was all or nothing with minimal accidents. With my son, a completely different story. Was pee trained at about 2.5 but took another year for poo. He has always had issues with constipation which then turned into withholding for control. In the midst of it, he’d have ‘poop accidents’ for 3 days that were litte amounts, almost grainy sand followed by a day of torment as he struggled to hold in very large potato size movements. It was awful. At his 3 yr well visit, I described what was happening and the dr told me to put the skids on all aspects of potty training and wait for 6 months. Something traumitized him along the way and it turned into a losing battle. Sure enough, that is what he needed and at 3.5 it was a smooth transition. The other key was to not make it a big deal, that was the toughest because I’d get so frustrated with all of it. It helps to be very non-chalant about all of it.

  • Dakota

    October 5, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    EXACT same issue. Same age. All of it. (And I won’t mention the regression that happened at 3 1/2. Oh, lovely days.)

    Here’s what worked for me… I gave up for a few months, and waited until about a month after he turned three to clear the air from the power struggle we were having. Then we pulled out the sticker chart… small stickers for peeing, big stickers for pooping, and after a predetermined number (we did 30 days of stickers with a couple of small in between prizes) he got a BIG prize… he’d been fawning over a lightsaber toy and that was enough motivation to get him to go. We did have a regression issue around 3 1/2, and we went back to the sticker chart. Worked that time too… good luck!

  • Wallydraigle

    October 11, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    My older kid did this. She was SO ready to potty train, but was absolutely terrified of poop. We never did figure out why; she just started screaming about it one day (and it wasn’t even a bad one, so no idea). I thought maybe if she learned to use the toilet, it would help her. You know, with a diaper, it stays with you until mom or dad can change you; if you go in the toilet, it’s away from you right away, and you don’t even have to feel it. Nope. No such luck. She was pee-trained in less than a day. It took FOUR MORE MONTHS for her to go #2 in the toilet. She never had an accident; she just always went in the naptime or nighttime diaper. The diaper was a concession we made after days of her holding it in to the point that we were afraid she would hurt herself. It just wasn’t worth it to force the issue. We tried a few different bribery/reward methods, but none of them worked, so.we dropped it completely.

    Then, one day, at 6am, I woke to, “I pooped in the potty!” And that was it.

  • Alyssa

    October 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Something that worked for us when my son potty trained but would not poop on the toilet, while it is admittedly time and effort intensive, was to make him take a bath every time he pooped his pants. We just told him if he popped his pants it made him dirty and we had to get him cleaned up in the tub. Having to bathe more than once a day, having it interrupt his play time and be a huge event instead of just pooping on the toilet and being done with it was so annoying to him that he was pooping on the toilet within a week. He generally likes bedtime baths but he still did not like having his normal schedule disrupted like that. I don’t know if it would work with every kid, but it was miraculous with ours.

  • Kelly Brown

    October 15, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    Thanks for the advice. We are getting ready to potty train our youngest son Trey. With all the advice we have been getting, we hope to not have the problem we had with our older son.