Prev Next
Child looking up from the potty

Roadbumps in the Potty Training Process

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I love love LOVE your advice. I have read through and gotten several tips on your sleeping and potty training ones specifically and I just have to tell you how much I appreciate your balance on all things, how you don’t advocate a one solution fits all approach and how you are very straight forward and honest with the pros and cons of many different approaches.

I’m writing because I have a just turned three year old daughter who has a speech delay and some light sensory processing issues. Nothing super big, but I do find it leads to her being more wary of unknown things than the average toddler, including the potty. And the speech delay is being addressed, so she is able to talk quite a bit nowadays, including being able to tell me when she needs to go potty. She also has a fierce independent streak.

I wasn’t too worried about the potty training because she was just getting to the age where I hear a lot of people attempt it, and she isn’t quite ready for preschool yet, so we were going to wait a bit to enroll her in that (I am currently at home with her). But then she started pooping, pulling her poop out of her diaper and presenting it to me or piling it somewhere. And I decided that if she is going to do that, it’s time to potty train. I read all your back columns, bought chocolate and sticker incentives, bought the (ridiculously priced at $10) Elmo Potty dvd (she responds really well to visual learning), and we geared up.

First we started with letting her play the iPad on the potty because she didn’t even want to sit on it. That soon turned into asking to go potty to sit on there forever with the iPad and insisting that she still needed to go when I told her it was time to give the iPad up. Then I tried bribing her with chocolate chips for sitting on the toilet, and that turned into hopping up there every three seconds to get a chocolate chip, but not actually using the toilet. So I left her bottomless, and went about my day, and I found she actually ran in and used the bathroom all on her own when she needed to. We then stepped up to putting big girl underwear on, but she pees in those. She goes through several pairs a day, she will try to go to the bathroom and less than five minutes later pee in her underwear.

So my question to you is: what can we do to transition her to using the bathroom even with underwear on? Is that just something she will eventually get? Is that where I need to start setting a timer again (we did that with no underwear, but every time the timer went off she would tell me she doesn’t need to go and since she did actually go use the bathroom when she needed to, we stopped with the timer)?

Also what do I do about going out in public? I did read that a lot of people say to just put them in underwear and if they wet it either bring one change or no changes and go home and they will learn. But the other kicker to our situation is that we have to drive to another town about an hour and fifteen minutes away twice a week for speech therapy. So it’s hard to do the all or nothing approach. Also, she does seem discouraged when she pees her pants, and she is definitely a perfectionist child and will quit a task if she thinks it’s too hard and she can’t master it. So I want to encourage her with a lot of successes, not failure.

Hopefully that wasn’t too jumbled. Thanks again for all your great advice and your column and blog (they were so so amazing to read when sorting through all the speech delay/is it or isn’t it this problem fears and confusion).

Over the Schtuff Piles

Potty training is not always a perfectly linear process.

That makes it extra hard sometimes to gauge whether your child is ready to move along to the next step or needs more time cementing a still-emerging skill. In my experience, if moving a child along to the next step is met with a sharp reversal of previous progress (that doesn’t correct itself within a day or two), this is a sign that they are not ready to move to that next step. Immediately hit the big ol’ UNDO button in the sky and revert them back to exactly how things were when things were working.

In your daughter’s case, for whatever reason, she’s not yet ready to make the jump from naked-bottom training to underwear. For some kids this is simply a timing problem — they have accidents because they’re not leaving time to pull clothing down or need more practice with it. Since you mentioned sensory issues, it’s also possible that your daughter’s brain hasn’t yet rewired the “feeling” of wearing a diaper, so the sensation of fabric against her butt cancels out whatever urgency/potty prompt the feeling of nakedness gives her. Whatever the reason, I’m 99.99% certain that the solution is just “Give Her More Time.” She’ll get it. She’s just not there yet, so step back to the point in the process where she was consistently successful…and stay there a bit longer.

Since a timer was ineffective before, there’s no reason to go back to it. Go back to bottomless. Reward her ONLY for actually peeing/pooping in the potty and not for sitting.  (Unless that skill suddenly regresses, but since she’s gaming the bribery system I’d try to hold firm on that one.) Have her practice pulling underwear up and down (make up a silly song or game about it), but don’t pressure her to wear them around the house just yet. Try again after about a solid week of no accidents. Maybe have her try a baggy pair of elastic-waist shorts or pajama bottoms instead — something super easy to get on and off that doesn’t mimic the tight feeling of a diaper.

As for the question of when potty training progress is ready to extend outside to the real world…well, this is so different for every kid. We certainly had our share of embarrassing, out-in-public accidents and I think most parents do need to eventually just bite the bullet and be ready for that possibility. You make them pee before they leave the house, prompt and remind them regularly, offer them chances to “try” and hope that public restrooms don’t completely freak them out. (And pack extra clothes and maybe a small potty seat in the car trunk.) But certain situations — long car rides, air travel, etc. — can require exceptions for kids who aren’t 100% rock-solid trained. We would usually offer pull-ups or training pants in these cases, but not every kid will need that. (Or accept that, if being in big kid pants is a big source of pride.)

But for now I’d hold off on stressing about that transition and focus on getting back the progress your daughter regressed on. She needs to, you know, be able to use the potty while wearing clothing first before I’d worry about whether she can make it through a grocery store run without peeing in the produce aisle.

Let her know it’s okay to ask for help

One last thing that stood out to me, though — something that might also need to be addressed before attempting a long car ride sans absorbent pants: Will your daughter ask for help or tell you when she needs to go, or did all her successes involve her running to the potty completely independently? That’s certainly NOT a bad thing, by the way, but might be a small insight into her particular path to potty training. That “fierce independent streak” is at play here for sure, but when she’s out in public or in the car she needs to use her words or signs and communicate with you, rather than handling her business all on her own. Really hammer home that sometimes, it’s okay to ask for help! It’s absolutely a GOOD THING to TELL Mommy that you feel like you have to go! Mommy can help you pull your underwear up and down if it’s hard for you right now, and Mommy can absolutely help you find a potty out in a store or the library, or pull the car over if you have to go during a long drive. Help her work through her frustrations of not being able to do it “all by herself” and you might be able to inch her along in the process a bit sooner rather than later.

More on Potty Training From Alpha Mom:

  1. Potty Training and the Super Resistant Kid
  2. Ditching the Nighttime Diaper
  3. On “Scheduling” Big Milestones and Transitions


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.

icon icon