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Child looking up from the potty

Potty Training Troubleshooting

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I am in the depths of potty training hell and am in utter despair on where to go from here.

My 2.5 year old has reached a wall in her training. Let me preface that we have a 3 month old and I tried to initiate training before he was born but my pregnancy did not allow it. So after months of reading about the potty to her – she has been in pull ups for a long time now – the teacher said she pooped on the potty one day at school and we decided to continue that at home.

We made a big deal, gave rewards, got new underwear, etc. we did the whole reminding thing but while she made facial expressions on wanting to go and even slowly started having dry pull ups, she never explicitly told us she had to go.

We continued like this and then one day, she had three accidents in school in the space of three hours – she is definitely showing signs of regression from having a new baby at home and hadn’t completely worked through that. Not sure if that is also being a stressor.

Ever since that accident, she has always said no to the potty. She will go if we cajole her with candy but I don’t want this to be a precedent. She seems to have gotten some fear or resistance about the potty and now I am utterly confused and lost. She knows about the entire process on a mental level and is very verbal. Thing is, I don’t think being in wet underwear bothers her and she also now pees and poops in her underwear and pull up and never tells us.

What should we do? I know the common wisdom is to back off, but do I go back to pull ups all the time? Diapers? Go cold turkey and tell her it’s only underwear? I get the sense this is now becoming a power struggle as there is no desire to sit on the potty coming from her.

Help me please – in utter potty training despair.

Thank you,

This is actually a tough one for me to answer because literally everything you mentioned in your final paragraph — back off, pull-ups, diapers, cold turkey — is a perfectly viable option. Every one of those things has worked for SOMEONE out there get over that final potty training hurdle. But on the flip side, every one of those things has NOT worked for someone else. It just really depends on the child, and their particular unique (and yet not-so-unique) reason for resisting the potty. Which can be super hard to troubleshoot, even when its your own child. I don’t know yours, so I’m flying doubly-blind.

Potty training regressions related to new siblings are 100% a For Real Thing — both for kids who were rock solid on training and for those whose skills were still a bit shaky. We went through it twice, like clockwork.

It’s ALSO possible that her three-accidents-in-a-day and sudden fear/resistance is related to something physical, like a UTI. We actually had a kid with a little from Column A (new baby regression) and a little from Column B (un-diagnosed UTI).

Our experience with that sounds vaguely similar to yours, in that he was 1) shaky to begin with, and then suddenly 2) refused to use the potty and then do his business (both kinds) in his clothes and not even say a word to us about it. Our pediatrician at the time recommended just going back to diapers, which I think would’ve been better advice if we were ONLY dealing with sibling regression (i.e. diapers are for babies, you aren’t a baby, etc.). As that was the same practice that consistently missed the UTI (which was later figured by a urologist, who was like, “uhhh, you really didn’t need to come here for this”), I feel the need to caveat that advice as coming from mayyyyybe not the best source. (We left that practice not long after.)

If she hasn’t seen the doctor since that slew of accidents, she should. Although it’s ALSO possible for a UTI to clear up on its own, while the potty-avoidance symptoms will linger for weeks afterwards. They associate the toilet with the painful urination and stinging, rather than their own bodies, and will often choose just to go secretly in their clothing to avoid it. The fact that it doesn’t hurt “anymore” tells them that they’re making the right choice, because they don’t understand that the location has nothing to do with it.

But we did go back to diapers temporarily after that. I don’t know if they had the desired “I’M NOT A BABY” effect, but they certainly made my life easier for a week or two. Then I decided to refocus and go back to everything we did in the initial stages of training. Underwear at home, a reward chart, a timer, pull-ups out in public but mostly staying home and having life revolve around the potty visits.

If your daughter DOES respond to the candy, it’s possible that your best bet WILL be to involve some kind of reward/token system. Just pick something that matters to her that you’re more comfortable with. Maybe use an M&M (or whatever) for now, then once you’ve seen a string of bribery-induced successes, shift it to something she needs to earn over time. A special trip or a toy she really, REALLY wants. Some people use sticker charts to track progress…I actually recommend using magnets on a chalkboard chart or something removable. That way accidents can “cost” her progress and she’ll realize going in her underwear is standing in her way of the Big Prize.

(My oldest child trained using a plastic baggie full of colorful buttons I had in my sewing kit. He got a new button every time he went, but lost one after accidents. It was a little weird, but it worked.)

But really, despite all my not-so-useful rambling here, I want to reiterate that I don’t believe there’s ONE RIGHT WAY for you to go from here. While everybody tends to have their favorite plan or strategy, it’s just not a one-size-fits all thing. I had great success with the cold-turkey/boot camp weekend-style training, but STILL hit a few bumps along the way afterwards. There were still new sibling regressions, the halfway there poop/overnight song-and-dance, UTI issues, inexplicable accidents in the middle of the grocery store because whhhhhhyyyyyy didn’t you sayyyyyyyyyy something?

(The answer: Shrug. I dunno.)

If you think it’s solely a power struggle, you can absolutely just back off and put her in diapers or pull-ups — a clear signal that you are refusing to play her game. Wait for her to show interest again on her own. Maybe talk to her teachers and get their input on whether there’s a positive peer pressure thing going on at school they can encourage.

If you think it’s a regression/jealousy thing (or fall-out from a UTI), continue to make potty training as pleasant as humanly possible for her. So much praise! So much positive attention! It’s her special Big Kid Thing that the baby doesn’t get to do! Incentivize and reward without worrying too much about the “precedent” — you won’t have to offer candy or toys for using the potty forever, I promise. It just gets them motivated and helps keep them consistent for awhile.

If you have some reason to impose a strict deadline on her, or if you switch back to diapers and don’t see any renewed interest at home or at school, you can try going cold turkey for a weekend and see what happens. Stay home, maybe even keep her naked — if being in wet/messy clothing doesn’t bother her, maybe having to help you clean up wet/messy floors all day will do the trick.

Good luck! I’m sure you’ll find something that works, even if it takes some trial-and-error. But in the meantime, I hope it helps to know that you are so, so, SOOOOOOO not alone in this particular ring of potty training hell.

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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