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The Preschool Pooping

The Preschool Pooping “Deadline”

By Amalah

TL/DR: My potty-trained kid still poops his pants 9 months later. Need to resolve that issue so he can start preschool in 4 months.

My son (31 months) has been daytime + pee potty trained since last summer (21 months). We did a 3-day (err…13-day in our case) boot camp potty training where he tells me when he needs to use the potty, not the other way around. Sometimes I’ll suggest that “everyone” go potty, and sometimes he agrees, but I never force it and he clearly knows his own signals because there are never any “I told you so” moments where he has an accident because he declined to go when I suggested it.

Other than a brief potty strike recently (at 30 months), and after which he made some major language/logic developmental breakthroughs, the pee goes in the potty 99% of the time, and when it doesn’t he is genuinely disappointed (but not ashamed). When we are home, we still reward pee with a small candy and/or a celebration song/dance, but he doesn’t mind that we don’t do rewards/celebrating when we’re outside the home. He’s great about using the potty in others’ homes, in public places, or in the “car potty” (a BabyBjorn potty seat we keep in the trunk for this purpose).

I’m not worried about nighttime training. He sleeps through the night and it’s not worth disturbing his sleep to get him out of diapers. We use cloth diapers so there’s no financial push to quit the diapers entirely, and the bedtime diaper doesn’t seem to be impeding his training.

So overall, YAY!

He poops every other day (not at a predictable time, and he clearly is NOT timing it to happen in his bedtime diaper). If I happen to be RIGHT THERE I’ll notice the look on his face before he poops and say, “Oh! You need to poop! Let’s do it on the potty!” and he complies. Yay! Celebration dance and a super special SUCKER…but he NEVER verbally warns me on his own the way he does with pee. At least 50% of the time I don’t catch “the look,” and poop happens in the undies, after which he tells me he pooped and asks me to clean him up and help him with new undies. He doesn’t have a particular preferred position for pooping, though we have taught him to put his feet up on the seat, so he’s in a sit-squat position for pooping, which seems to help the poop progress out with less straining/effort. The past few weeks he’s actually been stopping mid-poop-accident and asking to finish on the potty. So progress? Maybe? He did something similar with pee, too, before gradually progressing to getting ALL the pee in the potty.

In a vacuum, I’d just be patient and let this run its course…but he is signed up to start preschool this fall, in about 4 months (when he’s 36 months old). Preschool requires kids to be potty trained. He is SO EXCITED about school. We did a “preview day” several months ago and he still talks about it regularly and asks “Can I go back to school?” over and over. Lately I’ve been explaining that “YES, you can go to school IF you are pooping in the potty. School does not accept kids who poop in their undies,” and he seems to understand, but hasn’t changed his poop behavior accordingly. I’m not sure whether school would ACTUALLY kick him out for the poop accidents (they’d likely witness zero to two per week), but I’d really like to resolve the issue before we find out, for everyone’s sake. Considering this poop business has been going on for over 9 months, I’m losing my confidence that the problem will magically fix itself.

So far, here are the strategies the internet has yielded, and all of my Debbie Downer responses to each one…

* Sticker chart, to earn a more impressive prize than the usual sucker. The most motivating prize I can come up with is a day at “school.” The preschool we’ve chosen has a separate drop-in program for 24-48 months, which is perfect…but it’s only every other Thursday, so the long delay between behavior and reward might be too much for a 2.5-year-old? So maybe a more immediate prize? But he doesn’t seem particularly motivated by material things, more-so with experiences, but it’s difficult to give an experience reward THAT VERY INSTANT, compared to just having a bucket of toys at the ready. (It’s fascinating how our family’s values are already so evident in our child…and how that’s to my disadvantage when I’d like to use classic bribery as a parenting tool!)

* Play up the difference between “baby diapers” and “big boy undies.” My concern here is we are expecting baby #2 (also in 4 months—yeah I’m fully expecting some new-sibling regression while we’re at home, but I’m hoping that school will be so fun that he won’t do the attention-seeking behaviors there). My son is currently enjoying some “I’m the baby” role-playing, so putting him in “baby diapers” might backfire entirely. I also have not, to date, used language implying that babies are inferior to big kids (“big kid” isn’t really in our vocabulary) so introducing the language now might not actually be effective anyway. And if that language COULD be effective over the next few months, how would I “undo” it when the baby comes and we’ve just spent 4 months conditioning him to believe that babies are inferior? I just don’t want to go there!

* Relinquish control, say “you’re in charge,” and stop talking about it, then just wait for it to magically happen. This is kind of what we’ve been doing. I haven’t completely stopped talking about it, but I have gone through months and months where I don’t really say anything about the accident other than, “Oh, I bet you feel really yucky. Let’s get you cleaned up and put that poop in the potty where it belongs.” Plus, I know my kid’s personality, and I really don’t think this is a power struggle thing for him.

* Force scheduled toilet-sitting until the poop magically happens. As I mentioned, my kid poops about every other day and it’s not at a predictable time, so even if I could coerce/wrestle him into sitting on the toilet, we could literally be there ALL DAY and still not get any poop in the potty.

* Miralax. I suppose we could try this. I don’t think we’re dealing with constipation. I have become intimately aware of his poop texture over the past 9 months and none of it struck me as something that would hurt coming out. (Alpha Mom Editor on Feb 2017: please see this investigative report about MiraLAX use and children.) 

* Make the kid take a bath every time they poop their pants. My kid loves bath time because it’s one of the few times in his day that he gets absolutely uninterrupted parent attention. The only thing he loves more than his regular bath time is a middle-of-the-day bath.

So, I’m at a loss. Please advise!

So yeah, we’ve covered this pee-but-not-poop training topic a few times, but um…yeah. Sounds like you’ve read the columns, tried the suggestions, and still no dice. So let’s cover it one last time (HAAAA I’M KIDDING YOU KNOW I’LL TALK ABOUT POOP ANY TIME Y’ALL ASK ME TO TALK ABOUT POOP), from the perspective of the tried everything, end-of-your-rope parent with a preschool deadline looming.

Here’s the secret about that, from a three-time preschool veteran: Don’t stress about it. I guarantee you it’s NOT a zero-tolerance policy. Even schools that have a potty-training requirement are perfectly aware that little kids have accidents. That’s like, 99.9999999% of the reason they will also require you to bring in a supply of extra clothing, down to socks and underwear. They’ve had kids pee and poop their pants, they’ve had kids barf on the floor (and…other places), they’ve cleaned it, smelt it, dealt with it, etc. Even a solidly trained kid can have an accident at school, because they’re distracted, they don’t want to stop what they’re doing, they’re out on the playground and don’t leave enough time to get back inside to the toilet, all that jazz. (This is not just true for their first year of preschool, either. Think all the way up to kindergarten.)

For lots of kids, in fact, it’s school that finally cements the training and gets them out of the shaky, almost-there-but-not-quite 100% zone. An accident at school is a whole different thing and they know it. Obviously, you don’t want a teacher who will yell or shame or make it traumatic — in my experience it’s always been treated in a very efficient, matter-of-fact way, and I frankly can’t imagine any decent preschool or teacher or aide doing anything differently in response to a 3 or 4 year old having an accident. (If they did, that’s probably just one sign of many that your child shouldn’t be there in the first place, because they suck and have no business being around 3 and 4 year olds.)

My kids’ Montessori preschool requires potty training in the primary program (ages 3-6), but I have it on VERY VERY GOOD AUTHORITY that accidents happen there all the time, no big deal, and for almost every kid it works itself out pretty quickly, because 1) no one wants be the 3 year old who gets sent back to the toddler room, and 2) no one wants to be the kid who peed/pooped his pants in front of the 6 year olds.

So. I want you to put that particular worry/stressor aside. Your 3 year old is not going to get himself expelled from preschool because of Failure to Poop.

(And OH YES, preschool teachers are also well aware of the new sibling regression thing. Preschool is like, the prime New Sibling At Home age. So they know, and in your case, HA HA, they don’t necessarily have to even know that you knowingly signed up a not-100% there yet kid. Go ahead and blame it all on that new baby. It’s the perfect cover!)

“Okay, OKAY. I get it, Amy. Jesus, you’re talky. The preschool deadline isn’t a huge thing. BUT WHAT DO I DOOOOOO I JUST WANT THIS KID TO POOP IN THE POTTY ALREADY.”

I have been where you are, by the way. Despite covering this topic multiple times and tossing out multiple ideas and suggestions, I had one child for whom nothing worked. Nothing. I had one child for whom the time span between peeing in the potty and pooping in the potty was CLOSE TO A YEAR.

Of the options you listed, the things that ended up “working” best was changing the incentive process while basically relinquishing control. Giving up, temporarily. Tossing up my hands and putting it on him. You know what to do, dude. I don’t think he was pulling a power trip with me, either, actually — he just…wasn’t particularly motivated and would just rather not, if you don’t mind. So fine. WHATEVER. We ditched the rewards/celebrations for pee and made that as straightforward and matter-of-fact as possible. Yep. You can do that now. It’s great and all, but now it’s just expected. No candy, no dancing. If you want any reward or incentive going forward, it’s gonna have to be for poop. I made one final incentive promise of one particular item that he wanted and left it at that. No sticker chart, no delayed gratification, just “we will go to the store and buy that if you poop on the potty.”

That STILL didn’t seem to really change anything on his part, until one day it just…did. Just like that. He went on the potty, we went to the store. I worried that blowing the incentive (AN INCENTIVE IS NOT A BRIBE, BTW) on just one “go” would mean it wouldn’t be a repeat thing, but thankfully that didn’t happen. (It probably helped that our incentive was a DVD, so we could let him watch it after future successes. That only lasted a couple times, though, because it got kinda ridiculous dropping everything and watching an entire Disney movie after every poop.)

I am going to guess your son is probably following the same maddening path. He just won’t, until he does, and no amount of haggling and begging and Big Deal Making on your part is necessarily going to get him there any sooner. (At least he’s not holding it in until he gets a diaper or pull-up on at nap/bedtime? For kids like that you usually end up waiting until they’re capable of going cold-turkey on diapers overnight, while pumping them full of something to prevent constipation while they attempt to hold it in forever. Ugh, children. IT’S JUST A TOILET. PUT YOUR POOP IN IT.)

The idea of not going to school because of pooping on the potty is far too abstract, and perhaps the ongoing sticker chart thing is too long term as well. Maybe an instantaneous reward is the way to go — for my last round of potty training I kept the Big Toy Reward up on a shelf, where it was visible and could be given to him immediately once he met our star chart goal. The next time he asks for something, anything in particular, go ahead and make it conditional on pooping and see what happens. Or: maybe he’s just going to have to find his own motivation — not having accidents at school, or a maturity shift from wanting to be the baby to wanting to be a big boy. (All my kids took their own sweet time on that one, too, weirdly enough, and all actively resisted and rebelled against anything I tried to label as a “big kid” accomplishment.)

So…yeah. I’m sorry. I don’t really know what your magic bullet will be to make things click with him, but I CAN promise that it will happen. IT WILL. It will take longer than you’d like, probably, but for your own sanity do your very best to stay chill and not stress about it, and about preschool, and about the new baby, and oh my God my child is going to be pooping his pants until junior high unless I DO SOMETHING. That will not happen. Pooping on the potty will, though, probably right when you least expect it, all casual and drama-free and you’ll be like, “WHAT. ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS. THERE IS NO REASON THAT EVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN SUCH A THING.” And then from that point forward, thankfully, magically, it won’t be a thing.

(Until your next kid pulls the same schtick. Try to maybe not be pregnant next time so you can at least drink.)

Published June 2, 2014. Last updated February 20, 2017.
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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