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Potty Training and Is My Toddler Ready?

Potty Training Wars: Dealing With the 3/4 There Kid

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I feel like you must have answered this a dozen times already and I swear I’ve read all your posts that are even minimally related, but I am totally stumped by – of course – a potty training problem. My almost-four-year-old refuses to poop on the potty.

For at least two years, long before she was even close to potty training, she has told us she needs to poop, asks to go into the bathroom for privacy, then comes out to tell us she’s done and asks to be changed. A year ago when she randomly decided she was done with diapers and started consistently peeing on the potty with only exceptionally rare accidents since, I figured pooping wasn’t far behind. Nope. She still asks us to help her put on a Pull-up (which we resorted to once she was too big to fit on any changing table!).

Not only does she recognize the need, she can control it and hold it until she is home. She’s more than capable of using the potty. She’s gone on the potty a couple times accidentally, and once or twice voluntarily, all to much excitement and major fanfare and rewards that we’d hoped would be enough positive reinforcement to keep going. We’ve tried incentives of all kinds, bribery, charts, simply running out of Pull-ups (she found the stash of her old diapers instead), insisting she do it without our help (ie attention), having her wear the Pull-up while sitting on the potty, using the stand-alone potty instead of potty seat, having a special iPad game just for pooping on the potty… We’ve gotten so far as for her to recognize the need, sit on the potty for a while, only to break down and start crying and begging for a Pull-up as soon as it’s about to actually happen. She’s now even told us a couple times that she actually did it all by herself despite it being times of day she doesn’t usually poop (she’s remarkably regular), there being zero evidence to support her claim and her then insisting on going in a Pull-up later in the same day at her usual time.

I believe she really wants to poop on the potty, but I’ve come to think that she is just not comfortable sitting down -or something- and she won’t try anything else I suggest to make her more comfortable. Perhaps you can tell she’s quite clever and strong-willed?

I don’t want a power struggle: I cannot make her poop. The last thing I want is for her to start holding it in and making herself sick so it then becomes even more of a struggle. I’ve been trying to maintain a viewpoint of “she’ll do it when she’s ready and one day she’ll just surprise us as long as we’re supportive and encouraging” but…come on! I also don’t want to just continue enabling a bad habit. What can we do????

Tired of poopy diapers in MA

Ha! Nothing like hitting the Googles for a question and finding your own column on the front page: Potty Training Wars: Dealing With the Halfway There Kid.

I titled this column the “3/4 There Kid,” because your daughter sounds a little further along in the process — she’s just scared. This is so, so normal. For some young children, poop feels like it’s “part of them” and are just more comfortable going in a pull-up or diaper so that “part” stays close to them. Having poop fall out of their body into the toilet feels dramatic and scary, or they worry they might fall in with it. (Think toddlers/preschoolers who freak out when you open the tub drain.)

You basically have three options.

1) Cold turkey. Run out of pull-ups (and diapers and training pants), like for REAL. When she asks for one, say you don’t have any. Hold firm. See what she does. Will she go on the floor or in her underwear? Or are those unacceptable options to her?

If you’re lucky and she really won’t go anywhere but in the pull-up, you put her on the only other option in the house: The toilet. AND THEN DISTRACT THE HELL OUT OF HER to keep her mind off pooping and her fear. Read a book together or play with the iPad (any old game, not one that might have “poop on the potty” connotations for her), or do a puppet show or whatever else you can think of. Don’t cheer lead or even talk about poop. Make the time on the potty about ANYTHING OTHER THAN POOP. Goal is to stand firm on no more pull-ups, and give her no other option that to confront her fear and realize that oh, nothing bad is going to happen. Obviously the idea is that with few more hard-won successes + praise = big kid pride in herself.

Cons of this one? It’s certainly not the gentlest. The distractions might not work and there might be tears and begging. For one of my kids, this approach worked like magic. No more diapers, sorry, just the potty. He played with my phone, then hit that panic/crying stage. I held him and hugged him and reassured him and then BAM. Fear confronted and conquered. It was a rough couple minutes but once he believed me that this was his only option, we got through it just fine. The immediate look of relief and pride on his face was awesome.

Other kids, however, respond to the cold turkey approach by simply holding the poop in and fighting their bodies, leading to constipation issues. I tried this with ANOTHER one of my kids and he just started holding it in, and then would just have accidents in his underwear instead of a pull-up, which….NOT AN IMPROVEMENT. If you think your daughter is strong-willed enough to start holding it in, I wouldn’t do this one. If her bowel movements are really that regular, predictable and…ahem, unholdable for her…and it’s just a matter of getting her to stay on the toilet for a minute or two of crying while you gently reassure her that everything is okay, then maybe give it a shot.

(You may also want to talk to your pediatrician about possibly giving her a small dose of something for the constipation throughout the potty-training process, no matter which option you choose. Something to help with the constipation can override her ability to hold poop in and cause problems without being habit-forming or too strong.)

2) Cutting holes in the pull-up. This is an approach I’ve read about on a few different potty-training centric sites, although never tried personally. It’s designed for kids who get scared/panicked about pooping on the toilet, and is basically an extension of what you tried when you had her sit on the potty while wearing the pull-up. The next time she needs to go, give her the pull-up but make her sit on the potty while it happens. If you can get her to poop in the pull-up while sitting on the toilet, treat this like a success. Then gradually, GRADUALLY, you start cutting small openings in the pull-up. Kind of like training wheels, you slowly get her used to the idea that some of the poop might fall in the water.

Cons? I have never tried this. I have no idea if it works or if it’s worth all that effort. Also requires you to go back to something you may have already tried (pooping in the pull-up while seated on the potty) without success, so you might run into some of the crying/panic anyway. But at least it might give you the sense that’s you’re doing SOMETHING and making SOME progress, as opposed to the final option, which is…

3) Waiting it out. Yeah. I’m sorry. I promise you, your child will poop on the potty at some point. She’s so close! She’s just scared. She probably WILL surprise you one day. Just…probably not today.

I would still maaaaayyyybe experiment with withholding the pull-up as long as possible just to see what happens. Hide them somewhere really, really inaccessible to her, and then be really, really “busy” right around her regular pooping time. If she just goes on the floor or in her underwear, forget about it. You’re gonna be buying pull-ups for awhile. But if you consistently make her wait juuuuuust long enough for the comfort of the pull-up every day (even just a few minutes, if she’s that regular), she MIGHT decide that this just isn’t worth it anymore. You’re not technically saying “no” to the pull-up and then backpedalling, you’re just…not at her immediate beck-and-call for them. Remind her that pooping on the potty is always an option, if she really has to go. This slight inconvenience might be enough to prompt a change in habits.

Or not. You might just have to wait it out until a developmental spurt or peer pressure from preschool kicks in. She is DEFINITELY more than halfway there, and she DEFINITELY will not be pooping in a pull-up forever.


Published August 12, 2015. Last updated March 13, 2018.
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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  • Megan

    August 12, 2015 at 11:25 am

    We had the same problem with our son. He was pee trained from the time he was 2 but would always ask for a diaper to poop. He pooped at the same time everyday, just like your daughter. We tried everything to get him to go in the potty! Finally we asked him what he wanted as a reward for pooping in the potty 10 times. He immediately said “pink John Deere wheel barrow”. We made the chart, ordered the wheel barrow and haven’t looked back! Sometimes what we think is a reward isn’t very enticing to them. 

  • Amy

    August 12, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Would love to hear any additional comments from Amalah or others…our son turned 3 in April and also refuses to poop on the potty. BUT- he won’t tell us. His approach – is to find the exact moment that you’re not looking and then go in his underwear. Our daycare threaten to not move him to the Three’s class because of this…I’m at my wits end.

  • Linden

    August 12, 2015 at 11:52 am

    I don’t have any solutions to your problem, but in case it makes you feel any better, our daughter was not consistently potty trained until she was about five.  She was pretty good with pee during the day, but would always poop either in her underwear or a diaper/pull-up.  In her case, actually night-training came first, then once she stopped getting a diaper at night she also figured out that she couldn’t just wait and poop in the night-time diaper.  We also started throwing in the garbage any underwear with poop in them (after cleaning poopy underwear for months on end, I got sick of it).  After losing a few of her favorite pairs, in conjunction with no longer getting a diaper at night, she was finally “fully” potty trained.  But it was a long road!  It sounds like your daughter is a bit more consistent and can control her poop better than our daughter.  A lot of my girl’s issue was being simultaneously unable to hold it and being afraid to poop because it would sometimes hurt…  Good luck!  She will get there eventually!

  • Liz

    August 12, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    So our son was like this, at nearly the same age.  No matter what we tried, offered, etc., he just refused to poop on the potty.  It became a huge Thing, this power struggle about poop, that we finally realized we were never going to win by begging or bribing, because he has the ultimate control of that bodily function.  So, we stopped struggling.  We sat him down and told him that he was in charge of his pees and poops, that we knew when he was ready he would poop on the potty, and that we were going to stop talking about it.  AND THEN WE DID.  We stopped asking if he needed to go, we stopped trying to get him to poop on the potty.  He was 100% in charge.  If he had an accident or deliberately pooped in his pull up, we calmly and without comment cleaned it up and had him help, but no “well gee, you should have gone on the potty” commentary.  And you know what?  A week later, while we were on vacation, he up and decided that he was going to poop on the potty.  And that was the that.  If your daughter really is strong willed, it might work with her too.  Tell her you’re going to give her control, and then do it.  Sort of a variation on Amy’s third option, but it might work to empower her to make the ultimate decision about when to give up the Pull Ups for good.

    • Kendra

      August 12, 2015 at 12:42 pm

      This! This was our daughter exactly. We finally just gave up and told her she was in control. No more pull-ups though. And she had to help clean up. I think it was about a week later and she went poop in the potty for the first time and never looked back. Thank goodness because cleaning up big kid poop is the worst!

  • Erin

    August 12, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    We had an extremely similar situation with our daughter who was willing to pee train (after 3) but still insisted on wearing a diaper to poop.  She wouldn’t even poop in a diaper in the bathroom!  

    For us a combination of things helped.  We tried to be very gentle and gradual, sitting her on the toilet in a diaper and reading, etc.  I don’t know if the gentle approach helped pave the way, but a few steps in particular seemed to help.  First, I showed her a stack of diapers (I think it was 21) and told her how many we had left.  Every day I would show her and talk about how when they were all gone, she was going to poop on the toilet.  Really talk about it.  Tell her exactly what will happen, in a positive (and not threatening) way.

    Another thing that I’m really sure helped is that one time she was on the toilet peeing, she made a very very tiny poop, and so that became part of our narrative.  Remember how you pooped on the toilet, and you didn’t even notice?  You have already pooped on the toilet!  I suggest trying to throw a raisin or something in and see if you can make her think she pooped a little.  We talked about it a lot with her, to make her feel like it was something that she had already accomplished, instead of something she still had to get through.

    Our daughter usually liked to poop in a special place (under the dining table; don’t ask).  We started varying the location so she could poop elsewhere to start.  After a few weeks of preparing her about not pooping in a diaper, we made her poop in a diaper in the bathroom.  This doesn’t sound very extreme, but we actually had to hold the door closed while she cried and tried to get out.  It was absolutely awful, but she really had to get over the mental block she had about pooping in the bathroom, and she was very surprised and relieved after she pooped.  After this, she was a lot more calm about the idea and could poop in the bathroom in a diaper, which was a turning point for us.  I don’t know if this aspect of it is an issue for you guys, but that was definitely a road block for us to getting her to go on the toilet!

  • Penny

    August 12, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    We had poop issues with my second daughter after she began withholding on family vacation (turns out she was only comfortable pooping on the potty at home but of course how do you know this unless you go away for a few days?). She was totally trained, but after withholding until we got home, it was very uncomfortable when she did go and that created several months’ worth of problems because then she was afraid it would hurt again. Anyway, what worked for us was distraction (and Miralax and raisins). She would pee and then get right off the potty before she could poop accidentally. So we used an iPad to get her to sit on the potty once a day, something I had previously sworn I would never, ever do. We have pretty strict screen time limits so this was a major treat. Usually it would only take 5-10 minutes if it was going to happen so she would get that much screen time (usually one segment of a Curious George episode – PBS kids is our go-to for this, or three BrainPop videos). If it didn’t happen, no big deal. She was praised for just sitting and being patient and we would try again tomorrow. Of course this did lead to several “false alarms” when she said she had to poop only to get the screen time, but I felt that a few extra minutes of educational iPad time was worth it if she would get over her fear. Once she was going regularly without Miralax, I would start to “forget” to charge the iPad and eventually it just wasn’t a thing anymore.

    Anyway, that was our distraction method. It took about six months to get back to complete normal. She still often withholds when we are away from home even now that she’s 4, so I just pack Miralax wherever we go!

  • Lisa

    August 12, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Sounds like our daughter…two things helped us. (a) we had the incentive of the fact that she wasn’t able to go to preschool if she still was in diapers. Technically, she was able to go since she was so regular (at night) it wasn’t an issue. So we had months to work up to this and we kept with the mantra…big girls who poop on the potty go to kindergarten. (b) other little kids…her best friend is a few years older and we worked it out that when they were together, she’d let my daughter go in the bathroom with her….again with the mantra…do you want to be a big girl like jane?? eventually it worked.

  • Allison

    August 12, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    We had this roadblock when my daughter was 3, and what worked for her was that we moved across the country, necessitating 3 days in the car. I thought it was going to be a disgusting and stressful trip with a poopy kid, but she just…worked it out, and used hotel and road stop toilets. It was crazy, but I think she was obviously ready, and the change in routine got her over the hump. All that to say that one part of the wait and see approach might be to take her out of her element if you can, and see if the disruption allows for the mental leap?

  • Caroline

    August 13, 2015 at 3:29 am

    Cold turkey. That’s the answer. Just run out of those diapers and then you can go in your undies and be vile and revolting and humiliated or go on the toilet. The end. The reward is no excrement-covered bottom and mommy not furious. She’s nearly 4, and is clearly entirely capable of doing it. I can see that some kind of mental issue is at play and I do have some sympathy, but this is a control thing and right now, you must take back that control. It’s not an option to crap yourself barring extreme accident / illness / emergency and she needs to cotton onto that. On the toilet or in your nice panties. And if the latter, a brisk cold wash.

  • Jules

    August 13, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Sincere commiserations on the frustrations of potty training a strong-willed kid! My two cents: if sitting to poop is really the crux of the issue (and it can be, it can feel quite uncomfortable for some kids), you could try having her squat with her feet on the seat instead, it is potentially more comfortable, and is a different take on the whole matter, which might help- I’m guessing she’s seen all of the tricks and is rolling her eyes by now, so something different might just be the ticket.

  • Hermia

    August 13, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Squat on the toilet. We had a similar issue with our daughter  -she  would NOT poop on the toilet. She would wait until nap or bedtime and poop in the diaper. She would run around and squat, so it was clear that sitting wasn’t working for her. So we started having her squat on her potty seat. (This does mean we have to hold her hands while she poops, but it’s a step in the right direction.) Then one day we went to the pool, she associated the toilet with a pool, and sent all the poops swimming. (Loudly calling for them to grab a kickboard on the way down.)

    So I vote for trying to have her squat on the toilet. Mine is almost 4 and she still does. She’s experimenting with sitting now, but I figure she’ll get there eventually.

  • Becky

    August 13, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    We found taking her panties off around her usual poop time and casually asking where she wanted the potty, then just putting the potty down and leaving her alone (she is a VERY private pooper?!) worked without fail. She knew enough not to go on the floor but hated and resisted us pressuring her x

  • MHMq

    August 14, 2015 at 9:14 am

    Hi there – our pediatrician recommended that we provide a little stool or something where our kid could rest her feet while she sat on the toilet.  something where her knees are sort of parallel with the seat and her feet flat.  seems like some kids don’t like their feet dangling (see the two comments above me recommending squatting).  a friend’s kid always took FOREVER to poop, to the point where his legs would fall asleep!  this method helped him, too.

  • June

    August 18, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Our son was the same way at three. He had fully mastered peeing and staying dry with no accidents but the poop thing was a no go. For us we tried:

    1) miralax, which helped because he was actually getting constipated in an effort to hold it in until he had on a pull up at night. This gave him a little push to go when he needed and not wait. 2) Leaving him totally alone. I discovered that he’d poop during the 15 minutes that it took me to put his baby sister down for a nap. I would sit him on the potty and go take care of her and he had total privacy. This was (and still is) huge for him. We enjoy privacy so it’s feels like duh, of course kids do too! Side note: he pees in a big potty but poops in the kid potty because he’s got super short legs and we don’t have to worry about him toppling off. I know some people are anti-kid potties but it may be much more comfortable.