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Child looking up from the potty

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.


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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