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Child looking up from the potty

Potty Training Wars: The 4-Year-Old Holdout

By Amalah


My four-year-old son will be five in August. We have been trying to potty train him for a year (since he was 3). We initially took away pull-ups and had great success with him peeing exclusively in the potty within 2 days. However, he’s been consistently pooping in his underwear. I’ve tried stickers, M&Ms, a week without accidents equals a toy, but no success.

Recently, on the advice of his pediatrician, we set out on a three-day-potty-training boot camp. No diapers, naked, staying close to the toilet. The first day he pooped on the potty. Success, right!! The second day he pooped in his pants and again on the floor. The 3rd day, more of the same. His pediatrician advised going back to diapers, no pull-ups, and refraining from any mention of using the potty. At this point, he completely regressed to not using the potty at all!

We have since returned to underwear, and rewarding him for peeing on the potty. I also purchased a little potty as he said he was afraid of getting flushed. He pooped a small amount once in it earlier this week. We made a big deal out of it and gave him a reward. Later the same evening he pooped in his pants. He’s peeing on the potty now but we’re still frustrated with his reticence to poop on it. We’ve talked to him about all of his friends pooping on the potty, he just doesn’t seem to care. What do we do?!

Thanks in advance!

Well, the good news (?) is that he’s actually pooping regularly vs. holding it in, which is a pretty common problem for halfway-there potty-training holdouts at his age. And there ARE plenty of other halfway-there potty-training holdouts his age!

Since you’ve exhausted the reward/incentive route with no success, and pediatrician already suggested the two most popular tactics (1. boot camp and 2. attempting to appeal to his Big Boy ego with a return to diapers), I’m going to suggest a two-step approach here.

Our first recommendation

The first goal is to get him to stop going in his clothing, because that’s just a gross pain in the ass for you as a parent, and is only going to make an annoying and stressful process even MORE annoying and stressful. Buy some pull-ups. Tell him he doesn’t have to poop on the potty, but he does needs to ask for a pull-up when he needs to go.

The goal here is to suss out whether you’re dealing with a physical development issue vs. a maturity/behavioral one. If he’s not able to consistently ask for the pull-up ahead of time, that might mean he’s simply not able to listen to his body’s cues yet and pooping is still just something that happens without enough warning for him to fully control it. That’s PROBABLY unlikely at his age, but certainly not unheard of. If this seems to be the case, I’d go back to pull-ups full-time…as long as they don’t lead to a complete regression like the diapers did.

(I’m assuming since you’ve been engaging with your pediatrician regularly that his pooping is otherwise normal and there aren’t any gastrointestinal issues at play here.)

If he CAN ask for the pull-up (or you are able to spot other signs that he’s aware he’s about to poop but is still choosing to ignore it, like a change in his facial expression, grunting, a tendency to hide behind the couch, etc.), then OK, we’re dealing with a nice old-fashioned maturity/attention span problem. Peeing on the potty is one thing for preschoolers — it’s fast, there’s no waiting — but pooping is BORING. Sitting and waiting for the poop to come out is BORING. (Does he stand up to pee?  That can also be a factor in why pooping is such a Big Different Deal for him, especially since you mentioned the fear of getting flushed.)

When it’s simply a maturity thing, this can mean you’re kinda stuck with this as the status quo until he simply matures a little more and 1) outgrows any fears he has about flushing or falling in, etc. or 2) decides he DOES care that everybody poops on the potty except for him. I know, I know. This is a MASSIVELY frustrating thing for parents — no one wants to hear that there’s literally nothing to do but wait it out and he’ll go when he’s ready. (DUDE YOU’RE FOUR AND KNOW HOW THIS WORKS. BE READY.) This is probably where your pediatrician’s head was at when they suggested diapers and backing off completely. Since that lead to a full regression, I’d aim for a middle ground of continuing to offer/encourage a quick change into a pull-up to at least save yourself the laundry headache.

Our second recommendation

But! I said this was a two-part approach, so there is one more thing to try before giving up and resigning to keeping pull-ups on hand for a few more months. And that’s to figure out how to make sitting on the potty more fun. Not a reward afterward, but actually giving him an incentive to break from what he’s doing when nature calls. If the accidents seem to happen during TV time, don’t turn the TV on at all but instead let him watch a show on an iPad or tablet on the potty. Get some new/fun apps that are designated for Potty Time only. Buy a bunch of new books and keep them in a basket in the bathroom, and he’s only allowed to read those specific books on the potty. (You can do the same thing with a bin of dollar store toys or cars or trains or whatever else he’d be super interested in.) Let him sit and munch from a bag of some Highly Desirable Snack that you don’t typically offer — maybe a selection he can choose from, like bagged variety packs or those mini boxes of “fun” breakfast cereal, etc. — while he’s on the potty, and only on the potty. Some kids respond better to the immediate gratification route vs. getting a hypothetical reward after the fact.

More thoughts and ideas to consider

And finally, since I’m just scraping the bottom of my brain barrel here for ANYTHING ELSE that might help: After he has an accident in his pants, what happens? Does he tell you? Does it…bother him at all?  Is he responsible for taking care of his soiled clothes? Or cleaning himself? Or do you just immediately rush to change and clean him up while sighing and asking him the obvious question of why didn’t you just go on the potty? Sometimes kind of…letting them sit with the mess for a while can be a needed natural consequence for some kids. If he tells you he’s pooped in his pants, pretend you are suddenly Very Busy Right Now and will be with him in a minute. Then wait five or 10 minutes before dealing with it. Make some of the mess his responsibility, like carrying his underwear to the washer and wiping his own butt (even if you still do most of the real cleaning, he should at least help).

And finally, if you suspect the accidents really are coming from a “I’m just having too much fun doing X to sit on the boring old potty” place, institute a rule that a full bath or shower has to happen after an accident, thus making the whole thing as inconvenient for him as possible. Obviously, this doesn’t work for kids who love baths and can be a huge drain on your time, but if you’re desperate to try every option possible, go for it. No bubbles or bath toys, or just wash him off no-nonsense style with the showerhead, then put him in pajamas, even if it’s early.

Good luck! Even if absolutely none of this advice works, I can promise you that he WILL poop on the potty someday. Probably pretty soon, even if it doesn’t feel soon enough. But he will. And definitely before college.



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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