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Potty Training and Is My Toddler Ready?

Potty Training the Super-Resistant Kid

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

My daughter is 3 and a quarter and not yet potty trained. We have been trying on and off since she was two and a half but made no real progress. She shows all the signs of being completely ready – stays dry for hours, knows what the potty/toilet is for, can pull down her own pants, accompanies all of us to the bathroom with interest. But she just refuses to use the potty.

I’ve tried boot camp on several occasions and here’s what happens – she holds it for hours, hopping around grabbing her crotch but completely refusing to sit on the potty. We have stickers, candy, a reward chart, everything! She doesn’t care. Eventually she soils herself out of desperation. The situation never improves. The longest we’ve kept going like this is two weeks, day after day of holding pee and poop until she physically couldn’t anymore and then just going in her clothes. Eventually I gave up and went back to diapers.

keep waiting for some new sign of readiness but it hasn’t materialized. And I’m reluctant to keep trying the same approach over and over again when it keeps failing. Can you suggest another tactic? She starts preschool in September and she must be trained by then. I thought that would be a breeze – she’ll be almost four by then! But now I’m starting to be seriously concerned. She is in all other respects a happy, healthy developmentally-on-track little girl.

Many thanks for your wonderful advice.

It’s actually not all that unusual for kids to resist potty training until 4 years old (or even 5), and unfortunately there isn’t a one-size-fits-all tactic for these super stubborn kids. You can go completely hands off and wait for some miraculous “I’ve changed my mind and will now use the potty (because my friends do/diapers are for babies/I’m just here to drive you crazy)” type event, but with a school deadline looming, that can definitely be risky and anxiety inducing. (Although this submission is from farther back in the question queue so I’m sort of hoping OP will pop up in the comments with an “all good now, here’s what worked” update.) So let’s see if we can come up with a course of action.

The reason boot camp is failing is because she won’t even sit on the potty, so there’s no chance of even accidental success. And the early accidental successes of just getting their butt on the toilet at the right time (even if they were completely okay coasting towards an accident) are pretty much essential to that particular tactic’s overall success. I physically picked my children up and put them on the potty at first, using a timer. I would then crouch in front of them with my hands (gently) holding their legs, or crossing my arms across their lap. (Let me make it clear I was not restraining them in any way, just blocking the “exit” a bit and using my hands/arms like a hug, or the comfort of weighted blanket.) We’d then stay like that for set amount of time.  This time was kept super pleasant, with books, toys, Angry Birds game on my phone, whatever. Every 20/30 minutes we did this, and I definitely upped their fluid intake a TON so they very quickly hit the limit of how long they could hold it in. (And I used prunes/prune juice when we were trying for poop to prevent holding/constipation issues.) Eventually we’d get lucky with our timing, and they could experience all the good praise and incentives that potty training involved, so we’d create a tiny bit of forward momentum.

Since she’s on the bigger and more stubborn side, I’m assuming you aren’t able to just pick her up and put her down. But so far you’ve been unable to get her to sit on her own at all. Is she afraid? Does she need a different kind of potty seat or seat adapter? Can you coax her to sit while wearing her diaper? She’s capable of full independence and is comfortable with accompanying you, but somewhere along the way it’s possible that the physical act of sitting on the toilet herself became A Thing. So you’ll need to work on making it not A Thing. If she’s a fairly regular pooper, let her wear her diaper but ask her to sit on the potty while she goes. And definitely offer a reward.

As for the rewards, you really do need to find SOMETHING she cares about. And cares deeply about. Stickers and candy aren’t cutting it, so get creative. My son was a two-stage trainer…we got pee down but poop was still not happening a full year later. Eventually I made just about every request he made conditional on pooping on the potty. Oh you want that toy? Sure, after you poop on the potty. You want a cupcake? POOP ON THE POTTY. Eventually I hit upon the right “carrot:” His own copy of a Disney movie he’d only ever watched with his grandparents. For whatever reason, that did it. We ended up watching that movie every time he went for about a week before finally being like, “Okay dude, you got it, enough.”

(Another one of my sons trained after I bought him a HUGE stuffed Hulk toy, but stuck it on a high shelf outside the bathroom. He needed X number of star stickers to get it. Accidents cost him a star, and basically he just needed to go one full day successfully to get the toy. It took him two or three days, I believe, but having the toy within sight but out of reach kept him REALLY focused on trying.)

So try to figure out your daughter’s carrot. What’s super important to her? Some big special toy or trip? Has she toured her preschool and is she excited about going? She’s going to need a major incentive to cut through her stubborn streak (and possible fear/trepidation).

So step one is figuring out how to convince her to at least sit on the potty. She can wear her diaper, she doesn’t have to “do” anything, she just needs to sit and see there’s really nothing super scary about it. She’s not going to fall in, it’s not going to flush on its own, etc. Reward her for this success, then step two is to figure out what you can make conditional on her actually using the potty on her own. It probably will need to be something big, something she’s super focused on.

As for the accidents in her clothes…have you tried “naked potty training boot camp?” For some reason being completely naked works better for some kids than clothes or even just big kid underwear. Since pulling her pants down isn’t a skill you’re working on, maybe try keeping her naked. She can get her clothes back when she shows you that she can keep them clean and dry.

If she does soil her clothes, this sounds gross and mean…but don’t change her out of them right away. Or offer her any help. I know you went two full weeks of clothing accidents but unless you made her deal with the mess herself, there might have been a missed opportunity. Make her take the wet clothes off all by herself, take them to the laundry, and then get redressed. If she has an accident while naked, she needs to help clean that up as well. (Just offer her a towel, you do the actual cleaning with cleaning products.) It’s super annoying, but some kids really do need to get tired of the wet, cold, messy business of accidents before finally copping to the fact that it’s just easier to use the stupid potty in the first place. ESPECIALLY if the right incentive is involved (which ain’t gonna be stickers or candy in this case). The positive needs to outweigh the negative.

So I think your main area of focus should be the right incentives. She needs to care about what you’re offering. First for just SITTING on the potty at set times throughout the day. You don’t have to do it boot camp style, just offer a trade whenever she asks for something. She wants a popsicle/cookie/juice box? Ok, you can have it while you sit on the potty. Once that seems to not be A Thing anymore, up the ante with something she really, really, REALLY wants. You can do it in a non-boot-camp approach (in pull-ups or diapers, provided she knows how to remove them), or have another go buck naked, or with enforced consequences for accidents (she either stays wet/uncomfortable or deals with wet clothing herself).

Either way, she WILL potty train…eventually. Either because you tried something that “worked” or she just changed her mind about it one day. Neither of those things is guaranteed to happen on your preschool timeline, unfortunately. “Eventually” is a crapshoot, but luckily every potty-training parent hits on it. You know, eventually.

Published May 2, 2016. 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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  • April

    May 2, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    We just potty trained our second super resistant kid. We waited until three and a half with each of them (a girl, then a boy). The strategies from Toilet Training in Less than a Day really worked. Amalah already covered some of them, such as having the child do the clean-up of the messes and putting dirty/wet clothes in the laundry.

    We did what they suggested, even got a doll that pees in the potty to demonstrate with. 🙂 And lo and behold my kids went from 100% diapers to 100% underwear (we never did pull-ups) very quickly. The book might be worth a read at least. Good luck!

  • Kay

    May 2, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    This is probably not super helpful or comforting to hear, but even though it seems like August/September is right around the corner, you still have a lot of time so do not panic! And whether a child is closer to 3 or closer to 4 can make a huge difference in my experience. I think Amy’s advice is great and yes, you’ll have to figure out what it will take to get her over the hump and onto the potty, but summer is a good time to do that, especially if you want to train naked or partially naked. 

    It might also be worth it to pick a fun activity that is exclusively done while sitting on the potty. For us it was Angry Birds. It was loud and distracting and addicting, and it was less about waiting for them to accidentally use the potty and more to entice them to sit on it because we had one child who was scared to death of the toilet. “Oh, you want to play on the iPad? OK, let’s go sit on the potty!” No potty meant no game. It was a successful motivator and it was decently smooth sailing after that.

  • Jessy

    May 2, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    I’m posting here not because I have ideas, but just for hope. My third was just like this. WEEKS of underwear (or naked) only boot camp and zero successes in a clearly ready child. She could hold it for hours and hours and the second I looked away she would pee all over the floor. And I eventually just gave up completely. Stopped even talking about it and put her back in diapers. And a couple months later, she woke up one morning, put on underwear, used the potty and never had another accident. Maybe she was just ready or pressure wasn’t her thing, but I wish I had just waited because when she was ready she just did it herself. Obviously, every kid is different, but you have time and I hope she surprises you!

  • Carolyn

    May 2, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Both of my kiddos did better if they were completely naked from the waist down at home (we worked on potty training at home before going anywhere, so obviously they had to get used to some kind of clothes before we tried that! Even then, they did better going commando under their pants for quite a while). A few other things to think about – what kind of toilet does she have access to right now? A little kid potty? Maybe she’d respond better to using the big toilet like you guys do (or vice versa – maybe the bit potty feels scary, and a little potty would be nicer). If she likes a little potty, you could even put it in the living room so she could sit on it like it’s a chair throughout the day (while watching a show or having a snack or something – just sitting on it, naked or fully clothed, might be a stepping stone). Also, if the weather is warming up where you are, do you have a backyard that she could play in naked from the waist down? My kiddos both needed to see what it looked like when they peed a few times (to kind of connect the sensation to the act of peeing, and again seeing that nothing terrible would happen to them!). This was messier with my daughter than my son, but at least outside all we had to do was hose off the area and she definitely got a kick out of trying to pee standing up like her older brother 😉 Maybe you could pump her full of juice and send her outside with a popsicle or something exciting. Don’t make it about using the potty, but just see what happens.

  • Autumn

    May 2, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    There’s always peer pressure.  My daughter was having nothing to do with potty training, until she moved up to the 3 year old room and she one of 2 kids not in underwear.  Came home, wanted to wear underwear, and that was that.  

    Do you have friends with kids same age who are potty trained?  Or a kid group/activity you could join where it would be long enough she would notice her “friends” going to the bathroom while she got her diaper changed?  Even at that age they notice these types of things

  • Bello

    May 3, 2016 at 12:25 am

    As a preschool teacher, I can definitely say that there are 1 or 2 children who come each year that are definitely not fully potty trained and their parents are, I would imagine, banking on the peer environment/ different authority figures to seal the deal. Even if she isn’t trained by September (which really is along way off, a lot could happen for her developmentally between now & then) I would send her to school anyway. Pack extra clothing and give it a week or two and I bet she either a) starts going potty or b) holds it the whole time she’s at school which doesn’t solve your long-term problem but at least doesn’t keep her from going to school in the meantime!

  • Mary

    May 3, 2016 at 11:00 am

    My kid finally started pooping in the potty when her pediatrician told her she had to start. I was about to have my second child, and we were not getting anywhere with poop. Her pediatrician basically told her that her mommy could not change two sets of diapers anymore, and that she would need to start pooping in the potty. It was completely under control within the next week. By the way, she was about a month shy of 4 when this happened…sometimes is takes a while.

  • yasmara

    May 3, 2016 at 11:13 am

    I had 2 boys on complete opposite ends of the potty training spectrum…one who came home from daycare & announced that he wanted to wear underwear and that was it and one who resisted and resisted and resisted, even though he *could* do it. We used a combination of all of the strategies above, but also incorporated a timer set for 30 minute increments. When the timer went off, he went to sit on the potty. Somehow it helped that the timer was what was “telling” him to go, and not me. We also reserved the iPad for potty time ONLY. You want to watch WonderPets? Great! Time to sit on the potty! Positive tone was key. He also had a Captain America toy he really, really wanted that I bought and put on the bathroom shelf. And there were m&m’s. Honestly, it took ALL of these and (just to warn you), he had some backslides in all-day kindergarten because he didn’t want to use the classroom bathroom (it was literally a door IN THE CLASS, he didn’t even have to walk down the hallway). And night training took even longer – he still had occasional nighttime accidents through 1st grade and even into 2nd grade. Not that often, but every couple of months.

  • Caroline

    May 3, 2016 at 11:28 am

    I would say Amalah is on the money with this advice, though honest, I’d be slightly more hardcore on the ”stick” end of carrot and stick. She is plainly ready and able or I wouldn’t even go there, but sitting for a short time (short!! No rashes!) in gross stinky clothes and then a really cold, brisk wash and no smiling or ”there-there” from mommy will indicate that This is Unpleasant. Not vicious, not cruel, but just… really not fun. Definitely make her get involved in clean-up and if she soils herself whilst doing something fun or out somewhere cool, she is removed immediately and told that it’s because she didn’t use the toilet. Then definitely find a reward she really likes and wants and put that on the ”carrot” side and really stick with it. Best of luck… we’ll be going down this road again in about 2 months or thereabouts… yikes!

  • Lizzie

    May 3, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    OP here. We have made slightly more progress since I wrote this. What worked in the end was just acting like I didn’t care. She peed on the floor, I just shrugged and mopped it up and said, ‘you’ll get it next time.’ We also got a bunch of toys she really wanted and stuck them just out of reach above the potty.

    After about three days of getting ZERO attention for accidents, she eventually cracked and peed on the potty, and I acted like this was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in the world (which at the time, to me, it pretty much was.)

    So, now, she’ll use the potty, and has been using it and the toilet for a few months. But only if I keep the rewards coming. If I try to dial back the toys/candy she goes right back to peeing and pooping in her clothes. And she doesn’t care if she’s dirty. I let her stay in poopy pants for thirty minutes once and she acted like it wasn’t even there. I’m not really sure how to break her of this but for now I’m just resigned to the fact that I’m going to have to keep paying for good potty behaviour. At least we’re out of diapers.

    • Kay

      May 3, 2016 at 4:37 pm

      That sounds even more frustrating in a way! Though YAY for being out of diapers! Do you think you could move to a more cumulative reward, like using the potty for multiple days in a row before she gets it? 

      I think, since she doesn’t seem to mind being in wet or dirty clothes, you might want to consider other commenters’ suggestion of making her help clean up. Staying in dirty clothes will not be an option in preschool, so if she soils herself at home, having to stop everything and clean up may be more annoying to her than having to take a break to go on the toilet.

    • Amy Renee

      May 5, 2016 at 9:46 am

      Could you dial back the rewards by making it a sticker chart, and she has to earn X stickers for the reward? Or even switch the rewards to be based on dry clothes all day? Also heaping on the praise to other people – so she can tell daddy at the end of the day, or her neighbor or whatever “I had dry clothes ALL DAY”. Worth a shot?

  • Liz

    May 3, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    I gave up on my son after a disastrous boot camp at 3.25. Tried again at 3.5. Just one day while getting dressed I asked if he wanted undies or a diaper. He chose undies. He did what he was supposed to do, and it was all easy from then on. Who knows why. I hope you have a similar experience in a couple months. Good luck!

  • Melissa

    May 3, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    My daughter teased us with all the right cues to being ready to potty train at two years, so I went out with all the optimism in the world and bought seats and potties and stickers and pull ups and underwear and then she refused to sit on the toilet. 

    For us it was finally an old iphone loaded with the Disney Jr. App.that got her to sit on the potty. 

    At three years old, she’s currently about 3 months in to being 100% pee potty trained (thank you DC area snowzilla for trapping us in the house for 4 days and making boot camp inevitable)

    Poop, not to much and now the phone incentive has started back firing when she tells us she has to poop, gets the phone and then just sits there for 30 minutes doing nothing. So now we’ve switched gears to Amy’s other suggestion of literally ANYTHING she wants is “only if you poop.” 

    Want to watch an extra episode of Sofia? You have to poop. Want to have a chocolate? You have to poop. Want to sleep in your sleeping bag on the floor with the long ago weaned paci? You pooped? OK have at it! Anything to keep me from having to do another load of poopy laundry.

  • Mel

    May 3, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Just want to echo what some others have said. Mine behaved very similarly, and then one day she decided she was ready to potty train and just started going when she had to. So, super easy once she started, but REALLY FREAKING ANNOYING until she decided she was ready.

  • hp

    May 4, 2016 at 10:09 am

    My son is 3.5 (turns 4 in October) and he just potty trained in the last month or so.  He WOULD NOT sit on the potty at home at first, so I bought a froggy potty and put it in the living room.  Any TV watching at all had to be done sitting on that thing.  If he peed, he got any candy he wanted (both TV and candy are rare things for him with us–he once came home and told us about a grandparent adventure where he got to ride a trolley, got a new toy, and to have fast food as “Granddad gave me lots of candy and lots of Paw Patrol.”).  We did that for weeks it seemed.

    Once he got used to that, I stepped up my game and he got a new toy that could only be played with in underwear (a huge Minions rocket ship).  He could earn a new mini-fig or car every time he peed in the potty and lost one every time he peed his pants.  My laundry room looked like Grand Central Station with the in-and-out thing.  Once he was doing well, we started extending the timelines.  If he was dry all day at daycare, he got a milkshake on the way home.

    Then, we worked on poop.  Every time he pooped in the potty he got a Paw Patrol, Dora, or Doc McStuffins thing from the dollar store.  Once, he got new shoes (which he needed anyway).  The shoes sat on the bathroom counter until he succeeded.  He has always rarely pooped, so this took what seemed like forever but really was only a few times to be successful.  Dirty underwear got thrown away, so he learned quickly not to poop on Elmo.  

    After he went a few days with no accidents and it was no big deal to him, he got to go to Target and get any toy he wanted.  That was expensive, I’ll admit.  

    Now, we are working on overnights.  He is about 80% trained.  Every morning when he is dry, he gets to go get a toy out of time-out (the bastion of toys left out in my living room for too long).

    Way complicated, but once we hit on his currency (jelly beans, suckers, TV, and toys with lots of small pieces), and took it in stages rather than all or nothing (he is like me and needs small successes or he gives up), he did much better.  I probably spent more money than I should have on this deal, but I have more money than time and I still have a ton of bribes left in the back closet.

  • Becky

    May 4, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    A little strategy I picked up from a commenter a whole back on one of the potty threads was to be very matter of fact and sympathetic that “everyone had accidents, no problem. We just need to get you cleaned up” then cheerfully plonk them in the tub and hose down with a cold shower head. Sounds cruel, but something about the cheerful matter of of fact ness and non-responding to a buttonpush is what finally worke for us. Our daughter just wanted to push us into psychological warfare mode but was totally trained!!

  • Trish

    May 4, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    Mother of a formerly very resistant potty trained child here. She is now six, but trained around 3.5. OP, the fact that your girl can hold her poop that long set off warning bells for me because mine has encopresis. As a result of holding her poop (due to constipation and fear of pain), she lost tone and sensation in her rectum and leaks poop. She mostly has control of this now, but it was a long, long two years getting here. Be careful of the holding. don’t let it go on more than a day or two. It becomes a vicious cycle and the longer it goes on the greater likelihood that she could develop enco. If she does, there’s treatment and a parents support group on FB…but I don’t want your girl or you to need them!

  • Jeanne

    May 13, 2016 at 7:04 am

    I think a book like this might help an older kid. Basic premise is that the author suggests different roles to act out on the way to peeing. Princess, gymnast etc. There’s a boy one too.