Common potty training problems and solutions

The process of potty training is a combination of successes and setbacks. Even children who take to the toilet enthusiastically at first often develop an uncertainty or fear of one or more of the steps involved in toilet training. Parents often encounter resistance from their toddlers during various stages of potty training and issues can arise after many dry and diaper-free months. Here’s our guide to the most common problems—and some simple solutions.

Problem 1: You are ready. Your toddler is not. 

You have the potty, the training pants, and the time but your toddler is not at all excited to participate. Some children who are ready physically to begin potty training are just not yet interested. Often a looming deadline like a vacation or the start of a preschool year can anxiously motivate parents to begin potty training even when their toddler isn’t receptive to the idea. 

Solution: If your child hasn’t expressed much or any desire to use the potty chair or toilet, she might not be ready to begin toilet training. Even if she’s exhibiting all other signs of readiness, a child has to be interested and willing to use the potty before toilet training can be successful. When efforts to encourage and motivate your toddler don’t seem to be working, it’s best to put potty training plans on hold temporarily and try again later. It may help to let her select a potty training prop such as the potty seat or underwear, but until your excitement is met with enthusiasm from your toddler, be patient and don’t force the issue. Just like all other developmental milestones, each child has his or her own schedule when it comes to potty training.

Problem 2: Having minor setbacks.

It’s not uncommon for a toddler who was once a willing participant to suddenly lose interest in potty training. A child’s initial excitement about the potty can wane and a toddler who has had many, and in some cases months of, highly praised successes at using the toilet can interrupt efforts by insisting on going back to diapers. 

Solution: When positive encouragement from a parent is not enough to motivate a toddler to keep using the toilet, it’s important to consider other factors that could be contributing to this loss of interest. The arrival of a new sibling, the start of a new preschool or day care program, a family move, illness or upset can all cause a toddler to resist a recently established routine. Most experts agree it’s a good idea to discourage going back to diapers once a child has had success without them but it’s important to investigate a child’s reason for wanting to go back. Karen Deerwester, author of The Potty Training Answer Book: Practical Answers to the Top 200 Questions Parents Ask, notes that upon investigating the root of your toddler’s request to return to diapers, you may find it’s actually a need for more reassurance or the child having mixed feelings about growing up. Often, just noticing the attention that a new diaper-wearing sibling is getting can cause a toddler to resist transitioning out of the baby role. Conversations with your toddler about how much you both have to look forward to as he continues to grow and change might encourage her to stick with potty training. Starting a new incentive plan with a ‘just-for-big-kids’ reward may further encourage her to embrace this next step without looking back. Any attempts your toddler makes to use the potty as well as intentional dry diaper discoveries you make during the day should be met with great praise.

Problem 3: Will only poop in diaper.

Some children who are successfully urinating on the toilet may prefer to keep having bowel movements in a diaper or pull-up. Children are often startled by the sensation of a bowel movement falling away from them and the splash resulting from waste landing in the toilet. Some toddlers feel more secure and in control when pooping in their diapers. 

Solution: If your toddler is only interested in wearing a diaper to have a bowel movement, it’s more preferable to let her use the diaper temporarily than risk her holding it in or refusing to go as she could end up severely constipated. Even though she’s opted not to use the toilet, as soon as she has a bowel movement in the diaper, removing it in the bathroom, emptying the waste into the toilet and encouraging her to flush and wash her hands will help reinforce the bathroom routine. Keep encouraging your toddler to let you know when she feels the need to have a bowel movement so you can offer to accompany her to the toilet if she’s interested.

Problem 4: Fear of the toilet.

To a small child, the standard toilet can appear very intimidating. Many children who begin using a potty chair are often anxious and fearful when parents encourage a transition to the toilet. Some children who have successfully used the toilet can develop an aversion to it as the result of a bad experience. 

Solution: Dr. Baruch Kushnir, world renowned expert on bed wetting, bladder control, and child development and the creator of The Magic Bowl: Potty Training Made Easy DVD, recommends parents begin training their toddler on the standard, flushing toilet outfitted with a potty seat. Not only is this arrangement closer to what the child will transition to in the near future but it’s a more hygienic alternative. The central animated character in The Magic Bowl DVD is a motherly, soft spoken, singing toilet that works to create a positive association for a child who may see the toilet as threatening and intimidating. A training seat secured to the toilet seat will make the standard toilet easier to use and help your toddler feel more comfortable and secure. 

If beginning the toilet training process on a potty chair feels like the better choice for your toddler, keep mentioning the toilet often in a positive and exciting way, encourage her to try it occasionally and remind her that eventually everyone must transition to the toilet. Allowing your child to regularly watch you use the toilet may help her feel more confident when the time comes.

Problem 5: Fear of flushing.

The noise and rapid motion of the flushing water can rattle even the most confident potty trainee. Some children fear they, too, could be sucked into the pipes. Automatic flushing mechanisms in some public toilets can be exceptionally disturbing as they are usually very loud and often unpredictable. 

Solution: As a first step, Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Potty Training Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Child Say Good-bye to Diapers, recommends flushing after your toddler has left the bathroom. After doing this for a few weeks, casually flush the toilet while you and your child are talking, singing, or playing. By not making flushing a big deal, the sound will become less frightening over time. 

When using public restrooms, checking the stall for automatic flushers before you enter will provide the opportunity for you to prepare your toddler in case the flush is activated unexpectedly. An affordable, re-usable product called the Flush-Stopper is available to cover the electronic eye that activates the flush when the toilet seat is vacated. It comes in its own pouch that can easily be stashed in a purse and is priced around $3. This allows your toddler to have control over when the toilet flushes. Covering the sensor with a sticky note or your hand is also an option and buys your toddler time to vacate the seat (or the stall) before the toilet flushes.

Problem 6: Public bathrooms.

Often the bathroom routine that is well established at home can be thwarted when the need arises to use a toilet away from home. Lacking the familiar surroundings of the family bathroom, it’s very common for a toddler to feel hesitant or fearful to use the toilet. 

Solution: Keeping the routine as similar as possible to the one at home, such as singing the same song you sing while she sits on the toilet and washes her hands, can help a toddler feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar bathroom. Traveling with a portable potty chair is another option although, many times, an impractical one. Your relaxed attitude about using the bathroom away from home will go a long way in comforting your toddler. 

When using a public restroom, resist the urge to alarm your child about potential germs on every surface as your restroom anxiety will likely heighten hers. If your child attends day care, work closely with the staff to determine their potty training techniques and try to mimic their routine at home. Keeping a consistent routine will help alleviate your child’s anxiety.

Problem 7: Accidents (they do happen).

Never is the saying truer than during potty training. Many toddlers simply don’t want to leave their activity to use the bathroom even if their bodies are giving them strong signals that it’s time to go. And last minute attempts to get to the bathroom in time often result in a trail of puddles. 

Solution: Reminding your child regularly to use the bathroom, insisting she use the toilet prior to leaving the house, suggesting regular visits to available toilets when away from home, and dressing her in easy-to-remove clothing are steps you can take to help your child avoid accidents. But even when all these steps are taken, accidents still occur. 

When it happens, refrain from criticizing or punishing your child and clean up the mess calmly. 

If you see your child holding herself or fidgeting in an effort to stall a trip to the toilet, insist she head to the bathroom or accompany her there yourself. You can also offer to watch over a coveted toy or game until she’s finished using the toilet as she may fear a playmate or sibling will take it over in her absence. In addition, prior to setting up any new activity and/or between activities, make it a condition that your toddler uses the toilet before she can begin playing. This will minimize the need to go once she’s engaged and distracted.

Problem 8: Painful poops.

If having a bowel movement is difficult and at all painful for your toddler, she may dread using the toilet so much that she could intentionally hold it in and end up very constipated. Active toddlers have trouble finding the patience to sit on the toilet for the time it can take the body to have a bowel movement. 

Solution: Increasing your child’s water intake and adding more fiber to her diet will help to soften her stools, hopefully making it easier for her to go and alleviate any constipation issues. Increasing exercise and decreasing sugar consumption may also help. Always consult your health care provider before giving your child any kind of stool softener even if the problem persists after diet changes are implemented. 

If your toddler has trouble finding the patience to sit as long as it takes her to have a bowel movement, keep books near the toilet to help distract her as she waits. A footstool can also help alleviate the discomfort of dangling legs when she needs to sit for a while as well as provide resistance when it comes time to push.

Problem 9: Refusal to wash hands.

Successfully using the toilet involves more than just getting on the seat in time. There are other necessary and important parts of the bathroom routine that are often challenging for children to remember. Hands go unwashed, toilets un-flushed, and bottoms un-wiped. As children transition to using the toilet independently, these forgotten steps can become hygiene and health concerns. 

Solution: Creating a chart with images of the necessary bathroom steps can help remind a child to wipe, flush, wash her hands and even turn off the light once you stop accompanying her to the bathroom each time. Make sure your toddler can easily reach the toilet paper, sink, and soap. Select a song for your child to sing (such as “Happy Birthday” or the “ABCs”) while washing her hands as a way of teaching her the right amount of time she’ll need to spend at the sink to do a thorough job. Hope Vestergaard’s charming children’s book, Potty Animals: What To Know When You’ve Got To Go!, portrays relatable preschool-aged animal characters who illustrate hard-to-remember bathroom steps and potty training challenges. Her character Ziggy forgets to flush, Wilbur doesn’t like to wash his hands, and Georgie doesn’t like to wipe. A host of other characters forget or fear other common bathroom related issues and toddlers will have fun repeating Vestergaard’s specific reminders to each critter at the bottom of every page. Reading the book with your toddler can prompt a lighthearted dialogue about these important issues and reinforce your regular reminders.

Problem 10: Bedwetting... is it normal?

Months, and sometimes years, after daytime dryness is achieved, children may still not have mastered nighttime bladder control. Your child might be anxious to sleep in the underwear she’s proud to wear by day and you might be ready to be finished with disposable training pants at night. 

Solution: Dryness during the day does not necessarily coincide with nighttime dryness. “Bladder control during sleep,” says Dr. Kushnir “is a totally different issue. Most times, it is achieved through the natural developmental, physiological process which occurs regardless of actions taken by parents in regards to toilet training during the day.” 

Children will achieve nighttime dryness at varying ages but, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most children will outgrow nighttime wetting by the age of 5. Insisting on one last trip to the toilet as part of the child’s standard bedtime routine may help but it’s a good idea for a child to sleep in absorbent training pants until she has consistent dry mornings. 

Understanding that any potty training hesitation or fear is very real to your toddler, patiently accepting that delays—and , for some, regressions—are a normal part of the learning process, and compassionately determining a solution to any problem will help you keep your cool while getting your toddler back on track.

Last updated July 3, 2017

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