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Potty Training: Conquering 5 Common Potty Problems

Patience, Perseverance, and a Positive Attitude

Potty training my first was a breeze. My daughter caught a glimpse of the Cinderella underpants in the store and decided that it was time for her to use the potty like a big girl. Within about six weeks, she was trained and sporting her princess undies every day. So five years later, when it was time to potty train my second daughter, I expected the same quick turnaround. But I was in for a big surprise, as my younger one had no interest in fancy underwear -- or anything else connected with potty training for that matter. Six months after starting her potty training, I wasn't confident that she had completely caught on.

My two daughters gave me two totally different training experiences. And as I quickly learned, potty training is indeed different for everyone. But the result was the same: Both my kids learned to use the potty. In time, your child will too. With patience, perseverance, and a positive attitude, you can potty train your child. That's not to say there won't be problems along the way. In fact, more than 80 percent of children experience setbacks during toilet training, according to Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Potty Training Solution (McGraw-Hill). So here's a guide to get you past some common pitfalls.

 
Pitfall #1: She Won't Go in the Potty

"If your child has no desire to use the potty, chances are she's just not ready," says Ari Brown, MD, coauthor of Toddler 411 (Windsor Peak Press). So your first step is to make sure your child is truly ready and understands what potty training is all about. Look to see if she shows interest in the potty, stays dry for at least two hours during the day, stops playing or hides when she's filling her diaper, or even asks for a clean one. If these signs are present, put that potty in the bathroom, stock up on training pants, and work some potty trips into your child's day. If not, it may not be potty time just yet.

Even if she's not ready to begin, you can start laying the groundwork by reading some potty books with your child, letting her play with a drink-and-wet doll, or taking her into the bathroom when you use the toilet. However, if your child has no interest in using the potty or you've started potty training and it's become a power struggle, it may be time to retreat for a while. "There's no benefit to training if your child isn't ready or willing," says Kristin Hannibal, MD, clinical director of the division of general academic pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "Sometimes it's better to go back to diapers and try again in a month or two."

 
Pitfall #2: My Child Only Uses the Potty When I Put Him on It

It's normal for a child to depend on Mom's reminders in the early stages of potty training. After all, he's spent his whole life peeing and pooping in his diaper whenever and wherever he's needed to. A little practice and experience will help him learn to recognize his body's signals and get to the potty in time, says Dr. Hannibal. But if you're still initiating every potty visit after a few weeks, then you're the one being trained. To change this routine, tell your child he's such a big boy that he can get to the potty himself when he needs to go. You can even introduce a reward system in which he earns a sticker or prize every time he goes potty independently, says Dr. Hannibal. Try to keep the rewards small, though. "We used Thomas the Tank Engine trains as an incentive for our 3-year-old son," says Julie Kelsey, of Germantown, Maryland. "It worked, but it got pretty expensive!"

Although occasional accidents are completely normal, if a few more weeks go by and your child still isn't making it to the potty -- or has no interest in trying -- he may not be ready for potty training.

 
Pitfall #3: My Child Will Pee, but Not Poop, in the Potty

If she completely resists pooping, check with your pediatrician to see if your child is constipated. In that case, a few changes to her diet -- like increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, and water, for instance -- are likely to do the trick. However, if your child won't use the potty but poops in a diaper with no problem, she's probably afraid. "Pooping into the toilet is scary for a lot of kids," says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, MD, a pediatrician at the Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston.

"They may feel as though they're losing a part of their body when they poop," says Dr. Spinks-Franklin. "Or they may not like it if the water splashes onto their bottom, or they may worry about being sucked into the toilet." Your child may need some time to overcome this issue, so be patient with her. "I started potty training my daughter, Aila, when she was 2 1/2, and she would only pee in the toilet. She would cry and hold her poop in," says Jennifer James, of Boone, North Carolina. "Finally we just let her poop in a diaper until that glorious day, almost six months later, when she pooped in the toilet and discovered that everything was okay."

To help your child overcome her fear, Dr. Brown recommends this gradual step-by-step process: first, let your child poop in a diaper but only while in the bathroom. After a week or so, continue letting her poop in her diaper, but have her do it while sitting on the potty or the toilet. Next, cut a hole in the diaper with a pair of scissors just before putting it on your child, and let her wear it as she uses the toilet. (We know it sounds a little crazy, but she'll still feel the diaper's familiarity and security while her poop drops into the potty.) After she's used the hole in the diaper for about a week, it will be time for underpants!

 
Pitfall #4: My Child Only Goes Potty at Home

Lots of kids get attached to their own potty seat or the familiar toilet at home, and it's normal for them to be leery of other bathrooms. "All toilets are different, especially those in public places," says Dr. Hannibal. "A bigger seat opening may make a child think he's going to fall in, and an automatic-flush toilet can also be scary." Help him get used to new bathrooms by starting with one in which he feels safe, like the one at his best friend's house or at Grandma's. When you need to step out in public, take his potty with you, or use a portable toilet-seat cover to make him feel more secure.

 
Pitfall #5: My Child Is Potty Trained During the Day but Wakes Up Wet

Lots of parents think nighttime dryness should go hand-in-hand with daytime dryness, but toddlers and preschoolers simply aren't capable of staying dry at night. In fact, with their small bladder and sound sleeping habits, it's not unusual for children to wet the bed until age 7, says Dr. Brown. So put your child in a diaper or disposable training pants when you put him in his pj's -- the whole family will get a good night's sleep (3-year-old Alex Ballad calls his bedtime diaper "overnight underwear," according to his mom, Tricia, of Bloomington, Illinois).

Potty Training Manual

Hey, we know it's not always easy, but try to keep your efforts upbeat and positive -- that way potty training can be fun for your child. Make sure you're not rushing her through training, getting discouraged, or making potty training the biggest issue in her life. If you do, she will resist and refuse. Here are some ways to make the process more enjoyable for both of you:

  • Decorate the potty together. Write her name on it, or let her adorn it with stickers.
  • Let her choose her own underwear or training pants. She may be more motivated to keep her favorite characters or designs clean and dry.
  • Encourage her, read to her, or let her blow bubbles while she sits on the potty.
  • When she has success, cheer her on. Make up a funny potty song that you sing together or do a happy dance around the bathroom.

Carol Sjostrom Miller, a writer in Clermont, New Jersey, has two daughters.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2007.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.