Does your child struggle with bowel movements while potty training? We spoke with experts to learn why some kids don’t like pooping in the potty, with tips for overcoming the obstacle. 

By Carol Sjostrom Miller
Updated September 23, 2020
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Your child may have mastered peeing in the potty, but taking a bowel movement can be an entirely different story. Indeed, many toddlers refuse to poop anywhere except their diaper or Pull-Up. We spoke with experts about the reasons behind this common problem, with tips for encouraging your little one to poop in the potty.

Is Your Toddler Ready for Potty Training?

If your child refuses to poop in the potty, they might not be ready to lose the diapers, says Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Toddler 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Toddler. Before potty training, always look for signs of readiness: showing interest in the potty, staying dry for at least two hours during the day, hiding during bowel movements, or letting you know when their diaper is soiled. If these signs aren’t yet present, it’s probably not the right time to transition to underwear. "There's no benefit to training if your child isn't ready or willing," says Kristin Hannibal, M.D., 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."

Is Your Toddler Constipated?

A child who had just one painful experience with constipation may never want to poop again. Every time they have the urge to go, they may attempt to hold it in. This becomes a vicious cycle because withholding poop only makes it firmer, which means it's even more painful when it comes out later.

Visit your pediatrician if you think constipation is causing potty training problems. Doctors usually recommend a gentle laxative for several days or weeks to clean out the backed-up stool. A high-fiber diet is also critical for long-term success—and you might be encouraged to add more fruits, vegetables, and water to your child’s meal plan. A poop withholder needs to have a consistent pattern of soft, comfortable bowel movements before potty training begins.

Is Your Toddler Afraid of Pooping in the Potty?

“Pooping into the toilet is scary for a lot of kids," says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, M.D., 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. Or they may not like it if the water splashes onto their bottom, or they may worry about being sucked into the toilet." 

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

Is your child more intimidated by flushing? Encourage them to practice with pieces of toilet paper, which familiarizes them with the sight and sound. You can also wait until they leave the room to flush. 

Does Your Toddler Want Control of the Situation?

Some children would rather sit in a messy diaper and assert their power over the situation than go when and where they're told to go. Explains Allison Chase, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in children and families, "It’s important to take a step back and avoid getting in a power struggle. Learning to disengage is an essential parenting skill." As a solution, take away the diapers and put your child in charge of their pee and poop. They can also share the responsibility of cleaning up accidents. Some parents also suggest implementing a reward system for successful poops in the potty.

Comments (4)

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January 21, 2019
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December 18, 2018
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Anonymous
December 4, 2018
My toddler has only just started to show signs that she is interested in the potty. I'm encouraging her to sit on the potty, but I’m getting a lot of pressure from family to take her out of nappies already. I don't think she's ready, and I’m worried about my mother taking her out of nappies when she is babysitting her. I think my little one will get confused. Has anyone had this problem or have any advice?