For a parent of a toddler, the graduation from diapers to underwear is a milestone to be celebrated. Seriously. It can feel like it’s up there with their actual graduation.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
So, when your toddler refuses to poop on the potty, it can feel as if the wheels of their development have ground to a halt.
Taking some time to master pooping on the potty can be completely normal, though, says pediatric gastroenterologist Deborah Goldman, MD.
“Stool withholding, in which a child avoids having bowel movements, is a fairly common issue that we encounter,” she says. “Kids eventually get toilet trained, but it’s important for parents to address this problem right away because it can lead to other issues down the line.”
Fortunately, Dr. Goldman is here to share some tricks you can turn to when your child is holding in their poop.
Why does my kid refuse to poop?
Stool withholding behavior is more common in boys, but any child may start withholding poop at any time during the potty training process, Dr. Goldman says.
“The most common reason is that they passed a very hard or large stool that was painful for the child,” she says. Reasons for their discomfort come from things like a change in diet, constipation or something else.
“One painful bowel movement may be all it takes to cause children to associate pain with passing stool, so they start withholding it instead,” Dr. Goldman explains.
Other reasons children might withhold stool include:
- They aren’t emotionally or physically ready to start using the toilet yet.
- They find the experience intimidating — the size, sounds and location of a toilet can sometimes be overwhelming for a toddler.
- They’re using stool withholding as a “power play” for more attention.
- Certain medical conditions (though only in very rare cases).
The stool-refusing stage
Stool withholding that lingers can start a domino-style reaction that can seriously derail potty training and make your child (and you) pretty miserable, so it’s best to nip stool withholding in the bud.
When your child doesn’t poop for a while, their stool collects in their colon and hardens. With this backup, if your child is taking a stool softer, then liquid stool can leak around it and stain their underwear. That can leave your child feeling defeated and can fuel your own frustrations.
So, let’s get to the bottom (pun intended) of getting your kid pooping on the potty.
Potty training 101
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a “child-oriented” method of potty training. It states:
- Begin when the child shows signs of readiness (generally after 18 months of age). Signs of readiness can include asking to use the potty, showing interest in wearing “big kid” underwear or telling you when their diaper needs changed.
- Praise success using positive terms.
- Avoid punishment, shaming or force.
- Make training positive, non-threatening and natural.
“You can’t force a toddler to use the toilet just because you want to start potty training,” Dr. Goldman says. “Make sure they’re ready before you begin potty training. If you start too early, they may develop a fear of the potty.”
Now that you know when to start, what else can you do to get your little one pooping like a pro?
Set your bathroom up for success
Making your child comfortable in the bathroom is important for potty-training success and encouraging the all-important poop. You’ll want to make sure:
- Your child’s feet are at the appropriate height for the toilet.
- There’s a step stool in every bathroom.
- Your toilet seats are secure.
- You encourage your toddler to sit on the toilet right after meal times and at bedtime.
Talk it out
If your child is holding their poop because they’re anxious about using the toilet, talk about what they’re worried about, and address those concerns with them. You know your child isn’t about to fall into the toilet or that a snake isn’t going to come out of the pipe and bite their little bum, but those may seem like realistic scenarios to a toddler.
Don’t dismiss their concerns, however silly they may seem. Empathize, let them know you hear them and make it clear that you’ll make sure they’re safe when they’re on the potty.
Incentivize and celebrate
Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool. Use it! When your child successfully uses the potty — for No. 1 or No. 2 — follow up with celebrations and rewards. Cheer together as your little one flushes the toilet. Use a sticker chart to show off their successes. Encourage them to tell other family members about their accomplishments to build some pride in their hard work.
Some good old-fashioned bribery can work, too. After a set number of successful potties, maybe they earn a trip to the park or a special treat from the store. Whatever it is that motivates your child, use it to encourage their success.
If you suspect your child is having painful poops, it may help to make changes to their diet or use fiber supplements or stool softeners. Dr. Goldman emphasizes that you should check with your doctor for specific advice before giving your child such supplements or over-the-counter stool softening medications.
When to talk with your doctor
Dr. Goldman says it’s time to see your doctor if:
- Your child is still having trouble pooping on the potty after two or three months.
- Your child is vomiting, has abdominal distension (swollen belly) or other worrisome symptoms.
- You notice changes in their eating habits.
- You notice abnormal changes in their weight.
When your child won’t poop in the potty, it can feel like you’ll be lugging around that diaper bag forever. Take heart that, just as they’ve learned to talk and walk, they’ll soon enough learn to toilet, too. (Cue the happy tears!)