Potty Training Solutions: Tips for Poop Withholding In Toddlers

Potty-training complications are pretty common topics of discussion around here. Stephanie’s question about one of the more common complications — poop withholding — comes up at a time when many of us are frantically trying to get our toddlers ready for preschool in the Fall. The frantic pressure parents feel to get their toddler trained — at any cost — so that they can start school — can be a major impediment to the natural process of potty training.

You can’t PUSH them to poop!

Here’s Stephanie’s question:

Dear Dr. Heather,

I am sure I have fallen victim to what many moms before me have, and it’s the sense that we have to have our toddlers potty trained for preschool. My eldest, just turned 3, advanced to his new classroom where all the kiddos were “poop-potty-trained”, and mine was not. They said they would work with him. We had been talking about it and reading funny books about it at home. But with this new classroom I upped the ante at home, and disaster has resulted!

He pooped in the potty 2 times and I rewarded him HUGE with toys and praise. He then pooped at school and everyone got super excited for him. And that is where my story ends. Prior to his successes he has pooped hit and miss, not consistently in the potty. And I am embarrassed to say if I caught him pushing in his underwear I would walk/run him into the potty and tell him to poop here and say things like “I know you can poop in the potty, I have seen you do it before. If you poop in your pants Mommy will not be happy. You are a big boy and need to poop in the potty.” I thought I was motivating him and he knew he would get toys/rewards for pooping.

So now we have a withholder. He dances around on tip toes and is trying to hold it in. I see him trying. I try to encourage him and still nothing. After 4 days we used a glycerin suppository and he got relief. Then another 4 days goes by with this same behavior. Another glycerin suppository with positive results. Now we have these frequent (20+) smears a day in his pull up. I am encouraging him to poop-even if it is in his pull up. He won’t sit on the potty anymore, but will still pee in the potty standing up-no problem! I realize now we and school have stressed him out. But now what??? How do I get him back to normal bm’s?

I took him to the pedi and they said he wasn’t impacted and his “tone” was normal. So now this is a control deal, right?

Advice please!!!



Hi Stephanie,

Yes, unfortunately now this IS a “control deal”. And your little guy is proving to you that HE is in control — and he IS — of his pooping.

The common preschool policy of “toilet independence” by age 3 is completely ridiculous, in my opinion. It puts too much pressure on at a time that can easily lead to the complications you’re experiencing. What’s wrong with a few more months of diapers or Pull-Ups? Many schools do understand this, and although they may not advertise it, WILL work with each child on an individual basis. Each child’s timeline is a little different. Giving your child control over the issue is the secret to simplified potty training. The more parental interference, the more complications.

The only thing to do now, Stephanie, is to back off, completely. And by that I mean NO mention of the potty or toileting behaviors, at least for a couple of weeks.

But first, explain to him that “I can see we pushed you too hard to poop in the potty, but YOU are in charge of your pooping. You decide where and when you want to poop.” At this age, he can’t understand the rationale that “poop is inside of you and needs to come out, for your health”. So quit any attempts to reason with him about this. In his preschooler’s mind, he believes that he can WISH away the poop with the FORCE OF HIS MIND. Don’t argue with his fantasy wishes. Rather, back off completely from all pressure to go in the potty. You can still rescue him from long-term withholding by taking the pressure off, and eventually letting nature take it’s course.

Go back to the old way, before Pull-Ups. Try diapers and act like the old way is normal. “It’s OK, let’s go back to diapers.” Or use whatever he prefers; let him choose. Don’t pay attention if he dances around and tries to hold it in. Force yourself to ignore it, but not in a frustrated way. If he poops in his diaper, don’t reward or praise him, just act very matter-of-fact. You want to unload all the emotion out of this issue. You want him to feel comfortable pooping, first of all, since withholding can really cause problems, in the long-run. Then, make sure EVERYONE is on the same page; parents, sitters, teachers, grandparents. You are all on a 2-week-hiatus from potty training.

In the meantime, I suggest doing a major fiber-loading of his diet (of course, with his pediatrician’s approval and direction). The doctor might also suggest something like Miralax to add to his juice in order to “speed things along”, and to minimize the chance of withholding and constipation. (Sneak it in to his drink, so he doesn’t feel manipulated by you.) And make sure to pretend not to notice any accidents or staining, or clean them up without commenting negatively. “Oops, here, let me clean this up,” is enough.

Huge rewards can also complicate matters. Over-doing it with the toys and praise takes away from the child’s own internal sense of satisfaction with mastering this important skill. A huge response, positive or negative, tells the child that he’s doing it for YOU, not for himself. So when you do use rewards, keep them low-key. Stickers, token rewards, and simply stated praise shows your approval for his progress. But it’s HIS progress. You’re just a supportive observer to the process.

And about the suppositories: While effective, they can be rather harsh, from a psychological perspective. It tells the child, “I am forcing you to poop. I am in charge of your body, by forcing this inside of you….YOU are not in charge.” Ideally, we want to reinforce the notion that the child is in charge of his OWN body. Suppositories and enemas can be experienced by the child as a violation of his own fragile sense of bodily control. And while they MAY be necessary if, later on, he has a more severe problem with this, right now I do think it’s premature to resort to that degree of intervention.

After a couple of weeks, it will become clear whether this has already settled into a negative, long-term pattern, or whether he is willing to turn this around. Try this approach and let us know what happens. Good luck!


Dr. Heather
The BabyShrink

Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Hey, parents! Make sure you scroll through the comments below. There are lots of interesting questions, with my answers, below — this is one of my most “googled” posts! (Oh, I’m so proud.)

Welcome to BabyShrink.com, where parents turn for open, honest and direct answers to questions regarding their babies, toddlers and children up to age seven. Dr. Heather, the author of BabyShrink, is a licensed psychologist specializing in child development. She's also the mother of four young children, which gives her the unique ability to respond to parents' inquiries about the social, emotional and behavioral development of your children from both clinical and practical points of view.

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285 comments on “Potty Training Solutions: Tips for Poop Withholding In Toddlers
  1. Dr. Heather says:

    Rachel, young children sometimes have ideas that they can “wish away” their poos, or they are trying to avoid having a painful one. You want to try to get her mind on a different track about it. Have you tried humor? Some children love to joke about their poops, and it helps them relax and push, as well. Try this one: “Your poos want to come out and play in the potty with their friends! And you won’t push them out into the water! Can they come out to play? All the poopy friends want to have a party in the potty. Isn’t that silly? Can you let them out to play?” …or some version of a silly story about poops. Also, reinforce to her how happy she feels, and how GOOD her tummy feels, AFTER she’s gone. See if that helps and come back and let us know.

  2. Dr. Heather says:

    Aloha to another Heather W! And believe it or not, I have been in the exact same parenting dilemma as you with the toddler who prefers to poop in a diaper. It is very common for children to be afraid of the potty. It’s VERY important that she not start on a cycle of withholding — which is a much more difficult problem to solve. For now, allow her to use the diaper. Let her know she is in charge. But encourage the potty. Some children respond well to rewards and such, some don’t. (See my book for more on the potty training personality types.) Her terror will decrease the more she knows SHE is in charge. Her natural desire to potty train will push her in the right direction. In the meantime, have her spend time in the bathroom with you and her potty training friends to get used to the idea of pooping there. Let us know what happens and good luck!

  3. Katlheen says:

    Hi Dr. Heather,

    Our nearly 3 1/2 son started withholding his poop in March of 2013. The behavior started a couple of months after two long (5 day) bouts of constipation that resulted in him passing softball-sized stools in his diaper while asleep. (This also happened to be around the time we told him I was pregnant with his brother but I believe this to be coincidental.) Immediately after the constipation bouts we started him on daily Miralax and he has never had hard stools again but despite this the withholding behavior began. He consistently expressed fear that the poopy would hurt and despite repeated proclamations after he went of “mommy and daddy, it didn’t hurt a bit!” he remained fearful. After confirming with his pediatrician that the issue was not physical we waited the behavior out as patiently as possible. We removed the preschool pressure by moving him from a 3 year old class to a 2 1/2 year old room where he was permitted to wear diapers. Finally, after seven excruciating months, all signs of it disappeared and he was again pooping regularly in his diaper sans “drama” as we coined it. Approximately one month later his baby brother was born and the behavior reappeared immediately (as anticipated) but only for three weeks and then it again ceased. For the past eight weeks my son has been quite willing to “push out the poopy”. Mostly we had to remind him why his tummy was hurting but there were multiple instances where he said, “mommy, maybe I have to go poopy” and run to the bathroom to do it in private. I was feeling very confident going into last weekend’s attempt at potty training that he was finally ready. The urine training has been quite successful but much to my dismay the withholding behavior has come back with a vengeance. After recognizing how genuinely fearful he is of pooping on the potty we offered diapers for poop but it has been of little comfort to him. He will start the day peeing willingly on the potty but as soon as I start seeing him doing his poopy dance I know our day is about to go downhill. Despite the daily Miralax he can hold onto it for days and never soils. I’m at my wits end and can’t quite believe we’re back to this point after believing those days were behind us. I don’t even care if he poops on the potty at this point, I know not to pressure him and to let him tell me when he’s ready for that (though I thought that’s exactly what he was doing). Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Erika says:

    I just had this problem for a week and googled EVERYTHING there is about the issue! But what I ended up doing was make a smoothie of strawberries, mango, spinach and apple juice! It was actually delicious and she pooped in 15 mins!! I took the extra and made popsicles for if the problem ever happens again! I did not find this info online so i figured Id share!! 🙂

  5. lanapatrick says:

    Hi Dr Heather,

    My son (2.5 years) has been having problems BM for about a year now. We’ve been to the doctor 3 times because sometimes he passes 7-8 small BM in the space of a few hours and gets really bad nappy rash to the point where it bleeds. This results in him running away to hide to do his small movements because he is in pain when we have to wipe. He seems to have one good week every couple of a months (passing a decent BM every day) and then it happens again. Whenever he poops he stands in an awkward position where he crosses his legs and I’m wondering if he is trying to hold it in. We have been prescribed lactulose which doesn’t seem to make a difference. He also sometimes oozes liquid into his nappy but no poop.

    How can we get him to have a comfortable BM and continue to feel ok doing so? I don’t think he would understand an explanation that his body wants to get rid of the poop; whenever we say anything about BM he simply says “I can’t”.

  6. marilyn says:

    I have a 2.5 year old son who has recently learned to pee in the potty which he is doing 3 wks now with great success. I had no intentions of him pooping on the potty, just thought that would naturally follow, however by day 3 of peeing in the potty, he asked to poop on the potty. He had one relativity firm poop day 2 of pooping and now will come to me “mom, poop is coming” we hurry to the potty and he cries and squirms, trying to keep the poop from coming. Sometimes he is successful, and the urge is gone and he goes n plays. He will come running within 10 min needing to go again and we repeat. Usually this goes on for 30 min to 1 hour when he finally poops. not without crying and holding onto me the entire time. He acts afraid and in pain, although he doesn’t say it hurts. This is a daily routine, Before potty training, he pooped twice a day usually, now its once a day only. He usually has to start the pooop like he did once in diapers, playing while crouched, and once it is coming out, he runs to the bathroom and finishes. He ususally doesnt have a mess, he holds it in his checks. How can I help him not be afraid of starting the process on the toilet?

  7. suhlizi says:

    Hello, I know this article is over a year old so my question may not be answered, but in case you are still responding…

    My son (3.5) has been pee-trained for almost a year. He wears undies during the day and rarely if ever has accidents. He refuses to poop in the potty and, up until today, was telling us that “poopy goes in diapers, not the potty.” About six months ago he DID start going poop in the potty on his own. We were visiting my parents house for Thanksgiving and he was in a bedroom that had an adjoining bathroom. He used that potty the entire time we were there. We were so excited. But when we got home? He stopped completely and went back into his “poopy goes in diapers, not the potty” routine. He holds his poop until naptime and then lets us know he has pooped.

    We are trying to be gentle and not push too hard and make it an issue…figuring he will do it in his own time. But today, after reading a few books and a little prodding on my end, he told me that he was scared because he once lost a toy in the potty (about six months ago he flushed a toy car down the toilet by accident and was devastated). It all makes a little more sense now.

    The question is: how do I get him to not be scared of the actual potty after having lost a toy. We talk about how it is safe, we let him see us use it, we read books and stories about big boys and potties. What else can we do?

  8. Hello, our son I am afraid might be going down the road where withholding might be a pattern.

    A bit of history
    He does well with peeing, and does it more for his babysitter, seems to fight me, we were doing good , then it was after he did a poop on the potty at home he started holding it,
    The poop seemed fine not hard, but it still must have scared him, from then he went 5 days , finally he did go after getting some prune juice and other fibre into him , and I think that is key too.
    I need to really bump up his fibre and what ever to help him.
    Continued , again doing good at the babysitter, not for me, I finally said no more pull ups let s try the underware and see what happens, we had two great days af peeing asking to go to the potty , he was a champ, we have been doing stickers and then a toy when he reaches so many , but as I just read , that sounds likea whim and something that just dosn’t work.

    This past sunday he complained of a sore tummy , but he also had a fever.
    This went on all the next day , but seemed up and down , Tuesday we were very concerned, so we took him to emerge, and he still had tummy ache, and fever, they tried an ultra sound and it was inconclusive….Wednesday we went again and had bloodwork, ultra sound x ray, he still had the same symtoms, and fever was 39.7.

    They came back and said all test were fine, even the bloodwork, he had a congested nose so they think it was something he was fighting,
    BUT ultra sound showed he was full of POOP!! ok, so get home they perscribed stool softener, by Thurday night the poop came, and last night he had another one but it was runny and burned his bum, The pediatritian said to keep him on this indefinatly…. but also we have lost the urge to go pee on the potty , and he seems frustrated, fighting me, so I know I need to back off, so where do I go from here :(…. The Thursday before this all happened he was at babysitters and he went himelf, and he even had a poop, first time in two months he did a poop on the potty , then this all happened , so I think it scared him,

    any advice would be fantastic, I really see a frustration for not going, when we were peeing on the potty those two days , he was much less frustrated, and the terrible threes were not present, the pooping I know will come, but I am afraid and want to avoind him holding it!

    Thank You ,

  9. RK says:

    Dr Heather,

    I hope you’re still reading comments! My son is 3 in July and started refusing to wear a diaper during the day at Christmas. The problem is that he’s been withholding since just before his 1st birthday. We weaned him off Movicol (sorry don’t know the US word) once he refused to wear a diaper as the mess was unbearable. He’s never done a bm on a potty and refuses to sit on a toilet. His poo is soft but he still withholds and only passes small nipped off pieces until he can no longer hold it, usually once a week. He takes off his pants if he feels anything so smears poo everywhere (or goes on the floor), occasionally plays with it or hides it. He has always hidden to do a bm but at least he no longer goes in a cupboard.

    I’ve tried reward charts, treat, praise etc but these only work for weeing for 24 hours and never pooing. (He is dry during the day but 2 months ago started wetting himself unless I made him go every few hours.) When we have visitors he will wee without being told so I know he can do it. If I don’t give him all my attention (I also have a 17 month old) or tell him off for being naughty he wets himself or goes on the floor. I have asked why he does this and he said “because it make Mummy sad”.

    I’m at my wits end and all the health professionals say he too young to be refered to a psychologist.

  10. Melissa B says:

    Dr. Heather – I really need some advice. My son has been withholding since he was 18 months old, he’s almost 3 now. It’s been a daily battle, somedays no problem and than a week where he won’t go. It’s become so bad that he’ll withhold for a week at a time until we give him an enema. It’s the only way he’ll go now and it’s becoming a problem, he hates the enema, screams and kicks but he’s in so much pain by day 5,6,7 that we have no choice. We give him every opportunity to go on his own and he won’t. He also “pee potty-trained” himself about 2 months ago. So he doesn’t want to make a mess in his pants even if we put a diaper on him. He wants to poop in the toilet but somedays we sit with him for over 2 hours and he won’t go. He’s on such a high fiber diet that the poop is practically falling out at this point and he’s doing everything to keep it in, he’s really good at it. Please help, we’re at our wits end!

  11. Dr. Heather says:

    LOVE the suggestion! Thanks for sharing!!

  12. Dr. Heather says:

    Poor guy! This is a classic description of encopresis. I can’t diagnose from afar, but PLEASE talk to a specialist about this — a healthcare provider who has lots of experience with potty problems in toddlers. This is a problem that WON’T go away on it’s own! He needs to be “cleaned out” by a specialist — let us know what happens!

  13. Dr. Heather says:

    Open up the conversation with him — “What are you feeling when you are screaming and on the potty? It seems to scare you.” Ask him in a quiet time, not when it’s happening, so he can have some perspective. Some toddlers fear “giving up control” of their bodies, or fear they are giving away an important part of their bodies, or simply fear the “newness” of pooping somewhere new (the potty vs the diaper). Stay open to listening and discussing his fears, allow him to make choices of where he poops, but DO insist he stays regular by giving him enough fiber and liquids so that his poops are the consistency of peanut butter — much more difficult to hold in. Once he lets his fears air out, he might get more used to the idea. YOUR attitude of acceptance and curiosity and support of his feelings will be key. Let us know how it goes.

  14. Dr. Heather says:

    Bravo to you for being sensitive to his feelings and fears! Many parents miss the very real fears that toddlers have about the potty. The fact that you empathize with him WILL help. Stay open, ask about his feelings and fears, and also know that the big boy inside of him wants to grow up and poop on the potty too. Support his natural drive, make sure constipation does not happen, and give him encouragement (as much encouragement as he can handle without pushing back). Let us know how it goes!

  15. Dr. Heather says:

    Yes Kathy, I agree, it seems like he is on the road to poop withholding. We are starting to understand that a distended colon can interfere even with the urge to pee! So it’s super important to keep the poops coming regularly every day. See Dr Hodges great book, “It’s No Accident” for excellent review of this issue and great info. In the meantime, keep talking about how important it is to get the poops out, use humor if that works for him, and encourage time trying on the potty — with rewards, if it helps. Also, check with your babysitter for how she handles it — perhaps she has a different approach that works better for him. Let me know what happens!

  16. Dr. Heather says:

    Rachel — he may be too young for a psychologist, but he’s not too young for a healthcare provider who specializes in toileting issues. Ask around — I guarantee there will be a doctor or nurse around who knows their way around these issues. But I AM concerned about what you’re telling me, and believe your effort to keep looking for help will be worthwhile. You should also re-try the medication you tried before (we call it Mira Lax) — if the doctor recommends it — knowing it DOES take a lot of experimentation to find the correct dose. Keep with it! It might take 3 weeks or so to get the right dose, and for his body to adjust! Hang in there and don’t give up. Also keep asking for help from a counselor or social worker or psychologist who specialises in mental health in young children, in case there truly is an emotional component.

  17. Dr. Heather says:

    Melissa, is he willing to talk about it? What are his fears of pooping on the potty? Is this a control thing? Open up the conversation casually, and keep your ears open. Let him know by your words and attitude that you aren’t judging him. Toddlers have all kinds of wacky ideas about why they refuse to poop, and often, talking about it and being supported in and of itself can help. Obviously, there is a side to him that WANTS to poop like a big boy — but also a side that resists. What is that side saying? Is that side mad? Scared? Also, remind him that HE has control over the enemas — if he poops, NO ENEMAS. Just like that. The control is in him. Other things to try include humor (lots of potty humor is often very effective with this age group) 🙂 ALSO encourage him to spend lots of time in the potty with parents, older siblings, or cousins to normalize the process. ANd even though his poop is soft, perhaps making it even softer using Mira Lax might help — ask his doctor. Try these things and let us know!

  18. Emily says:

    Hi Dr Heather, I’m so glad to have stumbled across your website! Finally someone who can help us and a myriad of other parents who know my pain! My almost 4 year old has been potty trained for almost 6 months but we struggle with him with holding his poop. We decided to implement the method you suggested above, backing off entirely for a couple of weeks. My question is: do we encourage him to sit on the potty at all? And do we keep up his routine of doing his wee on the potty or back off from that too? I’m finding that ever since we’ve started backing off he is exerting more control over his wees as well, with one time not going all day until he got in the shower that night!
    Please help us, my husband and I feel completely out of our depth!

  19. Kathy says:

    Hello again !!
    Thank You for you reply my son was the one I thought might be withholding his poop , my name is Kathy.
    He seems a bit better , he is on a stool softener everyday , this was recommended by the pediatritian , although both poop and pee seem to sometimes be a battle , even with the softener ……. Or he waits and hides …..still goes np for the babysitter but it is scattered for us. I just leave him and tell him he is in control it his body and his poop and pee and that seems to work ,
    Has had the last two poops on the potty . We praise and reward and he seems so proud , cross fingers he wants to do it again. It’s hard I don’t want to push him , I know tho will all come together .thank you for your help

  20. Dr. Heather says:


    YES, you still want to encourage him to try — and do everything you can to keep his poops soft and difficult to hold. Also, keep a conversation going about his poops — how they want to go for a swim in the potty, how they bang on the inside of his tummy to get out, and so that’s why it sometimes hurts — see if he is interested in accompanying you or his Dad or cousins to the toilet — all while letting him know HE is really wanting to be in charge of his body. and you understand that. Also please look at Dr Steve Hodges book “It’s No Accident” for how pee and poop problems are intertwined, and why it is so important to prevent constipation. Also, think about your son’s best motivators — some children like candy or sticker rewards, others like praise, others want TV or iPad time — what would motivate him to sit and poop? Present those rewards to him as options and see how he responds — include HIM in the process. Good luck!

  21. Heather says:

    Dr. Heather, my 3 1/2 yr old has been wearing big boy underwear for a couple months now and tells us when he has to pee. But, For a long time he wouldn’t poop in the potty and would only go in his pull up. He said that there were monsters in the potty. Of course, I went into depth of how there were no monsters and mommy and daddy wouldn’t go in the potty, if there were monsters in there. Anyway, I would put him in a pull up when it was about time for him to go poop, since I’m with him almost all the time and know about when he goes. Then, against the advice of most pediatricians but recommended by some moms, I forced him to stay on the potty, even held him down. I told him that he just had to sit on the potty for a few minutes and see what happened. I was hoping he would realize that there are no monsters in the potty. I told him that after he sat on the potty, he could put on a pull up and do it under the table like he likes to. Eventually, he became more and more comfortable with the toilet and finally went poop in the potty. We rushed him right to Target to get a potty present. Now, he pees and poos in the potty, right? Not exactly..Actually, he goes poop in the potty, in his pull up AND now his underwear! When I ask him why, he says I don’t know….We’ve taken toys and TV away but he just keeps doing it every once in awhile….please HELP!

  22. Erica says:

    Hi Dr. Heather. My almost 4 year old is withholding poop. Won’t poop on the potty, won’t poop in diapers. He only wants to wear underwear (not pull ups). He will poop in his underwear though if he holds it for too long and then say that we were too late getting him to the bathroom so it’s our fault. If I put him on the potty he’ll cry and scream saying “ouch” and hold the poop in with all his might. I get extremely frustrated with him and it shows. I really don’t want to be cleaning up poopy underwear or to have him think that it’s okay for him to poop in his underwear. I literally have to force a diaper on him at night so that he can go in the privacy of his own room. He’ll also say he is scared of the potty and scared of diapers and that he is NEVER pooping again. Ever. I would load him up with fiber, but he is a VERY picky eater. What am I supposed to do?

  23. leslie says:

    I have a 2.10 mo old son. He has been withholding for 11 mos. He even went 14 days without pooping once. We were following dr. advice and giving miralax daily and fiber and water. Nothing worked, not even a suppository after 10 days. I switched to my own remedy of aloe vera juice, probiotics and flax oil in small amounts which eventually worked, but in the meantime, the doc had to do a rectal. Since then, he just won’t poop without running through the house screaming and crying and asking to be held and walked. His poop is soft and comes out in his diaper easily, so it’s not hard. Ive never pushed him to poop on a toilet, so no pressure there. The trauma of seeing him so traumatized is horrible. Every day is like this and I worry if he’ll ever be able to have a BM without trauma now. Is there anything else I can do? I;ve read all the above.

  24. Lisa says:

    I don’t know where to turn or what to try next to help my 3 1/2 year old boy, to voluntarily go poo. He is not potty trained yet by any means. Have been gently trying for past year, but he chooses ‘not to want to’….for the last 6 months he’s been withholding his poo by choice. I’ve been to the Dr twice, followed her advice on fibering him up, given him prescription jelly stuff, natural remedies (corn syrup and water), forced him to eat prunes daily, veggies, you name it, i’ve tried it. However, our son is an extreme expert at holding his poo in. He usually can do so for up to 7 days, but 5 is more the norm. No matter what we feed him, he manages to hold it in against the odds. Once 6 or 7 days pass, we are faced with the horrible task of giving him a glycerin suppository…it sounds like we are torturing him by the way he reacts to this…we are all in tears during this process (myself, husband, son and 1 year old daughter – as she can’t escape his volume in our small home no matter how we try to shelter her from his ‘issue’)…I see signs daily that he needs to go, and it is so frustrating and heartbreaking to see him in pain and yet refusing to even try going/pushing…he won’t try the potty or his diaper. Nothing! He just yells, ”I don’t want to go!!! i don’t want to go”…he gets to the point where he cannot sit down for meals or anytime, as it is so uncomfortable for him….he gets sweaty and frantic to the point where it’s disturbing and uncomfortable to have company over….he ends up beside himself crying and screaming…can’t eat can’t concentrate etc…gets so backed up but won’t give in to his body’s urges….We backed off all of our efforts for 3 whole months…(didn’t mention anything in regards to going pee or poo, on the potty or in his diaper)….but that was as long as I could handle it….and nothing changed! Now I try but fail each day to remind him to at least try to go pee or poo once a day….and am hoping something, anything changes very soon….help

  25. Dr. Heather says:


    Yes, toddlers know how to please us in the moment to get away from negative consequences — but figure out how to gain control in the long run. I hear that it’s frustrating to you, but it’s actually his JOB to gain control over his body! And toddler fears aren’t something you can rationally talk a 3-year-old out of. Children don’t become rational in any sense of the word until at least age 7. Until then, they DO understand punishments, but we know that in the long run that is just a recipe for more oppositional behavior.

    You really want him to feel in control of his body, and you really do want to help him feel that his fears and feelings are respected by you. Toddler fears, underneath, are actually often about the child’s own fears of his own aggression and sense of control. It’s not really about monsters per se. So supporting his fledgling sense of power and control will help in the long run. Because after all, he is nicely demonstrating what I’ve always said — you can’t “force” a child to eat, sleep, poop, or pee. you have to work together with him to gain progress.

    This will continue to be a problem until he feels he is working together with you, and not against you. Find a way to harness his own internal desire to be a Big Boy — because he naturally DOES want to be a Big Boy — and see if you can make better progress that way. Incentives and praise work much better than punishments. Good luck!!

  26. Dr. Heather says:

    Erica, please read Dr. Hodges book “It’s No Accident”. It’s super important you get a handle on this or else he can develop a very serious problem. Dr. Hodges book is an easy read and very practical. You can also read lots of comments here about working with your pediatrician to use MiraLax or something similar to help the poops become too soft to hold. It’s very important this pattern does not continue — and equally important that you get your son to collaborate with you to get the poops out each day, hopefully. Good luck!

  27. Dr. Heather says:


    So sorry you’re having this trouble. It’s difficult to see your little one in so much agony! Try talking to him about the process — make it silly, if you can — those nutty little poops just bang on his tummy because they want to get out and PLAY in the potty water! And go for a swim! Also, have you tried petroleum jelly on his bum opening? If his pediatrician OKs it, explain that this is to make it NOT hurt. Tell him you guess that one time it DID hurt to push out the poops, and that it’s Mom and Dad’s job for it NOT to hurt, and so this will make it feel better. Then practice relaxing. If he is anxious, he will withhold, and it can make it hurt. Have him relax in the bath, take him through a little exercise of making his whole body from head to toe all soft and mushy — do this when he does NOT have to poop, so that when you think he might have to poop, you can try the relaxation skills you taught him. In the meantime, DO make sure his poops are as soft as possible! Because any pain with pooping will surely be remembered for a long time. Good luck!

  28. Dr. Heather says:


    Please read Dr. Hodges book “It’s No Accident” for how important it is to avoid this kind of chronic withholding. He has lots of great ideas for how to approach this. I also recommend that you explain to your boy — AFTER he has had a poop, when he is finally experiencing the relief that follows a good poop — that pooping is GOOD and IMPORTANT and it FEELS GOOD when you are done. Have him touch his tummy and really experience the good feeling of relief that comes after. And that even though it is HIS BODY, Mom and Dad know that his HEALTH depends on POOPING each day. And so even though he is the boss of his body, he cannot be as healthy as he needs to be if he does not poop. And that in fact it HURTS to hold back the poop. So Mom and Dad DO need to make sure he poops until he can do it himself. You see, in his little mind, he does believe he can wish away the poop, because eventually, the urge to go dies down. And logic does not make much of an impact. But if you can use humor in any way (potty humor goes a long way) PLUS maybe encourage him to accompany you and his Dad when YOU go, PLUS explain that his health DOES depend on getting the poop out — so if HE does not push it out, YOU do need eventually to use the suppository or enema. His choice.

    Another seemingly strange suggestion — give him lots of opportunity to make messes in good ways — finger painting, mud pies etc — Toddlers are often in great conflict over making messes, as they are trying to AVOID making them. Making acceptable messes sometimes encourages them and lets them know messes are OK — in the right place and time. Good luck and let us know how it goes!

  29. Dr. Heather says:


    Somehow your comment only now pooped up on my screen — sorry for the delay! Yes, toddlers often do make progress — and then backtrack, making us fear that they have lost all forward movement. But don’t be afraid — he HAS made progress, but simply trying out the old ways of coping that are familiar to him when under pressure. USE WHAT WORKED in the past. Talk about how he used to be afraid, and then made great progress. And he WILL do that again. Be reassuring. Reinforce how good it feels after a nice poop. Have him place his hand on his tummy after and close his eyes and think of how good it feels. Also, you might offer him some crayons and have him color out what he is afraid of. Is he afraid of the pain? A monster? Once he gets it out on paper, it might help him feel in control of it and not so overwhelmed. Also, allow him to make messes in appropriate ways, since this often helps the withholding toddler (finger paints, mud pies, etc all help him make acceptable messes instead of fearing making unacceptable messes). Let us know what happens!

  30. Kathleen says:

    Hi Dr. Heather, thank you for your response. I’m happy to report that these issues are a thing of the past in our house! After the potty training disaster we figured that letting him have the diaper to poop was a lot better than having him withhold. So, for 4 months after he was 100% urine trained, we allowed him to use the diaper to poop. Ultimately what got him going in the potty was simply having him choose a date! In late April he asked us if he could visit the Crayola factory. We told him that would be a great reward for starting to poop on the potty and he agreed. We pulled out the calendar, chose June 14th as the date, and told him he’d have to start pooping in the potty on June 1st to earn his reward. All throughout the month of May when he needed to go I’d ask if he wanted the diaper or to try the potty and he’d say “Is it June yet?” and then choose the diaper when he learned it wasn’t. Much to my delight on June 1st he went and has never looked back!!!! My sympathies to all the moms who are still going through this. It was a long 15 month ordeal for us but ultimately the only thing that worked was patience and letting him have all the control.

  31. Angela says:

    Dr. Heather,

    September 1st my 2 year old (27 months) daughter asked to go on the big girl potty. She continued to pee and poop all by herself, without underwear on. 5 days later, we tried big girl underwear. When she had to poop she sat on her potty but didn’t take her underwear off. My husband, very gently, asked her why she went in her underwear and told her that he knows she can go in the potty by herself. Since then we’ve had a withholder. No poops Monday, painful poops on the potty Tuesday while holding on to me and shaking, no poops Wednesday, painful poops on the potty Thursday while holding on to me and shaking and again no poops Friday. I called our pediatrician and she said to try 1/4 capful of MiraLax two times a day. We started the MiraLax Friday morning as well as a few changes to her diet and immediately she had to poop. However, she withheld it all day. She laid around with a belly ache or wanted to be held all while clenching her bottom and crossing her legs. No poops Friday but by late morning Saturday she had a non-painful poop, in her underwear. We congratulated her for getting her poops out. We read the book “It Hurts When I Poop” Sunday morning and she related to the character, Ryan. In addition, we told her every poop she gets out we’d give her 2 M&M’s. She had 4 painful poops within an hour span (1 on the potty and 3 in her big girl panties – curled on the floor in pain and sweating). Do you suggest we go back to diapers or should we keep her in her big girl underwear and stick through it? Any further advise on how to get her back to pooping without question on the potty?

  32. Connie says:

    It’s 4am and my 3.5yr old finally sleeps after having to get a dose of lactulose from our health centre, i don’t know why he’s doing it but he does say he wants to go in his pull ups so he’s had one one for a week. He let me put a suppository in but it came out because I used Vaseline. He did have a poop 6 days ago on his own and he was very happy and he said it didnt hurt, I was so happy and I praised him up and I thought this was over till 2days after when he had to go again but started to fight it. He did manage to get it out on his own but it hurt a bit and it broke but there was more in there and nothing since. For this past week all I have been doing is reading and worry about this and it’s affecting me more than him. I don’t let him know that. I’ve changed his diet to lots of fibre and fruits n veggies and water n prune juice. What do I do? I’m thinking he needs to be cleaned out. Or do I wait for him?

  33. Yew says:

    Dear Dr Heather

    my girl is 30 months old soon, she has no problem to poo in the potty at home however, she is not doing so when she was in the child care centre though according to the teacher, they brought her to toilet. She poo on her panty instead. when asked, she is able to tell that she needs to poo in the toilet and not her panty. what shall i do in order to get her to poo in toilet when she is at the child care centre.

    Appreciate your advise, thanks.


  34. Dr. Heather says:

    Thanks for the update Kathleen, and congrats!!

  35. Dr. Heather says:


    It sounds like she is making progress — allow your daughter to decide how she wants to go forward. If she wants to stick with underwear, great. If not, fine. Urge her in the general right direction, but let her take charge. Good luck!

  36. Dr. Heather says:

    Connie — This is a medical decision, to be made by his healthcare provider. But generally, YES, it’s important to have the child “cleaned out” to prevent painful constipation. This can be accomplished pretty simply by standard methods. But it is important to get to the bottom, so to speak, of the child’s fears so that this doesn’t recur. It sounds as if your son might be afraid of a painful poop. Let him know you and his doctor will do what it takes so that the poops do NOT hurt, but that it is his job to make sure the poops get out, so that he doesn’t get sick from it. Use humor and encouragement. Good luck!

  37. Dr. Heather says:

    Yew — children often potty train at other locations much after they potty train at home. This is very common. Good teachers have nice ways of encouraging this. Do not scold, and do not shame her. Simply encourage her patiently, and make sure her teachers do the same. Children are often fearful outside the home so patience is important. Good luck!

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About Dr. Heather
About Dr. Heather
I'm Dr. Heather Wittenberg, child psychologist and mom of four. I specialize in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers -- and parents! I've got over 200 articles here to help make parenting less stressful and more fun. Got potty training questions? Come on over to my Potty Page where I've got tons of ideas for you.
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