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!!!

 

Stephanie

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!

Aloha,

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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267 comments on “Potty Training Solutions: Tips for Poop Withholding In Toddlers
  1. 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!! :)

  2. 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”.

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. 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 ,
    Kathy

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. Dr. Heather says:

    LOVE the suggestion! Thanks for sharing!!

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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!
    Emily.

  16. 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
    Kathy

  17. Dr. Heather says:

    Emily,

    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!

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  1. [...] You can also read about another toddler’s poop-withholding in this BabyShrink post. [...]

  2. No Shit says:

    [...] and emotionally. I worried that I would have to give her the suppository. But I read this one post by a child psychologist (Googling sometimes yields good results!) that made a lot of sense to me [...]

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"Calling all parents who are about to embark on the wild adventure of potty training their child -- this is your must-read! With authoritative practical advice, playful tips, and a spirit of connection and love, Dr. Wittenberg gives us an easy-to-read gem of a resource that can lead your family to a diaper-free finish line with minimal fuss -- and a big helping of laughter. Enthusiastically recommended."

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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! Here, we solve your child's most difficult sleeping, pooping, crying, and eating challenges. My advice is based in neuroscience, but written in grab-and-go terms you can use immediately. I've been featured in national parenting magazines, as a television guest expert, and as a parenting writer. Welcome!

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