Potty training a toddler is no joke. Between the accidents and the stubborn refusals to “try,” getting a toddler to do their business in an actual toilet tends to be a long, drawn-out process, no matter what the experts promise. One issue, in particular, that often crops up while potty training is the flat-out refusal to poop in the toilet. Also called “stool toileting refusal,” this is when a toddler will willingly pee in the potty, with very few accidents, but refuse to poop in the potty for a period of at least one month.
“This is quite common,” said Francyne Zeltser, a licensed psychologist and child behaviour expert. In her practice, she is starting to see more and more toddlers with this issue, due to a number of different reasons.
Rule out a medical issue, such as constipation
For many of the families Zeltser works with, their toddler’s refusal to poop in the potty is due to a history of constipation, whether in the past or on-going. “When children struggle with chronic constipation, having a bowel movement is painful,” Zeltser said. “There’s a lot of fear about having a bowel movement because the child is not sure if it is going to hurt or not.”
If a toddler is constipated, they will often end up holding their poop out of fear that it will hurt, which leads to their constipation getting worse, which makes it hurt more, making them even more afraid. It’s a vicious cycle, one that frustrates parents and toddlers alike.
For this reason, Zelster recommends talking with your paediatrician, who might recommend a course of laxatives, making it less painful to poop. Zeltser also recommends not starting potty training until your toddler’s bowel movements are regular.
Anxiety might be an issue
If the issue isn’t constipation, there might be some other anxieties at play. As Zeltser points out, potty training is a big change. From the time they were born, they have been pooping and peeing in their diaper, whenever and wherever they might need to.
“We are undoing something that the child has been doing their entire life,” Zeltser said. Peeing is over relatively quickly, but pooping requires a toddler to sit on the toilet longer, which can spark additional anxieties, whether it’s a fear of falling in the bowl or of being splashed by water.
If anxiety is the issue, one way to help your toddler is to break down the steps. For example, you can start by having them poop in a diaper while they are in the bathroom, slowly moving from having them poop in a diaper while standing, to having them poop in a diaper while sitting on the potty.
“Anxiety is the anticipation of the unknown,” Zelster said. “Try breaking it down into manageable pieces, so they have a clear expectation of what the experience will be like for them.”
Another potential reason for not pooping in the potty can be impatience — if your toddler is extremely active or impatient, they’ll probably not want to sit long enough to poop in the potty.
Bribes can work — but be strategic
Every potty-training parent wonders at some point whether bribes work. The answer is that yes, bribes can definitely work. If bribing works and keeps you and your child sane, then bribe away.
It is best, however, to be strategic in your rewards. Zelster recommends trying natural rewards, such as “after you poop, we can go play,” or “after you poop, we can watch your favourite video,” as eventually, you are going to have to stop offering bribes.
“You can’t carry M&Ms around forever,” Zelster said.