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The perils of teaching a child to poop in the toilet

Why poop is the trickiest hurdle in potty-training

9 min

By the time parents contact Jen L’Italien, they are desperate for guidance. They’re frustrated. They’re overwhelmed. They worry that they’ve failed. Sometimes they’re in tears.

The source of their distress? A small child who is trying to learn how to poop like a member of modern society.

Ask any parent who has had to do multiple loads of particularly unpleasant laundry, or has held awkward conversations with a preschool teacher about accidents in class, or has recently called the pediatrician in a panic because a potty-training child hasn’t pooped in four days straight: Teaching a toddler to poop in the toilet can test the mental fortitude of even the most serene and supportive parents.

The issue is so common, and so fraught, that an entire industry has emerged to support families as they face this rite of passage. There are books for parents. There are books for children. There are online courses. There are innumerable coaches and consultants and psychologists who specialize in potty-training.

“I would say that poop problems are the bread and butter of my work, for sure,” says L’Italien, a potty-training consultant in Maine who was certified six years ago in the potty-training method made famous by Jamie Glowacki, author of the book “Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right.” “It’s the bulk of the reason why parents come to me for consultation.”

Occasionally, parents contact her after only a matter of hours or days, freaked out that their kid hasn’t mastered the skill right away. More often, she hears from parents who have become stuck in an ongoing, troubling pattern: A child keeps having accidents, or waits to poop until they’re in a nap time pull-up, or throws a tantrum every time they’re prompted to use the toilet. The key is figuring out why a child is struggling to poop in the potty, L’Italien says. Two of the most common answers to this question are constipation and withholding, which are often connected. “Constipation will lead to withholding, and withholding will lead to constipation.”

This is one reason Francyne Zeltser, a child psychologist and potty-training specialist, recommends making sure a toddler is not having any issues with bowel movements before trying to potty-train. “There are families who will say, ‘We were going to potty-train during the holiday break, but Johnny was constipated, but we stuck to the plan, and now he’s withholding.’ Of course he’s withholding. It hurts! I would rather delay potty-training and maybe wait until February if it means we can get Johnny regular first, so we don’t start a negative cycle.”

The unfortunate Catch-22 of potty-training, and poop-training in particular: It’s often very stressful for parents, but it’s very important that parents not convey any feelings of stress.

That’s not an easy task, especially when there are very real external sources of pressure that can factor in to the equation. There are schools and camps that require a child to be potty-trained before enrolling. There are judgy relatives who might offer unsolicited feedback. (“I’ve heard of a grandma shaming the child for requesting a pull-up to poop in, and saying that, ‘She should be a big girl,’ which is doubly shaming,” L’Italien says.)

There’s also no shortage of social pressure, and the temptation to compare one child with another. “Before everyone was on social media all the time, maybe you knew of one or two of the other kids in the class, what they were doing,” Zeltser says. “But now you have a group chat with all the parents from a preschool class, and someone asks, ‘How many people’s kids are potty-trained?’ And then you feel pressured by the responses in the group.”

All this tension is a problem, because children — even really little ones — can sense it, and anxious vibes interfere with their ability to potty-train, L’Italien says. “The parents’ anxiety can create some outright refusal, outright resistance in the child,” she says. “We cannot poop if we’re not relaxed. Literally. If parents are overreacting or hovering, if there’s a lack of chill, if there’s a lack of calm, if we’re not able to be regulated as parents, we’re not going to be able to help a child through a new skill.”

It helps, these experts agree, to have reasonable and realistic expectations. Yes, there are the mythical children who miraculously potty-train perfectly in 48 hours flat, who never once wet the bed or poop in their pants. Those children are unicorns. Your child is probably not one of them, and that’s fine.

“Some kids just have to have a lot of accidents in order to learn, and that’s not easy for a parent,” says clinical psychologist Lynn Adams, who has worked with many parents who are potty-training their children, including families with children who have autism.

But there’s a lot that parents can do to make the process less daunting, Adams says. For starters, try to get comfortable talking about poop; normalizing a basic biological function helps children approach it without a sense of taboo.

“Something I learned from my Freudian supervisors in grad school is really trying to demystify the process of poop,” Adams says. “We can talk about this. Yes, it’s gross, but we can handle it. It’s not embarrassing.”

When Adams was potty-training her own kids, she read them the book “Everyone Poops.” She took them to the zoo and let them watch animals poop. In her work with autistic kids, Adams often used Play-Doh as a way to help children visualize and understand the physical act of pooping. (And yes, she knows you’re probably cringing at this. “People are like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to do that,’ but it’s really only a short period of time when you have to do these things.”)

It’s also helpful to remember that pooping in the toilet is a life skill, experts emphasize, and shouldn’t require rewards.

“We don’t give a child an M&M for brushing their teeth or picking up a spoon to eat their cereal,” Zeltser says. “This is a skill they’re learning, not a behavior that is desirable.”

Offering a treat as a reward might work for peeing, L’Italien notes, but pooping isn’t something a kid can do on command, anyway. She also suggests skipping the potty-training sticker charts; most toddlers aren’t developmentally capable of understanding delayed gratification. “Save your money on that.”

Committing to an approach is essential. When families contact Adams for help, “they’re at their wits’ end, and they feel they’ve exhausted every method,” she says. But when she sits down with them, “it turns out they’ve tried something for like a day or two before they kind of threw in the towel and tried something new. And like everything else in life, consistency is so critical.”

With whatever method a parent wants to try, she says, stick with it for a minimum of three days — and ideally, more like a week or two — before switching to a new strategy if needed.

If this means waiting a little longer until the task is more logistically doable, then it’s worth it to delay, Zeltser says. “You want to look at your calendar and say: ‘When am I not running around? When can we identify a three-consecutive-day period when we can stay home?’ You’re better off pushing back the start date of training than trying to train inconsistently.”

Given the intensity of the endeavor, it’s not surprising that some parents are really excited when their child gets it right. But when your kid actually poops where they’re supposed to poop, please don’t throw a parade, L’Italien says.

“The parents who go big — like go big with praise, this whole cheerleading response, there are dances, there’s calling grandma, it’s a whole huge thing — that can be a big detour that leads your child to withhold, because … that’s a lot of pressure,” she says. “Watch the positive reinforcement. ‘Positive’ is not cheerleading. We don’t want this to be a performance act. We want it to be normal.”

And if you don’t have a kid who gets it right away, don’t give up hope, she says. It’s exhausting and frustrating, but it’s not forever, and there are people who can help.

“It’s a very vulnerable, hard place to be, but don’t feel isolated,” she says. “There are always ways out of it. There is always a solution.”

It’s worth remembering that what works for one child might not work for another, and any child is capable of throwing a curveball, Adams says, a lesson she learned anew when she potty-trained her own 2-year-old daughter. At the time, she’d been a child psychologist for 15 years. She’d successfully potty-trained her older son, who has autism and struggled with some of the motor skills required. (It was difficult for him to get his pants down in time or to climb onto the big toilet.) At work, Adams was known as “the potty lady.” She felt ready to guide her second child.

“My daughter was really ready, physically, and she loved her princess underwear,” Adams says. She first assumed this incentive was a good thing, but then her toddler served up a plot twist: “She would wet them or get them dirty, so she could put on a new princess.” Her daughter made the process into a game, Adams says, and would cheerfully announce when she had pooped in her bed.

“I really didn’t want to back off, because I knew she could do it,” Adams said. “But I had to back off.”

So she did. She put her little girl back in diapers, and a few weeks later, the 2-year-old announced herself that she was ready to wear her princess underwear again. This time, “she was ready,” Adams says. “Those few weeks were important. They’re little humans, and you have to respect their autonomy.”