8 Potty Predicaments and How to Solve Them
By Candy J. Cooper
Two months shy of his third birthday, my son, Gabriel, awoke
from his nap and announced: "No more diapers, Mom."
Great! I thought. Here’s the cue.
We hopped in the car-Gabriel diaper-less under his sweatpants-
and headed for the local department store, where we picked out
a dazzling array of size-2 cartoon-character underpants. In
the dressing room he donned not one but three pairs to wear
home. He was thrilled. I was thrilled. As we rode home singing
potty songs, he soaked through everything, which left a giant
wet spot on the car seat. No problem-this will take time,
I said to myself, all patience and optimism.
But a week or so later, when Gabriel had his second bowel movement
in his underwear, I was less patient and less optimistic. As
he careened around the bathroom, soiling everything, I grabbed
some baby wipes and began cleaning him, the walls and the floor,
thoughtlessly tossing the wipes into the toilet. By 8 P.M.,
the plumbing system in our old house had backed up, and sewage
was spilling across the basement floor. Hundreds of dollars
later, I declared, "Diapers forever!"
I used to think that if you provided the thrill of underpants,
a colorful potty seat, and reminders throughout the day that
it might be time to go, you’d eventually train your child. But
instead I found myself facing this murky, in-between stage where
the nuances escaped me-though they turned out to be familiar
scenarios for the parents and experts who’ve been there. Here’s
how they deal with them:
Question: My 2-year-old says she’s peed in the potty when she
hasn’t. Do I point out that she’s lying?
Answer: A youngster at the earliest stages of the process
may need a little encouragement, so just say, "Good
job," recommends Ann Stadtler, a pediatric nurse-practitioner
and cofounder of a treatment group at Children’s Hospital,
in Boston, for kids 4 and older who still haven’t been toilet-trained.
Another way to get her used to the idea: Let her sit or read
on the potty when she’s fully clothed. "Then you can
start to have her use it whenever you’re dressing or undressing
her," says Stadtler. What’s important is establishing
a routine that will make your child feel comfortable.
Older kids who say they’ve got to the toilet when they haven’t
may be feeling pressured. In that case, continue to encourage
the effort they’re making.
Question: My 2-year-old insists that he won’t wear diapers
anymore, and he also refuses to use the potty. What can I do?
Answer: Children quickly realize that wearing underpants
is a big achievement much desired by their parents, so they
often want to proceed before they’re developmentally ready,
say Barbara Howard, M.D., a pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins
School of Medicine. But you can satisfy your son’s desire
by letting him wear underpants for an hour or so, then returning
him to diapers.
On the other hand, a child who’s already mastered the skills
needed to use the toilet may just require a nudge in the
right direction (see "Is Your Child Really Ready?").
Nancy Shulman’s daughter Amy was only 2 when she said she
wanted to wear underpants like her big sister. Mrs. Shulman
was so confident that her 2-year-old was ready to take a
step forward, she told her, "You have to make a choice-either
you use the potty or you wear diapers." Amy made a commitment,
and that was it.
Is Your Child Really Ready?
No two toddlers exhibit the same set of signs that they’re ready
to use the potty. But yours can give some general developmental
clues, such as:
Language. He can tell you that he’s peeing in his diaper
(or is about to), or that he’s wet and wants to be changed.
Motor Skills. She can pull her pants down, and stay dry
for several hours.
Cognitive Ability. He understands the link between bodily
functions and the toilet - knowing he has to hold it until he
reaches the potty, for instance.
Social Awareness. She wants to please and imitate-whether
her attention is on you, and older sibling, or the other kids
Emotional Maturity. He’s becoming more independent –
he spends more time playing by himself or refuses your help
more than he once did.
Question: Every hour or so I ask my toddler if she wants to
use the toilet. I feel like the potty police!
Answer: Maybe you need to turn in your badge. If your child’s
training is being directed entirely by you, then you could
be depriving her of the chance to learn how to identify the
urge to go to the bathroom. She may even rebel and have more
accidents to defy you, says Marilyn Jeffs, R.N., a pediatric
nurse who runs parent-infant-toddler support groups in Ann
Arbor, Michigan: "A child wants the control and the
You can still remind her to go the bathroom – when she wakes
up, before or after her nap, or before you go out: just make
it a cooperative event. "You can say, ‘Before we leave
the house, we all try to use the potty – Mommy and Daddy,
too," says Jeffs. "But if she won’t, don’t fight
Question: My son pees in the potty, but he refuses to poop
there. How do we encourage him?
Answer: a relaxed routine is key, says Stadtler: "Sometimes
the whole process feels out of control to a little child
- he has to stop, take off some clothes, and sit there until
he goes." She suggests setting using a regular potty
time after mealtimes or whenever he normally has a bowel
That’s what Jody Rolnick did when she noticed that her 2-
year- old, son Gabriel, had begun withholding his bowel movements
for up to four days. "Every morning, I’d sit him on
the toilet from 7:00 to 7:15. I’d hold his hand, or tell
stories or read books, just to try to distract him so he
Whatever you do, don’t turn the issue into a power struggle.
The next time your child says he wants to poop, suggest the
potty. But if he refuses, put him in a diaper without further
And remember, kids who refuse to have a bowel movement can
become constipated, so make sure your child is eating enough
fiber and drinking plenty of liquids.
Question: Friends have said that giving their kids candy helped
toilet-train them. So is it okay to us treats to reward my 3-year-old?
Answer: Some parents find them to be a useful incentive,
especially for children who are capable but aren’t showing
much interest yet in using the toilet. Michaela Utsunomiya
said that her pediatrician assured her there’s nothing wrong
with a "well-placed reward." So she dispensed M&Ms
to her 3-year-old-successfully. "If you use them too
early, a kid may ask for a potty treat every time she goes,"
she said. "But my son was very ready, and after just
three times, he started going by himself. Pride totally took
But others are not so sure. "Bribes sometimes work,
but I often say, ‘Beware of what works.’ Said Jane Nelsen,
Ed.D., coauthor of the Positive Discipline book series. "Once
a child doesn’t care about the reward anymore, the improvement
stops. Or she’ll begin to manipulate you for a larger reward."
And big rewards may reflect too much parental pressure, backfiring
when the child says, "That’s okay, I don’t want a trike
Question: My son will only use his own potty. What can I do
to change his mind?
Answer: Sometimes the simple act of bringing your child’s
potty wherever he goes can free him up to start using strange
toilets. (It’s cumbersome, but worth it, say experts.) If
afraid of falling in, bring along a foldable potty seat that
fits over an adult-size toilet, or sit him on the toilet
seat backward, says Dr. Howard. The back is narrower, and
your child can balance himself on the tank.
A more cautious child may need help to overcome his fears.
Dr. Howard suggests conducting "potty tours" of
toilets whenever the two of you are out, or drawing pictures
of them together or pointing them out in books and magazines.
Question: My toddler was completely toilet-trained for several
weeks. Then she announced that she wants her diapers back. Should
we give in?
Answer: No, say experts though they do recommend monitoring
your own behavior. If you’ve been telling you child she’s
such a big girl after her potty successes, she may demand
her diapers back as a way of staying little. In that case,
says Dr. Howard, "talk about how she’ll always be your
baby." Excessive praise can feel like pressure, too.
It’s enough to say, "I’m proud of you" and give
your child a hug.
So keep your daughter in her underpants, and be prepared
for accidents: Bring spare sets of clothing when you go out,
and cover the car seat in plastic. When she does have an
accident, show her, in a nonpunitive way, how she can help
clean up: You can have her push the button to start the washing
machine, for example. Responsibility, not punishment, should
be your aim.
Question: We’re been trying to toilet-train our 3˝ year old
for a year, but he still wets his pants several times a day.
Answer: Instead of directing the entire process, get your
child used to a routine by creating a chart together: Cut
out pictures from magazines or catalogs to represent the
best times of day for using the potty, and post it at eye
level in the bathroom or bedroom. This isn’t supposed to
be a sticker chart with rewards – it’s a reference that the
two of you have made, says Nelsen. It is the boss.
Her strongest word of advice: Relax. "Parents often
wait for signs and then rush their children," she says.
"But using the toilet is a natural function, like eating
and sleeping, and kids will eventually learn it on their
A few months after our plumbing system backed up, I heard
a loud bang coming from another part of the house. When I
investigated, I found my son padding out of the bathroom,
his shorts around his ankles. "Mom, I peed in the potty,"
he said casually. He’d removed his diaper, used the toilet,
and crashed the lid down afterward.
Although, on the surface, his using the potty had almost
nothing to do with me, I’d helped: I’d stepped back and told
him to let me know when he was ready. And he did.
Dressing for Success
- Elastic waist pants, such as sweats or leggings
- Short dresses
- Double-thick cotton underpants
- Nudity (or nakedness from the waist down): You can even
put the potty in the backyard and let your child run around
outside, if the weather’s warm.
What To Avoid:
- Anything with buttons, zippers, or belts, like jeans
- One-piece outfits or jimmies that snap at the bottom
- Overalls: Not only are they hard to take off, but the straps
tend to fall into the toilet.
- Below-the-knee dresses with heavy tights.
Candy J. Cooper writes for the Bergen Record, in New Jersey.
Other useful resources
Drew Bledsoe of the New England Patriots has
established the Drew Bledsoe Foundation Parenting
With Dignity program. Bledsoe says
of his success "my parents helped me the
most to be what I am today" and his goal
is to help other parents give their children
the best possible start. For more information,