How do I get my toddler to poop in the toilet?

My son will be 4 at the end of April and he absolutely hates potty training. Every time I try to approach it, he cries big tears. He hates the toilet. He hates the potty. He prefers going potty in his diaper or training underwear. If I let him run around naked, he will wait for me to put a diaper on him and then he will either poop or pee. He is not on the spectrum.

Toilet-training can be a stressful time for children and parents alike. While most children are out of diapers by age 3 ½, it is not unusual for it to take a little longer for some children. Successful toilet-training is impacted by the child’s medical history, developmental abilities, motivation and behavioral responses in addition to consistent rules and expectations set by caregivers.

Children who “hate” the toilet may have developed anxiety around something related to the toilet such as the sound of the toilet flushing, the feeling of sitting on the seat, painful bowel movements or even just the idea of the bathroom itself. A great place to start is gradually exposing your child to the toilet before there are any expectations that they actually sit on the toilet or are expected to use it. This could look like:

  • Showing them their potty and talking about what it.
  • Reading books and looking at pictures of potties.
  • Singing a special potty song.
  • Modeling use of the toilet for your child.
  • Changing your child’s diaper in the bathroom to gradually begin having them associate urine and bowel movements with the bathroom.
  • Having your child flush the toilet and wash their hands.

If your child participates in these exposures, be positive and reward your child for engaging in these activities. Praise him for “being brave” about learning how to use the potty.

Still no progress? If your child continues to be hesitant to approach the toilet after gradually exposing him to the above experiences for a couple of weeks, consider speaking with your pediatrician about your child’s worries and make sure any potential medical factors are addressed (for example, even occasional mild constipation can make toileting scary for young children). If all potential medical causes have been eliminated and progress is still stalled, extra help for toileting is available! Pediatric psychologists are well trained to help parents with tricky toileting dilemmas using short-term coaching in person or via telehealth. Our team at the Early Childhood Behavioral Health Program is a great option for toddlers and young children struggling with mastering toileting.


Rachel KolskyRachel Kolsky, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children's National Hospital.
Amanda Hastings Amanda Hastings, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist at Children's National.

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