When Your Child Won’t Poop in the Toilet

I can’t believe I’m writing a post about poop. But I am. Because this was something I needed to hear for a very long time, and now it’s my turn to pass my experience on to some other anxious, frustrated, worried mother or father. I’m “taking one for the team” here folks – I’m taking one for you, if you’re the one who Googled your way here.

Sometimes a potty-trained, even slightly older child just will not poop in the toilet.

When Your Child Won't Poop in the Toilet - Advice and Encouragement for Parents

It happens. Our oldest daughter was potty-trained day and night at 3, but refused to poop in the toilet until she was well into 4 years old. And even then, she only did it because a friend and her mom were over for a play date, and they took her to the bathroom with some positive peer pressure and showed her that the process was no big deal.

That was years ago, though. A parenting struggle you move through and look back at with a sage nod and say, “Ah yes, I remember that time.”

Well, that time – as history often does – has repeated itself ten years later with our youngest son, 5yo Eli.

Eli took a long time to potty-train for daytime – I think he was nearly 4 before he was even interested in it – but once he could do it, he never had an accident. I mean never. Not at home while he was playing, not at the store, not at a friend’s house. I carried extra pants and underwear everywhere, because I had always needed them with my other kids. But there was never even a close call with Eli.

But he held his ground on two things – he would absolutely freak out at the thought of wearing underwear at night, and he would not poop in the toilet.

Observing the kind of anxiety he had over possibly wetting his bed at night, I decided it was no harm/no foul on letting him wear a Pull-Up while he slept. I figured that was something we could work on over time.

But the whole poop thing? What should I do about that?

We sat him on the toilet for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a time until it felt like torture (to both him AND us). I had him blow bubbles while on the toilet (after hearing that blowing bubbles leads to a natural release of your sphincter muscles). We offered prizes for pooping. We watched potty-training videos and read books with him in an attempt to de-mystify the process. We even tried the “see!-your-friend-goes-poop!” trick that worked with our oldest daughter.

Nothing.

He would poop in a Pull-Up, but not on the toilet. And when we said “NO MORE PULL-UPS!”, he would keep from pooping for days. Like…five days at a time. That’s scary stuff!

We never did take him to the doctor about this, though I know many parents in our situation would have. I just never knew what a doctor could do for us. The issue seemed 100% behavioral, not physical. And we felt we had tried many reasonable means for eliciting better behavior, all without success.

The older Eli got, the more frustrating this was for my husband and I. And I was ashamed, embarrassed. Because what 5 year old doesn’t poop in the toilet?!! Well, judging by a search on the internet, a lot of them! And even 6 year olds and older. It happens.

Eli is now 5 1/2, and I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that his behavior has been shifting to one of greater independence. He has expressed more confidence in himself and the world. Would NOW be the time he’d finally get over his issues with pooping? I decided to jump in with both feet and kick two habits in one swoop – UNDERWEAR ONLY! I said, morning, noon, and night.

I bought him new Super Mario sheets and a blanket. I bought him new pj’s. I bought a “prize bag” and enough prizes to fill it every morning for a more than a week. If he wore underwear at night without making a scene, he’d get a prize. And – oh yeah – now that you have underwear, you’ll have to poop in the toilet, too. I just left it at that, very nonchalant.

The underwear at night thing went brilliantly. We’re waking him up to use the bathroom at around midnight, and he’s slowly learning to wake if he needs to go again.

But the poop? He held his ground, and once again, five days went by without a bowel movement, even AFTER slipping him a stool softener in his juice.

We gave up. My husband and I just sat down and said WE GIVE UP. We don’t care. The boy can wear a Pull-Up wherever and whenever he wants if he has to poop. We really just didn’t care anymore. It was more important that he be healthy than he fit any kind of pre-conceived notion of what was “ok” for him at his age. It was the lightest I had ever felt about the situation, and for once my husband and I weren’t frustrated or angry about the situation at all.

This was last week. Two days ago, my husband came home from work to find Eli sitting on the toilet, pooping. Just like that. No big deal. We were all really shocked! And of course, we danced and sang and generally celebrated Eli for doing it.

Later that day, he pooped twice more. Yesterday, he went to the bathroom like he’s been doing it for years and pooped again.

SWITCH FLIPPED.

It’s insane. It’s absolutely crazy how it happened. And the thing is, it only happened because Eli was ready for it to happen.

If you have or know a potty-trained (even slightly older) child who won’t poop in the toilet, there are a few things I want to say. First, gain some assurance or confidence that it’s not a physical challenge. Second, please know you are not alone. Do not be ashamed or embarrassed, do not be angry with your child. Don’t look at it as a failure either in your parenting or in the child’s general nature. These things just happen! And third, this situation WILL eventually be resolved. Your child will not go to college in a Pull-Up. However long it will take, there will be a resolution. Hang in there!

So…there’s my post about poop. Some may say that Eli will not be thanking me for this post when he’s 15, but if it helps any ONE parent who has dealt with the same stress I’ve felt for the past two years, theirs is the only bit of gratitude I will need.

What about you? Have you dealt with – or are you now dealing with – this issue? Do you have any questions, encouragement, advice, or commiseration you would like to add?

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  • Jessica Barrus Morgan

    Lily was always constipated, from the time she started solids, and we had to coach her through pooping since she started walking. After she was pee-pee trained (2 years old) our dr told us to give her miralax every day until she “forgot” how difficult and painful pooping was. It took a full year of her having easy, soft poo before I lost my mind and made her sit on a potty until she pooped. It worked for us because it was soft, she couldn’t hold it, and we made such a huge deal about what a big girl she was with treats, toys, dance party – she’s never looked back. I think you have to do what is right for each child! I know making James sit on the potty until he goes would backfire so badly :)

    • http://treerootandtwig.com Stacey @ Tree, Root, and Twig

      You’re so right – each kid is so different! Thanks for sharing your story, Jessica! :)

  • http://twitter.com/firewifeelly Elly

    If your kid is showing no interest in poo training and they are past four or five, it may be good to have an OT look at them, especially if there are no medical issues.  Occupational therapy focusing on motor planning did wonders for my son (6 years old) who refused to use the toilet for poop (but did it fine for pee) and ended up being very constipated, even after dietary changes and adding a daily laxative (under a doctor’s care).  We had to change insurance plans to a PPO because our doctor refused to give us a referral for an OT (although was fine giving us one for a gastero, but ruling out problems with that was really important).  It was about 6 months of weekly visits  that really made a huge difference.  Unfortunately, the “he’ll do it when he does it”  can be really frustrating to parents who are struggling with this, it’s not a helpful bit of advice when you’re picking your 6 year old up from school early because he wouldn’t use the toilet and is covered in poop, when your kid’s booster seat smells like poop no matter how many times you’ve washed the cover, when the other kids are making fun of your kid on the playground or when you and your kid are the subject of mommy gossip, or when you’re having to plead with the local camp to get a refund because your son is going through a phase again when he can’t go 8 hours without soiling himself and you’ve had to get a note from the doctor, or when your son looks at you and says he just doesn’t understand why it’s not working right, many schools WON’T work with you if there’s a problem…we almost had to withdraw him from half day 4 year old preschool at our local public school.  That said, I realize I have a bit of PTSD (for lack of a better term, but it seriously can induce panic) over toilet training, and I don’t mean to come off as anything other than “here, this might help if you’re at a dead end” Toilet training my older son was very traumatic for my family, and when our youngest trained himself essentially before he turned 3 with very little intervention…it was very very confusing for us, and made it really clear how some parents really just don’t GET how very very hard it can be and it’s not out of a lack of sensitivity, it is just so different. 

    • http://treerootandtwig.com Stacey @ Tree, Root, and Twig

      I appreciate you commenting here, Elly, because your story is a good example of when medical assistance IS necessary. Please don’t think I would reduce any of your struggle with the off-handed advice of “he’ll do it when he does it.” That was *my* experience, but I know it’s not for many, which is again why I’m glad you’ve shared your perspective. And, honestly, I didn’t know that would BE my experience – when you’re in it, it just feels so never-ending, and like you say, creates all sorts of awful situations and circumstances. I understand about pulling a child out of preschool. And while it’s been fine to have him home with me, he starts Kindergarten in the Fall and how this situation would play out during the school day has been on my mind NON-STOP. I know the panic of being out places and not knowing what’s going to happen with a bowel movement or when. I know about not even wanting to tell FAMILY what’s going on, and the frustration and embarrassment that comes with all of this. So while the ultimate resolution of this situation happened how it did for *my* family, more than anything what I hope you understand beyond “he’ll do it when he does it” is not that this post was meant to reduce anyone else’s experience, but to TALK ABOUT IT, and to give encouragement to anyone who is struggling towards a resolution.

      • http://twitter.com/firewifeelly Elly

        I know you weren’t reducing it to that, but so many people do…unintentionally.  It’s hard to understand from the other side how something that is supposed to be and meant to be reassuring can be really frustrating and increase the feeling of helplessness.  I’m hoping, like you are, more honest conversations can be had, whether your child potty trained at 15 months or your 6, 7 or 8 year old is still having struggles. 

        I generally DON’T comment on potty training posts/comments or anything
        because it is still a painful subject (and that’s why I posted the caveat of my intention…sometimes I come off more defensive than I mean to).  I hope by the time I have
        grandkids…I will have worked past it :D 

        I suggested the OT because a lot of doctors won’t consider it as a solution to a potty training problem, so someone might have to specifically ask.  We had been bugging 2 separate doctors for almost 3 years before we made up our mind to set our own path.  When at 3 my son showed ZERO interest in anything to do with the potty (as in none, nada zilch), we became initially a little concerned and wanted some advice and guidance….by the time we sought out the OT 3 years later, we were better versed in the potty training literature than our doctor!  So, checking out an OT is just another tool in the tool bag, but one you might have to specifically suggest. 

        • Traci

          I’m finding your story on an evening when I’m insanely frustrated with my nearly 5 year old and want to say thank you. My son was nearly 4 before he cared to pee and now only has accidents when he’s trying not too poop. He’s never requested a pull up to poop but holds it for days as well until he poops several times in an evening with a raw bottom as a result. We’ve done every incentive, a year of OT and the GI work up- he just doesn’t want to poop. Tonight I need to hear I didn’t screw up and miss some magical window. My 2 year old son will likely be first to poop on the potty and that’s just the way it is.

  • Tamifish

    Courtney was the same way!!! She would bring us a diaper when she had to poop!!! It was very frustrating and embarrassing. When she was 3 1/2 we moved to Turlock and I told her diapers were not allowed in Turlock. Voila!!! Poop on the toilet. However, she was with me at Target 1 day and saw all the diapers. She looks at me, totally shocked, and says”hey, I thought Turlock didn’t allow diapers”!!!! Priceless.

    • http://treerootandtwig.com Stacey @ Tree, Root, and Twig

      Tami, that is hilarious!!! :)

  • Syrenalore

    Thank you for this! I have been struggling with potty training my 2.5 year old for the last few months. We start. She’s not ready. We stop. We start again. Now she’s telling me “I’m not ready.” so I think she is but is uncertain about the milestone.

    She has always been a very private pooper. I am concerned if pooping on the potty or in the toilet will be an issue.

    Do you think parents should skip the potty totally and use a toddler sized toilet seat atop a regular toilet?  Could this help alleviate pooping issues from the beginning?

    • http://treerootandtwig.com Stacey @ Tree, Root, and Twig

      In *my* experience (and this is just me talking), my kids got too confused with the small portable potties and the toddler toilet seats. I think it made them harder to transition, and with them, the little potties and toddler seats seemed more like toys than anything else. I’ve had many friends who just went straight to the regular toilets with their kids – helping to hold them and/or support them if needed at first – and they had more success than I did. I think I would have done the same thing I if I could do it all over! (ps: good luck to you!)

  • robinplemmons

    My goodness, potty training can be so frustrating! Way to go, Eli! You know what got my daughter to (finally) poop in the potty? I told her how COOL it is to watch your poop come out of your butt. Just like Play Doh! I was so (ridiculously, hilariously) enthusiastic about it. I sat on the floor in the bathroom with her & held her hand & she watched. It worked. Thank the Lord. :)

    • http://treerootandtwig.com Stacey @ Tree, Root, and Twig

      Robin! That is awesome!! And now that you mention it, I realize that I caught my son doing this yesterday – bending over and staring at his bum as he pooped. It really is quite mesmerizing. ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/mary.happymommy Mary Happymommy

    My sons were like this as well.  They went #1 in the toilet but would ask for a diaper to do #2 until they were about 4 1/2.  I don’t push my kids into doing anything they’re not ready for, regardless of what my in-laws or the pediatrician might think.  
    My daughter is 3 and not potty trained yet.  My in-laws keep making not-so-subtle remarks about it, but I’ve learned to ignore them.