Ask an expert: My child won't wee or poo on the potty

A great way to encourage the use of the toilet is through songs and books.
A great way to encourage the use of the toilet is through songs and books. Photo: Getty

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We asked Essential Baby members what their child’s major issues are in the toilet training process. Here, Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, the Director of Learning and Teaching and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood and a mum of three, addresses a problem many families encounter.

• How do we start toilet training? 
My child is resisting toilet training

My child is happy to sit on the toilet but refuses to poo or wee in it (more commonly he’ll wee but won’t poo, and is embarrassed by it). He knows he needs to go, but will sometimes ask for a nappy to do it in there.  

Dr Cathrine says: It’s not uncommon for children who are bladder trained to ask to put on a nappy or pull-up training pants when they need to do a poo. Some young children will actually hold on until bedtime when they are put into a nappy ready for sleeping!

Rather than thinking of this as a problem, it’s more helpful to think of this as part of the toilet training process. This type of behaviour is a possible indicator that your child is just not quite ready to be fully independent with respect to their toileting.

The good news is that with a little bit of help and encouragement, most of these children will achieve independent toileting within a few short weeks. Try following these steps:

• The first thing to do is to make sure your child is not suffering from constipation. Signs of constipation include bowel movements that are sometimes large, hard or cause pain. Constipation can occur if your child’s diet is low in fibre, he doesn’t drink sufficient liquids, is very inactive, or develops a habit of holding onto their stools.

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• You can gradually introduce the concept of using the toilet by first allowing your child to continue to poo in their nappy or pull-up training pants, then getting him to help you to empty it into the toilet. This will help reinforce the message that poo belongs in the toilet and not in a nappy.

• Once your child is comfortable with this and is no longer showing signs of fear, encourage him to go into the bathroom whenever they need to poo or wee. At this stage it does not matter whether or not they are actually sitting on the toilet. By going into the bathroom this will reinforce the idea that this is where we go to poo or wee.

• Once this is working well (keeping in mind he may still experience the occasional mishap when he doesn’t make it to the bathroom in time), you can now suggest that he may like to sit on either the potty or the toilet to poo. He can still keep their nappy on at this point.

• The next step is to remove the nappy or pull-up training pants. If your child still seems unsure, you can lay the pull-up training pants in the bottom of the toilet or potty for the first few tries. Once he’s more comfortable it’s time to start doing poos and wees straight into the potty or toilet!

Keep in mind

Throughout the process, acknowledge all small successes through praise and encouragement, even if it just means your child is now crouching in the bathroom to do a poo, instead of crouching behind the couch, or is helping empty their poo into the toilet.

As with all attempts at toilet training, ignore the failures – but don’t go overboard on the successes, as this can add to your child’s anxiety. If you feel comfortable doing so, it’s also a great idea to let your child see you using the toilet for poos.

Reluctance to poo or wee can sometimes stem from fear of the toilet, so the more comfortable your child feels about the situation the more confident they will be. Remember not all children are ready to be trained by age two, with many not showing true signs of readiness until age three or even older. Pressuring a child who is not emotionally or physically ready can result in long-term issues or toilet phobia.

Books that can help

Another great way to encourage the use of the toilet is through songs and books. Books like It’s Potty Time a board book with built-in flushing sounds, is great for young children to read while sitting on the toilet. This also comes in boy and girl versions.

Another great and funny book to share with your reluctant child is Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi. This book takes a close look at all different types of animals, what their poo is like and how they do it, and explains how babies poo in their nappy, little children poo in a potty, while older children and adults poo in the toilet. Other parts of the book show how the toilet is flushed and what happens to the poo when it disappears down the pipes.

This response provided by Dr Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Early Childhood Education & Child Development Expert. 

Share your toilet training challenges and tips with other parents in our Toilet Training forum.