When toilet training doesn't go to plan

Some children have trouble toilet training because they are afraid of the toilet.
Some children have trouble toilet training because they are afraid of the toilet. Photo: Getty Images

The books make it seem easy. You start toilet training, and within a few weeks, your child is no longer wearing nappies. In reality, things don't always go as planned.

This is what Jodie* discovered when she was toilet training Keira*.

Jodie started toilet training Keira when she was around two and a half years old.

"One day Keira said, 'I need to do a wee' so we ran to the toilet and she never looked back - with 'number ones,' that is!" Unfortunately, Jodie says, "'Number twos were a whole other story".

While Keira was super excited to wear her 'big girl undies', she would only ever poo in a nappy (and only when she was at home). "I went along with it thinking it was just a phase and it would surely pass soon," Jodie says.

Instead of passing, the phase persisted.

"I tried everything imaginable. Bribery with chocolate, bribery with her favourite toys…" 

Jodie then changed tactics.

"I tried 'tough love', where I confiscated the nappies and told her she wasn't getting one no matter what, but after seeing her suffering for two days I gave in and gave her back her nappy to poo in."

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Then, she introduced rules: Keira could use her nappy, but needed to poo in the bathroom. The next step was encouraging Keira to poo – in her nappy – while sitting on the toilet.

"I even took her to a developmental paediatrician who reassured me that it was a way for Keira to control her little world. She promised me that she would not be pooing in a nappy walking down the aisle!"

When you're stuck in a situation where toilet training doesn't seem to be 'working', it's easy to wonder whether you should give up altogether and start again later.

And psychologist Janine Clarke says you can stop the process if you feel your child isn't ready.

She says signs of not being ready include when your child can't recognise when she needs to go to the toilet, or if she is unable to remove her clothes on her own.

If you stop the process you can then try again when you think she's better prepared.

However, if your child is refusing to poo in the toilet despite seeming 'ready' to toilet train, you may need to change your approach, says psychologist and toilet training expert Dr Janet Hall, author of Easy Toilet Training, Stop Bedwetting and Fear-free Children.

She says children like Keira need "a lot of compassionate patience" to change their belief they can only comfortably poo in their nappies. She says this is because many children are afraid of the toilet.

To make the bathroom "less frightening", she suggests using a special toilet seat, keeping the room warm and putting a "bright colourful poster" on the wall.

"Be prepared to tell a story, sing a song and even provide a snack and a drink to keep her interested in sitting until she's used to the idea."

She says you should reward your child "for sitting and for making grunting noises and pushing". She recommends practicing this routine after meals, sleep and exercise, in the hopes that eventually your child will need to poo at one of those times.

"Then the 'game' of, 'Let's empty the nappy and flush it down the toilet' can be played, and [your child] should get a little reward."

Once your child is pooing in their nappy while sitting on the toilet, Dr Hall says you can then start to break their dependency on the nappy, by cutting it down in size.

This is what Jodie did.

With Keira's permission, Jodie cut a hole in Keira's nappy at the back, so her poo went into the toilet.

"Gradually I made the hole bigger and bigger until all that was left of the nappy was the border," says Jodie.

"Over several weeks we got to the point where she was only wearing the adhesive strap (top part) of the nappy like a belt and pooing on the toilet!"

Though the process took almost two years, Keira is now toilet trained and Jodie is keen to share her advice with other mums struggling with the same problem.

"Don't force it. You don't want to make it a stressful experience. Follow your child's cues [and remember], they will get there eventually!"

* Not their real names