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3 year old Potty Training

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Hi Dr. Laura,
I am hoping that you can help me with an issue we are having in our family. My son will be 3 at the end of July. We were so lucky to have this little guy, as we were told many years ago we wouldn't be able to have children. So, when we were blessed with him we were ecstatic. I will be honest, we really spoiled him. He has always had to follow rules, etc. but we were a tad indulgent with him.

He has attended daycare for most of his life. He now is in a pre-preschool and will be moving to the "real" preschool room in June where they want him to be fully potty trained. For about 5 months they have been working with him at school on potty training and we have been as well at home. They haven't (and we haven't at home) been pushing him because we had a new baby in January and we all knew about regression and new changes effecting potty training. However, about 2 months ago he started wanting to wear nothing but underwear and has done really well with peeing in the potty. He has relatively few accidents, and always wakes up dry in the morning. However, he refuses to poop on the potty. I have not been pushing him because everything I have read says if you push them it becomes a battle of wills. What happens is he will go in his room, shut the door and poop in his underwear. He will then tell me and I will clean him up and then we flush the poop in the potty. I have tried offering special "treats" for pooping, offering special outings, etc.

I will say also that he is very jealous of the new baby. He alternates between loving her and wanting to pinch her. I know these feelings are normal, but I was wondering if you think the reluctance to poop on the potty has anything to do with the new sister, or if it is just in general something he has to go through and is normal...and what I can do about it. Both my husband and I give him special time each day to make sure he knows even though we have a new baby that he is still loved and special in the family.

I have talked to his pediatrician about it and she says he is obviously not ready to potty train and that we need to put him back in diapers. Both his teachers and I disagree with this because he has come so far, I don't want to put him back in diapers.

We try to praise him and offer lots of positive reinforcement anytime he goes pee, and we never ever punish or are negative when he goes poop in his underwear, we just say "ok, next time we will try pooping on the potty" he always says "yes", but then when it is time, he says "no!" and goes to do his job in his room. I can tell the situation is stressing for him. He does this at school too. Did we do something to create this situation? And what can we do to make it better? At first I was starting to think that this was all normal for the training process, but now I am wondering if it has some other issues he is having because of the new baby and maybe something we aren't doing right.

Thanks for your thoughts


Dear Shell,

I actually think you have not done anything to create this situation (including over-indulging him). He sounds like a wonderful little guy and you have done an admirable job of not fighting with him over potty training, which means that the prognosis for him mastering this last step fairly quickly is very good. I also don't think he is reacting to the new baby, despite his normal jealousy of her, and your habit of both you and DH spending daily time with him is terrific.

It is very common for a toddler to want to squat, privately, to poop, and it is not at all unusual for little boys, especially, to have a hard time transitioning to pooping in the toilet. The fact that he always wakes up dry in the morning and has few accidents with peeing is terrific, because it means he really does have enough bodily control to be ready to train.

So what can you do? June is coming up quick, so you need to get him onboard and positive about this and focus on it fully.

1. Talk to your son about the new class at school. I am presuming that he wants to go to it and is excited about it. (If not, you will need to ask the teachers to get him excited about it.) Tell him that the rule in the new class is that kids need to poop in the potty. Tell him that you will help him learn to do that.

2. Give him as much control of the process as possible, including choosing his own potty. Use a potty rather than the toilet to begin with. There are two reasons for this. First, boys stand to pee, so sitting on that toilet which is capable of loudly flushing things down and disappearing them can be scary to them. Second, he is used to the feeling of squatting and needs the solid support of the floor under his feet so he can push. Dangling legs tighten rectal muscles and make defecation difficult. That means when you and he choose a potty in the store together, try to find one he can squat over to minimize the transition. (If he prefers a seat that goes right on the big toilet, be sure his feet rest securely on a stool.)

3. Find a potty he loves. You might consider a seat that makes music when something is deposited in it. One source of all kinds of seats is, but there are lots of other sources out there.

4. Start talking about what you're doing in the bathroom. Let him see that you sit on the toilet. Let him see his dad sitting on the toilet.

5. Read every book you can find about toileting with him. One great one is Toilet Learning by Alison Mack, but there are lots out there.

6. Tell him that you are tired of washing so many underpants, that you love him no matter what, but as soon as he's ready to poop in the potty you will be glad, and that he should let you know when he is ready. Don't be critical, be lighthearted, but be clear that you will be happy when he can do this for you.

7. As soon as you get the potty home, encourage him to sit, fully clothed, on it as often as possible. It builds muscle memory for him to get on and off the toilet, so you want to encourage it as many times a day as possible. Tell him that when he is ready he will poop on the potty. Be clear that he is in charge of his own body, but also imply that when he is ready of course he will poop in the potty, since all people poop in the potty.

8. Then get him used to sitting naked on his potty, so he is completely comfortable. Read potty books and other books while he sits there.

9. Make sitting on the toilet festive and fun, whether he poops or not. For instance, sing a certain song, or give him a cheerio, or cheer loudly each time he gets on and off the potty. If you feel comfortable with treats, you might give him a small candy each time he sits on his potty naked and reads a book with you. Toddlers are busy. You have to make the potty a place they love being if you want them to spend any time there. But never force your child to sit on the potty, or to stay there.

10. Begin dumping his poop into the potty each time he goes. Explain that every day his body is making poop, and it belongs in the potty or the toilet. Admire it there, don't be in a hurry to dispose of it. After awhile, let him help you empty the potty into the toilet and be the one to flush it. Cheer happily each time and wave goodbye to the poop.

11. Notice when he gives signs that he is about to defecate: becoming quiet, withdrawing to his room to squat in private. Give him language for what's happening: "Are you ready to poop? Tell Mommy so we can go to the potty." He may not immediately begin telling you, but he will begin to learn the concept that when he feels like this, the goal is to tell you and go to the potty.

12. At first he will need help recognizing the signals that mean it's time to head to the bathroom. If you notice him going to his room or starting to squat behind the couch, you'll need to remind him: "Your body is telling you that it needs to poop. Let's try to get the poop into your new potty!"

13. If you can catch him just before he begins to defecate, grab him and put him on the potty. He will be resistant, of course, because he needs to poop and he thinks that means he needs to get to his room, so you will need to provide a lot of positive momentum: "Your new potty is waiting for you to put your poop in it! Don't worry, I'll help you. Let's pull those pants down quick! You will be so proud of yourself!"

14. If he sits there and doesn't poop, and then later goes and poops in his pants, stay calm. Just help him to put the poop into the potty and admire it there. "Poop belongs in the potty. Soon you'll be pooping in the potty every time, when you're ready."

15. If he actually goes, tell him he must be so proud of himself (Don't tell him that you're proud or he'll wonder what's in it for him.) He'll gradually begin to associate the feeling of needing to go with the potty instead of his room. But don't assume he's toilet trained. Toilet-trained is when he knows when he has to go and gets himself there.

16. If he does tell you that he needs to use the bathroom, even if he doesn't make it in time, it's an opportunity to enthusiastically praise his progress in the right direction.

17. Don't express any disappointment at "accidents," or you'll make the stakes too high and he may rebel. Instead, respond to accidents by shrugging, "Oh well, accidents are how we learn. Soon you'll get it in the potty every time."

18. Be enthusiastic but not pushy. Pushiness complicates toilet training. NEVER punish or disapprove of him when he has an accident, or it will backfire.

19. If you see that he in any way tried to let you know or to get himself to the bathroom, even if he did not make it, praise is in order. "You noticed as soon as you started to poop! I am so proud of you! Let's go quick to the bathroom in case there's more to come out. Then we'll clean this up together. You noticed yourself when you needed the potty! Next time you'll probably notice sooner and get all the way to the bathroom!"

20. If he seems open to using the potty, ask him directly if he wants your help to begin using the potty on his own. Tell him he’ll have to pay attention and as soon as he might need to poop, yell for you and run to the potty. If he agrees, let him run around naked from the waist down on a day when you can pay constant attention. At the first sign that a bathroom visit might be in order, grab his hand and go! Greet any success with warm approval. Obviously, this is easiest if he is pretty regular regarding the time of day he generally goes. I should add that this may not work if his room is carpeted.

21. If he is very comfortable sitting naked on his potty and seems interested in using it but still insists on going into his room to poop, you might consider "accidentally" locking the door. Stay with him upstairs. When he heads for his room, go with him. When you both "discover" that the door is locked, tell him that you will find the key in a minute, but in the meantime if he needs to poop you will help him use his potty. This ploy only works once, however, and you will need to stress afterwards that you have the key handy in case it ever happens again, or he may develop a fear of his getting locked in his room.

Should you put him back in diapers? I don't think so. He is very close to being trained.

Toilet training is a partnership. You can set the stage, but he has to do the work. Handled with good cheer and confidence that he will master it of his own volition, toilet training can be enormously empowering for him. This is a big step for your son. Your job is to make it a positive one, which you've done a great job of so far. Good luck!
Dr. Laura

Thank you very much Dr. Laura, I can't wait to share this info with my husband!
I really appreciate it!


I want to recommend Mini M & Ms! We had the same problem with our son. He would pee but not poop in the potty. But when we started giving him a few mini m & m's each time he used the potty, he very quickly got into it. We even gave him extra ones if he wiped himself, which he didn't like doing. Then, when my friend's kids would call their mom to wipe them, my son already had it mastered!

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