What to do when potty training is not working

potty training

A reader contacted me with her son who was not a willing participant with potty training. I thought it might be useful to share our conversation for those who are having similar issues, or those looking to embark on the journey and what to watch out for.

“My son is 3 years old and is very much resisting potty training.

My husband and I have done all the things recommended on the Kiwi Families website and in the books we have read – he has watched us since he was 2, talks about using the toilet, flushes with us, has done #2’s in the potty twice and watched them flush, he can understand instructions, he chose his ‘big boy’ underwear, he chose the stool to get up to the toilet, he decided to give his potty away to a baby because big boys go on the toilet, and he sits on the toilet whenever we ask (at first he got a star for this on his chart, he doesn’t now as he doesn’t want one apparently!) but he never actually goes.

It has been a week of him sitting on the toilet in the morning and after preschool.  I’m hoping to have hourly attempts over the weekend and I have rewards ($2 shop toys) all lined up for if he goes. Preschool are helping by taking him to the toilet every hour, but nothing.  He has not done a wee or poo in the morning or evening AT ALL for the last week – he holds on until he is in bed, or until he is at preschool.

He has never had a predictable routine when it comes to toileting so I haven’t been able to base it on when he ‘normally’ goes.

Until this week I would have said he still didn’t understand the feeling of needing to pee, but now that he has been holding on, I think that’s not true – in the past he would have peed on the floor at least once in the four hours between pre-school pick up and bedtime due to not recognising the feeling.”

How frustrating. This poor mum (and dad) were doing everything right and yet, it was not working for them, or their son.

Through our email communication we established that there were no major changes in his life, no new siblings in the past six months, no house moves, change of nursery/childcare or routine, injury or illness all of which can create issues around toilet training for children.

  • Signs of being ready for potty training, the child:
  • Has an awareness and interest of the toilet/potty, it’s use and other’s using it.
  • Has long dry spells, including waking up from naps with a dry nappy.
  • Can follow simple instructions.
  • Can, or almost can pull trousers up and down on their own.
  • Has signs or words for a wee and poo.
  • Is aware, or becoming aware of when they are doing it (this can include going still, looking serious, hiding, grunting or other noises).
  • Dislikes having a wet or dirty nappy.
  • Is generally co-operative.
  • Is well in themselves (not ill, teething or struggling with something emotionally)

I went with my instinct which was hard to follow, but hard to ignore. This family was looking for results and what I told them was going to give them the opposite of that, this is what I had to say:

Baby Listener: I would suggest stopping for now.  He is resisting and not comfortable. I would acknowledge this with him and say something like, “Sweetie, it seems like you are just not comfortable or ready right now to be going for a wee or a poo on the toilet so we can wait a bit longer until you feel a bit more ready, you can use the toilet whenever you would like to, but Mummy and Daddy won’t ask you for a while, is that OK?”

Mum: We did this last night and this morning he said “I’m still a little boy, I like my nappies, but I can tell you when I want to be a big boy” so he took it all in – thank you!

Baby Listener: Then, your job would be to keep any emotion out of it (if there was any building).  He either does it, or doesn’t do it and both are OK. No big praise or upset.  I think he is trying to control it all and holding onto it is just not healthy.  In a month or so, maybe longer he will more than likely show an interest. This could happen anywhere and anytime!

Resistance with pressure (even just a smidge) can be counter productive.  All of the children I have looked after and toilet trained have been done in 3 days.  No nonsense, no rewards, no emotions, just running around with mostly bare bums at around 2.5 years (mostly boys too) because they showed all the signs and there was a quiet window of being able to stay home.

The times I have toilet trained (in the spring/summer I might add) I would have a potty handy (outside) and whenever I noticed them peeing on the ground/paddling pool/garden, I would unemotionally say “when you get that feeling, that is when you need to go to the potty/toilet, OK?” Then they would become aware of the feeling, or look at me before peeing on the ground etc…. and then I would say, “You needed to go to the potty, didn’t you?” Things then progressed to almost making it, and then making it – every time. Then as quickly as it started to work, the potty went away and it was a matter of them learning to hold on long enough to get to the inside toilet. This all happened within the 3 days. The potty was used for only a day or two at most.

Mum: He did a wee on the floor last night and I said that to him and he put his hand low down on his tummy and said ‘in there’ so I guess that’s good.

Baby Listener: Another reason I would stop is that you have tried everything and it hasn’t worked. You have followed the rules and he is not playing the game.  Change the game completely.  Let him lead and go from there. If you get three months down the line and he is still not interested, then reassess, but for now you have time to relax yourself and allow him to relax about it also.  Any anxiety you have he will pick up on and feed off it.

Mum: Best advice ever – change the game because we’re not winning.  We were too caught up in it to step back and see that.  Thank you so much!  If it comes to the end of September and we haven’t had any success, I’ll be in touch re: a consult.

The next day I got this reply:

Mum: After preschool today in the car he was quiet which is highly unusual!  And then said “I will tell you and Dad when I am ready to wear big boy undies OK Mum?” in quite a questioning wee voice to which I said “Of course darling, whenever you’re ready, you just tell us”.

We are yet to get to the end of the three months, so we will see what happens for this family. However, I have learned over the years that life is easier if I follow the child’s lead. This doesn’t at all mean they rule the roost, but with changes that affect them greatly, allowing them to be integral to the process helps them to be a part of the creation of the new way things will be. This makes them more engaged in the changes taking place. I totally understand that it is hard to trust the process, but sometimes things just aren’t working and by taking a step back, or asking for help or the outsider’s opinion can make all the difference.

At the very least in this situation, the mum and I created a space for respectful communication rather than a full steam ahead battle. This little guy is very aware and his parents are definitely committed to things going smoothly. I predict that it will in fact go according to plan when he is ready to commit. I can let you know later in the year.

Some useful articles and resources on toilet training

Find out more about toilet training for older children in Trouble with Potty Training and help for children that just won’t go in Potty Training your Children. We remove the stress with 10 Top Tips for Potty Training and discuss how to Potty Train in Just one Week.

Try this toilet training method for quickly and easily potty training in as little as 3 days.

Jayne Eddington

Jayne has over 18 years experience in caring for children and has worked in both New Zealand and the UK. She has a vast range of expertise and can offer help and advice if you are struggling with your children. You can read more about Jayne on her website- Everything But The Stork.

Jayne writes regular columns for Kiwi Families and will also answer your questions about babies and children

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Categorised: Preschool

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