Children are justifiably proud of all the skills they master during the important toddler years: running and climbing; feeding and dressing themselves; taking on simple chores like putting away toys. That's why parents are baffled when something as basic as potty training becomes a major struggle. Part of the problem is that toddlers are often afraid to use the toilet, and understanding why can go a long way toward conquering those fears and saying goodbye to diapers forever.
"Potty training fears are the number-one reason parents hire me as a toilet-training consultant," registered nurse Violet Giannone, RN, tells Romper. Giannone, who runs the Ready to Potty site, adds, "It can be extremely frustrating to potty train a child that is by every measure potty-training ready but will not go because he is afraid."
Many parents find that their children learn to pee in the potty fairly easily, but going number two is their number one struggle. Allison Jandu, owner of Potty Training Consultant LLC, surveyed more than 200 parents online and found that more than half of them reported having difficulty convincing their children to poop in the toilet. Another 10 percent admitted it was the most difficult part of their entire parenting experience. "The older the child is, the more likely it is that this issue will arise," she tells Romper in an email interview. "If you think about it, the longer you wait to introduce the potty, the longer you are letting that habit ingrain in them, and the more resistant they will be to change when the time comes."
This, and other common issues, can make the potty training process seem endless. But never fear: Giannone and Jandu offer these insights into toddlers' fears, along with effective strategies for overcoming them.
1. They're spooked by the toilet.
"The toilet can be scary to a new potty trainee for many reasons," explains Jandu. "The size alone can be intimidating, causing the child a feeling of instability while they sit, not to mention they probably can't get on and off by themselves very easily. Then there is the splash factor, which can cause a child to feel like something is coming out of the toilet to get them. And children who are wary of loud sounds can be frightened by the flush."
Starting potty training with a toddler-sized potty chair may make the process easier. Giannone suggests taking your child potty-shopping and letting them choose the one they like best. If your child uses the chair but won't try the toilet, Jandu recommends gradually moving the potty closer to the toilet until they're next to each other. Using a step stool and a toilet-seat insert for toddlers can make the "big-kid potty" a friendlier experience.
2. They're afraid of "letting go."
For the first two to three years of our children's lives, we wrap their bottoms in soft diapers 24/7. As Giannone points out, that comforting support can be hard to give up. "Fear often stems from how different it feels to release in the potty versus in a warm, cushy diaper," she says. "The child feels that every time they pee —and particularly when they poop — that a piece of them is falling into the toilet. Many times, they view their poop as part of their body, so releasing that can be incredibly scary." Think of it that way, and it's easy to understand why a child would freak out about using the bathroom.
A gradual transition may also be needed for a fearful potty trainer, says Giannone. She suggests letting your child watch you on the toilet, then inviting your child to sit on the potty chair just to get comfortable with it. Next step: Let your child poop or pee in their diaper while sitting on the toilet. Once they master that, then you can cut a hole in the bottom of the diaper. After a few tries, they should be ready to do their thing without the diaper on.
"The best thing to do is show a great level of patience and understanding, no matter how frustrated it may make you feel," advises Jandu. "While it's hard for us as adults to understand, the fear is very real to them." Using supportive language is important, she adds: Instead of saying "There's nothing to be scared of!", try, "I understand why you feel that way" or "I've felt afraid before, too."
3. They're constipated.
Pain is a great de-motivator, and a child will do just about anything to avoid being hurt. If a toddler has a painful poop, their reaction is often to withhold their stool as long as they possibly can. This, of course, makes it even more difficult (and painful) to go. In the worst-case scenarios, a trip to the ER may be necessary to remove the impacted waste.
"Always talk to your child's doctor first" if you suspect constipation is behind the potty struggle, says Jandu. "But in most cases where it has been three or more days since your child has pooped, I recommend a low dose of Miralax stool softener, along with a daily probiotic."
Giannone recommends keeping things regular by offering lots of high-fiber foods like apples, bananas, pears, sweet potatoes, and pineapples. That, plus plenty of water throughout the day, will help make pooping less painful and your child less resistant.
4. They don't like unfamiliar bathrooms.
Even after successfully training at home, parents may find that their children resist using toilets anywhere else. "Public restrooms pose challenges in potty training, sometimes for months after your little one has been using the potty consistently at home," says Jandu. "Heck — even I try to avoid them if possible! Public restrooms are loud and echo-y, full of cold, hard surfaces, strange smells, and strange people." Let's not forget the automatic toilets that sometimes flush while you're still sitting on them. That's startling enough for an adult, but for a 2-year-old, it can be downright terrifying.
To conquer this fear, says Jandu, a gradual process is best. Once your toddler is comfortable using the toilet at home, let them try it in another familiar setting, such as Grandma's house. "Don't be afraid to tote your potty chair around in the car, if need be," she says. From there, try taking your child to a one-stall family restroom, and work your way up to a full-scale public bathroom.