How can I get my child to use the potty to poop?

A 2 year old boy on the toilet
Getting your toddler to poop in the toilet.. Catherine Delahaye / Getty Images

Question: How can I get my child to use the potty to poop?

A concerned grandmother writes: My granddaughter is almost 3-years-old. She uses the potty to pee, but she doesn't seem to understand that she should use it to poop too. She did number 2 in my closet. She's also done it on the floor. Is this normal during potty training? I am worried she will be 5-years-old in school and still in diapers getting teased. Please help.

Answer: I know it's hard not to worry, but you don't need to be concerned that she's not using the potty all the time yet. While most children will show signs of potty training readiness between 18 and 24 months, some are not ready to actually begin training until several months later and even after mastering using the potty, she may experience some setbacks and even occasional accidents for the next couple of years.

At this age and stage of potty training it is very common for children to sneak off to a private place when they have to poop or to have a bowel movement in their pants (or, yes, even on the floor). So, in short, everything you are going through with your grandchild is normal.

To help her through this stage, you may need to have an extra dose of patience, since she is likely struggling with the issue herself. There are some common reasons why toddlers are unwilling or unable to use the potty for bowel movements including the following:

  • Not Able to Get Comfortable. Your child may need to be more secure and comfortable on the potty for a bowel movement than when urinating. If you're using a potty cover for the regular toilet, be sure that it is the right size (so a toddler doesn't feel like she will slip through if she bears down). Also try using a step stool or similar prop under your toddler's feet to help her use the muscles she needs. If you have a portable potty, again, be sure that the seat is comfortable and that her feet are touching the floor.
  • Not Sure How Others Do It. The fact is that children learn mostly by imitating others. It's not unusual for parents and caregivers who have taken a toddler into the bathroom to watch them pee never think to take that same child in while they are having a bowel movement. So, yes, a toddler may actually not understand that the potty is used for both if she's never seen anyone use it for pooping.
  • Feels Embarrassed. A child who hides in a closet or behind the furniture to poop may be doing so because he thinks of the action as something ugly or "icky" and doesn't want to be seen doing it. This may be a learned response. Sometimes, without even thinking, parents and caregivers might say something like, "Oh, baby went yucky, icky poops!" Try not to connect the dirty diaper to something disgusting (even if you are just being playful and silly). Instead, don't make a big deal over the dirty diapers at all right now. If you find her dirty, take your child to the bathroom gently and take off the diaper there. Then tell her, "We need to put this where it belongs." Drop the poop into the toilet and flush it with a cheer, "Yeah. Goodbye, poop."
  • Feels Scared. There are a number of things that toddlers find scary about pooping on the potty. From the loud noise of the toilet, to the isolation of the bathroom, to the scratchy toilet paper. The best approach is to make the bathroom a comfortable place. You might buy some special books, comics, or magazines that are just for the potty. She can read them whenever she wants to sit on the toilet seat to try and poop. Keep flushable wipes on hand so you don't need to struggle to clean her with toilet paper (or take her to the changing table or wherever you usually go to change her diaper and clean her up there). Even if she doesn't go poop, praise her effort to sit still for 10 minutes or longer trying to go.

As you try to identify factors that might be discouraging your child from using the potty for bowel movements, try to focus on encouraging your toddler versus punishing or getting angry when the inevitable mess occurs. Turning training into a struggle may only lead to constipation and frustration.

You might also try reading some potty training books like Everybody Poops or watching videos such as:

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